Kassia (c. 800/810–before 867)

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Kassia (c. 800/810–before 867)

Byzantine author of liturgical hymns. Name variations: Kasia; Kasiane; Elkasia. Born (probably in Constantinople) between 800 and 810 ce; died before 867 ce, perhaps much before.

Kassia was famous throughout the Byzantine Empire as the author of liturgical hymns, dedicated to the ethical and moral strengths and weaknesses of women. Not above addressing issues of the flesh, Kassia wrote verse about lust and physical vanity, and about the need for atonement after women had fallen prey to physical weaknesses. Kassia is reported to have participated in the "Bride Show" of Theophilus, which she, however, lost to a rival named Theodora the Blessed . This Byzantine institution saw a commission crisscross the empire in search of feminine "talent" which thereafter would be brought to the imperial court where those selected by the commission would compete in a kind of beauty pageant. The winner would then become the wife and queen of the reigning emperor or his heir. If the tradition that Kassia participated in such a competition is true, she almost certainly knew at firsthand the temptations associated with beauty.

Whether physically attractive or not, Kassia became a nun in a convent in Constantinople at a time when a religious controversy split Byzantium in two. The issue which proved to be so divisive involved the use of icons in a religious context: many thought that artistic portrayals of religious subjects were justified to bring the word of God to the illiterate, while others thought all such artistic portrayals should be destroyed, for they encouraged the ignorant to worship—not the ideal behind the depiction—but rather, the physical object itself. Hence, the iconoclasts (those who would destroy all icons) believed that religious art encouraged a kind of heathenism. In this controversy, Kassia appears to have sided with those who thought icons not only acceptable, but beneficial.

William Greenwalt , Associate Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California

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