Sacred Space, Sacred Art and The Power of Women

By Jonathan Pageau on June 2, 2016


We live in a confused time.  Many of the basic foundations which hold the world together have been made fragile.   Up/down, center/periphery, inside/outside have all been eroded in their power to frame existence as we watch floodwaters rise around us.  One of the foundations systematically attacked through sophisticated rhetoric and political ideology is the complementary relationship between masculine and feminine.  Masculine and feminine are the two solid pillars on which have stood all societies everywhere at all times until the modern era, and the rapport between them is akin to the primordial relationship between heaven and earth itself.  Yet, as each action causes an equal and opposite reaction, the unrelenting modern efforts to create a “pure individual” in part by eliminating the social differences between men and women has only been equaled in its ferocity by the simultaneous degrading and objectification of women.  It is precisely because powerful elements of society have actively pursued a gender-neutral ideology in which women should, nay, must inhabit any and all masculine attributes, that women have equally had to deal with an unprecedented loss of personhood and a reduction in popular culture to desire inducing machines.

But for those who can see the glimmering spark even in the darkest places, there is a hidden mystery in the otherwise truly unfortunate reduction of women to their sole capacity to seduce, one which hides a very powerful vision of the feminine for those who dare grab the snake by the tail.  When seen correctly, seduction is actually an example of the most essential ontological categories. It is a version of the power of manifestation itself, if we see power in the manner I have explained elsewhere within the traditional dyad of power and authority, potestas and auctoritas, potential and actuality.

I see some readers picking up stones already, but please bear with me.   Seduction is an interesting aspect of human behavior, for it is not action on the world in its own right, but rather a type of operation which either voluntarily or involuntarily elicits desire to act in others.  It is not a commandment, not an injunction which addresses the will of a person, nor is it an act of violence meant to constrain or control. Rather, it is a mix of showing and hiding, the revealing of a mystery expected to call attention and focus action on the object or person which is wittingly or unwittingly seducing the onlooker.  This I believe is the most profound aspect of seduction, one which we find also in modern advertising. Seduction is an “asking for attention”, the opening or framing of a space of action within the flow of phenomena.   When a young man encounters the world, he might harbor an “idea” of the relationship between the sexes: boy meets girl, marries girl, has children, etc.  But the world is composed of 51% women, the young man is surrounded by them.  Certainly we are dealing with a multilayered process, but at least at the outset, a particular woman must appear in his experience of the world and somehow “stand out” from the others, elicit in him the desire to pursue a relationship with her in particular rather than all the other women on his horizon.  In that manner seduction and desire precede action, in many ways precede choice even.

Of course seduction is only a facet of the larger idea I am hoping to ultimately arrive at.  The highest example of the opening of a space for being and action can be seen in the feminine through the womb, the bringing forth of body and providing nurture for the child (for what is nurturing if not providing possibility for a being to unfold?). In paying attention to the poetic imagery surrounding the Mother of God, one will discover many examples of how she appears as the space, the support, the ground from which the Logos appears.  If Christ is the sun, then she is the east. If Christ is the glory, then she is the ark. If Christ is the pearl, then she is the shell[1].  Any quick glance at hymnography will render dozens of these comparisons.

The frame and picture, the shell and pearl.  Virgin of the Sign in steatite. 3" in diameter.  By the author.

The frame and picture, the shell and pearl. Virgin of the Sign in steatite. 3″ in diameter. By the author.

If we broaden the structure, we will see the type of the Mother distributed into social extensions of space and body which have traditionally been associated with the feminine. These include the household, the city and the church, both as an actual building as well as the more communal vision of the Church as the body of Christ.   I contend that in the story of Christianity, women both as brides and as mothers will systematically precede and surround. As we see the Theotokos showing us her son in the famous Hodogetria icon, women will be there to open the way unto Christ and the cross. And just as the Hodogetria was paraded on the walls to save Constantinople, just as the Mother of God was seen by St. Andrew of Constantinople spreading her veil over the people in protection, other women saints in imitation of the Theotokos, will also be there every time there is need to open up or protect sacred spaces, the cities, the churches and of course the icons.

Protection of the Veil of the Theotokos.  16th century Russian.

Protection of the Theotokos. 16th century Russian. According the story, while the city of Blachernae was being threatened by Barbarians in the 10th century, the Mother of God and other saints appeared in the Church, where she removed her veil and placed it over the people like a tent in sign of protection.  In this image, the protection offered is not the type found in weapons or warriors, rather we see the veil acting as a kind of ontological limit, keeping the integrity of what it contains within itself like a shell covering a pearl.

