Sunday, July 02, 2006

St George was a Homosexual

The gendering of the major saints was complicated: most saints were male, but male sanctity, or rather saintly masculinity, was distinctly odd. Although Byzantine hagiographers repeatedly invoked the masculine heroes of the ancient world, we find among major male saints rather many beardless virgins and celibate ascetics. In one important respect, however, the middle Byzantine period saw the consolidation of a major new motif of saintly masculinity, that of the military saint. Let us begin with one of the beardless virgins who became a great warrior, St. George of Lydda.
George's cult is among the most prominent in surviving documents, in church dedications, and in iconography. Unlike the saints of the middle Byzantine period, with their usually modest dossiers of documents, there is a vast Greek literature on George that would require another dissertation to analyze. His Life was edited in the Metaphrastic corpus in what became the normative text, and he was one of the saints whose feast day was so major that most manuscripts of the SynaxCP list no other saints for the day. I use George as a paradigm case with which to explore the masculinity of the major saints because his cult was among the very largest, and yet overlaps in its main features with that of the other leading saints.
At first glance, it might appear that no saint was more masculine than George. His most renowned later images portray him as a military saint, usually in armor and sometimes on a horse. Although his most famous story, the killing of the dragon and aiding the princess, is a late addition, George was just as heroic in his other stories. Oddly, for one of the most popular of all saints, nothing whatsoever can be established about him as a historical figure. Among the earliest references to his cult in the West are papal condemnations by Pope Gelasius I of the myths surrounding him. George's masculinity derives then, not from any historical figure, but purely from the features of his cult; the texts, the expectations his clients held of him, and perhaps most importantly, the iconography.
As discussed at length below, elements of George's legend blur gender lines; he was feminized in relation to Christ, who kept George as "a pure virginal bridegroom for himself." In his activities within the world, however, from the earliest days George manifested several strands of masculinity: those of the classical hero, the Biblical prophet, and the philosophic sage. His legend focused on his multiple sufferings and death; in facing these George showed andreia, that is "courage" or more literally "manliness," a standard trope of classical masculinity. Part of the reason for George's suffering is that he was a foremost exponent of parrhesia. This "free speech" was the common attribute of saints that enabled them to speak the truth of the faith to the powerful. There are Biblical antecedents to this motif -- the prophets of the Jewish Bible spoke out against the sins of Israel. Greek Christian sources, however, also based parrhesia on the saint's apatheia, a passionless attitude towards the things of this world, and an ideal that recalls the Cynic and Stoic ideals of the sage. In addition to his passion legends, George was a saint honored in many miracle collections. These celebrated above all the power of the saint to intercede with God and produce results in this world. In one much-discussed story, a Muslim soldier throws an object at a mosaic of George. George showed his power and ability to act by turning the missile around and striking the attacker in the heart.
The masculine themes of the texts echo in what we know of his clients' expectations. For most saints, it is difficult to know exactly what part they played in their clients' lives. With George, we have some possibility of understanding his appeal, since the seventh-century Life of Theodore of Sykeon presents Theodore as a devotee of George. George is Theodore's guide and defender. When Theodore is ill-treated,
God's holy martyr, George, appeared to Theodore's mother and the other women, girt with a sword, which he drew as he came towards them saying threateningly, 'Now I shall cut off your heads because you ill­treat and punish the boy and prevent his coming to me.' On their swearing solemnly that they would never do it again, he took back his threat and disappeared.

