- The Virgin in Song: Mary and the Poetry of Romanos the Melodist by Thomas Arentzen
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017 Pp. 288. $59.99.
Thomas Arentzen has given us an outstanding contribution to understanding the history of Marian piety as it developed among the elites of Constantinople in the middle of the sixth century. As the title indicates, the hymns of Romanos are his [End Page 677] focus, and three of the book’s four chapters consist of very close readings and detailed interpretations of four of the sixty-some kontakia attributed to Romanos. The approach is, accordingly, primarily a literary analysis of several poems in their historical context. The resulting study, a revision of the author’s 2014 dissertation at Lund University, offers one of our best windows into the rise of Marian devotion among the learned citizens of the imperial capital in this period.
Chapter One is largely historical in content. Here Arentzen presents the reader with what we are able to know about Romanos’s biography and the circumstances in which he was trained and composed. There is a solid summary of the context of existing Marian piety and its history in Constantinople prior to Romanos, as well as some reflection on the likely audience for these hymns. In this chapter Arentzen proposes “the congregation must have included workers, artisans, and generally economically underprivileged people, rather than monks and nuns” (26). Perhaps this was indeed the case, but as we move into the subsequent chapters, the sophisticated, rich interpretations of the hymns that Arentzen invites us to follow would surely have been beyond the capacities of most such people. The Marian devotion that these readings exhume would presumably have found a home among the city’s cultural elites, as the author himself seems to indicate elsewhere in the study.
Chapter Two offers an extended exposition of Romanos’s hymn for the Annunciation, a largely overlooked hymn in much previous scholarship according to Arentzen. Here the interpretation is guided largely by a tacit Freudianism that reads biblical rods as phalluses and caves as wombs and develops a reading of the hymn centered around erotic tensions in narrative, proposing that it evokes erotic longing for the Virgin among the audience. Arentzen effectively contrasts this image with traditional Roman expectations for a virgin, and also notes that here and elsewhere in Romanos’s hymns the Virgin appears in a guise very different from her role as an ascetic model in other early Christian texts. This is a fascinating and important finding, yet at the same time I think that its significance may be a bit overemphasized. Such representations of the Virgin are indeed uncommon, but they are not unprecedented. Other texts and authors occasionally juxtapose Mary with more positive visions of marriage and sexuality, even if they are not, to be sure, so highly eroticized as in this hymn. Likewise, in his conclusion and elsewhere in the study, Arentzen occasionally calls out previous scholarship for its “Foucauldian fascination with late antique asceticism” that “has led scholars to identify Marian virginity too readily with ascetic virginity, eclipsing the ways in which some ancient writers, such as Romanos, did not identify the two at all” (166). It is true that this aspect of Romanos’s Mary has been overlooked, and scholarship has indeed focused on Mary as an influential ascetic archetype. But in fairness to previously scholarship, one must also note that such ascetic representations of Mary are relatively frequent and prominent in early Christian literature. I suspect that this is the main reason scholars have tended to focus especially on this portrayal of Marian virginity.
Chapter Three leads readers through one of Romanos’s most famous hymns, his kontakion, On the Nativity I. For me this was the most illuminating of the three chapters. Arentzen focuses much of his interpretation on the description of Mary [End Page 678] nursing her “little child, God before the ages,” as the hymn’s refrain describes him. I have not seen this aspect of Marian devotion interpreted so thoughtfully and persuasively elsewhere. He inverts the...