A-H 322 Byzantine Art and Civilization
Spring, 1999
Analysis of a Saint's Life for Insights into Art

St.Theodora of Thessalonike:
your analyses

St. Theodora of Thessaloniki was born in Aegina, an island in the Saronic Gulf southwest of Athens, in 812. She was born into a family well regarded in the community as virtuous and religious folk. Her father, Antony, was a first rank priest, her brother was a deacon and her sister a nun in the local convent. At birth, Theodora's mother, Chrysanthe, died, prompting her father to place Theodora (her baptismal name Agape, meaning "love" in Greek) under her godmother Anna's watch. It was customary at the time for religion to play an integral, if not sole, part in everyday life. A person was considered nobility if they devoted themselves to the church and worship. Early on it was apparent that Theodora was to follow in her family's footsteps as being pious and true in her faith. At seven she was betrothed to a man her father deemed worthy of such a fair and good woman. They were married later and Theodora gave birth to three children (of which only one survived). After the death of her brother at the hands of the Arabs, whose raids on Aegina left the islands devastated in the ninth and tenth centuries, she, along with her husband, father and daughter Theopiste, emmigrated to Thessaloniki (thus the origin of her epithet). Near the age of 25 (837 AD), Theodora's husband died. Widowed, she sent her daughter to St. Stephen's convent for tonsure (accepting the vows of the life of a nun), as well as assuming the vows for herself. Under her superior, Anna, Theodora displayed great obedience, humility and frugality, although at times, it did seem she was being "tested." Once, when a kettle had boiled over onto the floor on which she slept (soaking it), Theodora moved her mat without notifying the superior. As penance for appearing selfish and for disobeying the orderly set-up of her fellow sisters, Theodora was made to spend the night sitting on her heels in the courtyard during a snowstorm. It proved enlightening for, when it was thought she would freeze, she reportedly said she felt warmed by the presence and spirit of God. Another nun, in similarity to the story of the Forty Martyrs (who died in a freezing lake for not denouncing their faith), saw a halo descend from heaven and grace Theodora's head while she knelt outside. Living in the same cenobitic quarters as her daughter, Theodora found it hard to deny her maternal affections for Theopiste. Anna, seeing this and condemning it because it violated holy vows, punished both women to fifteen years of silence between them. They were made to live in the same cell and share in the same chores and duties of the convent.

No miracles happened during Theodora's lifetime. At age 74, she was still maintaining a strong work ethic in the belief that "those who don't work, do not eat." On her deathbed on August 29, 892, Theodora was said to be at peace and even excited to be rejoined by her bridegroom, Christ. The penance of silence recently been nulled, Theodora told Theopiste that for burial, she wanted to be separate and by herself-- fortelling the power of miracle- working that she would acquire from the Lord. Due to the majority's thoughts, however, she was placed alongside the rest of her departed sisters in keeping with their cenobitic lifestyle. The day of Theodora's funeral, Demetrios (a deacon who had been ailed by intestinal problems for nine months) bestowed upon her forehead a kiss and miraculously, regained his health in full. That same afternoon, an emaciated and sick religious man named John kissed her and also became well once again.

Most of the miracles associated with Saint Theodora come due to healing oils unexplicably emitted from icons, the actual sarcophagus and a specific lamp in the church of Saint Stephen. During translation of her relics, the body of Saint Theodora had not changed in one year's passing of her death. Shortly after this discovery was made, the miracles began. When it was seen one day that the lamp above the altar was low on oil and needed to be refreshed and cleaned, a nun was assigned to the duty. In agreement with the superior, she was allowed to procrastinate due to observance of a holy day. When, in need of something, the nun entered the church that day, she witnessed what was to become the turning point and significant attribute to Theodora's life and memory. The lamp, which should have realistically been empty and extinguished was overflowing with streams of oil. After two years and up until the writing of Theodora's vita by Gregory the Cleric, it still gushed over and lit spontaneously. The symbolism of the "overflowing oil" relates to Theodora's manifestation of merciful disposition towards the needy. Oil and mercy were talked about in the same context in her vita.

