Albert the Great vs. Theodora the Empress

Sure, Confusion Corner is a bit less confusing in the Saintly Sixteen, but it's no less compelling. Today Albert the Great, who defeated Leo the Great, faces Theodora the Empress, who took down Theodora of Alexandria. Who will be victorious, the Great one or the Empress? That's the question of the day.

Yesterday Arnulf of Metz kept the party going, as he bid farewell to Egeria 59% to 41% in what some prognosticators are calling a major upset.

If you missed this week's Monday Madness, be sure to catch it here. It's as thrilling as always. Now go vote!

Albert the Great
Albert the Great had a lot to say on a lot of subjects. Truth is, in all topics he knew what he was talking about.

Albert the Great was a 13th century highly educated scientist and a brilliant scholar who was also a German bishop and theologian. He was an expert in all the sciences from alchemy to zoology. A prolific writer, his wide-ranging books and treatises included a presentation of the works of Aristotle for the first time to a medieval European audience. In 1899, his assembled works filled 38 volumes.

He bridged the realms of science and faith. “We exist because God is good,” he stated, “and we are good insofar as we exist.”

His scientific explorations focused on understanding. "For it is [the task] of natural science not simply to accept what we are told but to inquire into the causes of natural things," he believed

On the topic of friendship, Albert aligned with Aristotle, believing friendship is a virtue with levels of goodness: the useful, the pleasurable, and the authentic or unqualified good.

Albert is associated with two great legends. The first tells that in 1223 or thereabouts, Albert was visited by the Virgin Mary, which prompted his path to joining the Dominican Order, leading to ordination as a priest and bishop, and a lifelong study of theology.

The other legend concerns his ownership of the Philosopher’s Stone (or, the Sorcerer’s Stone in the Harry Potter books). The Philosopher’s Stone reputedly changed metals into gold, a powerful piece to alchemists. In Albert’s story, he owned the Philosopher’s Stone and at his death, he gave it to his student and friend Thomas Aquinas. Nonetheless, there is no proof of the stone’s existence let alone his ownership of it.

His widespread impact is seen through the centuries, both positive and no-so complementary.

In the Divine Comedy of 1320, Dante names Albert along with Thomas Aquinas as lovers of wisdom (Spiriti Sapienti) in the Heaven of the Sun.

In her 1818 novel, Mary Shelley named Albert as one of the three major educational influencers on her main character, Dr. Victor Frankenstein, especially the part about owning the Philosopher’s Stone.

English philosopher, friar, and fellow alchemist Roger Bacon honored his contemporary Albert by calling him “the most noted of Christian scholars.”

Conversely, 19th century Danish theologian and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard said Albert "arrogantly boasted of his speculation before the deity and suddenly became stupid" in The Concept of Anxiety.

An expert in the sciences, a skillful writer, a leader in the church, a theologian of deep faith and thought, Albert is deserving of his title, The Great.

—Neva Rae Fox

Theodora the Empress

During Justinian I and Theodora’s reign, a rebellion rose up from the people. Rioters attacked everything around them. The mob burned down offices, public buildings, and Hagia Sophia. They started to destroy the palace. Their aim was clear: they wanted depose Justinian from his throne.

Meanwhile, Justinian gathered with his advisors, and as they looked at the crowd, they thought that running away would be the best solution.

Then Theodora counseled Justinian. She said that he should stand his ground. She argued that it would be better for him to die on his throne than to run. She reportedly stated this in different ways. She stood before his counsel and gave a speech:

I do not care whether or not it is proper for a woman to give brave counsel to frightened men; but in moments of extreme danger, conscience is the only guide. Every man who is born into the light of day must sooner or later die; and how can an Emperor ever allow himself to become a fugitive? If you, my Lord, wish to save your skin, you will have no difficulty in doing so. We are rich, there is the sea, there too are our ships. But consider first whether, when you reach safety, you will not regret that you did not choose death in preference. As for me, I stand by the ancient saying: royalty makes the best shroud.

In the same vein, Theodora said, “The Royal Purple is the Noblest Shroud.”

And, “For my own part, I adhere to the maxim of antiquity, that the throne is a glorious sepulchre.”

