Threads of Authority: The Virgin Mary’s Veil in the Middle Ages

  • Annemarie Weyl Carr
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


In 1031/32 the monastery of New Minster in Winchester, England, commemorated benefactions from the reigning king, Cnut, and his spouse, Queen Emma, by creating a Liber Vitae for the altar of its church.1 The book’s text—a list of benefactors and the order for prayers on behalf of their salvation2—is prefaced by three full-page illuminations. The first shows Cnut and Emma making their gift by placing a large cross on New Minster’s altar (see figure 4.1); the following pair shows the afterlife, where the Devil garners the damned from his book of sins while the blessed—introduced to Peter by the Liber Vitae itself3—enjoy the rewards of their benefactions in Heaven. The theme of generosity rewarded is anticipated already in the opening scene, where—before the approving eyes of New Minster’s monks at the lower margin—the royal donation is acknowledged with divine recompense. Christ himself in a mandorla hovers over the cross, flanked on his right by his Mother and on his left by Peter, the two patron saints of New Minster. Below St. Peter, an angel lowers a crested crown onto Cnut’s head, and below Mary a similar angel lowers a veil onto Emma’s.


Thirteenth Century Ninth Century Twelfth Century British Library Arabic Text 
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    For late ninth- and tenth-century examples preceding Cnut’s portrait see the Byzantine emperors Leo VI (886–912) crowned by the Virgin (Kathleen Corrigan, “The Ivory Scepter of Leo VI: A Statement of Post-Iconoclastic Imperial Ideology,” Art Bulletin 60 [1978]: 407–16, and Helen C. Evans and William D. Wixom, eds., The Glory of Byzantium. Art and Culture of the Middle Byzantine Era, A.D. 843–1261, exhibition catalogue, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 11 March 1997–6 July 1997 [New York, 1997], 201–2, no. 138), Constantine VII (913–959) crowned by Christ (Evans and Wixom, eds., The Glory, 203–4, no. 140), and Romanos and Eudokia crowned by Christ (Ibid., 500; see most recently Anthony Cutler, “A Byzantine Triptych in Medieval Germany and Its Modern Recovery,” Gesta 37 [1998]: 9–10 for the date of this plaque and thus of its imperial pair). In the West see Otto II (967–983) and Theophano (972–991) crowned by Christ in their ivory plaque in the Musée de Cluny in Paris (Evans and Wixom, eds., The Glory, 499–501, no. 337), Otto III (991–1002) crowned by Mary in Ivrea, Biblioteca capitolare, MS LXXXVI, fol. 16v (Robert Deshman, “Otto III and the Warmund Sacramentary. A Study in Political Theology,” Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 34 [1971]: fig. 1), and Henry II (1002–1024) crowned by Christ in Munich, Staatsbibliothek, cod. lat. 4456, folio 11r (Percy Ernst Schramm, Die deutschen Kaiser und Könige in Bilder ihrer Zeit 751–1190, 2nd ed., ed. Florentine Mütherich [Munich: Prestel Verlag, 1983], no. 124).Google Scholar
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    Ibid., 782 A: ἣν οὐ μόνον αὐτήν πεπιστεύκαμεν ἠμϕιἐσΘαι τὴν του̑ Θεου̑ λόγου μητἐρα ἀλλ ‘ἐν ῃ῾̑ καἰ αὐτὸν πάντως ἔτι νήπιου ὄντα τὸν Θεὸν λόγον, ἐδἐξατό τε, καὶ ἐγαλούχησεν.Google Scholar
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    Andrew of Crete, “Εγκόμιον εἰς τὴν κατάΘεσιν τη̑ς τιμίας ζώνης τη̑ς ὑπεραγίας δεσποίνης ἡμω̑ν Θεοτόκου,” in Combefis, Historia, 789–804. Accordingly, the sermon by Patriarch Germanos (730–33) honoring a church of the Virgin and its milk-stained relic of the ζώνη is often assigned to Blachernai: S. Germani Patriarchae Constantinopolitanae, “Oratio I in Encaenia venerandae aedis sanctissimae Dominae nostrae Dei Genitricis, inque sanctas fascias Domini nostri Jesu Christi,” in PG, 98 (1865): 371–84. This or another ζώνη was venerated along with the saddling clothes of Christ from the early tenth century onward at the Chalkopraeia church; another ζώνη was brought to Chalkoprateia in 942. See Nancy Patterson Ševčenko, “The Limburg Staurothek and Its Relics,” in ίϒMIAMA στην μνήμη της Θασκαρίνας Μπούρα (Athens: Benaki Museum, 1994), 291.Google Scholar