Repeatedly the Life of Theodore raises the theme of George as both strong defender and counselor. When Theodore gives advice to another, the role he ascribes to George is clear, "The Lord Jesus Christ, Who knoweth secrets, will give effect to the mediation of the holy martyr George according to your faith and He will fulfil your request." George always presents himself to Theodore as a young man, but he is a young man who is powerful to act as defender and intercessor in this world because of his relationship to God. Theodore was not alone in putting his trust in George, whose appeal grew throughout the span of Byzantine culture. The strength of George's cult must have derived from what he offered his clients -- the protection of a powerful intercessor in heaven and the world.
George's reputation as an efficacious saint received a powerful boost when his iconographic type stabilized as that of a young warrior. The image of the mounted soldier symbolizes one of the most powerful marks of masculine physical power, yet it was not one of George's earliest characteristics. Indeed, the motif of the military saint seems only to have crystallized in Constantinople during the tenth century when a list of "soldier saints," to support the imperial armies, formalized the older metaphor of a "soldier of Christ." Some early martyrs, including George, were soldiers in their Lives. The creation of the military saint category, however, led to the rewriting of other saints' Lives to remake them as soldiers when they were alive. Demetrios, for example, a deacon in ninth-century texts, became a military officer by the time of his tenth-century Metaphrastic Life. George's miracula began to present him as a mounted knight, and by the eleventh-century as dragon-killer. George was among the most common subjects of religious art, and the militarization of his iconography occurred during the same period. In the twelfth century, John II Komnenos made sure everyone knew George as a soldier when he placed an image of the saint in military garb on coins.
The promotion of the military saints may have been an imperial project, but their reception and popularity among the faithful went far beyond the military. Christopher Walter comments that, "Without acquiring a monopoly of functions, the military saints exercised them with an efficacy which encouraged their invocation." Henry Maguire also notes that, "in order to encourage confidence in the beholder," Byzantine artists represented the military saints as "strong, solid and physically active." Scholars have not previously noted that the creation and success of the cult of military saints represented a significant intensification in the cultural representation of saintly masculinity.
While icons depict most male saints with beards, a clear indicator of masculinity, a puzzling aspect of the cult of military saints is that beardless young men are disproportionately prominent. Some commentators suggest that the image of George as a young beardless man appealed because of a certain androgyny. If androgyny was present, it was not unique to George. Other military saints also appeared as beardless youths. Their beardless state, however, was not a reflection of their age; according to their passio, the beardless Sergios and Bacchos were both officers of some rank. The depiction of warrior saints without beards may have been an effort at historical accuracy by iconographers, but if so, they were not consistent. The crux here is that the very saints whose power to act in the world was guaranteed by the unmistakable masculine image of knighthood, jettisoned or reversed other marks of male social power such as beards and family attachment. We see a similar pattern in the cult of the archangels. Angels were sexless by definition, and were beardless in art, but they still manifested masculinity. The Archangel Michael for instance typically appeared as a warrior and general of the armies of heaven. Christine Havice proposed that "the choice to emphasize George's or Demetrios' youth, beyond corresponding to textual details, underlines innocence, perhaps even sexual immaturity, perhaps an analogue to the virginity topos for so many female saints." There may be something to this, since women were the other major category of saints who were usually shown young. But before trying to resolve this ambiguity in saintly masculinity, it may help to consider the cult of a very different saint.
Nicholas of Myra was the only major saint whose cult in the Byzantine era grew as greatly as George's. He competes with George also in the number of surviving images. Like George, Nicholas was attractive to clients because of his power to do miracles. Unlike George and the other military saints, Nicholas was not a martyr. His icons show him as a bishop, and conventionally masculine in dress, beard, and baldness. His dossier was not composed of exciting accounts of tortures, but almost entirely of accounts of his miracles. As Henry Maguire notes, iconography reflects this difference; George's sufferings are depicted in imitation of the sufferings of Christ, while Nicholas' images usually concern more mundane miracles. There is an interesting consequence: whereas George's power derives from his relationship with Christ, as Christ's victor, and as Christ's beloved, Nicholas stands as a much more autonomous worker of wonders. One consequence, perhaps, is that there is never any impetus to compromise Nicholas' masculinity, since his cult treats him more as a substitute divinity to deal with the everyday problems of life than as a mediator with Christ.
Here then may be a clue to the iconography of many military saints. Their military status and the exploits they undertook secured their masculinity, and the power it gave them to intervene for their clients. Their youth, beardlessness, and innocence, however, separated them from the worldly cares of adult males, and put them in a more intimate relationship with Christ. Icons portrayed bishops and monks, by contrast, as adult men, with their separation from the world witnessed by their ascetic appearance.
Henry Maguire notes that Byzantine artists adopted schematic registers of corporeality for different types of saints: they stressed the immateriality of ascetics and bishops, while allowing Biblical figures and the military saints to exist in a more fully articulated space. In this context, we may note that Nicholas, although a bishop, was represented as active and moving in space. While both incorporeality and youthful innocence were iconographic modes that separated the saint from secular society, the saints with a relatively more dynamic representation were the ones with the largest cults. In effect, the Byzantine cult of saints evolved a model of saintly masculinity connected to the themes of secular masculinity, but distinct in that it found a variety of ways to desexualize the bodies of the saints.

No comments: