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"Women in purple: rulers of medieval Byzantium"

A review of Judith Herrin's new book

The aim of this book is very ambitious. The author sets out to document the period of Byzantine history from about 750 to the late 860s, the era of iconoclasm. This is no easy task and it is compounded by the fact that the survey takes the point of view of three women: the Empresses Irene (780-802), Euphrosyne (about 824-829) and Theodora (842-856). One of the remarkable achievements of this book, and there are many, is that it succeeds. The people, places and events are vividly brought to life, as the reader is expertly and entertainingly led through the many meandering political, theological and artistic controversies of the iconoclastic period. Dr Herrin brings to life what could easily have been a dry and confusing recitation of names, dates and events. At the same time, the reader is presented a penetrating analysis and thought provoking interpretations. For my money, the most tantalising section dealt with the relationship between icon veneration and sex, namely the way that icons were first restored by the Empress Irene and then again (and conclusively) by the Empress Theodora. Were women more attached to the veneration of icons than men? Did painted panels have greater significance for them than written texts? These and other questions Dr Herrin investigates and attempts to answer by bringing to bear a professional skill with a personal touch that had resonances for me, brought up as I was in the Orthodox faith by an illiterate grandmother. Her approach is all the more convincing for having this “holistic” approach and her idea—that the restoration of icons was due to a combination of the efforts of many silent, pious, ordinary women and an elite of powerful, vocal empresses—is entirely persuasive as a result. There are many expertly written and researched books on this period, but few that are as pleasant to read as this.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Judith Herrin, Women in purple: rulers of medieval Byzantium (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2001), 304 pp, 8 col. ills, £20 (hb) ISBN 0297643347'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 121 January 2002