In preparing to participate in the services leading to Pascha, a memorable element of the Liturgy for many of the faithful is the Hymn of St. Kassia (ca.810-ca. 865 CE), “Lord, the Woman Fallen into Many Sins.” It is remembered as a heartwarming centerpiece of the Tuesday Evening service, and sung as the Doxostikon of the Aposticha, when the Wednesday “Bridegroom Matins,” is offered. The robust popularity of the “Kassiani,” as the hymn itself is often called, may stem from its appealing melody and the opportunity it provides for the chant to be elaborated on the tune with flourishes of extemporaneous melismatic ornaments which leave worshippers spellbound. Emotional urgency simmers through the story in light of the approaching Passion of Our Lord.
Because the text cries out from the inner landscape of the woman’s soul, there is a graceful fluid commingling in it of both the Gospel women who anoint Jesus at supper, the one in Luke read at the service (7:36-50) and the one in Matthew (26:6-13) as well; and, it is the same haunting amalgamation of women used by St. Romanos in his longer metrical homily, the kontakion, “On the Harlot.” So, this is a hymn rich with paradox and parallels, and a credit to the scriptural literacy of the Orthodox listener. Like Romanos, Kassia gives voice to the woman, here praising God for the majesty of Creation:
The Brothers Karamazov is unarguably one of the greatest pieces of prose fiction ever written. It is also a distinctly Orthodox novel, that is to say a novel infused with the theology, customs, and culture of the Orthodox Church. Much of the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky fits this bill. Of course, Dostoevsky is low-hanging fruit in this way, the Orthodox C.S. Lewis one might say. There will never be another Dostoevsky, clearly. But it does seem worth asking where his 21st-century descendants are, even if they do not quite meet the brilliance of their ancestor, because we have much to learn about the state of our Church, and its relationship with the faithful and to the world, by examining the secular art it is producing. This is true of music, painting, and literature, but I want to focus here on prose fiction, both novels and short stories. First, that is where my own training and expertise lie; I am in no way qualified, beyond the qualifications of an enthusiastic fan, to comment on the merits of symphonies or oil paintings. Also, and more importantly (because when did someone on the internet ever refrain from offering an opinion due to lack of expertise?), it is in prose fiction that modern Orthodox art found its best and fullest expression, from the great writers of the Russian Golden Age to those lesser known in the West, like the Greek writer Alexandros Papadiamantis and the Serbian Borisav Stanković. It was, in the novel and in short stories, from the 19th-century onward, that modern Orthodox culture found what the Catholic tradition had found in painting and the Protestant one in music: a complete and aesthetically beautiful secular artistic expression, an artistic expression that grappled with faith, the human, and the divine in a way deeply embedded within the tradition and capable of speaking as fully to those outside the tradition as within. And yet, in the past fifty years, it would seem, virtual crickets.
Like all Byzantine art historians, I am concerned about the conversion this year of Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Not being able to travel because of the pandemic, I only know about the current state of the building from images on the internet and from friends in Istanbul, especially David Hendrix, who has supplied the above image. The church’s great mosaics have been covered, so as not to offend Muslims at prayer times. Two are in the conch of the apse at the rear, the Theotokos was formerly seen in the center and a breath-taking beautiful angel at the right.
The great Byzantine floor of the nave has been covered with carpets, thus obscuring what the Greek sources call the “rivers,” the dark green marble bands that across the width of the nave. They once governed liturgical processions just as the chalk marks on the stage instruct the corps de ballet where to stand. Seeing those marble bands in the museum of Hagia Sophia, I imagined the grand processions of patriarch, bishops, priests, deacon, and choir members that once extended across the nave before all would exit to continue processing elsewhere in Constantinople. I have learned about the rivers and their use in the liturgy from scholars of architecture and liturgy. Others have done more to imagine the church during the Middle Ages. Here I want to cite the work of Bissera Pentcheva. With colleagues, she has scientifically reconstructed the space’s long reverberations. Using acoustic characteristics of the building that they discovered, the Cappella Romana has recorded chants the Feast of the Holy Cross, making it sound as if were there in Constantinople. As I type this, I am listening to that recording and am transported back to Constantinople.
The church of Hagia Sophia was the preeminent monument of Christian architecture and an active church for almost a millennium until the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, when the clergy and people were slaughtered as they celebrated their last Liturgy. Hagia Sophia was used as a mosque for Muslim prayers until 1934, when the new secular leadership of the Turkish state declared it a museum. Hagia Sophia was preserved as a tourist site, and no prayers of any kind were allowed. However, earlier this year, the Turkish government under the leadership of President Erdogan, restarted Muslim prayers. Hagia Sophia became a mosque again.
For the current president of Turkey and his supporters, the meaning of this event is clear: the ascendancy, supremacy, and inevitable victory of Islam. For Orthodox Christians—and for all Christians who are aware of it—the event is a source of anguish. These two meanings are clear and incompatible.