An Italian Renaissance painter from Florence, by the name of Benozzo Gozzoli, was commissioned to paint a three-walled cycle of frescoes in the Chapel of the Palazzo Medici- Riccardi. The main subject of the frescoes is the Journey of the Magi to Bethleham c.1460. On the back of the chapel’s western wall is a scene from the Journey that is of interest to many with a fascination with Byzantium. The Byzantine Emperor John VIII Palailogos is distinctly recognizable as a bearded Balthazar. Obviously, completely fictitious with characters from the Medici period, the fresco also includes images (on the south wall) of Joseph II, Patriarch of Constantinople and the painter himself, Benozzo Gozzoli, depicted wearing a red beret.
To make sense of the Journey of the Magi to Bethleham fresco and the inspiration behind portraying figures like John VIII, we would have to go on a brief journey back in time.
In 1423, Emperor John VIII made a desperate visit to Rome to beg for help against the Ottomans, where he was surprisingly warmly welcomed. The last time a Roman emperor had made a visit to the eternal city, seven centuries early in 663, Emperor Constans II created such an uproar, by stripping anything of value, even the copper from the roof of the Pantheon, to be carried back to Constantinople to fund his war against the Arab Caliphate. Fortunately, John VIII was not in Rome to ransack valuables for his war efforts, he was primarily there to seek aid from the west.
In 1439, he would make another journey to Italy this time to Ferrara to participate in a new General Council in the hope of creating a reunion between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. The council would later move to Florence, where John VIII, personally convinced all his bishops that a degree of union with the Roman church was of utmost importance. (John VIII had also hoped that by supporting a church union, he would be able to convince his western allies to support him in a new crusade.)
Although, many historians since have made comment that his disposition and abilities were not suited to the period, without question he must have made a positive impression on his two visits to Italy, especially Florence. The Medici family, in particular, must have been inspired by John VIII speech in favour of the union? In an educated guess, Benozzo Gozzoli, was probably instructed by his benefactor, the Medici family, in 1460, to include a realistic portraits of John VIII as a Balthazar (one of the three wise men) in the fresco because he was seen in the council’s eyes as one of the ‘hero’ of the union. The appearance of Joseph II, Patriarch of Constantinople in another scene (as mentioned earlier) might reinforce this view. Joseph II of Constantinople was an enthusiastic supporter of the union of both churches. When Joseph II died, shortly before the decree of union was proclaimed, he was sincerely mourned by the members of the council.
Sketches of John VIII Palaiologos during his visit at the Council of Florence by artist Pisanello.
Thanks to Benozzo Gozzoli, John VIII remains arguably the only Byzantine emperors to have been realistically painted. But where did Benozzo inspiration come from? Benozzo was too young to have remembered the emperor’s visit to Rome, but he was definitely old enough to have possibly glimpsed the emperor in Ferrara or Florence and have been taken aback by his exotic dress. Other inspirations may have come from sketches of John VIII in 1438 during his visit to the Council of Florence in 1438 made by Pisanello. In that same year (1438), a portrait medal of John VIII Palailogos made by Pisanello, may have also been Benozzo’s inspiration for the fresco portrait. The observe of the medal contains a close-up portrait of the emperor, while the reverse contains an image of the emperor on horseback. It is therefore within good reason to believe that the medal was used by Gonzzoli to depict John VIII as a model for Balthazar.
The medal of John VIII Palaiologos by Pisanello, circa 1438.