Imperial Saint: The Cult of St. Catherine and the Dawn of Female Rule in Russia.
Imperial Saint: The Cult of St. Catherine and the Dawn of Female Rule in Russia. By Gary Marker. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2007. xviii + 310 pp. $42.00 cloth.
In three quarters of the eighteenth century, five women ruled Russia. The challenge to historians is to explain this short-term acceptance of feminine supremacy. Gary Marker has risen to this task with a masterly account of the creation and use of the public cult of St. Catherine of Alexandria for political purposes.
In particular, the prominent image of St. Catherine as a martyr from the worst years of Roman persecution of Christianity facilitated the ascent of Peter I's widow, Catherine, to the throne in 1725. Her success smoothed the way for the other four women (Anna Ivanovna, Anna Leopoldovna, Elizabeth, and Catherine II) to rule without much objection premised on gender considerations.
St. Catherine of Alexandria long enjoyed honor in both late medieval and renaissance Catholic Europe and, somewhat later, in the Russian East. Her hagiography reported that she spurned the advances of Maxentius, Constantine's fourth-century competitor as Roman emperor, so he had her beheaded. Her martyr's death ended a life that began as a child of royal blood whose extraordinary intellect mastered the wisdom of all great Hellenic and Roman philosophers. She rejected pagan fantasies when the heavenly Christ married her. Because she was Christ's bride, she could not accept the emperor as a terrestrial husband. For that she came to a torturous end that gave rise to the image of the "Catherine wheel" in accounts of grotesque outcomes.
Catherine's cult became very popular in western Europe after the tenth century. In Russia, little attention was paid to Catherine until she attracted the interest of the family of Tsar Alexis Mikhailovich, to whom she appeared in a vision in 1658 to announce that his wife had given birth to a daughter. The tsar named the baby after the saint, and the name Catherine (Ekaterina) began to be used regularly in the families of the tsars and nobles close to them. Catherine became a patroness saint of Romanov women, who regularly prayed in chapels consecrated in her name.
What began as a relatively private cult became public during the reign of Alexis's son Peter the Great, largely as the result of the hagiographic work of Archbishop Dmitrii of Rostov and subsequent preaching by Archbishop Feofan Prokopovich. Feofan manipulated the image of St. Catherine to legitimize Catherine I's coronation as Peter's empress and later as ruler in her own right.
Creating this monograph required exhaustive explication of several distinct themes, which Gary Marker performed admirably, digging into obscure sources in several languages and artistic traditions. The themes included biographical data regarding Catherine of Alexandria, who probably never existed; the emergence of her cult in Latin hagiography; the faintness of her presence in medieval Russian Christianity; the creation of the non-public cult within Romanov family precincts; and the ultimate formal manufacturing of Catherine as legitimizer of female rule.
The study demonstrates clearly how mistaken, indeed, how doomed to failure, is any attempt to make a historical interpretation of the early decades of the Russian empire that fails to attend to ecclesiastical language, traditions, practices, and influences. Such an attempt flows naturally from writing history in a post-enlightenment, secularist frame of mind. But the story Marker narrates deals with the time when European enlightenment was barely impinging on Russia. Marker's achievement illustrates the enrichment of understanding of any society's development that can be facilitated by postmodernism's debunking of secularism. Marker shows how to understand people and events on their own terms, instead of imposing alien categories on them.
In light of Marker's impressive mastery of voluminous source material and published scholarship, one is amused to find what appear to be puzzling factual mistakes. On page 169 he says that Peter's first wife, Evdokia, was made a nun in Novodevich'ii monastery but was imprisoned in Schlusselberg fortress until 1727. This does not convey a picture of what really happened: Peter sent her in 1698 to a convent in Suzdal and later Ladoga, and she was imprisoned only after Peter died in 1725. On page 200 Marker says that the Gospel of Luke reports that Anna the Prophet raised from childhood the girl who was to become the Virgin Mary; Luke does not say that. On page 219 Marker identifies the person who was to become Catherine II as "daughter-in-law" of Empress Elizabeth; she was the wife of Elizabeth's nephew and daughter-in-law of Elizabeth's sister. But these curious flaws detract nothing from the essence of this excellent monograph.
Paul D. Steeves
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|Author:||Steeves, Paul D.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2008|
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