Recasting the Temptress as Hodogetria

There has been much ink spilled on Eve as the temptress, and in modern times we have wanted to downplay this aspect of the Genesis story as much as possible.  Though I understand why and sympathise with those who have done so, I fear in eliminating this aspect completely we will become blind to the wider implications of its structure.  If we ignore how Eve tempted Adam unto death, opening to him the possibility of dying, of taking on the garments of skin and all that entails in terms of the multiplying of Man into Humankind, the development of the arts and the movement out of the garden into the world, then we will not understand how this same structure will play itself out into the rest of the cosmic story.

Eve gives Adam the Fruit of Knowledge.  12th century German fresco.

Eve gives Adam the Fruit of Knowledge. 12th century German fresco.

In the Bible there are many examples of seduction unto death[2], but to fully understand them, we must keep in mind the duality of death which I have explained elsewhere. Death is moving away from the unity of a center (heart, garden, holy land, etc.)  or a descent back into the earth. This includes both a dissipation into “dust”, but also a “vaccine effect”, a type of external supplement where death becomes a protection from death, hence the patristic image of the dead garments of skin given to Adam and Eve at the fall to protect them. This vaccine effect is also the root of ritual sacrifice which reaches its apex in Christ trampling down death by death.

One of the surprising stories denoting this seduction into death while joining it to the role of the mother is the story of the Jael in the book of Judges.  Jael is a Kenite woman who kills Sisera, an enemy king, as he flees a losing battle.  Jael invites Sisera into her own tent, connoting a sexual proposal[3], but then covers him with a blanket, gives him milk and puts him to sleep, which are the acts of a mother, only to then murder him by impaling him with a stake through the head. The role of the seductress and the mother are brought together to show a powerful aspect of the feminine. Jael does not contrive Sisera, does not tell him what to do, but rather invites him and answers his physical needs before killing him.

Jael kills Sisera. 13th century manuscript.

Jael kills Sisera. 13th century manuscript.

As usual, in Christianity there is a transfigured recasting of OT testament models, and a place where we see this surprising structure reappear is in the icon of the Nativity. In the icon of the Nativity, the cave plays the role of Jael’s tent, and Christ is shown wrapped in a cloth as Sisera was wrapped in a blanket. The Mother-Child relationship is set out clearly in the Nativity icon, But there is another strain of meaning, since the cave, and more specifically the manger in its design and its role as feeding container for animals, are meant to evoke the tomb (which I have discussed before).  And so in the birth of Christ from the Theotokos, Christ’s body appears already both as the space for his life but also the space for his death.  Of course the Theotokos does not kill Christ, yet the means of death are analogical nonetheless.  In the story of Jael, the stake is an explicit image of the nailing of Christ to the cross, and though in the icon of the Nativity this does not need to appear literally, the cross is implied even in the cruciform halo around Christ’s head.

Nativity in linden. By the author.

Nativity in linden. By the author.

In the New Testament, another of the stories which can help us see the opening of a space for action and more specifically a tempting unto death is in the Wedding at Cana.  This story is extremely rich and complex and elucidating it fully would require an entire book, yet there are a few details which could help us along on our subject.

Wedding at Cana, by Duccio. Early 14th century.

Wedding at Cana, by Duccio. Early 14th century.

When the wine runs out at the wedding, the Theotokos comes to Christ and tells him: “The wine has run out.” This comment is the statement of a problem, which implicitly contains a call to action. It is a puzzle or a question for the Logos to answer and acts as the frame for his response. Hearing this, Christ would not change a stone into bread, that would not make sense.  He must decide if, and if so how, he will provide a solution to the problem.  In this manner, the Theotokos is providing a “body”, framing the possibility into which he will begin the process of manifesting the Logos.  Christ’s answer is telling. “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.”  My hour has not yet come? As we will see later in the Gospel of St-John, this expression relates to the death of Christ[4]. And so my own question echoes that of Christ; what could a lack of wine at a wedding have to do with his death?  Already though we see that it is related, even if we might not understand why[5].  We see that the Theotokos is not only opening a body, a path, for the manifestation of the Logos, but this body is already seen as leading to death at the very outset.  Somehow she is mirroring the act of Eve, who giving her husband the fruit, did not tell him what to do, did not constrain him in any way, but by placing the possibility before him, Eve “framed” Adam’s course of action and seduced him unto death.  Of course in Christianity this motif, this cosmic puzzle will be completed, leading from death unto salvation and resurrection.  As the New Eve, as the Hodogetria, the Mother of God will also invite us to taste of the fruit of the knowledge of Heaven and Earth hanging on the bow of the cross, seducing us also unto dying to ourselves so we can commune with her son.

12-13th century Byzantine icon of the Hodogetria, with the Man of Sorrows on the other side. H "the one showing the way". The first versio of this icon, reputedly painted by St-Luke was brought out unto the walls of Constantinople and was credited in miraculously saving the city for the Arabs in 718.