Even as the Empress, she never forgot her position as a woman. Yet, when the men around Justinian counseled them to flee, she could not help but balk against her expected role when she said, “I know it's the belief that women should never show daring in front of men. Never be bold when men hesitate. I know flight is not the answer; even to save our lives.”

After Theodora’s resolute words, Justinian remained on his throne. Then, Justinian’s generals gathered the rioters into the Hippodrome and slaughtered them.

Although the Empress is well-known for her stirring speech, she also had a great sense of humor, which came out in her observation: "I suddenly realized I was a writer of wide reputation and most of it bad."

--Carol Howard Merrit

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Albert: Painting by Joos (Justus) van Gent, Urbino, c. 1475


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111 comments on “Albert the Great vs. Theodora the Empress”

  1. Though Albertus was both sage and prophet,
    Very seldom did he made income off it.
    His inquisitive mind
    Did once arsenic find —
    From which Agatha Christie did profit.

  2. How odd ~ certainly one would argue from today's perspective that the throne is not a" glorious sepulchre" and that slaughtering protesters is far from admirable. Theodora may have been a strong woman but it's hard to think her strong counsel was just or righteous.

    1. Exactly! I fail to understand why she is included with the saints at all. Surely Christ would have been with the people, rather than attempting to cling to 'the purple' of royalty.

      1. Theodora supported and defended Christians. She didn't want the anti-Christian mob to be killed, just controlled. Mob violence is rarely if ever to be condoned.

    2. This discussion of Theodora is such a contrast to her description in round one -- her champion of Christians and women's rights . . . people are complicated, even saints!

      1. Theodora supported and defended Christians. She didn't want the anti-Christian mob to be killed, just controlled. Mob violence is rarely if ever to be condoned.

    3. In re-reading the blurb, I didn't see anything about Theodora encouraging the massacre of the protesters, just urging her husband to stand up for himself.

    4. This makes me think of the riot of January 6. Quite a different outcome. Theodora had more guts than the emperor and all his counsellors

    5. Not that I think protestors should be slaughtered. But after the rioting in our Capitol January 6, I have more sympathy for those who would stand up to a mob.

  3. Albertus is lesser known in the world, but more Christlike in spirit. Theodora showed great courage as a woman and an empress, the result of which was slaughter of her enemies. Albertus had enemies which he accepted, reasoned with where possible and when impossible, ignored, leaving to God to judge between them.

    1. I agree... I was wondering this year if Lent Madness had used up all the diverting and inspiring stories.

      1. Yes, thank you. Although it's quite possible, even likely, that she was comfortable with it, as it would be considered defending the kingdom from a violent coup.

      2. I have nominated a candidate, Dr. Wilfred Grenfell, whose life is full of diverting and inspiring stories, for several years in a row. This year I'm giving up. He is listed in the calendar of the Episcopal Church with a feast day in October. He gave his entire life and considerable energy in service to the poor and neglected people of Labrador and the northern peninsula of Newfoundland. He was a white male and a devout Christian in the muscular Victorian tradition of his time, which may render him unacceptable. Who knows. My other candidate, Fred Rogers, is supposedly unacceptable because he isn't on a calendar of saints. Presbyterians don't do that! But recently a council in the Pittsburgh area passed a resolution declaring that he was worthy of special remembrance on the date of his death. That's as close to canonization as a Presbyterian can get, and it is the way saints were selected in the early church, by grassroots enthusiasm.

        1. My understanding is that a candidate must have been deceased for 50 yrs before being considered. Yes to Grenfield and no to Mr Rogers based on dates since death. I agree though this year has had some questionable candidates.

          1. However, Oscar Romero, who died in 1980, has a feast day of March 24 in the Episcopal Church list of A Great Cloud of Witnesses. Would this mean he would not be eligible for Lent Madness? I think that the Catholic Church usually requires 50 years to have passed before canonization of anyone. They made an exception for Pope John Paul II, which in hindsight appears to be an error. Regarding being on a list of saintly people, the Salvation Army and the Quakers don't have such lists, and that hasn't kept them from having candidates in Lent Madness.

