Liturgy in Service of Imperial Authority

As an integral part of the Church ritual, liturgical hymns provide what is possibly the most effective means of communicating dogmatic truths and conveying ethical ideals to the congregation. Combining words and music, hymns can produce a strong impression upon the minds of the faithful and play an important role in their spiritual edification. However, it would not be correct to assume that their content is exclusively spiritual. Rather, due to a specific relationship between the state and the church in the Eastern Roman Empire, better known as Byzantium (330-1453), it is not surprising that liturgical hymns contain many references to the emperor. In the aftermath of the legalisation of Christianity with the issuance of the Edict of Milan in 313 CE, and especially when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 CE, the liturgy was regularly used to support imperial authority.

The promulgation of the Edict of Milan and the conversion of the emperor Constantine the Great (d. 337) to Christianity completely changed the position of the Church in the empire. After a period of persecutions, the Church became the second most important pillar of society, with the imperial power being the first. Especially important for the construction of this new reality was the production of the discourse surrounding Constantine’s conversion. This discourse was based on the cross, the supreme Christian symbol, and on several prominent Old Testament leaders of the chosen people, especially Moses, David, and later Joshua. The contribution of Eusebius (d. 339), sometimes characterised as “court theologian,” to the creation and dissemination of this discourse was enormous, and this laid the foundation for what would be later known as a ‘symphony’ or the harmonious coexistence of state and church.

The cross, initially understood as a symbol of Christ’s victory over the Devil and death, became closely related to the emperor and transformed into a symbol of imperial victories and prosperity of the empire with divine assistance after Constantine’s victory under that sign against Maxentius (Eusebius, VC 1.27-39).

The Vision of the Cross. Apostolic Palace, Vatican. Circle of Raphael (1520-1524).

This idea, after being developed in various literary genres, especially panegyrics, found its way into liturgical hymns. Hymnographers frequently eulogise the cross as a powerful weapon, which brings victories to the emperor and secures peace in the empire. Liturgical hymns for the Exaltation of the True Cross (14 September), the central annual feast of the cross in the Byzantine tradition, repeatedly stress not only the spiritual dimension of the cross in Christian life but also its military and triumphant functions. The best example is probably the apolytikion, as the main celebratory hymn for each feast is called, for the feast of the Exaltation: “O Lord, save your people and bless your inheritance, grant victory to the emperor against the barbarians, and guard your empire through your cross” (Festal Menaion, September 14). The hymn strongly emphasises the close interrelation between the cross, the empire and the church community. The community prays to God to save and protect the subjects of the empire through his cross, which secures imperial victories against the barbarian enemies (cf. Demacopoulos, 123). Similar references to the cross abound in hymns for this feast. However, for this occasion I will include only two more examples, both taken from an unpublished hymn attributed to Germanos I, Patriarch of Constantinople (d. 740), and preserved in an eleventh-century manuscript from the collection of Mount Sinai. The first one reads as follows:

“We pray, grant to the most pious emperor your power, through your life-giving cross, O Christ; he boasts about you and, placing his hopes in you, will be saved.”

Sinait. gr. 552, f. 129

In the second one, the invocation of the cross’s might is not phrased in generic terms; rather, the hymnographer makes specific references to the power of the cross against the Arab Muslims.

“Let us bow before the wood of the Cross, which provides the power to the most pious emperor against enemies, and subjects to him the foolish offspring of Hagar.”

Sinait. gr. 552, f. 128v

The cited example shows how a reference to the cross becomes part of inter-religious polemics. The author praises the cross as a source of power for the emperor to defeat his foes who are denoted as descendants of Hagar. The word “Hagarenes”, designating the offspring of Abraham’s slave Hagar in its biblical usage (Gen. 16; Chr. 5:19, and Ps. 82:7), was commonly employed by Christian authors to denote the Arabs both before and after the appearance of Islam, as they were believed to be the offshoot of Hagar’s son Ishmael.

In Byzantium, the emperor was also frequently related to distinguished Old Testament figures, especially to prominent leaders of the Israelites. Byzantine rhetorical treatises, such as the tenth-century On the Eight Parts of Rhetorical Speech, provide clear instructions to panegyrists to compare the emperor with Moses, David and Joshua the son of Nun. This practice gradually found its way to liturgical hymns. The aforementioned manuscript from the Mount Sinai collection transmits a hymn for the annual celebration of Joshua the son of Nun. Intriguingly, in the Christian tradition of the first millennium, Joshua was rarely regarded as a model warrior or related to the emperor. This perception changed from the ninth century onwards, especially at the time when Byzantine emperors attempted to recapture Palestine from the Arabs.

