On Tuesday the 17th of November 2020, Bata Bardak conducted a zoom seminar for Spiritual Reading Group on the 9th-century Byzantine abbess Kassia, or Kassiani the Hymnographer. Here is his introductory paper.
known as Kassia) (1) was regarded as the
most prominent female melodist of her time and is one of the most famous women
of Byzantium. Critics of Greek poetry, both religious and secular, consider her
the most distinguished poetess of the Greek Middle Ages (2). Born in Constantinople at the beginning of the ninth
century, (almost three centuries before Hildegard of Bingen), she was an
abbess, poet, composer and hymnographer, and is one of the first medieval
composers whose musical scores are both extant and able to be interpreted by
modern scholars. Forty-nine hymns used in the Orthodox Church are attributed to
her, of which twenty-three have been established as genuine. In addition to her
hymns another 789 secular verses in the form of epigrams and gnomic verse are
attributed to her by tradition or manuscript authority.
Although Kassiani has left such a rich literary and musical legacy, and in spite of her fame, or perhaps because of her fame, her life has unfortunately become shrouded with many myths over the centuries. Early traditions tell of how the strikingly beautiful Kassiani participated in the “bride-show” organized for the young emperor, Theophilos, by his stepmother Euphrosyne. This ceremony involved the parading of eligible young women before the emperor, who was to choose his wife by giving her a golden apple. Dazzled by Kassiani’s beauty, Theophilos approached her only to receive a terse rebuttal. His ego wounded, Theophilos instead chose the more docile Theodora as his wife. Heartbroken and smitten by remorse Kassiani retired to a convent to become a nun. This story also appears in Edward Gibbon’s eighteenth-century history of the decline of the Roman Empire. (3)
Over the years many fictitious stories and novels have been written around the alleged relationship between the two.More recently, Kassiani appeared in the television series Vikings (series 5, 2017) where she was depicted as a beautiful nun who plotted the murder of her faithless lover, the Greek admiral Euphemius, and become the mistress of the Amir Ziyadat Allah. Her most recent appearance was in 2019 when the English singer-songwriter Frank Turner included her in a song on his album No Man’s Land. (4)
Despite the myths that have accrued around her life it is still possible to form a more realistic portrait of this remarkable woman. Renewed interest in Kassiani’s life in the late nineteenth-century gave rise to serious scholarly research and a deeper appreciation of her character, and she was officially canonized in 1889.
Several medieval chroniclers record events from her life (5) and three letters from St Theodore the Studite (759-826), one of the most notable spiritual leaders of the time, survive.
Although the biographical evidence does not give us a complete picture of her life, she does emerge as an intelligent woman with emotional sensitivity, a talented poet and an original thinker. Deeply religious, she is also an astute observer of human character and an outspoken and often caustic critic of behaviour she did not approve of.
Kassiani was born into a wealthy aristocratic family in Constantinople between 805 and 810. Her father held the high military rank of Kandidatos at the Imperial Court, a position of honour conferred on members of the aristocratic class. In keeping with her social status Kassiani received a good education. According to Baynes and Moss (6) the Byzantines placed great importance on education and parents educated their children, both sons and daughters, to the best of their means. Kassiani was privately educated and her curriculum featured Greek language, theology, Patristic literature and sacred music, as well as classical philosophy and literature (7). In correspondence between Theodore the Studite and Kassiani when she was still in her early teens, the abbot compliments her on her learning and on the literary skills of the compositions she had sent him (8).
Kassiani lived during the second iconoclast period which lasted from 814 to 843.Iconoclasm objected to the use of icons and other liturgical images and enforced their removal and destruction. The first iconoclast period, between 726 and 787, is traditionally explained as a reaction to Islamic military successes against the Byzantines. These successes were attributed to Islamic prohibitions against images and motivated the Byzantine Christians to adopt the same position. This however is only a partial explanation. There had long been a school of theological thought within the Church motivated by the Old Covenant interpretation of the Ten Commandments forbidding the making and worshipping of “graven images” (9). This, as well as changes to worship and social and political upheavals contributed to the iconoclast debate.