          2. In addition to what Elaine Chilcote wrote in reply about Oscar Romero, I would also point out that in The Book of Common Prayer 1979 on page 22 there is an entry in the Calendar section on the 4th of April for a certain previous Lent Madness contestant, "Martin Luther King, Jr., Civil Rights Leader, 1968" and I would point out that 1979-1968 is 11 not 50. And on page 27 one finds both "David Pendleton Oakerhater, Deacon and Missionary, 1931" (1979-1931=48, which is still less than 50) on 1 September and "The Martyrs of New Guinea, 1942" (1979-1942=37, which is 13 shy of 50) on 2 September. Additionally, on page 29 is "James Otis Sargent Huntington, Priest and Monk, 1935" (1979-1935=44) on 25 November.

            So to say that there is a hard and fast rule that someone has to be dead 50 years to get on the Calendar of The Episcopal Church is to say something that can be proven false by no less than four entries on three pages of the BCP itself!

            And as for our Roman siblings, may I point to Saint John Paul II who died in 2005 and Saint Theresa of Kolkata who died in 1997, yet were canonized by the Vatican, in 2014 and 2006, respectively.

            Now about Saint Fred of the Neighborhood (who had the misfortune of dying on the feast of George Herbert, Priest, 1633), the best way to get him eligible is to get him added to The Episcopal Church's list of Lesser Feasts & Fasts/Holy Women, Holy Men/whatever they are calling it now. And to get on that takes approval of General Convention. And as far as I understand to get considered it takes a Diocese to ask. So if you are a deputy to your diocesan convention, start writing resolutions asking your Diocesan Convention to ask General Convention to add him to the Calendar along with other non-Episcopalians* like past Golden Halo winner, the Rev. Dietrich Bonhoeffer; past Golden Halo contestant, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King; past Golden Halo contestant, the Rt. Rev. Oscar Romero; and 2021 Golden Halo Contestant General Catherine Booth.

            * FYI:  The Rev. Fred Rodgers and his wife were summer Episcopalians, as they did worship at the Episcopal parish nearest their vacation home each summer. I forget the name of the parish, but they have a window of him dedicated to him.

        2. I could readily support recognition of Mr. Rogers. Certainly he imparted valuable lessons to his many viewers. As one raised as a Presby but now an Episcopalian for nearly 50 years, I'm ecumenical enough to think that would receive widespread support. As my favorite priest would say, "It's the same Jesus."

        3. For at least two years, I have nominated Frederick B. (Ted) Howden for Lenten Madness. He meets the criteria, but quietly gave his rations to others in the POW camp in which he was incarcerated during WWII. Not flash and dash enough, I guess. Today’s vote seemed like a bait and switch for Theodora—sounds great the first round, and then the consequences of her counseling the King to stick around caused the death of many in the Hippodrome. I guess I’ll vote for Albert.

    2. I think of what Fr. Scott says, “ Lent Madness is optional”. Once again, we judge based on our present culture and knowledge. The disciples were notoriously flawed, like us. I enjoy the learning and the realization that the church recognized these folks
      For a reason. Who know what we would be missing without their contributions?

    3. I would like to see a Lent Madness that focuses on artists and who has contributed the most to Christian thought, such as Giotto, Handel, Michelangelo, for example.

      1. Put forth your candidate when the call for nominations goes out -- usually not long after Lent is over. They have the saintly equivalent of an open casting call.

  4. "We exist because God is good..." made my morning better.

    I did like Theodora's courage and sense of humor though.

    1. and remembering her earlier history, i like that she believes in the faith of the work given to us - would we die in retreat from our duties or face them with faith and understanding and as much self knowledge as possible?

  5. To me, Albert was an early voice of the Reformation and the Enlightenment, combining a belief in God with a desire to understand the world around him in a scientific way.

    1. Yes, it's important to remember that science as we know it was born out of the desire to understand God's creation (and God) better, along with other theological concerns.
      But I'd say that the Reformation was, among other things, a reaction against the synthesis of Aristotelian thought (and its religious presuppositions) with Christianity. The legacy of that synthesis includes most of what's bad about modernity.
      But I too prefer to hear about why a saint is indeed saintly. It's amazing how a negatively skewed write-up really influences the voting. I wonder how many people would have voted for Albert if the focus had been on his writings about homosexuality.