Joshua. Hosios Loukas Monastery, Greece, 11th c.

Having as the point of departure Joshua’s accomplishments and military exploits against the Amalekites, and especially the narrative that he led the Israelites into the Promised Land (Joshua 3:1-14), the author of the hymn from the Sinai manuscript puts Joshua’s leadership and military exploits in the foreground, directly associating him with the emperor.  Thus in one of the stanzas, the poet appeals to God as follows:

“You who were fellow-general of your servant Joshua against his opponents in the past, now in a similar way be fellow-general of the emperors against [their] enemies.”

Sinait. gr. 552, f. 11

There is little doubt that this and other references to Joshua need to be seen within the broader historical context of the Middle Byzantine period, especially in relation to the Byzantine-Arab wars during the reign of the emperors from the Macedonian dynasty (867-1056) who sought to return Palestine to Byzantine control. Joshua’s leadership skills and military prowess, which he demonstrated in warfare against the native population of the Promised Land, became a source of inspiration for Byzantine authors and artists during the same period. As a result, visual representations of Joshua appear with some frequency in monumental painting and on portable objects produced during the so-called Macedonian Renaissance.

The Joshua Roll, 10th century, Tempera and gold on vellum, Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, MS Pal. gr. 431.

Hymnographic texts, addressed to a wide audience, could also be effectively mobilised to reinforce imperial authority among imperial subjects. Even more so when a good opportunity was available, as in the present case, namely on the feast day of one of the most prominent leaders of God’s chosen people. Since the Byzantines regarded themselves as the New Israel, with the pious emperor as their leader comparable to the Old Testament leaders, the author of the kanon exploited this to relate the emperor to Joshua. In this respect, the hymn can be compared to other genres of Byzantine literature whose main purpose was to glorify the emperor.

Scenes from an Ivory Casket with Scenes of the Story of Joshua, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (10th c.).

As a conclusion, it can be said that the New Testament commandment to pray for those in power (1 Tim 2: 1-2) from the time of Constantine developed into the concept that the emperor is the chief protector of the church and orthodoxy and has to be glorified in liturgy. In addition, imperial success in wars against those of a different religion was understood as a guarantee for the freedom of the Christian faith in the empire. Moreover, by comparing the warfare between the Eastern Roman Empire and their enemies, particularly against the Persians and Arabs, with the wars that the biblical chosen people of ancient Israel waged against the Amalekites, Byzantine authors situated those wars within the biblical context attaching a sacred character to them. In that way, the Byzantines became the New Israel, and their emperors were understood as the successors of the Israelite leaders. Consequently, their inclusion in liturgical texts and the ritual was considered legitimate.

Kosta Simic
Byzantine Postdoctoral Fellow, Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame (2021-2022)

Further Reading:

Eusebios, Eusebius Werke I. Über das Leben Constantins. Constantins Rede an die Heilige Versammlung. Tricennatsrede an Constantin, GCS 7, edited by I. A. Heikel, Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs’sche Buchhandlung, 1902. English translation: Life of Constantine, trans. A. Cameron and S. Hall, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999.

Demacopoulos, George. “The Eusebian Valorization of Violence and Constantine’s Wars for God”. In Constantine: Religious Faith and Imperial Policy, edited by Edward Siecienski, 115-128. London: Routledge, 2017.

Schapiro, Meyer. “The Place of the Joshua Roll in Byzantine History,” Gazette des beaux-arts 35 (1949) 161–176.

Rapp, Claudia. “Old Testament Models for Emperors in Early Byzantium”. In The Old Testament in Byzantium, edited by P. Magdalino and R. Nelson, 175-197. Washington: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collections, 2010.

Simic, Kosta. “Remembering the Damned. Byzantine Liturgical Hymns as Instruments of Religious Polemics”. In Memories of Utopia: The Revision of Histories and Landscapes in Late Antiquity, edited by Bronwen Neil and Kosta Simic, 156-170. London: Routledge, 2020.

The Festal Menaion, trans. Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware, London: Faber and Faber, 1969.

Thierry, Nicole. “Le culte de la croix dans l’empire byzantine du VIIe siècle au Xe dans les rapports avec la guerre contre l’infidèle”. Rivista di studi bizantini e slavi 1 (1980/81) 205-228.

“To Hell or Heaven with the Greeks”: Common Apocalyptic Beliefs Between the Turks and the Greeks in the Late Middle Ages

        The expansion of the Oghuz Turks towards the Levant region in the early to mid- 11th century had crucial importance not only for the Middle eastern region but also world politics. The expansion of the Turkish political dominance in the region culminated in the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 which paved the way for various Turkish-speaking groups to migrate to Anatolia in the hopes of finding a new financial resource for their nomadic economic structure. The Turks conquereed to the region by the force of arms; however, as time passed, they began to adapt to the cultural, ecologic, politic and socio-economic realities of their new homelands. Their close interactions with the neighboring communities not only reshaped their physical appearances, economic structures, administrative and bureaucratic practices but also introduced them to new spiritual and religious beliefs. Contemporary scholarship in the area of interfaith and several cross-cultural studies have recently demonstrated how the Turks actually borrowed eschatological ideas and notions with respect to the end of the world and the developments that are expected to take place prior to this cataclysmic event.  

        Although interfaith and cultural exchange began taking place between the Greeks and Turks immediately after 1071 (and perhaps even before then), I would argue these interactions noticeably increased alongside the Turkish political expansion towards western Anatolia and Thrace especially after the late 1200s and early 1300s. The missionary activities of Turkish holy men and the tolerant attitudes of the state officials in these Turkish-controlled regions created an environment for Christians and Muslims to discuss various spiritual matters and learn more about each other’s faiths. In fact, one of the most influential Orthodox clerics, Gregory Palamas, was invited by the Ottoman court to converse about religion with a Muslim spiritual figure in the 1340s. Referring to several striking similarities between the Jesus Prayer and Dhikr practice, some scholars even argue that the influence of Islamic Sufi ideology encourages the appearance of Hesychasm in the Byzantine spiritual environment in this period.[1] Besides the Islamic ideological influence over Orthodox Christianity, it seems that some Christian beliefs also disseminated among the Muslim believers.

Christ as the apocalyptic Lamb with the cross on the throne surrounded with seven candlesticks. Chancel mosaic, 6th century CE.

        A certain Ottoman Sufi by the name of Ahmed Bican who lived in fifteenth century Gallipoli seems to have possessed an extensive knowledge about the Byzantine apocalyptic traditions. In his book, Dürr-i Meknûn, not only he did refer to several Byzantine messianic beliefs, but he also refashioned them with an Islamized veneer. For example, although there is no certain date regarding the end of the world in the theology, adopting the Byzantine tradition, adopted the opinion that doomsday will take place in 1492. What is even more noteworthy is his familiarity with the Byzantine liturgical calendar. It seems that he was personally aware of the Byzantine system since he states that Byzantine scholars determined the era of humankind as 7000 years; however, since Muslims use a lunar calendar instead of solar calendar, he notes that it should be regarded as 7200 years by the Muslims. 

        Furthermore, a general belief about the blonde people in Byzantine apocalyptic and messianic expectations can be observed in Bican’s work too. According to these, the Byzantine peoples believed that their capital, the city of Constantinople, will fall to their enemies one day; however, a blonde nation from the northern regions will soon appear to help the Greeks to ‘liberate’ their previous possession, expelling the Muslims as far as Syria. In his work, Bican also stated that one of the “blonde peoples” from the northern regions will indeed recapture Constantinople and expel the Muslims soon but he also made some additions to the story. Attributing a messianic role to the Ottoman ruler, he argued that the sultan will appear in this desperate situation and be able to defeat the blonde people by recapturing Constantinople for the second time, glorifying the religion of Islam.

Georgios Klontzas, “The Last Judgement” (1540-1608).

