***This weekend i decided to feature some bios on women saints of the Church.***
Between approximately the years 726 and 843, the Byzantine world was rocked by the controversy of iconoclasm. Pious Orthodox believers argued over whether venerating icons was an allowable Christian practice or whether it amounted to idolatry. A series of Byzantine emperors came down in support of iconoclasm or the “breaking of images.”
Countless icons were destroyed during this period and many iconodules, or “lovers of icons,” becamemartyrs and confessors. Their position is captured by Saint John of Damascus, one of the great apologists for icons: “In former times God, who is without form or body, could never be depicted. But now when God is seen in the flesh conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter; I worship the creator of matter who became matter for my sake . . .” (Saint John of Damscus, On the Divine Images). Among the many who suffered during the iconoclastic period were pious laywomen and nuns. Two of the most well-known of these saints were Theodosia of Constantinople and Anthousa of Mantineon. One became a martyr and the other a confessor for their heroic defense of icons.
Saint Theodosia was a nun who became one of the first martyrs of the iconoclast period. She was placed in a convent at the age of seven, sometime in the early eighth century. Saint Theodosia came from a wealthy family and eventually received a generous inheritance. She used a portion of the money to commission elaborate icons of Christ, the Theotokos, and Saint Anastasia. In 726, the emperor Leo III ordered that the famous and beloved icon of Christ which hung over the palace’s main gate be destroyed. A huge crowd of local people gathered to defend the icon and among them was a group of “pious women” which included the nun Theodosia. The Synaxarion of Constantinople, a collection of saints’ lives written in the tenth century, describes how an imperial guardsman climbed a ladder to reach the icon of Christ in order to destroy it. Saint Theodosia and the other women grasped and pulled down the ladder on which the soldier was standing. Many of the women involved were taken away and decapitated but Theodosia, as the perceived “ringleader,” was brutally stabbed in the throat with a ram’s horn. After the veneration of icons was restored some eighty years after her martyrdom, Saint Theodosia’s relics were placed in a Constantinople convent. The remains were carried in church processions several times a year and hundreds of years after her death, there are records of miraculous cures effected by Saint Theodosia’s relics.
Saint Anthousa of Mantineon, like Saint Theodosia, was a nun. She was born in the early eighth century and around 740 founded a small monastic community near Mantineon. The community eventually grew into a huge double monastery that housed about 900 monks and nuns, according to one contemporary source. (Double monasteries were adjacent communities of monks and nuns.)
At Mantineon, the men’s monastery was located on the shores of a lake while the convent was situated on an island. The monks and nuns had a mutually helpful relationship in which the nuns wove cloth and sewed for the monks while the male monastics brought food to the convent so that the nuns would not have to leave their island home to get provisions. Interestingly, Saint Anthousa apparently served as superior for both the monastery and the convent although her nephew, who was also her assistant, was primarily responsible for the monks.
Constantine V (741–775) was among the most fanatically iconoclastic emperors of the period and he took a strong dislike to Abbess Anthousa and her thriving monastic community. Monks and nuns were in general strong supporters of icons. Constantine V decided to make an example of Anthousa and her nephew. The emperor made a public visit to Mantineon and ordered the nephew publically whipped. Leaving the monk barely alive, Constantine V next ordered Saint Anthousa to be whipped. After this torture, burning icons were placed on her head. Hot embers from the icons fell all over her body. Miraculously, Saint Anthousa survived her ordeal and was even able to soften Constantine’s hatred of icons by prophesying that his wife, who was then in the midst of a difficu
lt pregnancy, would give birth to healthy twins. The prophesy proved true and the empress was so grateful to the abbess that she placed the monastery at Mantineon under her personal protection. Saint Anthousa continued to serve as abbess of her community until her death.
Talbot, Alice-Mary, ed. Byzantine Defenders of Images: Eight Saints’ Lives in English
Translation. Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks
Saint Theodosia and Saint Anthousa:Defenders of Icons was originally published in the “Heroines of the Faith” column in the volume 7 number 4 issue of The Handmaiden.