“Manlier than Many Men”. Images of Female Sanctity in Simeon Polockij’s Court Sermons
Maria Grazia Bartolini
Sermons, which became a central part of Russian religious life only in the second half of the seventeenth-century, are an important, albeit relatively neglected, source for the study of early modern Muscovite culture and ideology. As official court preacher and poet, Simeon Polockij played a central role in the legitimation of secular authority and in the shaping of “the moral and social values of his readers” (Eleonskaja 1990: 106).
However, while Simeon’s poetic output has recently enjoyed a rediscovery, his prolific activity as a court preacher has still to be fully considered. This is certainly surprising if we consider that, whereas Simeon was happy to leave his poetry to the vagaries of manuscript transmission, he took great care in preparing his sermons for publication. A representative of the Ukrainian Baroque tradition at the Muscovite court, Simeon wrote two books of homilies, Obedduševnyj (‘Spiritual Lunch’, 1681), a collection of Sunday sermons based on the scripture lessons adopted by the Orthodox Church for each Sunday, and Večerjaduševnaja (‘Spiritual Supper’, 1683), which is based on texts for special feast-days.
A major distinction between this collection and earlier homiletic works published in Kiev by Lazar Baranovyč (Truby sloves propovednyx na naročityja dni prazdnikov, 1674) and Antonij Radyvylovs’kyj (Ohorodok Marii Bohorodicy, 1676) is that in the former homilies on women saints constitute a considerable portion of the total. Radyvylovskyj’s Ohorodokis notable in that it celebrates a single female saint, Barbara. In Baranovyč’s Tru by the only female saints are Barbara and Paraskeva-Pjatnica, two figures who enjoyed wide popularity in Orthodox Christianity, and Mary of Egypt, the name saint of Aleksej Mixailovič’s first wife, Marija Il’inična Miloslavskaja (See table i in the Appendix).
The Večerja, on the other hand, features an unusual balance, as it celebrates seventeen male saints and eleven women. These are Symeon Stylites the Younger; Sergius of Radonezh; John the Baptist; Andrew the Apostle; Gregory the Wonderworker; Nicholas the Wonderworker; Stephen the Protomartyr; Philipp Metropolitan of Moscow; Alexis Metropolitan of Moscow; Gregory of Nazianzus; John Chrysostom; Alexis man of God; Theodosius and Anthony of the Cave Monastery; Iona Metropolitan of Moscow; Theo-dore Stratelates; Peter and Paul; Vladimir the Baptizer of Rus.
The women saints in the collection are Martha, mother of Symeon Stylites the Younger; Theodora of Alexandria; Sophia and her three daughters Faith, Hope and Charity; Catherine of Alexandria; Tatiana of Rome; Mary, the wife of Saint Xenophon; Eudokia of Heliopolis; Irene of Macedonia; Theodosia of Tyre; Anna, Mary’s mother; Natalia, the wife of the martyr Adrian. The sheer numbers suggest that female saints may have served some political purpose. In fact, if we take a closer look at the women saints included in the collection, we see that they all celebrate the namesakes of Aleksej Mixailovič’s second wife (Natal’ja Kirillovna Narayškina), daughters (Evdokija, Marfa, Sof ’ja, Ekaterina, Marija, Feodosija, Natal’ja, Feodora) and sisters (Tat’jana, Irina, and Anna)5. These very correspondences are evoked in the epigrammatic cycle of poems Elenxos, which constituted the prologue to a lost collection of homilies on the tsar’s family’s name saints entitled Slovesa poxvalnaja(1675).
In Simeon’s intentions, the poems should serve as a mirror in which the members of the royal family would see the virtues of their name saints. It is plausible to assume that the homilies contained in the Slovesa poxvalnaja were included in the Večerja, which was completed a year later, in 1676, and which was conceived for a court audience.
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