         Yet lastly, Bican seems to have been aware of a Greek messianic tradition prophesizing “the return of the king” which promises a rightful ruler will reclaim the throne of Constantinople.  The Laskaris dynasty which came to power in Nicaea after 1204 had a special importance for western Anatolians since Laskarid rulers initiated an economic development program in the region and successfully protected the eastern borders against the Turcoman incursions in this period. When Michael Palaeologus usurped the Byzantine throne in 1261 by imprisoning and then blinding John, the last Laskarid ruler of the empire, the western Anatolian Byzantines began developing stories, predicting his expected return. Cyril Mango argues this belief even spread to the European half of the empire since a prophecy which was circulated in the 13th century tells about a civil war that would take place in Constantinople. According to this prophecy, he argues, at the end of the civil war, as an old and shabbily dressed man, John Laskaris would appear in Constantinople to be crowned by the angels. His shabbily dress and his old age refers to the imprisonment case and signals that a civil war will take place in his later years. After the enthronement, the angels will give him a sword, saying; “Take courage, John, vanquish the enemy!”

Depiction of a Deviant Dervish from the Early Ottoman Period (Abdal-i Rum), in The Nauigations, Peregrinations, and Voyages, Made into Turkie by Nicholas Nicholay Daulphinois, trans. T. Washington the Younger, 103r.

        In Bican’s work, I think, it is possible to observe several clues about this late Byzantine apocalyptic expectation since Bican also talks about a civil war that would wake place in Constantinople. According to his interpretation, the fighting parties will be led by two military figures who have these initials in their name: “M” and “S”. Although, I think, “M” might represent Michael Palaeologus, “S” does not match with John’s initial. However, I argue that this letter might be modified in a later period due to Bican’s concern with adjusting it to a specific contemporary ruler. It is also within the boundaries of possibility that “S” stands for the second and last consonants of the dynastic name of John: Laskaris. Although the events were given in a very fragmented nature in this work, Bican also points out an imprisonment case, saying that the imprisoned will soon take the throne by defeating his enemy which has a clear resemblance with John Laskaris’ imprisonment by Michael.

Depiction of a Heterodox Dervish Figure (Portrait of a Qalandar), Timurid, 9th-15th century. © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Cora Timken Burnett Collection, 57.51.30).

        Messianic and apocalyptical intellectual exchange constitute a small part of interactions between the various groups of Christians and Muslims, who have lived in the Middle East and the Balkans side by side for the centuries. There are many more cultural and religious interactions between these people in this regard including but not limited to spread of brotherhood (futuwwa) institutions from the crusader states to the Muslim world in the Levant region. Although scholars have begun turning their focus to these borrowings in the eastern Mediterranean in the last couple of decades, there are still a long way to traverse since western Anatolia and the Balkans have received less attention so far. Hopefully, as the winds of time are changing, more scholars and students will become curious about the relations, interactions and shared traditions between Christians and Muslims in Istanbul and beyond.

Husamettin Simsir
PhD Candidate in History
University of Notre Dame

Further Reading

Arnakis, G. Georgiades. “Gregory Palamas among the Turks and Documents of His Captivity as Historical Sources.” Speculum, Vol. 26, No. 1 (1951): 104-118.

Bican, Yazıcıoğlu Ahmed. Dürr-i Meknun. Trans. Necdet Sakaoğlu. İstanbul: Tarih Vakfı Yurt Yayınları, 1999.

Karamustafa, Ahmet. God’s Unruly Friends. Utah: University of Utah Press, 1994.

Preiser-Kapeller, J. “Webs of conversion. An analysis of social networks of converts across Islamic-Christian borders in Anatolia, South-eastern Europe and the Black Sea from the 13th to the 15th cent.” Workshop Cross-cultural life-worlds, Institute for Byzantine Studies, Austrian Academy of Sciences, Bamberg 2012.

Şahin, Kaya “Constantinople and the End Time: The Ottoman Conquest as a Portent of the Last Hour” Journal of Early Modern History 14 (2010): 317-354.

Shawcross, Teresa. “In the Name of the True Emperor: Politics of Resistance after the Palaiologan Usurpation” Byzantinoslavica 66 (2008): 203-229.

Spanos, Apostolos. “Imperial Sanctity in Byzantium: The case of the emperor John III Vatatzes” Research Gate 10.13140/RG.2.1.3635.6248.

[1] Nicol defines the prayer practice in the Eastern Christian tradition as follows: “in the solitude of his cell, the monk must sit with chin resting on his breast and eyes fixed upon his navel. Then, while carefully regulating his breathing, he must say over the Jesus-Prayer.” Donald M. Nicol, Church, and Society in the Last Centuries of Byzantium (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008) 38.

