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. This is Lent Madness, I’m voting for The Empress. Albert certainly deserves my vote based on all his works but Theodora stood up for her conscience and Justinian listened. Hurrah!

  2. Theodora fight to hold ground does not mean she wanted the protesters killed. They should have been prosecuted. And I expect if she had any part of deciding to slaughter or prosecute, she would wish for prosecution.

  3. I don't think Theodora's write up did her justice. She did so much, way before her time, to help women in society--look at her original blog. But the quote from Harvey (thank you, Richard the chalice bearer) "you can be very very smart or very very nice" got me. Seems like lately we have smart people on both sides of the political fence but very few nice ones. I appreciate. you, Theodora, but voted for Albert.

  4. It is unfortunate that Theodora's champion decided to focus on only one aspect of the Empress - her courage - which led to such carnage! What about Theodora's influence over Justinian and the laws he enacted for the rights and protection of women and girls, her monastic foundations, her promotion of learning? While I voted for Albert (mainly because in these trying 21st century times when so many who call themselves Christians oppose science and see it as anti-religious, it is good to know that the mediaeval church could recognize as a saint a man of faith and science), I still believe Theodora got the short end of the stick today.

  5. When helping children to grow up whole,
    each saint must treat all souls as a tender foal,
    for it's never Either/Or
    with apologies to Kierkegaard:
    an enlightened empathy is the goal.

  6. I second Rene Jamieson’s message. I’d also like to point out that Theodora did *not* order the slaughter of the people who wanted to depose Justinian.

  7. Empress Theodora was a bold and interesting woman, but she hardly seems like a saint. My vote goes to the holy and brilliant Albert. I am sorry Kierkegaard didn't appreciate him.

  8. Sorry to say that this year's Lenten Madness has disappointed me. Several times I have not voted. I believe there are thousands of admirable Christians to chose from. In my Episcopal Church there is " Holy Women, Holy Men" and " A Cloud of Witnesses," for starters. I believe in all ages there are those who rise above the cultural and religious prejudices of their times. I think of John Quincy Adams who after being president returned to the House of Representatives for almost two decades dedicated to ending the slave trade. When he started he was virtually along but eventually he was vindicated. I think of the Quakers in England and the USA who embraced non-violence as a way of living in the midst of violent societies. I think of Bryan Stevenson who dedicated his life to helping those on death row because of racism chronicled in his moving book " Just Mercy." Yes, in every age there are many to truly inspire us.

  9. Tricky one! But it has to be Theodora.
    This route is getting more difficult, more and more excellent Lenten models left behind.

    (Btw, it WAS the Philosopher's Stone in Harry Potter, before someone translated the books into American.)

  10. I too had to go back and refresh my memory on why I voted for Theodora the Empress on the first round. Here's what was posted:

    Theodora married Justinian I around 525 and ushered the Byzantine Empire into its golden years. During Justinian’s coronation, she was also crowned as an equal. She did not take the position of empress lightly. Her name can be found on every law that was passed at that time. And her commitment to gender equality extended beyond her self-interests. Theodora worked for gender equality, marriage rights, and anti-rape laws. She wrote papers against pimps and banished brothel-keepers from major cities. She opened a home for women and girls who wanted to transition out of sex work.

    I was very concerned and disappointed with the lopsided, patriarchal write up in today's writings.

  11. It was a bit of a t0ss-up for a while, but I went with Albert, a man of both faith and reason who was able to keep the two in balance.

  12. I would like to point out that in the Old Testament, the story of God's chosen people includes them not only taking over Canaan as their promised land, but also slaughtering everyone who lived there, and that this genocide was supposed to be an action blessed by God. This was the most difficult part of the Old Testament for me to accept, the notion that God wanted his people to kill an entire population to take over their land. More on Cherem here:
    (I did also learn that was customary for the ancient Hebrews to view every action as either blessed or cursed by God and to judge which of the two it was retroactively, by whether or not it had succeeded, and then it became part of the storytelling.)

    I'm not suggesting that we determine the worthiness of Theodora through the lens of slaughter in the OT - I think Jesus came to show us a different way of following God (never mind that this has not been the only instance of genocide in the years AD/CE). It's just something I recalled as I read through the comments.

    I decided to vote for her in spite of the very real possibility that she supported the choice to kill the insurrectionists. I don't think I would call that saintly, but I decided that I would support her for her good works - for this round.