In the early ninth century the Byzantine Empire suffered a series of humiliating defeats at the hands of the Bulgarians in the north. The Arabs had already diminished the empire’s territory in the east and now ruled the three apostolic patriarchates of Jerusalem, Alexandria and Antioch. In the year 800, in the west, Charlemagne (748-814), king of the Franks and Lombards, had been crowned Emperor of the Romans by Pope Leo III, thus terminating the Pope’s allegiance to the Byzantine Emperor. Emperor Leo V, seeing these events as indicators of divine displeasure, looked back to the past and instituted a second period of iconoclasm in 814, hoping to replicate the military success of Constantine V.
From the very beginning of the iconoclastic controversy it was the women from all classes of Byzantine society, both lay and monastic, together with the monks, who remained faithful to the Church’s traditions (10). They openly defied the imperial edict in the face of persecution and many were executed. Kassiani participated in this struggle from an early age, aiding imprisoned monks. In his correspondence, Theodore the Studite commends her Orthodox zeal and compassion for imprisoned monks, as well as acknowledging that she had been beaten with a lash for aiding iconodules (11).
To the modern Christian the question of icon veneration may seem a marginal theological issue, but at the time it reflected and often paralleled the Christological doctrines of the Church as well as addressing related concepts that were open to interpretation and required clarification. (12) Central to the debate was the Incarnation of Christ. Theodore the Studite argued that the “rejection of the veneration of Christian images effectively denied Christ’s Incarnation, which united the spiritual and material worlds, and which made human salvation possible. If Christ could not be portrayed, then he was not truly human, and humanity was not truly united with God in him”.(13)
John of Damascus (675-749), the other chief opponent to iconoclasm, also addressed the arguments referring to the Ten Commandments’ prohibition of “graven images” by pointing to other Old Testament evidence, for example where God instructed Moses to make two golden statues of cherubim for the lid of the Ark (Exodus 25: 18-22) and to embroider the curtains and the tent of the Tabernacle with cherubim angels (Exodus 26:1). (14)
John declared that he did not worship matter but the creator of matter. He added that he venerated the matter through which salvation came, including the ink in which the Gospels were written, the paint of the icons, along with the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist. The distinction between worship and veneration was key in the arguments for icons.
side-effect of Incarnation theology and its affirmation of the theological body
was the question of the natural body and all that it implicates – senses,
feelings, spirit, physical form, social behaviour and so on. This had an
important influence in the development of Orthodoxy as well as influencing the
style of Byzantine art. (15) In her poetry Kassiani employs all aspects of the
body, the senses and the feelings, to depict the relationship between humanity
and God, and the spiritual growth through faith, love and repentance to
The events of the bride-show with Theophilos are accepted by scholars as being historically true (17) and the three medieval chroniclers give similar accounts. The staging of Imperial bride-shows was a well-established practice in the eighth and ninth centuries. Kassiani’s showing took place about 830 and she was one of six semi-finalists. From correspondence with St Theodore it is known that Kassiani had decided to become a nun early in her life, so her participation in the bride-show was probably due to family pressure. She appears to have had no desire to be Empress nor any interest in courtly trappings.
Theophilos, unlike his more lenient father, Michael II, was a fierce iconoclast and brutal in imposing his will. He succeeded his father as sole emperor in 829. Although well-educated he was ostentatious in many of his actions and spent much of his reign leading his troops into battle against the Bulgars, Serbs and Arabs, with many defeats and some successes.
According to the chroniclers, Kassiani caught his eye and he approached her with the golden apple and said, “Through woman has come all evil”, obviously alluding to the sin of Eve, but possibly challenging Kassiani by implying that the women opposing iconoclasm were the cause of his own problems and military defeats. Without hesitation Kassiani replied, “But also through woman better things began”, referring to the Virgin Mary. In the Eastern Church Mary is commonly referred to as Theotokos (literally The God-Birther). The role of Theotokos was an integral part of Incarnation theology and many writings by the iconodules were dedicated to the Theotokos. Kassiani’s retort was a clear attack on Theophilos’ iconoclastic views. Such a bold reply to the Emperor, especially from a woman, contravened court conventions and would have left Theophilos stunned and displeased. He passed Kassiani by and presented the apple to Theodora. This account of the verbal exchange between the two is completely consistent with the caustic tone and strong opinions revealed in Kassiani’s epigrams and gnomic verse. For example,
“I hate one that conforms to all ways” and
“I hate silence when it is time to speak”.