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    In his Fourth Homily on the Russian siege in Mango, Homilies (as in note 9 above), 95–110, Photios does not use “maphorion” but his term περιβολή means something “thrown around,” like a stole: see note 37 below. The word maphorion appears in the tenth-century chronicle known under the name of its scribe, Leo Grammatikos (Immanuelis Bekkari, ed., Leonis Grammatici Chronographia, Corpus Scriptorum Histo-riae Byzantinae 26 [Bonn: Weber, 1842], 241, 11. 4–12) and its various plagiarisms describing the event of 860; in the chronicle of Theophanes Continuatus describing Romanos I’s departure to parley with Tsar Symeon of Bulgaria in 926 (Immanuelis Bekkeri, ed., Theophanes Continuatus, Ioannes Cameniata, Symeon Magister, Georgius Monachus, Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae 43 [Bonn: Weber, 1838], 406, 1. 19–407, 1. 7); in a reference to the event of 860 in one of the diatribes of John Oxites against Alexios I Komnenos composed around 1093 (Paul Gautier, “Diatribes de Jean l’Oxite contre Alexis Ier Comnène,” Revue des études byzantines 28 [1970]: 38–39, 11. 17–27); and in a description of Alexios I Komnenos’s battle against the Cumans in 1089 in the Alexiad of Anna Komnene (Bernard Leib, ed., Anne Comnène Alexiade, 3 vols. [Paris: Société d’édition ‘Les belles lettres’, 1933], 2: 98).Google Scholar
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    The locus classicus for the imagery of the Virgin of Blachernai is the fundamental study of Christa Belting-Ihm, “Sub Matris Tutula.” Untersuchungen zur Vorgeschichte der Schutzmantel Madonna (Heidelberg: Karl Winter-Universitätsverlag, 1976). With extensive bibliography see also John Cotsonis, “The Virgin with the ‘Tongues of Fire’ on Byzantine Lead Seals,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 48 (1994): 221–27 discussing an image perhaps associated with the icon of the “usual miracle,” and Annemarie Weyl Carr, “Court Culture and Cult Icons in Middle Byzantine Constantinople,” in Byzantine Court Culture from 829 to 1204, ed. Henry Maguire (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1997), 92.Google Scholar
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    Corrigan, “The Ivory Scepter” (as in note 5 above). On the object’s function see Anthony Cutler, The Hand of the Master. Craftsmanship, Ivory and Society in Byzantium (9th–11th Centuries) (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 200–1.Google Scholar
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    In 971 John I Tzimiskes went with the standard of the Cross to Blachernai before departing for war, but we do not know what he did there and have no intimation that he adopted the relic as a battle standard. See Michael McCormick, Eternal Victor. Triumphal Rulership in Late Antiquity, Byzantium, and the Early Medieval West (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 249, citing Leo Diakonos. It is hard to guess how characteristic of Byzantine habit Alexios’s use of the maphorion was. We know about the use of icons in the army and about battle standards, often painted with holy images, but not about textile relics in this role. On the use of banners and icons in the Byzantine army, see George T. Dennis, “Religious Services in the Byzantine Army,” in ΕϒΛΟΓΗΜΑ. Studies in Honor of Robert Taft, S.J., Studia Anselmiana 110, ed. E. Carr, S. Parenti, A.A. Thiermeyer, E. Volkovska (Rome, 1993), 109–13; John F. Haldon, Constantine Porphyrogenitus. Three Military Treatises on Imperial Military Expeditions (Vienna, 1990), 270–71.Google Scholar
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  37. 57.