Poetic form and the matter of the Virgin

This piece accompanies CJ Jones‘ sung recitations and translation of Ave virginalis formaJones contribution to our Medieval Poetry Project marks another exciting expansion as she bring a number of firsts to the project: the first Latin poem, the first Middle-High German poem, and the first song. She does not disappoint. Jones not only translates the song into modern English, she sings Ave virginalis forma in all three languages (Latin, Middle High German and modern English).

“Ave virginalis forma” from Munich, Bavarian State Library, cgm 716

Translator’s preface:

“Ave virginalis forma” (Analecta Hymnica, vol. 54, p. 379ff.) was composed in the first half of the fourteenth century and is attributed to an otherwise unattested Jacob, priest of Mühldorf. It was a highly complex and difficult poetic endeavor, both with regard to its poetic form and its classicizing and Greek vocabulary. Nevertheless, in the latter half of the fourteenth century the prolific songster known as “Der Mönch von Salzburg” (the monk from Salzburg) undertook to translate it into a German verse that maintained the poetic structure of the original Latin and could be sung more or less to the same melody. In attempting the same with modern English, I discovered just how difficult that is.

The chant is a sequence, a liturgical genre that was sung before the Gospel reading at Mass. (As far as I know, there is no evidence that “Ave virginalis forma” was actually sung liturgically, but formally it belongs to this genre.) Early sequences have very loose or no poetic form, but as the genre evolved, composers began to prefer texts with strict metrical forms and rhyme schemes. The first few verses of “Ave virginalis forma” fit the most popular poetic structure of the “new sequence” that was popular by the thirteenth century. The most significant characteristic that differentiates the sequence from the hymn is that sequence verses are paired, but the melody is through-composed. This means that verses 1 and 2 are sung to the same melody, but 3 has a new melody, repeated in verse 4, before yet a new melody is heard in verses 5 and 6, and so on. Within this overarching rule, there is some flexibility to repeat smaller melodic units and phrases. Jacob was sensitive to the relationship between the melody and the poetic form: for example, the closing line of the R and S verses is repeated for the following T and V pair and, accordingly, Jacob used the same end rhyme for all four verses. (Der Mönch von Salzburg did not notice the recycled melodic material and used different end rhymes for the two pairs; I tried my hardest to maintain the same rhyme for all four).

Jacob imposed an extra poetic constraint on himself: Ave virginalis forma is an abecedarium. Each verse begins with a letter of the alphabet (Ave, Botrus, Chere, Dei…). Der Mönch von Salzburg did follow this poetic constraint but for difficult letters simply took over the first word of the Latin verse and then set in with the German translation (Karissima / liebst aller lieb; Quis / wer). I permitted myself the same liberty. I should also note that both Jacob and der Mönch von Salzburg used the chi rho spelling of “Christ” for verse X, and I followed suit. Jacob also accomplished some real feats of poetic structure, which I was not able to imitate. The first and third lines of verses J and K rhyme both the first and second word, which neither the German nor the English manage (see also P and Q). Lines 2 and 4 of the L and K verses all end with internal double rhyme; der Mönch von Salzburg did a better job rendering this than I did. I settled on using rhyming syllables at the beginning and end of those lines. Finally, the paired N and O verses each incorporate an extraordinary sequence of internal rhyme, which neither der Mönch von Salzburg nor I were able to reproduce in German or English, although each of us gave it the old college try.

For the melody, I used two manuscripts of related provenance, Munich, Bavarian State Library, cgm 715 and cgm 716. Both manuscripts were produced in Bavaria toward the end of the fifteenth century and both were owned by the monastery of Tegernsee, although it is unlikely that either was produced there. I had to supplement and extrapolate from another manuscript for the German version because, due to an extraordinary eye-skip (from “vrowe” to “vrowe”), the scribe of cgm 715 left out the entirety of verse Q. The melody of the German differs slightly from the Latin – as do the melodies in other manuscripts containing the Latin sequence. If I were being true to medieval practice, I would have been looser with the melody for my English translation, as well.

I do not think that I have done justice to the beauty and complexity of the Latin sequence, neither in my sung recording nor in my translation. Still, in the process, I learned an enormous amount about stress and melodic shape, poetic flexibility, and Old Testament allegories for Mary. I owe thanks to Richard Fahey for encouraging me to take on this project, to Sean Martin for helping me record it, and to Christopher Miller for helping me edit the audio files.

Claire Taylor Jones
Assistant Professor of German
University of Notre Dame