Saint and Sinner: The Legacies of Two Byzantine Empresses

Empress Theodora
Empress Irene

The legacies that shape the memory of notable historical figures are passed down through oral and written tradition. Through time and with the storyteller’s bias, these stories and legacies change to create specific memories that stay with the figure and become a part of accepted history. The question becomes how accurate are the legacies and histories that are accepted as truth and how are these legacies formed? Examining the lives of two Byzantine empresses, Empress Irene and Empress Theodora, who played important roles in the return to icon veneration and the ending of iconoclasm, it is clear the stories surrounding historical figures are manipulated, ignored, or fabricated to create specific legacies. In this case, the legacies created around two close connected empresses simplified their lives to form the dichotomy of sinner and saint; the Corrupt Empress Irene and the Pious Saint Empress Theodora. 

Empress Irene was the wife of Emperor Leo IV, brought over from Athens to Constantinople in 768 after being selected by Emperor Constantine V to marry his son. Constantine V was a strong iconoclast and following a council in 754 CE, had all religious images in Constantinople removed and destroyed. It is believed that Irene was an iconophile before her marriage and her new father-in-law made her swear on the Holy Gospels that she would not bring icon veneration into the imperial palace. Nonetheless, she continued to worship icons and had eunuchs bring icons to her imperial bedchambers for her own personal veneration. When her husband found out, he turned against her. There are several accounts of Leo IV’s actions against Irene following his discovery of her iconophilia, the most widely accepted being that he refused to sleep with her ever again. Soon after the discovery of her iconophile loyalties, Leo died in 780 CE, leaving Irene to rule as regent to their nine year old son, Constantine VI. 

Following her husband’s death, Irene made no changes to church policy concerning iconoclasm until she visited the ill patriarch, Paul. During their meeting, the patriarch admitted that while he had once supported the iconoclastic policies, he regretted the support. He encouraged Irene to call an ecumenical council to address the policies surrounding icon veneration. Following his death in 784 CE, she appointed a new patriarch, Tarasios, who supported icon veneration and the two called a church council in 786 CE. This first council resulted in large riots and threats of murder by the military of Constantinople, who were still strong supporters of iconoclasm. The council was cancelled and Irene disbanded the professional military who opposed her iconophile beliefs. The second council was called in Nicaea a year later, bringing together the five heads of the pentarchy (Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Rome, and Constantinople). This council, the Seventh Ecumenical Council, reunited the eastern church with the church in Rome, reinstated icon veneration, and proclaimed Irene and her son as the New Helena and Constantine. After iconoclasm was reversed, large numbers of iconophiles who had been banished from the city flooded back into Constantinople and pledged their eternal gratitude to the empress who had allowed them to return to their city. Irene provided the reinstated iconophile community with an imperial stipend and artists and monks quickly began creating copies of older icons to recreate what had been destroyed and create a new style of icons coming out of the decades of iconoclasm. She continued to rule as empress until 802, following the death of her son, Constantine VI, in 797. Her influence and role in bringing the veneration of icons back to Constantinople is remembered to this day, but her life was shrouded by the deaths of her husband and son, unclear discussions of her intentions surrounding the reinstatement of icons, and the memory of her as a power-hungry empress. 

Menologion of Basil 024.jpg
Image of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, from the Menologion of Basil II, 11th Century

Irene’s family line continued on even after the death of her son and it was Irene’s granddaughter, Euphrosyne, who brings the story along to the next important empress to reverse iconoclasm, once and for all, but this empress is remembered very differently from her predecessor. Empress Theodora was the wife of Emperor Theophilos, a strong iconoclast who reaffirmed iconoclasm under the Definition of Orthodoxy of 815. Euphrosyne, the step-mother to Theophilos, organized a bride-show to select a bride for the then seventeen year old emperor. Theodora, fifteen years old, was selected from the show and the two were married on June 5th, 830 in the Hagia Sophia. She bore seven children to Theophilos, five daughters and two sons, the youngest of which, Michael III, would go on to become emperor. Theodora was an iconophile and she and her mother-in-law, Euphrosyne, who had retired and become a nun, taught her children to venerate icons in the privacy of her bedchamber. Her husband died in 842, causing Michael III to become emperor. Michael was only two years old at the time, leaving Theodora as regent. 