  6. Went with Albert today because he stands as an example of someone who had faith AND believed in science. Given the current climate we find ourselves in we would be wise to embrace both as well.

    1. I totally agree with Linda - We're still living with a pandemic that was made much worse by people
      refusing to respect the scientists - Our faith should lead us to thank God for men and women who
      use His gifts to try to understand the world He created, and to use that understanding to make life
      better for us all -

  7. If we were voting for powerful women of history, it would be Theodora in a landslide. But I don't see much saintliness in today's entry on the Empress. Now I'm trying to remember what was saintly about her back in the first round, because I do remember voting for her.

  8. "He was an expert in all the sciences from alchemy to zoology." Albert had information vegetal, animal, and mineral. He was the very model of a modern major . . . theologian? You had me at "brilliant scholar." I'm detecting some anxiety on Kierkegaard's part, perhaps over that philosopher's stone, for Kierkegaard also wrote that "Albertus was transformed from an ass into a philosopher and from a philosopher into an ass." Al Bottom, thou art translated! Albert held that silence was an integral part of music, anticipating Miles Davis by seven centuries. While I love Theodora's frescoes, and however tempting it would be, I'm not sure it's good Christian practice to "gather the insurrectionists into the senate chamber and slaughter them." Though I understand the feeling. For resurrecting Aristotle, and for including the Muslim philosophers Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd in his commentaries, Albert gets my vote.

  9. Theodora's little speech had a huge effect including the swift dispatch of the rioters and the longevity of Justinian's reign. Only one act in a one scene drama, but then she had the only woman's part. Given her times, outstanding!!

  10. Not feeling inspired by either of today’s write ups, I went back to read the original blog about each saint. I voted for Theodora, because she used her power to work for gender equality, marriage rights for women, anti-rape laws, and to provide a home for girls and women leaving sex work.

    1. "My mother told me, 'Elwood' -- she always called me Elwood -- 'Elwood, there are two ways to get through life. You can be oh-so-smart or oh-so-kind'. For years I was smart. I recommend kind. You may quote me."
      I love that movie!

  11. A sweet friend of named Theodora is a big fan of the empress 🙂 She's getting my vote today!

  12. "Bridging the realms of science and faith" drew my vote for Albert this morning. Though retired from the trenches, the co-existence of science and faith has long been my nursing mantra.

  13. it hurt my spirit a wee bit as I admire the courage and intelligence of Theodora and her sister (I listened to a podcast about them recently on Stuff You Missed In History Class, too!) but the slaughtering of protestors put me over the edge, I had to vote for Albert.

  14. I know Albert is going to thrash the Empress, but I don't necessarily equate scholarship with sainthood. When it comes to someone like Sir Thomas More, a martyr for his faith, it's a different story. But Albert was an educated, privileged man who was given the opportunity to be a scholar, in a time when women were never given such an opportunity. Meh.

    On the other hand, Theodora came from obscurity and not only married an Emperor, she was clearly intelligent, strong-willed, and able to hold her own in any room. She reminds me very much of Queen Esther. I don't automatically vote for women over men, but in this case, my vote went to Theodora.

    I hear the argument against Theodora because of her participation in -- or at least approval of -- slaughtering protesters. But Albert is not innocent in that department, either. While he is not documented to have been particularly active in slaughtering Jews, he did support a Crusade in his lifetime, a project that usually entailed killing many Muslims and Jews (and not a few Orthodox Christians) in the name of conquest. As well, although Albert admired several Islamic and Jewish scholars, he wrote a number of passages referring to Jews' unbelief in Jesus as being deliberate, because they "should have known" that Jesus was the Son of God; he also characterizes a number of supposed physical and spiritual defects of Jews, and participated in a Paris council that approved of the confiscating and burning of Jewish books, particularly the Talmud. By the thousands. Which seems strange for a scholar, but the view that the Talmud was a heretical, anti-Christian book justified, in the minds of many Christian scholars, this action.

    So, with these two, it's pot/kettle.