    I did like Albert's championing of science as a means to understanding the world, and I love "We exist because God is good."

  13. Neither is perfect, of course. But as a Dominican and a member of the Society of Ordained Scientists, I vote for Albert. His work, and the work of the Franciscan, Roger Bacon, provided the philosophical underpinnings for the origin of the Scientific Method (the gist of which is, "If you have a question about Nature, ask Nature.")

  14. It's a hard choice today between: Albert the Great "Again, his travels took him far, always on foot and never on horseback, thereby earning him the name “Boots the Bishop.” and Theodora the Empress and her husband Justinian I building 25+ churches including the Hagia Sophia!!


  16. Tough call today. I voted for both of these candidates in the first round. Theodora made some impressive impact on the health and safety of women in the empire and I admire her courage. However, as both a student of theology and science, I feel called to vote for Albert. (And if he irritated Kierkegaard, so much the better!)

  17. Today's decision wasn't an easy one....two outstanding people of faith...umm....Any woman who could (and did) stand up and 'give brave counsel to frightened men' is already in a class by herself. However, in this time of great division that pits the haves against the have nots, the 'in crowd' from the 'out siders', conservatives agains progressives, and one race/class of people against other races/classes, a man who is "an expert in the sciences, a skillful writer, a leader in the church, as well as a theologian of deep faith and thought," is very much needed. I finally went with Albert because he did wed science with faith and taught us that both are gifts from God.

  18. Though hardly a saint, Theodora
    Was woman enough to implore her
    Husband to silence
    Insurgents' violence--
    But there's much more for which I adore her.

    I just had to. I was not pleased by the portrait of Theodora offered today. Raised herself out of a background of actors and prostitution, she was tireless in working for other women victims of sex trade and exploitation. As a leader and supporter of Miaphysite Christianity she managed to preserve an important (though not mainstream) stream of Christology, as well as protecting Miaphysite communities in Syria and Egypt and rescuing or hiding many individuals accused of monophytist heresy. She was a complex woman, for sure, and probably a little power-hungry. But she has my vote.

  19. My mother was a Byzantinist and once, many years ago, at a costume party at Harvard University's Center for Byzantine Studies, Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., my parents came dressed as Theodora and Justinian. Kinda a no-brainer whom I voted for! And besides, rioters storming the palace hits a little too close to home post 1/6/21...

  20. Justinian might have been cowed
    Till brave Theodora avowed,
    "Though female I be,
    I'll be darned if I flee;
    Because royalty makes the best shroud".

    1. I'm a fan of Dr. Grenfell as well, for two somewhat different reasons. One of my hobbies is collecting and playing games and puzzles. Dr. Grenfell, as an accomplished fundraiser for his Newfoundland and Labrador missions, did not neglect the area of jigsaw puzzles. Raphael Tuck and Sons, the British puzzle manufacturers, brought out a set of four commemorative puzzles to benefit his hospital missions. See
      The other is that I have a long-standing attraction to the Maritimes, especially Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, who continue to debate where my namesake first stepped ashore! Let it rest, guys; I've sailed both your coasts since and find your provinces offer a welcome haven to the seaborne visitor. I look forward to a post-Covid visit.

      1. This is fascinating, John. I would add that being a lover of Labrador Retrievers would be another reason to hold up Dr. Grenfell. Lexie raises her gray paw in support!

  21. I voted for Albert because of his devotion to science, however flawed. As I pointed in her original competition. The saintly Empress Theodora was the 7th century widow of Theodosius who restored the veneration of icons, NOT the wife of Justinian in the 6th century, who was widely hated. Legend says that during the time of Justinian, a whale became trapped in the Golden Horn and caused a great deal of destruction to fishing and shipping. It was found floating belly-up the same day Theodora died. Brave young men went running through the streets shouting, "The monster is dead," with impunity because it was not clear of which monster they were shouting.

  22. I usually think of "saints" as persons who have character qualities I should strive to emulate. I fail to see what there is in these two that is truly worthy of emulation. What have I missed? I'm not voting.

  23. Since the smart money says that Dorothy Parker won't get a place in this tournament (since there seems even now to be a bit of a bias in favor of good deeds over _bons mots_) I reckon Theodora has as good a claim as any to the Algonquin vote.