Unlike Irene, Theodora did not wait to change church policy concerning iconoclasm and called a council fourteen months after the death of her husband. The council reinstated the veneration of icons and all iconoclast clergy were removed. She instituted the new patriarch, Methodius, and removed the iconoclast patriarch, John. She also received strong military support due to a change in beliefs amongst military men concerning icons. Many military men took up an iconoclastic position due to the belief that iconoclasm was a triumph over Islam. Just prior to Theodora’s change in policy, the military had lost a horrible battle to Muslim invaders and many viewed the loss as God punishing them for not venerating icons. This idea that God would punish those who did not venerate icons was popularized by Theodora, who reportedly had a dream in which she witnessed the punishment of iconoclasts. This plays an important role in a number of stories surrounding Theodora, which depict the conversion or forgiveness of her husband, Theophilos, in order to save his soul. 

“Triumph of Orthodoxy ” over Iconoclasm by Saint Empress Theodora and her son, Michael III, 14th-15th Century. (Theodora and Michael pictured in top left)

Following the reinstatement of icon veneration, Theodora hosted a large imperial banquet and an evening vigil at Blachernae, the imperial residence. The clergy were greeted by the empress and her court holding icons, candles and crosses. The following week, a large liturgy was held on the first Sunday of Lent, which is still strongly associated with Theodora in the Orthodox tradition to this day. Theodora made a symbolic change to the imperial court following her reinstatement of icons. Along with her son, Michael III, they had the remains of Constantine V dug up from the Mausoleum of Justinian, burned and had the ashes scattered so that there would no longer be a site associated with his burial. It is possible that during this symbolic change, the body of Irene, along with many other iconophiles, was moved to the imperial tomb as a symbolic action of promoting iconophilia in the court as well. Years after her death, Theodora was canonized by the Orthodox church for her actions to end iconoclasm and reinstate icon veneration permanently. She is still celebrated on the first Sunday of Lent in conjunction with the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy and her saint feast day on February 11th. 

The biographies of these two empresses share many similarities and only a few decades separate their reigns, but their legacies describe them as opposites of one another. How did Empress Irene become remembered as a corrupt and power-hungry empress and yet, Empress Theodora, who looked to her for guidance decades later, is canonized as a saint? There are several key stories attributed to these two empresses that begin to shape the legacy that surrounds them. Whether the events of these stories are accurate is unimportant because they capture the social feelings towards these two empresses and are stories that have passed on until today to form a stark contrast between the two female rulers. 

The legacy of Empress Irene is filled with stories of corruption, deceit and murder and is built heavily upon the written history of Theophanes the Confessor, a Byzantine monk and chronicler whose Chronicle records Byzantine history from 284-813. Theophanes had a very negative verdict of Irene as a ruler and these sentiments are echoed in later tellings of her life. The first of these stories surrounds her relationship with her husband and his subsequent death. It is believed that Irene was an iconophile upon her marriage to Leo IV and that her husband, following in the strong iconoclast beliefs of his father, did not. This conflict between them is discussed on several occasions, including his proclamation that he would never sleep with her again. The conflict in their arranged marriage leads a narrative to develop around the cause of her husband’s death. It is known that Leo IV died from a fever, but a rumor began to circulate that he died from a fever contracted from a jewelled crown from the Great Church. Some contribute this rumor to Irene, believing she circulated it to defame her husband’s memory, while others go as far to proclaim Irene guilty of her husband’s death, believing that she turned her back on him and allowed him to die from an infection from the crown because of he turned his back on her. It is a large leap to take to accuse Irene of the murder of her husband, but an examination of the death of her son reveals that Irene may have been more than capable of murder. Theophanes recounts the events of the young emperor Constantine VI’s death in 797 and the accusatory finger points directly to Irene. In October 796, Irene and her son received news that Constantine’s new wife, Theodote had given birth to a son. The birth of a grandson and heir to the throne put Irene one step further from the imperial throne and while her son was away, she began a plot against him. She gathered supporters and planned his arrest and blinding. The act of blinding was used against political enemies and preventing the victim from assuming the throne. Constantine used this tactic against his own uncle, Nikephoros, when he attempted to take the imperial throne out from under the young emperor in 792. On August 15th, 797, Irene’s supporters blinded Constantine “in a cruel and grievous manner with a view to making him die at the behest of his mother and her advisors.” This account makes it very clear that Irene was responsible for these events, she was aware of the decision to blind her son and appears to have made the order herself. Most believe that Constantine died from this blinding, but there is no definitive record of such.

