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Regular version of the site

The Politics of a Kiss

Who Kissed Each Other and Why in Byzantium

Mosaic of the Church of San Marco in Venice

Known for its particularly tactile culture, the Eastern Roman Empire maintained rather complex customs when it came to kissing—on the lips, the shoulders, the chest, and the feet. Emperors and nobles, military leaders, and even monks engaged in the practice unsparingly. Of course, by kissing, we do not have in mind the kind of erotic bliss portrayed in, say, Gustav Klimt’s Byzantine-style ‘The Kiss’, but rather a political gesture and important social convention, which functioned as a sign of respect or greeting. Based on the research of Sergey Ivanov, professor of history and philology at the Institute for Oriental and Classical Studies of HSE University, IQ has prepared a short guide to Byzantine kisses.

Did Byzantine kissing have an erotic function?

The Byzantines wrote quite a lot about romantic kissing in their novels and even in church canon commentaries. In the 12th century, Patriarch Theodore Balsamon discusses Basil the Great’s prohibition of ‘defiling oneself with one’s lips’ in such detail that it is hardly possible to publish a translation of his commentary in respectable modern media. However, kissing had a function other than erotic. When, in the mid-12th century, Byzantine theologian and rhetorician Nikifor Vasilaki writes in one of his letters, ‘We kiss your feet, kiss your eyes, and clasp your hands,’ this is not an outpouring of emotion, but rather an expression of etiquette. The non-romantic kiss is a social or even political institution whose contours can be reconstructed from historical sources. It is the various forms of this kind of non-erotic kiss that we will delineate below.

How did the Byzantines distinguish different types of kisses? Did they have special names for them?

In contrast, incidentally, to Latin, kiss-related lexicon in the Greek is highly ambiguous. The ancients had no less than nine different terms for kissing. But the trouble is that we know of their existence only from Byzantine dictionaries, and yet they are not mentioned in any texts—evidently, they were used only in oral speech.

The term φίλημα was used very rarely, while the noun ἀσπασμός could denote both a kiss and a contactless greeting, such as that used by the Archangel Gabriel with the Mother of God in the scene of the Annunciation. The verb φιλεῖν meant ‘to kiss’, yet it also retained its primary meaning, ‘to love’. And the verb περιπτύσσω could mean ‘to kiss’, ‘to hug’, and ‘to embrace’. Generally, what exactly is meant in a given usage of one of these words can be understood only in the context of a detailed description.

Is the Byzantine kiss part of Christian ritual, or is it a secular expression with elements of Christian influence?

In Russian, the word ‘kiss’ (potselui) has the same root as the word ‘whole’ (tselyi) and the verb ‘to heal’ or ‘cure’ (tselit’). In its original usage, the term denoted a form of magical contact performed to cure disease by restoring the completeness of the universe and/or health of the body that the disease had violated. However, the archaic Russian verb lobzat’ (‘to kiss’) could also denote an erotic act—in any case, it is related to the Latin lambo, which means ‘to lick’ (lizat’).

Interestingly, the original ancient Greek word, κυνεῖν, which is related to the English ‘kiss’, also fell out of use before our era, and the prefix noun προσκύνησις (‘proskynesis’) that was formed from it described only a solemn expression of reverence for the emperor, and not specifically a kiss. Thus, when the early Christians were faced with the need to somehow describe the ‘kiss of peace’ between members of the community, they began to call it ‘agape’, that is, love. However, this custom soon gave rise to scandals, so the theologian Clement of Alexandria at the turn of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, in describing the agape ritual, emphasized that it should be performed ‘with humble and closed lips.’

The kiss of peace is an ancient practice of kissing before the beginning of the Eucharistic Canon. It serves as a figurative enactment of Christ’s command to go to the altar only after being reconciled with one’s brother (Matt. 5: 23-24).

What do kissing practices tell us about Byzantine society?

If our society is characterized by the breaking down of all the canons of etiquette (due to which, some maintain that proper cheek kissing consists of two kisses, while others believe it consists of three, and then, in addition to that, some bring their lips to their interlocutor’s cheek, while others simply bring their cheek to the other’s cheek—not to mention the fact that, to the great indignation of feminists, there still remain members of older generations who are accustomed to kissing ladies by the hand), Byzantine society, like any ancient society, is characterized by a careful adherence to social conventions. Byzantium’s denizens knew exactly who should kiss whom, in addition to where, how, and in what situation a variety of kisses should be performed. The Council of Ferrara-Florence, an ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic church in which the Catholic and Orthodox churches tried to reconcile their doctrinal differences, nearly collapsed when it was stipulated that the Patriarch of Constantinople must kiss the Pope’s shoe. The patriarch flatly refused, and the ceremony of their public meeting was consequently cancelled.