And the most telling;
“A stupid person when honoured is arrogant towards everyone,
and when praised becomes even more over-confident….
but if a stupid man is young and in a position of power,
alas and woe and what a disaster”. (18)
Far from being heart-broken by Theophilos’ rejection, Kassiani must have been greatly relieved that divine Providence had left her free to pursue the monastic vocation she so desired.
In 842, following the death of Theophilos, iconoclasm finally came to an end. Unknown to Theophilos, the modest Theodora he had chosen for his Empress, although not as outspoken as Kassiani, was as equally fervent in her opposition to iconoclasm and had raised her five daughters and one son to revere icons. The successor, Michael III, was only two years of age when his father died and Theodora presided over the Regency with her uncle. She worked quickly to restore the icons, replacing her husband’s former advisors and convening a local council in Constantinople that brought a permanent end to the iconoclast controversy in 843.
That same year, at the age of about thirty-three, Kassiani founded her own convent in the west of Constantinople on a hill near the Constantinian Wall and became its first abbess. In the Byzantine world it was not unusual for individuals, lay or ecclesiastical, to establish monasteries. Finally free from persecution it was here that Kassiani was to spend the remainder of her life, pursuing her literary interests, writing hymns and secular works. Located nearby to the convent was the monastery of Stoudiios, renowned for its creativity in the liturgical arts and which played a central role in re-editing the Byzantine liturgical books in the ninth and tenth centuries. The two communities maintained a close relationship and some scholars attribute this to the survival of Kassiani’s works. (19)
Kassiani died around 865. There is a tradition that says she travelled briefly to Italy with another nun, Evdokia. From there she went to Crete, finally settling on the island of Kasos where she died and is buried. Scholars however assume that she reposed in her convent in Constantinople.
Kassiani’s extant writings fall into two distinct and markedly different categories.
Her religious poetry displays an unquestionable faith in God and his ever-present redeeming mercy and love. In contrast to most of her contemporaries whose hymns tend to be verbose and lengthy, hers are short and concise, using simple and poignant vocabulary. She displays an originality of thought that often blends narrative and dramatic elements to produce hymns of vivid imagery and intense religious emotion. (20) While drawing heavily on Biblical references, Kassiani also displays a thorough understanding of Patristic literature as well as reflecting contemporary theological concepts. Her Christmas hymns and those in honour of St John the Baptist, for example, focus primarily on incarnation theology and the kenotic love of Christ.
Kassiani’s most famous work is the Hymn of the Penitent Woman, commonly referred to simply as the Hymn of Kassiani. It is sung only once a year during Holy Week on Tuesday evening (Wednesday Matins) and refers to the nameless woman in the Gospels who anointed Christ while he was dining in the house of a wealthy man. (Matt.26:6-13, Mk.14:39, Luke 7:36-50) Some Western commentators identify her as Mary Magdalen but the two are separate identities in Orthodox tradition. The hymn begins as a narrative but ends in the first person, leading the listener to identify with the fallen woman. The image of the woman fallen into sin is transferred into the woman who falls down in repentance. Many critics regard it as one of the most moving and vivid examples of Byzantine poetry.
Kassiani’s original music for this hymn survives. It requires a very wide vocal range and is considered one of the most demanding pieces of Byzantine chant. The music is slow, sorrowful and plaintive. In current practice it may be sung by solo cantors, male or female, or choirs in unison, often with a vocal drone, and lasts from ten to twenty minutes depending on tempo and style of execution.
In her secular writings we see another side to Kassiani’s personality. Kassiani comments on a variety of subjects from social issues and personal moral concerns to her views on friendship and wealth. While often witty, she can sometimes appear extremely caustic on a first reading. Many of her comments, however, are directed to specific situations and when viewed in their proper context show Kassiani to be a sharp observer of human behaviour and outspoken critic of corruption and social injustice, who combines profane and religious maxims to express her moral views.