Solidus of Emperor Constantine VI and Empress Irene, 787-797 AD.

The events of her son’s death cements her as a corrupted empress in the social memory of her and from there, the evidence would only work to support that legacy. Theophanes comments throughout his chronicle of her life on her ambition for power as the key quality by which she is remembered. This ambition was supported by the coins she created before and after the death of her son that showcases her break from the customary role of regent from the very beginning. When first named regent to her son in 780, the coins created featured a portrait of herself and her son on the front with commemorative portraits of Leo III, Constantine V and Leo IV on the reverse in usual fashion. Close examination of her portrait shows her break from tradition and supports the legacies and claims that she took more power than she should have been allotted. She holds the orb, not her son, and she is referred to as Constantine’s co-ruler while relegating Constantine’s name to the back of the coin.

 Solidus of Empress Irene, 797-802 AD

The gold coins created following Constantine’s death featured her portrait on both sides to emphasize that she was the sole ruler. This was unheard of in imperial coins and supports the idea that Irene was power hungry. On the coins, she is dressed in robes embroidered like the dress of the emperors, holding the cruciform sceptre and orb. But why was Irene so ambitious for power? Why are her actions against iconoclasm severely overshadowed by her ambition? Before her marriage, it is believed that Irene was an orphan or that at least her father was dead so her marriage to Leo IV provided her a stable life. When her husband died, her position was once again unstable. Irene knew that her position at the imperial court was uncertain and her ambition may have come from a place of survival. Theophanes describes Irene as easily deceived and manipulated (because she was a woman). There are skeptics who believe that Irene’s iconophile upbringing may not have been true at all, as there is no clear evidence that suggests that she was and considering the period, it is likely she may have been raised an iconoclast. Some scholars argue that it was only after she met with the ill patriarch Paul, who influenced her and asked for her to call a council to reinstate icon veneration, did she actually become an iconophile. It was clear to Irene during her time as regent that iconoclasm was dividing the church and had forced many people into exile. Scholars believe that Irene saw that the reversal of iconoclasm would reunite opposing factions, strengthen her standing with the church, gather support from exiled iconophiles and would be a strong political move to promote her power. Her motivations are unclear, but her reign saw the Seventh Council of Nicaea, which reversed iconoclasm and changed church policy. At the time of her policy changes, the church was strongly iconoclastic. She must have strongly believed in what she was doing to take on such strong opposition. She provided imperial stipends to support the growth of icon production. She commissioned the construction of churches and monasteries around the empire. She set an example that empresses who followed her would emulate. Theodore the Studite, who praised Irene on many occasions throughout her reign, went so far as to argue that she should be canonized as a saint of the Eastern Orthodox church. Her legacy is clearly complicated and scholars recount the life of Irene very differently based on the sources they draw from. Later iconophile sources emphasize Irene’s pious icon veneration during her early marriage and depict her as a saintly woman as a way of besmirching the name of Constantine V, overlooking her later reign and role in the death of her son. She is a female figure who was vital to this pivotal period in Christian and Byzantine history and her complicated life and reign are recounted with hundreds of years of interpretation and bias, creating the legacy of the corrupt empress. She has become the Sinner who is often put in contrast to the other central female figure, the Saint Empress Theodora. 

