Issue 120, Fall 1991
In the turbulent career of the patriarch Photius
there can have been few days more glorious
than Saturday March 29th 867.
It was on this day that he delivered his seventeenth sermon.
On the Inauguration of the Image of the Virgin,
in the great church of the Holy Wisdom
in the presence of the emperors Michael III and Basil I.
It was Easter and the long night of iconoclasm—
the rule of those “shameful emperors now universally deplored”—
had ended. The patriarch indicated
a group of worshippers dressed all in white, men
who had recently abjured the execrable doctrines
of the Quartodecimans, according to whom Easter
should be celebrated on the fourteenth day of the lunar month,
whether or not it was a Sunday. As Photius
continued to speak with his customary eloquence and erudition
the devout gathering could see in the apse behind him
the new image of the enthroned Virgin and her Child,
seeming to float on a gold ground, and flanked by the archangels
Michael and Gabriel. To Photius it seemed
as if the Virgin were about to speak, to explain
to any sceptics her paradoxical status as virgin and mother,
for her lips seemed of real flesh, pressed together and still
as in the sacraments. Her gaze was compassionate
yet detached, directed toward a child and eternity;
her image was a silent script from which both the learned
and the ignorant could acquaint themselves with the truths
of Christian doctrine. But a man
of Photius’s intellectual refinement could not
countenance a merely didactic philosophy of art.