How were emperors and hierarchs of the church kissed?

One way was a kiss on the shoulder. Archbishop Theophylact of Ohrid (1055-1107) wrote a whole treatise on why it is necessary to kiss a priest in this manner during Lent. ‘We kiss him on the shoulder [...] because of the extreme reverence that forbids us to kiss him on the mouth on such days,’ he explained. Theophylact draws an analogy with court etiquette, which explains clearly why it is necessary to kiss one on the shoulder: ‘After all, when we want to reverently kiss the emperor or some high official, we kiss them [...] on a part of the body, without touching the lips; we press our lips to the shoulder, which after the head is the second most noble among all parts of the body.’

What is the significance of a kiss on the lips in Byzantium?

In our world, it has a clear erotic connotation. In Byzantium, it does not. The theologian Theodorite of Kirr in the 5th century writes, ‘A loving son, after a long separation, kisses his father’s eyes and lips, his chest, his head, and his right hand.’ In the 11th century, the philosopher and courtier Michael Psellus addresses his deceased mother thus: ‘I will embrace your head, I will press my lips to yours.’ Children could also be kissed on the lips.

What kinds of kisses of loyalty were practiced in Byzantium?

As a sign of reverent obedience, a subordinate kissed his superior on the cheek, head, chest, knees, and feet. In the era of Emperor Constantine VII Flavius Porphyrogenitus (10th century), on Easter, the courtiers kissed the ruler on his feet, hands and lips.

The court historian Procopius of Caesarea (6th century) in a secret, spiteful pamphlet ‘Secret History’ compares rituals of loyalty kissing in a castigation of Emperor Justinian and his wife. Earlier, he wrote, it was said that a senator only had to ‘drop to the right breast of the emperor’, whereas under the loathed Justinian (482-565) and his wife Theodora, all those present had to humiliate themselves by prostrating themselves before them and ‘not rising before kissing both of their feet with their lips.’

Was it ever customary for emperors to kiss their subjects?

Surprisingly, emperors, during some rituals, kissed their subjects on the lips and eyes—that is, in such a way that there was no need to bow before them.

And how did friends kiss?

Friends kissed each other on what we would now consider the most unexpected of places: the eyes and feet. In ‘Material for a History’ written by Byzantine dignitary Nicephorus Bryennios the Younger (1062-1137; his wife was the Byzantine princess Anna Komnene from the Komnenos dynasty), one commander expresses his affection for another thus: ‘Filled with joy, Dokian stood up, and, embracing the famous Alexei, kissed him on the mouth, cheeks and his beautiful eyes.’

Based on extant texts, there is no question: there was a lot of kissing. Is this practice reflected in the visual arts of the time—icons, frescoes, and mosaics?

Alas, art critics pay hardly any attention to the amazing contrast between textual sources and visual art objects. Thus, when describing the kiss of Judas, the writer and cleric of the 12th –13th centuries Nikolai Mesarit exclaims that Christ ‘let his traitor give him a kiss on the cheek and offered his lips for a kiss to the man who, using his very own lips, had betrayed him.’ However, in Byzantine portrayals of the scene, Judas does not kiss Christ. He simply presses his cheek to his. Similarly, nowhere is Jesus portrayed as offering his lips to the traitor.

Do Byzantine frescoes and mosaics not even depict maternal kisses?

In one of the works of Byzantine writer Symeon the Metaphrast (10th century), the Mother of God says to Christ, ‘I lowered my lips into your lips, sweet as honey and tender as dew.’ The rhetorician Pseudo-Kaiserios (6th century) describes the infant Christ as being ‘kissed by the kisses of the God-bearing Virgin.’ However, the Virgin and Child are never depicted as kissing in icons, frescoes, or mosaics of the time. Renderings of the meetings of Joachim and Anna, Mary and Elizabeth, Peter and Paul, and others also do not depict kissing. Only in the iconography of the mourning for Christ can one suspect that a kiss has been or will be bestowed, though some effort is required.

Why are there fewer depictions of kissing in Byzantine art than manuscripts?

Texts yield a large number of references to the ritual of proskynesis, which, as we remember, involved kissing the emperor’s feet. However, no visual renderings of this practice portray any kind of physical contact. This reflects a certain important aspect of Byzantine culture—but how it can be explained remains unclear.


Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, September 04, 2020