Mistra in shrouds. Photo by Stella Chrysochoou.
The monody by Nikiforos Cheilas is the last of the four monodies delivered at the mnemosyne for Cleofe in late May of 1433. I have used them frequently in entries here for information, and have looked individually at those by Plethon, Pepagomenos, and Bessarion. This by Cheilas was the third delivered that day, and the one that probably would have been most remembered by those who heard him. On first reading, it appears to rush from one high point of emotion to the next, at times almost near hysteria, but it is the most literary of the four, and demonstrates the most concern for rhetoric.
Cheilas begins, and ends, with a justification for mourning (and includes a dig at Plethon and Pepagomenos, accusing them of showing off), both times bringing the mourning directly home by listing the mourners: the godly despot, the despots, his relatives, her most dear daughter, the priests, the monastic orders, the senators, the others, and the cities and villages. These at the beginning are all present at the mnemosyne, while at the conclusion, he gives a shorter and different list, more poetic and more poignant: all kingdoms, groves and meadows, the Graces, widows, orphans, captives, the impoverished, and your subjects.
This identification with the listeners carries throughout as he talks about Cleofe and their grief in ways that they would wish they could have thought of, moving back and forth between factual statements about her life, and then rhapsodical images of what they have lost. The image of light is preeminent: it is one of the oldest and most persistent of the topoi of Greek mourning. "The land of Hesperia sent her, a light flowing out from a golden race, but she shone back with a radiance that made all the brilliance of that race seem less." "O ornament of queens, or rather, queen among all queens, as you shown out, surpassing them in all your virtues." (Here he used βασιλὶς βασιλίδων in a graceful recognition of the Palaiologos βασιλεὺς or βασιλέως βασιλεων.) "You, our sun, have set." Then inverting the metaphor he says, "What a change has come to hide away what was sweetest and best, igniting the entire flame of griefs and wretchedness."
Earlier he inverts a metaphor to great effectiveness: "You gave us then a celebration, showing us all something new, a reason to sing sweetly, songs worthy of your goodness and of the good fortune that came to us from you, . . . But now you set us to deep grieving, to uttering long cries of pain, to weaving a tragic song, antiphonal to our former hymns, singing farewell to the hopes we had in better times."
Cheilas reminds his listeners of Cleofe's intelligence, of her quiet and effective assistance in council, of her diligence in Bible study, and her self-discipline. He indicates a more intimate knowledge when he tells of her standing in prayer all night, and that she had said quietly to a few that she would not live through this childbirth. He is the source for the information that she died on Good Friday at noon, and was buried almost immediately. He confirms and supplements information in Pepagomenos and Bessarion.
Towards the end, Cheilas lets loose a cascade of metaphors: "She departed leaving behind amazement . . . O, shell of our common existence, what a change has come to hide away what was sweetest and best . . . O, who was it that did not spare this loveliest and most beautiful eye for us, cutting it out? Who was it that made this loveliest object and image of all the virtues and graces vanish? O, what a thing has been looted from us in her beauty, what loveliness has been destroyed? What light is now hidden under the bushel? O, what a sun has abruptly gone down into the tomb and is now miserably concealed? What a tongue full of grace has been imprisoned in final silence. Where has such loveliness ever before been extinguished? When has a flower so utterly withered, how has that precious gem been shattered?"
His conclusion is quiet, gentle, after the summary of the mourners: "Accept these words offered by us to you, O, in all things for us best and most holy, and most regal lady, they are entirely insufficient, but we could not mourn our loss in silence."
Just before his conclusion, Cheilas said: "Therefore I think that for all time and among all nations, this account, both as a written and as unwritten message will be sent out, and you will be remembered among all men until day and night yield to one another." As far as survivals are concerned, they never mentioned her again.
Translation by Pierre A. MacKay.