    (My source on Albert is by Prof. Irven Resnick of the Univ. of TN, Chattanooga, "Albertus Magnus on the Talmud and the Jews", in _Philosemitism, Antisemitism and the Jews: Perspectives from the Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century,_ (chapter eight), eds. Tony Kushner and Nadia Valman (Ashgate: 2004), 2004, pp. 132–154.

    1. Thank you for the more complete information, especially on the Talmud. And for citing your source. Well done.

    2. Yikes! Based on the essays above, I voted for an antisemite and homophobe!

  15. 1) Lent Madness is just weird this year. I'm voting for someone I did not vote for in the first round over someone I did vote for.
    2) Can't vote for someone whose autocratic and classist legacy today seems to me to be those who send in their forces to club and tear-gas nonviolent protesters for fairness and equal justice, whether in Washington, D.C., London, or Myanmar. The proto-renaissance man gets my vote this time.

  16. I've read that American publishers believed children would be unable to understand the concept of a Philosopher's Stone and dumbed it down into "Sorcerer's" Stone. In the UK, Harry Potter's adventure is with the Philosopher's Stone.

    1. Yes, American publishers thought "Philosopher's Stone" would be either unappealing or non-comprehensible (never mind that it is explained, with a tip of the hat to actual medieval person reputed to have one, Nicholas Flammel, in the book).
      They insisted on 'translating' the books (because what kid could possibly figure out Harry lacing up his trainers was lacing up his sneakers, or Ron pulling his mom-knitted jumper was pulling on a sweater, eye-roll, etc) until The Order of the Phoenix, which JKR was so late on delivering that her English publishers had to simply send the MS to the printers, which is why it's full of errors and glitches, and the American publishers likewise had no time to 'translate' the British English into American English. Funny thing, kids had no problem reading the book... (Sarcasm). Kids are smart -- inexperienced, but smart, and wired to figure out languages. It's us adults who are dumb! 😀

  17. Unfortunately, my view of Albert is colored by his statement about a woman being “misbegotten men” who when she can’t get what she wants “seeks to obtain it through lying and diabolical deception.” Sorry, Al, Theodora for me.

  18. Just posted and now I see Belle's post re Albert's active anti Jewish actions. As I said, Lent Madness is weird this year. I mean, Arnulf over Egeria??? Precious history of early liturgy sold for a mess of barley and hops!

    1. I think my coin-toss of a vote will now go back to Elizabeth. Probably her image is on the coin anyway.

  19. The Empress impressed the Emperor with her speech but the outcome was slaughter. Albert struck me as being rather arrogant too, possessing something that doesn’t exist. Neither deserve a vote, but the lady gets it.

  20. Theodora rocks!! Started at the lowest level of society and became an Empress! AND she helped others as not many "royalty" of that era would.

    A strong woman!

  21. Remember that when Empress Theodora recommended staying in the palace and fighting, she an Justinian saw an unconquerable force outside that was likely to brutally kill them. They were fully prepared to die rather than live comfortably, free, in exile. They no doubt felt that their rule of the land was more righteous than that of the mob which had set to overthrow and murder them. Whose to say who is right? Her quest and role model of gender equality was striking, her concern for sex traffickers important. I liked Albert, who was an amazing man, but today my vote goes to Theodora the Empress.

  22. Being "an expert in all the sciences from alchemy to zoology" in the 13th century doesn't mean a lot. AND he was allowed to spend a lot of time studying, which has been pointed out.
    Theodora advised her husband "not to run away". Nothing in this says that she said kill all the rioters. What set off the rioting? Probably wasn't something that Theodora did! Why does the woman get blamed for everything? I voted for Theodora.

    1. Elizabeth, I was teetering between the two, sure that both had worthy qualities, and unclear who had the flaws that were hardest to accept. You've said it for me. Let the Elizabeths go down together!

  23. My email address has changed. I have tried to stop the old email. The link to manage by subscription and unsubscribe do not work. How so I correct my email address?

    1. You could just subscribe to the blog with your new one. And if your old email account ceases to exist, then the messages to it will stop too.

      I just go straight to to vote and read the comments as I get way too much email already!

  24. Having voted for both in the first round, a struggled this time. Eventually I opted for Albert who sought to bring science and faith together. I am not sure that the focus on one incident in Theodora's life really did her justice.