Empress Theodora is remembered as the saint who saved icons from iconoclasm, her memory is filled with piety and devotion. She is also the better remembered iconophile empress because of her piety, discussed as the defender of icons and memorialized within every narrative of iconoclasm, while Irene is not despite being the example from which Theodora based her actions. How accurate is that portrayal? Was that memory created to reinforce her role as a saint in the Orthodox church? One of the most important stories surrounding Theodora is the conversion or forgiveness of her husband, Theophilos. During her reign, Theodora believed that iconoclasts would be condemned because of their rejection of icons. One of the stories goes that during the first week of Lent in 843, Theodora had a horrible vision of her dead husband, naked and being dragged off to torture. She followed and upon reaching the Chalke Gate, the ceremonial entrance to the Great Palace of Constantinople and an important location in the history of iconophilia, she saw a man sitting in a throne before the icon of Christ that was placed above the gate. She fell to her knees and the man proclaimed that her husband was forgiven for his iconoclasm because of her tears and faith. Another version of the story is recorded in the Life and Encomium of the Blessed and Holy Empress Theodora, which is still read aloud on the celebration of her saint day. It recounts that the emperor converted to icon veneration prior to his death. The story described that the emperor fell ill and while his wife, Theodora lamented at his side, she fell asleep and saw the Virgin Mary with Christ Child surrounded by angels. The angels began to violently beat Theophilos because of his iconoclasm, causing the emperor to thrash and cry out all through the night. They beat him all night while Theodora desperately and tearfully pleaded with the Virgin Mary. At that moment, one of Theophilos’ servants put on an enkolpion, a necklace which bore the image of Christ. Theophilos saw the necklace and reached out for it, still crying out. As the emperor touched the icon around his servant’s neck and kissed it, his thrashing and pleas stopped and he fell silent and peaceful. He slept, thoroughly believing that it was good and spiritually beneficial to venerate icons, and a few days later, passed away, saved from condemnation. This event is recorded as one of Theodora’s miracles which lead to her being canonized as a saint, although she is typically understood as a political saint and was sainted without any miracles or prophecies attributed to her. It is because of her sainthood that her role as as an empress and political figure is often overlooked. She, much like her predecessor Irene, was knowledgeable about politics and knew how to work to get her demands accomplished. She understood she needed support to overturn iconoclasm once and for all, so she installed a new patriarch, Methodius, who would support her actions. She moved slowly in making changes in the church to insure she had support and to not upset any iconoclasts who may have tried to stop her. She was ambitious for power and wielded a lot of power as a regent to her young son. Theodora may have neglected the education of her young son, Michael III, so that she could wield more power over him, and left him under the guidance of his uncle, Bardas. She was not coy about the amount of power she had either and as regent, the progression of coins created during her regency showcase her power.

Solidus of Michael III with Theodora and Thecla. 842-867 AD.

On the coin issued after the death of her husband and when she became regent, she was depicted alone on the front of the coin, holding the sceptre and orb, much like her predecessor Irene did when she was empress. Her son, the two-year old Michael III, was depicted on the back in the location of secondary status alongside his older sister, Thekla. Theodora is placing herself in the most important location and relegated her son, the actual emperor, to the back. In another coin created during her reign, Theodora made sure that she would always be associated with ending iconoclasm. On the later coin, she is depicted alongside her son as an equal ruler with the front of the coin reserved for an image of Christ, possibly based off the icon of Christ from the Chalke Gate.

Theodora clearly looked to Irene as an example for her regency and her iconophile beliefs. She elevated Irene by moving her body to the imperial tombs and learned to cultivated her iconophile practices with the help of Irene’s granddaughter, Euphrosyne. In the case of iconoclasm, the drastic difference between Irene and Theodora is that Theodora’s reversal of iconoclasm was permanent. It is easy to contribute a whole deed to the person who finished it without providing credit to those who came before, and for this reason, Irene’s role in the reversal of iconoclasm is glossed over in favor of highlighting her contributions to the death of her son. Theodora’s legacy as the pious empress was developed as a way to promote her sainthood and because of her sanctity, the details of her political career and ambition to succeed is easily overlooked in favor of continuing the narrative of Saint Theodora. The legacy of Irene may have been twisted to discredit her contributions to ending the Iconoclast period as a way of elevating Theodora to insure that it was Theodora’s memory that would be forever connected with the discussion of iconophile empresses.

Legacies are inherently complicated and as more time is put between the life of the figure and the current age, the more bias and manipulation can happen. The lives of Empress Irene and Theodora are more than just their reputations as the Sinner and the Saint, they are complex and both empresses carry qualities of both. The two empresses reversed iconoclasm, they reigned as regents and empresses, and they were complex historical figures whose legacies do not do them justice. Their legacies were shaped by those who told their story and the lives of Empress Irene and Empress Theodora were simplified and shaped to create the dichotomy of the Saint and the Sinner. 

-Claire Sandberg


Further Reading:

Besançon, Alain. The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. 

Garland, Lynda. Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium, AD 527-1204, Routledge, 2011. 

Herrin, Judith. Women in Purple: Rulers of Medieval Byzantium. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001. 

Herrin, J. “The Imperial Feminine In Byzantium.” Past & Present 169, no. 1 (2000): 3-35. 

Talbot, Alice-Mary, ed. Byzantine Defenders of Images: Eight Saints’ Lives in English Translation. Dumbarton Oaks, 2006. 

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