When looking at the early sources relating to Kassiani and at her own writings the image that emerges is of a profound, deeply religious and talented woman. Serious and pious from an early age she developed, through her strength of character and brilliance of mind, to become one of the most respected women of Byzantium and made a lasting contribution to the thought and worship of the Orthodox church.
1. There are a number of variants of her name such as Kassia, Kassiani, Eikasia. Sometimes the Latin spelling is used such as Cassia or Cassiani. She was canonized under the Greek name Kassiani, but Kassia may have been the original form of her name .Modern English generally uses Kassia in references to her as a composer and Kassiani in reference to her religious life. Some sources refer to her as Kassia (or Cassia) the Nun.
2. Antonia Tripolitis (ed.) – Kassia: The legend, the woman and her works, New York, Garland, 1992. p.xii.
3. Edward Gibbon – The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1789. chapter 48
4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kassia (30/8/2020)
6. N. H. Baynes & H. St. L. B. Moss – Byzantium: An introduction to East Roman Civilisation, Oxford University Press, 1961.
7. Silvas, Anna M. "Kassia the Nun c.810-c.865: an Appreciation." in Byzantine Women: Varieties of Experience 800-1200. Burlington: Ashgate, 2006.
8. Tripolis. Op. Cit. p.xiv
9. Exodus 20:4 and Deuteronomy 5:8
10. Tripolis, Op. Cit. p.xiii-xiv
11. Silvas, Op. Cit.
12. Niki Tsironis – “The body and senses in the work of Cassia the Hymnographer: Literary trends in the Iconoclastic Period”, from Symmeikta 16, Institute of Byzantine
Research, Athens, September, 2008, pp.141-151.
13. St Theodore the Studite – On Holy Icons, Crestwood, NY, St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1981 (Translated by Catharine P. Roth)
14. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Byzantine_Iconoclasm (28/8/2020)
15. Byzantium was the heir of the Classical world and Byzantine secular art was in the representational tradition of Classical art. Iconography developed as a deliberately stylized or “abstracted” form depicting the spiritual person rather than a lifelike portrait. Ref. David Talbot Rice – Byzantine Art, Penguin, 1962.
16. Niki Tsironis, Op. Cit. p.141
17. Tripolis, Op. Cit. p.xv
18. “Stupidity” translation in Tripolis, p.125.
19. Kurt Sherry – Kassia the Nun in Context: Religious thought of a Ninth-Century Byzantine Monastic, Pislataway, NJ, Gorgias Press, 2011. p.56
20. Tripolis, Op. Cit. p.xvi
Antonia Tripolitis (ed.) – Kassia: The legend, the woman and her works, New York, Garland,
Niki Tsironis – “The body and senses in the work of Cassia the Hymnographer: Literary
trends in the Iconoclastic Period”, from Symmeikta 16, Institute of Byzantine
Research, Athens, September, 2008, pp.139-157.
Susan Arida – “The theological voice of Kassiani”, in The WHEEL Journal, Issue 9/10, July
18, 2017, Arlington, MA.
Dimitris Salapatas – “The Role of women in the Orthodox Church”, from Orthodoxes Forum,
Institute for Orthodox Theology, University of Munich, Series 29, 2015, Issue 2,
Fr. George D. Konstantopoulos – The Hymn of Kassiani the Nun, 2016
N. H. Baynes & H. St. L. B. Moss – Byzantium: An introduction to East Roman Civilisation,
Oxford University Press, 1961
Silvas, Anna M. – "Kassia the Nun c.810-c.865: an Appreciation." Byzantine Women:
Varieties of Experience 800-1200. Burlington: Ashgate, 2006. 17-39. Print.
St Theodore the Studite – On Holy Icons, Crestwood, NY, St Vladimir’s Seminary Press,
1981 (Translated by Catharine P. Roth)
Kurt Sherry – Kassia the Nun in Context: Religious thought of a Ninth-Century Byzantine
Monastic, Pislataway, NJ, Gorgias Press, 2011.
YouTube recordings of The Hymn of Kassiani (The Penitent Woman)