Posted by Markovic Plestovic Anna on March 6, 2014 at 2:05 PM


A simple, ancient, but nonetheless effective spatial strategy: placing high implies appreciation, placing low implies depreciation. Buildings situated high above our heads, on top of the hills or on high rocks we usually perceive as places of high importance, places of power. Heaven is the place of ultimate power (God, or Gods) in many cultures, and closeness to it, whether in terms of value or terms of spatiality, bestows the one close to it with authority and divine power of control over all those placed lower in both societal and spatial terms.

This concept is quite widely known and applied, sometimes intentionally, sometimes unconsciously, in both cases leading to similar effects. But it was only recently that I understood how this concept that was applied to the feminine principle some two thousand years ago, still deeply influences our culture and our individual lives today. Still, I did not realize how deep and compelling this influence was, until I had the chance to stand on two holy places from different times and feeling the different energies despite the quite similar spatial setting. In Meteora monasteries the energies made me feel like unwanted as a women, as a person, like I have to cover up, to show as little of myself as possible. Like this:

After going up the Propylaea to the Acropolis (of Athens, naturallly), I felt entitled (as a woman again) to exist, to live and move, to straighten up, to lift my head and my eyes, showing myself. Like this:

Some say there is a war on women going on these days. The most recent Study on violence against women in Europe conducted by The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA)  has found that one in three women in Europe is a victim of violence, be the violence physical or psychological. What I understood standing on the Acropolis was that this war is not new, and it is not aimed exclusively against women. It is the war against the feminine principle, against Eros, against matter and nature, waged by the masculine principle, the immaterial idea and time, Logos, or Thanatos. It is the very root of our culture.

The war started two millennia ago when Christianity in one bold move demoted the feminine principle from heaven to earth. The masculine principle was driven even higher in closeness to heaven, assigning the power of giving and sustaining life to a vague – but essentially masculine – concept of the Holy Spirit, while the feminine principle was placed low, bound to earth and matter, deprived of any claim for celestial existence by her own right. This move permeates the very roots of our realities through imagery, social structures, languages, symbolic values, and is, of course, expressed also spatially.

“The soul never thinks without a picture” says Aristotle, so let me share my path of discovery starting with images through which our souls are conditioned to think during these millennia.



Born and raised a Catholic, imbued by the representations of humble and modest female saints their eyes cast down or gazing upwards with veils over their hair and most of their bodies hidden beneath the rich drapes of their clothing, I was not too happy to be born a girl.

It seemed quite witless and utterly boring to go through life wearing that meek face in a submissive posture, with hands frozen in eternal gestures of quitting, giving, renouncing myself. I wanted to be a boy. Slaying dragons, riding horses, leading a crusade, even teaching or writing seemed infinitely more interesting than the role that was obviously dedicated to me. Old Freud got me there – I envied the boys, albeit not for parts of their anatomy as Freud suggested, but for the advantages and liberties the society credited the boys based on that.

Later on, living in the region where Eastern and Western Christianity meets (often conflicts) I was bound to meet the characteristic images of the “other” faith, the Icons of Orthodox Christianity. Here I found female saints with empty gazes, swollen, tired eyes and emotionless faces, even more disguised and covered up then their Catholic counterparts. It seemed to me, that in Eastern Christianity girls should not exist at all. Then I have found out that, unlike other feminine saints, Virgin Mary is widely worshipped throughout the Orthodox churches, even in such exclusively male monastic communities where neither women, nor any female creature can set foot, like Mount Athos at Athos peninsula in Greece. (I wander how they keep female mosquitoes out of the place?) It seemed quite a weird thing to exclude anything female, while worshipping a women-saint. What about other women?

The dilemma was clarified when I found out that the Orthodox Church rarely mentions Mary by her name, and almost exclusively refers to her as Theotokos, the literal translation of which would be "God-bearer" or "Birth-Giver of God". She is also called Panagia, the "All-Holy," indicating her closeness to God in her obedience (according to OrthodoxWiki). Though she has many names and titles in Orthodox Christianity like Gregorousa (the Vigilant), Hypermachos Strategos (the Defending General) or Pantanassa (the Queen of All), mentions and representations of those roles are rarely, if ever, found.

While Catholic imagery relatively often represents Mary alone, without a child in her Regina Coeli (queen of Heaven) or Stella Maris (Star of the Sea) and similar capacities – though with meek face, dumb smile, self-renouncing gestures and everything – the Orthodox Mary is almost never without the child. Most popular and wide-spread representations are the Theotokos (God-bearer) and the Hodegetria (She who shows the Way).

What I saw in these Icons was that Theotokos is an emotionless woman with a big hole in the middle, practically a flesh-wrap for her baby-son, while Hodegetria is a dark cocoon-figure holding the Son in one of her arms, and pointing to her baby-son with other hand. Unlike other saints, represented with signs of their offices and their names, Virgin Mary has nothing but her son. Clearly, being a womb without a name, office or personality, and having a child (son, of course) that will justify his mothers existence by his success is the best a woman can and should aspire to.

Then, at some early stage of my education I have come upon images of ancient Greek gods and goddesses. Yes, goddesses. Women with dignified faces that stood upright, eyes that were not twisted up or down. I saw gorgeous women in postures indicating self-consciousness, competence, power, action.

They represented feminine role models immeasurably more to my liking then the meek and humble provincial Madonnas and the pale female saints of neobaroque churches of Catholic Mitteleurope, not to mention the cocoon-wombs of the Orthodoxia. The Ancient Greek goddesses were actively involved in every aspect of life at Olympus, had their opinions, aspirations, decisions, actions. They had their offices, carried all the responsibilities and exercised all the rights that go with it. Hera could punish the illegitimate son of her husband, making him go to a great length to appease her (Heracles – meaning Glory of Hera – and his 12 labors); Aphrodite`s beauty exposed her awkward jealous husband to ridicule; Demeter commanded such respect that even the supreme Zeus could not dictate her, but had to do her bidding and bring back her beloved daughter Persephone to convince Demeter to come back to Olympus and resume her office.

Naturally, the virgin goddess, Athena Pallas became my favorite at the time. She had it all: wisdom, courage, beauty, freedom, power, wits. She invented many things. She chose not to marry and not to have children, which did not decrease her worth at all. She was born out of her father’s head, fought just wars and outwitted anyone. Nothing about her was meek, subservient or self-renouncing. Seeing her, seeing how women are depicted as real, independent, active human beings of integrity, it seemed quite a good thing to be a girl.

What puzzled me, though, was that the ancient Greek goddesses and the cocoon-womb Theotokos came from the same place: from Greece, but from different times Then, standing at the Acropolis, I have seen what happened, and I have seen it with clarity through symbols of another culture, through the hexagrams of I Ching, the ancient Book of Changes coming from China. And that will be the topic of my next post. After that, I am going to show the spatial language that expresses these relations.


Categories: Dr Anna Markovic Plestovic