    Certainly it is a veil-like garment that figures centrally in the icon eventually formulated for the Pokrov feast, illustrating the vision of Andrew the Fool in Christ, with Mary’s veil spread like an arc over crowds in her Soros. See Rydén, 74–82. See the fifteenth-century icon of the “Suzdal” version of the Pokrov with Mary holding the veil in Engelina Smirnova, Moscow Icons 14th–17th Century (Oxford: Phaidon, 1989), pl.416; Kurt Weitzmann, Gaiané Alibegašvili, Aneli Volskaja, Manolis Chatzidakis, Gordana Babic, Mihail Alpatov, Teodora Voinescu, The Icon (New York: Knopf, 1982), 297–98 gives an example of the “Novgorod” version of the Pokrov in which angels hold the veil.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., 275 for the famous fifteenth-century icon of the battle of the Novgorodians with the Suzdalians (Novgorod, Museum of Architecture and Ancient Monuments) that shows the image being carried in war. The icon itself is now damaged on the front: see Engelina Smirnova, “Some Contributions to the Iconography of the Blachernitissa (The Study of Two Russian Icons of the 12th–13th Centuries),” Βυζαντινή Μακεδονία, forthcoming. It is closely copied in the thirteenth-century icon of Our Lady of the Sign in the Korin Collection: Konrad Onasch and Annemarie Schnieper, Icons. The Fascination and the Reality, trans. Daniel G. Conklin (New York: Riverside Book Company, Inc., 1995), pl. p. 158. I am very much indebted to Dr. Smirnova for her generosity in showing me a typescript of her article—and in so many other contexts.Google Scholar
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    Carr, “Court Culture” (as in note 39 above), 94–99. The Hodegetria’s symbolic role as the guardian of the city is summed up well in the exasperated comment of Eustathios, Bishop of Thessaloniki, that the Constantinopolitans shrug off their military weakness by saying that “the Hodegetria, the protectress of our city, will be enough, without anyone else, to secure our welfare”: J.R. Melville Jones, trans., Eustathios of Thessalonike: The Capture of Thessalonike, Byzantina Australiensia 8 (Canberra: Australian Association for Byzantine Studies, 1988), 42–43, 11. 11–12.Google Scholar
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    Efthalia C. Constantinides, The Wall Paintings of the Panagia Olympiotissa at Elasson in Northern Thessaly, 2 vols. (Athens: Canadian Archaeological Institute at Athens, 1992), 1:142–44, and 169 where she links this imagery with the church at Blachernai.Google Scholar
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    On its future as the Mother of God of Kykkos Monastery in Cyprus, see Olga Gratziou, “Μεταμορϕώσεις μίας Θαυματουργής εικόνας. Σημειώσεις στις όψιμες παραλλαγἐς της Παναγίας του Κύκκου,” Δελτίον τη̑ς χριστιανικη̑ς ἀρχαιολογικη̑ς ἑταιρείας, ser. 4, 17 (1933–94): 317–29 with English summary on 330; George A. Soteriou, “H Κυκκιώτισσα,” Νἐα Εστία (Christmas issue 1939): 3–6. On its future in Italy see Paola Santa Maria Mannino, “Vergine ‘Kykkotissa’ in due icone Laziali del Duecento,” in Roma Anno 1300, Atti del Congresso internazionale di storia dell’arte mediEvale, Roma, 19–24 Maggio, 1980 (Rome: L’Erma di Bretschneider, 1983), 487–92.Google Scholar
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    Richard A. Clogg, A Concise History of Greece (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 122, fig. 39, showing George Gounaropoulos’s “Νική, λευτερια, H Παναγία μαζί του.”Google Scholar
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    The theme deserves exploration on the level of folk devotion: see the fascinating nineteenth-century Finnish icon with Mary’s upper body rising from a “skirt” of walls and bearing a Child who grasps her white veil: Mikhail Kraslin, “Ikonograficheskii arkhetip i narodnoe pochitanie chu-dotbori’ch obrazov = The Iconographie Archetype and Folk Worship of Miracle-Working Icons,” in Chudotvoriia Ikona v Vizantii i drevnei Rust, ed. A.M. Lidov (Moscow: Martis, 1996), fig. 1.Google Scholar
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    “Schleier” is the favored noun of Stephan Beissel, S. J., Geschichte der Verehrung Marias in Deutschland während des Mittelalters (Freiburg im Breisgau: Herdersche Verlagshandlung, 1909), of Walter Pötzl, “Marianischen Brauchtum an Wallfahrtsorten,” in Handbuch der Marienkunde, ed. Wolfgang Beinert and Heinrich Petri (Regensburg: F. Pustet, 1982), 883–926, and of Schiffers himself.Google Scholar
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    As argued with piercing scorn by Professor Dr. H. Disselnkötter, Aachens grosse Heilingtümer und geschichtliche Beglaubung (Bonn: Universitäts-buch-druckerei und Verlag, 1909), 57 and passim.Google Scholar
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    Documents on the history of the relic at Chartres are compiled and translated in Robert Branner, Chartres Cathedral, Norton Critical Studies in Art History (London: Thames and Hudson, 1969), 107–14.Google Scholar
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    This genealogy is spelled out with particular clarity by J. C. Jennings, “The Origins of the ‘Elements Series’ of the Miracles of the Virgin,” Mediaeval and Renaissance Studies 6 (1968): 87–90. I am indebted to Rachel Fulton for showing me this helpful article.Google Scholar