13th century Byzantine icon of the Hodogetria with the Man of Sorrows on the other side.  Hodogetria means “the one showing the way”. The first version of this icon, reputedly painted by St-Luke was brought out unto the walls of Constantinople and was credited in miraculously saving the city from the Arabs in 718. What is interesting is that even the original icon was said to have an image of Christ’s death on the back and so the Hodogetria  who saves the city is showing the infant Christ, yet this invitation is ultimately aimed at the crucifixion.

Opening the way

The story does not stop here.  Even the most superficial look at Church history will show us women being the hidden precedent of men at every turn, the ones whose whispers hide deep under public historical accounts. They are wives, mothers, grandmothers, sisters who by their example, their prayers and often secret gestures, entice their sons, husbands, brothers, grandsons into the Church.  The story starts already in the Bible, with St-Mary Magdalene preceding the apostles in encountering the resurrected Christ.

Touch Me Not icon, 16th century Crete.

Touch Me Not icon, 16th century Crete.

There is also the wife of Pontius Pilate, sending him a message to have nothing to do with Christ’s condemnation.  The wife of Pilate is an interesting example as she will later be venerated as a saint under the name St-Procula (or Procla). She also sets the stage for a pattern of the “Christian royal woman” who precedes the conversion of the king.  This story is so common and is found at so many of the major historical conversions that all I can give is a list for the reader to explore. Examples I could find include St-Helena, the mother of St-Constantine the Great the first Christian Roman Emperor, St-Olga the grandmother of St-Vladimir of Kiev the first Christian King of the Rus, St-Clotilde the wife of Clovis the first Christian Carolingian King.

St-Constantin and Helena.  Emmanual Tzanes, 17th century.

St-Constantine and Helena. Emmanual Tzanes, 17th century.

St-Vladimir and Olga, contemporary icon.

St-Vladimir and Olga, contemporary icon.

These are the most known, but more hide in the margins, such as Bertha the wife of King Aethelbert of Kent or Doqus Qatun, the Christian wife of Hulagu Kahn[6], the Mongol Khan who destroyed Bagdad in 1258, and others whose stories have not reached us.

Hulagu and

Hulagu and Doqus Katun posing as proxies for Constantine and Helen from a Syriac manuscript. 13th century.

All these women were Christian first, opened the way to Christ, and though the historical record does not always attribute conversions to their direct influence, the pattern is there for those who perceive the mystery.  Other women will precede the great theologians, these examples include St-Macrina, sister of the Cappadocian fathers St-Basil the Great and St-Gregory of Nyssa in the East, and St-Monica the mother of Blessed Augustine in the West.

Sacred Space

As I mentioned earlier, the notion of the body as taking its root in the feminine, in the womb, has social extensions.  The extension of living space is the house, the city and church seen as feminine in their representations.  Looking at these extensions of the body will provide the key to seeing many of the actions of imperial women as an important root and protection for liturgical art in Christianity.  This begins with St-Helena equal to the Apostles, mother of St-Constantine who initiates the rebuilding of Jerusalem, defining the shape of the city and its shrines, therefore spatially mapping the life of Christ through a series of churches in the Holy Land.  Another powerful example is how during the Nika riots of 532AD, when a mob attacked the palace complex, destroying the original Hagia Sophia church, the Emperor Justinian wanted to flee, but it was the Empress Theodora who convinced him to stay by saying, “The Royal Purple is the Noblest Shroud”. What a powerful almost prophetic statement bringing together the notion of clothing, the city, seduction and the duality of death. The rebuilding of Hagia Sophia would become the model for Orthodox Churches until today.

Famous mosaic of Theodora, 6th century Ravenna.

Famous mosaic of Theodora, 6th century Ravenna.

But it is in the story of icons that we find the highest examples of the role of women in the physicality of the Church and its art.  Just as the Mother of God stretches her veil as protection, during the entire time of iconoclasm, it was women who preserved the practice of iconography in Constantinople.  It was Empress Irene who called the seventh ecumenical council which made official the veneration of icons, and it was St-Theodora the wife of Theophilos who finally restored icons in what has come to be celebrated as the Feast of Orthdoxy.

Triumph of Orthodoxy.   late 14th early 15th century. Empress Theodora, and her son Michael III appear at the top left,

Triumph of Orthodoxy. late 14th early 15th century. Empress Theodora, and her son Michael III appear at the top left,

We know mostly of Irene and Theodora and their role in the restoration of icons, but Mother Nectaria who publishes Road to Emmaus Journal has written a wonderful article in which she explains that it was not just those two, but that iconodule wives were chosen by iconodule Empresses for their sons, thereby creating a secret chain of women preserving the veneration of icons even when their husbands were hostile to images.   Mother Nectaria even suggests, with convincing arguments, that the Byzantine practice of the “bride-show”, where a bride for an Emperor was chosen through a kind of beauty pageant, might have been a strategy for the sitting Empress to chose an iconophile wife for her son.   If this is true, the entire story becomes a powerful tribute to beauty, seduction and the secret power of the feminine in the transformation of the world.