Many that came to Saint Stephen's found Theodora's relics easily accessible for even pilgrims to view and many were touched and/ or healed by Theodora's oil. The deranged and posessed (George and Theodore in vita) were brought to be annointed with the oil in hopes of a cure. The blind and physically ill or crippled could see and walk again due to the faith, prayers and assistance of Theodora's oil. This oil also contributed to heretics denouncing their unorthodox ways and taking on the belief of God. The icon (eikon) was viewed as an essential element of the cult of a Byzantine saint. Within a month of her death,when it was sought that an icon in Theodora's likeness would benefit the church, a painter named John was commissioned. Without knowing any description of Theodora and relying only on the visions he had in a dream, John painted with exactness the image of a young Theodora. Theodora is most commonly portrayed in a youthful way, as we see in the earliest preserved image of her in the Hagia Sophia. To the day of her vita's publication, that imaged emitted sweet scented oil through the right palm that also carried with it healing powers. Saint Theodora's spirit came in other forms. Her sarcophagus and surrounding relics were covered with marble slabs. On the observance of Saint john the Baptist's birthday, these marble slabs popped off, as if pushed from beneath. Theodora's cult continues to reside in the modern church of St. Theodora (which is part of a male monastery).

While the vita of Saint Theodora of Thessaloniki proves to be very interesting reading (although I might add it is a TAD bit longwinded at times) on her life and death, Gregory pays very little attention to icons or other works of art from this period. It gives insight into the life of a cenobitic nun, some accounts of warring states, and a very detailed listing of each individual miracle noted. I would consider Gregory the Cleric's vita of St. Theodora to be a good starting point in researching iconography of the period during Leo VI's reign.

- Carrie Grugin

The vitae of St. Theodora of Thessalonike is something that I found extremely interesting to study. The background knowledge was very helpful in providing me with information on Theodora and her life prior to her entering into the convent of St. Stephens. I also was given a good idea of what type of lifestyle and or miracles must occur in order for someone to achieve sainthood. Through this summary and analysis I will convey to you why this vitae and others similar to it acted as blueprints for artists to create beautiful works of art.

St. Theodora of Thessalonike was born in the year 812 A.D. and was a native of Aegina. According to the text, Arab raids had a profound effect on Theodora's life. Theodora's brother was killed during one of those raids. As a result Theodora, her husband and her father moved to the city of Thessalonike. While living there Theodora and her husband had three children. Following the deaths of her husband and two of their childrenTheodora entered the convent of St. Stephens in the year 837 A.D. Theodora's third child, her daughter Theopiste also entered the convent of St. Stephens. Theodora spent the next fifty five years leading an exemplary life for God. The vitae told two amazing stories where Theodora had to pay a penance for minor wrong doings. The first being that because her daughter lived in the same convent they shared the special bond of a mother and daughter. However, that bond was not to be displayed in the convent and because Theodora refused to renounce her bond with Theopiste as penance they were forced to live together for fifteen years and were never allowed to speak to one another. The second story of Theodora's life which I found extremely interesting dealt with some form of disobedience. Due to her actions Theodora was forced to stand outside all night in a snow storm to pay penance for her sin. With the exception of those two instances the vitae stated that Theodora was known for her hard work, frugality, and humility. Theodora died on August 29th 892 A.D. We are certain of the date because Gregory, the hagiographer of Theodora's life contrasts the time of her death with the sixth regnal year of emperor Leo VI.

While Theodora was alive she was never found to be responsible for any form of miracle therefore some were sceptical of her quick rise to sainthood. However, as the text shows following her death many remarkable things began to occur. Perhaps the most remarkable being that after one year in the tomb her remains were being moved to another grave sight and when the body was being moved the men moving it realized that the body had not decayed whatsoever. Almost as incredible as the preservation of Theodora's body were the miraculous healings that occured because of healing oil which came from the lamp which was over Theodora's tomb. Gregory documents one such healing extensively. Ironically, it dealt with his young sister who was suffering from smallpox and was cured from her disease.

Due to the vita written by Gregory, the sarcophagus of Theodora became a site for pilgrims to journey to. Theodora and the healing oil associated with her have become icons for people to find hope in. Artists used her image to convey the healing powers of God and because of this vita we know the signifigance which she held in the church. Therefore, I believe this writing is extremely important to the expansion of art and the use of icons.

-Robert Keeley

 

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