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    Gabriela Signori, Maria zwischen Kathedrale, Kloster und Welt (Sigmaringen: Jan Thorbecke Verlag, 1995), 179.Google Scholar
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    J. A. Giles, D. C. L., William of Malmesbury’s Chronicle of the Kings of England (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1847), 125. The Latin, cited by Signori, Maria, 180 n35, reads: Namque cives, nec armis nec muris confisi, Beate Marie auxillium implorant camisiamque gloriosissime Virginis quam, a Constan-tinopoli sibi allatum, unus ex Karolis ibi posuerat, super propugnacula in modum vexilli ventis exponunt.Google Scholar
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    For inventories of these relics, see Beissel, Geschichte (as in note 86 above), 293–94, and Charles Rohault de Fleury, La sainte Vierge; etudes archéologiques et iconographiques, 2 vols. (Paris: Poussielgne, 1878), 1: 290–93. Beissel, 293–94, points out that many textile relics of Mary were portions of fabrics used to dress either altars or images of Mary. The close bond of such textiles to Mary herself is seen already clearly in the robe placed by Pulcheria upon the altar in Hagia Sophia, which was interpreted by Cosmas Vestitor’s translator as the dress on Mary’s lap upon which Christ sat when he was present upon the altar (see note 32 above).Google Scholar
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    See recently Patrick Corbet, “Les Impératrices ottoniennes et le modèle mariale. Autour de l’ivoire du Château Sforza de Milan,” in Marie. Le Culte de la Vierge dans la société médiévale, ed. Dominique Iogna-Prat, Eric Palazzo, Daniel Russo (Paris: Beauchesne, 1996), 127, 129, citing in particular an image of Mary in clothing reminiscent of Byzantium in the Petershausen Sacramentary (see Anton Van Euw, Vor dem Jahre 1000. Abendländische Buchkunst zur Zeit der Kaiserin Theophanu, Ausstellungskatalog, Köln, 1991, 122, no. 32), the Ivrea Sacramentary studied by Deshman, “Otto III” (as in note 5 above), the Seeon Lectionary in which Henry II is shown presenting the manuscript to an imperially clad Virgin, and the Rich Gospels of St. Bernward of Hildesheim (Rainer Kahsnitz, Das kostbare Evangeliar des heiligen Bernwards [Munich: Prestel Verlag, 1993], 27–30).Google Scholar
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    Henry Mayr-Harting, Ottoman Book Illumination, 2 vols. (London: Harvey Miller Publishers, 1991), 1: 140–54. The miniatures he cites are all reproduced in Rainer Kashnitz, “Koimesis-dormitio-assumptio. Byzantinisches und Antikes in den Miniaturen der Liuthargruppe,” in Florilegium Carl Nordenfalk, ed. P. Bjurström, N.-G. Hökby, F. Mütherich (Stockholm: National Museum, 1987), 91–122.Google Scholar
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    Rebecca Corrie, “The Political Meaning of Coppo di Marcovaldo’s Madonna and Child in Siena,” Gesta 29 (1990): 61–75, and Idem, “Coppo di Marcovaldo’s Madonna del bordone and the Meaning of the Bare-Legged Christ Child in Siena and the East,” Gesta 35 (1996): 43–65.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    See Sirarpie Der Nersessian, “Deux examples arméniennes de la Vierge de Miséricorde,” Revue des études arméniennes NS 7 (1970): 187–202; Belting-Ihm, “Sub Matris Tutula” (as in note 39 above), 68–69. Three examples survive from the Crusader Levant, all from the later thirteenth century: the huge panel of the Virgin protecting Carmelite monks in the Byzantine Museum of the Holy Archiepiscopate of Cyprus in Nicosia (Papageorghiou, Icons [as in note 72 above], 46–49, pl. 31); the mural painting with a Frankish family in the southern conch of the narthex at Asinou (Ewald Hein, Andrija Jakovljevic, Brigitte Kleidt, Zypern-byzantinische Kirchen und Klöstern. Mosaiken und Fresken [Ratingen: Melina-Verlag, 1996], fig. 26); and in a Cilician Armenian miniature, now in the Mer-topolitan Museum of Art in New York, showing Marshal Oshin and his sons protected by Mary (Sirarpie Der Nersessian, Miniature Painting from the Armenian Kingdom of Ciliciafrom the Twelfth to the Fourteenth Century, Dumbarton Oaks Studies 31, 2 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1993), 1: 158–59; 2: fig. 646; a similar composition used with a standing Virgin appears in the Cilician Prince Vasak Gospels in Jerusalem (Ibid., 1: 158–59, 2: fig. 647).Google Scholar
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    White, Duccio, 63, fig. 30 (Brussels, Feron-Stoclet Collection); 63, fig. 31 (Perugia, Galleria nazionale dell’Umbria); 52, fig. 22 (London, National Gallery). On the latter see also David Bomford, Jill Dunkerton, Gillian Gordon, Ashok Roy, Art in the Making. Italian Painting Before 1400, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery, London, 29 November 1989–28 February 1990 (London, 1989), 90–97, no. 4.Google Scholar
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© Stewart Gordon 2001

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  • Annemarie Weyl Carr

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