Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy

Demonstrating for Orthodoxy

In 729 a nun in Constantinople named Theodosia defied the emperor's orders, protested and demonstrated for Orthodoxy. For her role in the demonstration she was put to death on May 29. Immediately her fame spread and a cult soon developed among the Orthodox of the empire. Theodosia's relics were miraculously discovered in 869 and the church recognized her as a saint and holy martyr of the faith. Translated from Greek into Slavonic, the story of her heroism made Theodosia the Constantinopolitissa popular also among the Russians.

The daughter of pious parents, Theodosia was born in Constantine's imperial city. When she was seven, her father died. Her mother then had the little girl tonsured a nun in a local convent. A few years later the mother died, leaving Theodosia an inheritance of some size.

The young nun took some of the money and ordered three icons to be made of gold and silver. The rest of her legacy Theodosia distributed among the poor. One of the icons was of Christ, another of the Theotokos and the third of St. Anastasia the Martyr. Devotion to the significance of holy icons finally cost Theodosia her life.

In 717 Leo III ascended the imperial throne of Byzantium. Nine years later he began a campaign to remove icons from Orthodox worship, to end the traditional veneration of holy images. At first the emperor tried persuasion, delivering speeches and sermons against icons. When Patriarch Germanos I refused to cooperate with Leo, he was removed and replaced by a more pliable prelate on the patriarchal throne. Having failed by persuasion to impose his religious policies. The emperor resorted to removing icons by force. It now became dangerous to oppose the emperor.

As a start, in 729 Leo sent an officer with soldiers to take down one of the most revered icons in Constantinople, the image of Christ in the Chalke Gate, the bronze ceremonial gate of the Great Palace. Having heard of the emperor's order a large crowd of nuns and monks, laymen and laywomen ran to the scene, determined to prevent the desecration. A ladder was in place. The imperial officer was on it to carry out the emperor's commands. Theodosia, Maria the Patrician and other "furious women" toppled the ladder causing the officer to fall to his death.

The leaders of this demonstration became the first martyrs in the long struggle to defend Orthodoxy against the "enemies of icons." Maria the Patrician and nine monks were arrested, jailed and tortured for months. On August 9 they were beheaded, thus "receiving the crowns of martyrs."

Nor did Theodosia escape. A "brutal and inhuman" soldier seized her. He dragged Theodosia to a place called Bous and there he stabbed her to death with the horn of a goat. In such a cruel way died this brave daughter of Constantinople and the Church in order to preserve the sacred traditions of Orthodoxy.

The high visibility of women and their activism in the bitter struggle against the "icon-breakers" is acknowledged by the Church which has enrolled them among the saints and granted them halos of immortality. Likewise, modern Byzantinists credit women with significantly contributing to the victory which came in 843. It is this triumph which we celebrate each year on the Sunday of Orthodoxy.

Editorial Note

Yet Orthodox women today are mostly invisible in many Orthodox churches on the Sunday of Orthodoxy. They remain silent participants at celebrations of the victory for which our foremothers, the many women who like Saints Theodosia the Constantinopolitissa and Maria the Patrician endured exile persecution torture and death.

All-male processions of icon-bearers in many parishes continue each year to mock the blood tribute and sacrifices of Orthodox women and also to deny our history.

St. Luke and the first Icon

St. Luke and the first Icon

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