Mother Nectaria tells a wonderful story of the future iconoclast Emperor Theophilos approaching St-Cassiane who had been one of the possible future brides chosen by his step mother at a bride-show:

“First drawn to Cassiane, the young Emperor approached her saying, “Through a woman came forth the baser things,” implying the sin of Eve, to which Cassiane responded, “And through a woman came forth the better things,” recalling the Incarnation.”[7]

Displeased with this comment, the future Emperor finally chose to marry another of the candidates, Theodora. St-Cassiane would later turn to monasticism and become a renown abbess and hymnographer. Finally, though the Emperor Theophilos was the most ardent of iconoclasts, his wife Theodora would restore the veneration of icons for good after his death, proving indeed that “through woman came forth the better things”.

The restoration of the icons is in many ways a “transformation of the garments of skin”, for all these physical images, these multiple versions of the invisible prototypes are subject to death, to decay and destruction. But the images are also the testimony of Christ and show how the garments of skin can become garments of glory, that death and multiplicity have been changed by Christ into vehicles of grace unto the ends of the earth.  This is the mystery of Christianity itself, how the end of Eve’s seduction would render all at once, all that was promised even in ill-will. Man would both die and become god, one aspect holding the other by the hand through the power of the cross, which is both the tree of knowledge and the tree of life. The question posed by Eve in the Garden would finally be fully answered, the seemingly bottomless gap established in that primordial moment would be filled to overflow by Christ who is all in all.


[1] For more examples of these relations, see Henry Macguire, Body, Clothing, Metaphor: The Virgin in Early Byzantine Art in The Cult of the Mother of God in Byzantium: Texts and Images, Ashgate Publishing. 2011.

[2] Different examples will play out the relation between seduction, desire and death in multiple ways which would need further elaboration.  But a summary list worth thinking about would include the wives of Abraham and Isaac being kidnapped by Abimelech (Gen. 20,26.  In this example, it is rather the threat of death and not death itself), the rape of Dinah (Gen. 34) the hiding of Joshua and Caleb by the prostitute Rahab (Josh. 2  This story is similar to the one of Jael, yet has an inverted ending, where the hidden enemies are not killed but her own city falls), Esther and the death of Haman (Est. 7), Salomé and the death of St-John the Baptist (Mat. 14) , Judith and the death of Holofernes (Judith 10-13).  There are also important non- Biblical versions of this, the most obvious is the story of the Trojan war.

[3] For a description of why this is so and how the Hebrew denotes sexual hospitality, see Thalia Gur-Klein, Sexual Hospitality in the Hebrew Bible: Patronymic, Metronymic, Legitimate and Illegitimate Relations, Routledge, 2014.  p.39

[4]Compare to John 12:23, 13:1, 17:1

[5] But what does changing water into wine have to do with the fall or with the death of man?  To answer we need to consider the other instance in the Bible where there is a clear transition between water and wine, and this is found at the Biblical origin of wine.  After Noah leaves the ark once flood waters are abated, he plants a vine. Noah then gets drunk on the wine he produces, strips and passes out.  The story plays out like an inversion of the Garden of Eden story, for the unconscious naked Moses becomes a stumbling stone for Ham who stares at his nakedness and is cursed for his indecent gesture. This re-establishes the curse and fall which had been briefly held in check by the new rainbow covenant made with God. And so Noah’s  wine coming after the flood becomes the place of the new fall.  Wine is also an interesting version of the garments of skin, human technology, since it is made by turning the process of decomposition against itself.  The very process of the “dying” of the fruit, when contained, creates an intoxicating beverage.  In order to understand all of this further, one can also ponder the places in the Bible where water is turned into blood, for example the first plague of Egypt which eventually led to the death of the first born and to the Passover-Pascha, also Christ’s final moments in the Garden where he sweats blood.

[6] Hulagu did not convert, but still portrayed himself as the new Constantine in his iconography.

[7] Mother Nectaria Mclees. Byzantine Bride-Shows and The Restoration of Icons, in Road to Emmaus #51, Fall 2012, p.57

Posted in ,


  1. […] the east. If Christ is the glory, then she is the ark. If Christ is the pearl, then she is the shell[1].  Any quick glance at hymnography will render dozens of these […]

  2. Kate on June 2, 2016 at 9:14 am

    Thank you for this inspiring article’s cohesive mapping of the importance of potential and activity and the interesting intersection with seduction. You managed to pull together many things I have thought about over the years in a most complete way.

    • Jonathan Pageau on June 3, 2016 at 11:41 pm

      Thank you Kate. As you say, it is often tricky to pull together such vast questions into a concise form and I have also been thinking about this for a long time, so your comment definitely hit home.

Our Sponsors