Before we begin I’d like to brief say that this project is really a celebration of many of the greatest treasures of Byzantium, which includes its art, icons, monuments and sites. The ranking of treasures is really arbitrary since the list is, of course, only my opinion. Nearly all of the greatest or most recognized Byzantine treasures will appear here, but I hope there will also be many wonderful surprises of, obscure valuable objects or works of art, that are not always talked about. If anything, this project will make for a valuable resource. Enjoy!
No.1: Icon of the Archangel Gabriel, St Catherine Monastery, Sinai Egypt, 13th century.
A very fine treasure, housed in the St Catherine Monastery, is the icon of Gabriel, painted on a wooden panel (105 x 75cm). As God’s messenger, Gabriel (above) is depicted holding the pilgram’s staff in his left hand, while making a gesture of adoration with his right. (This is often the reverse in other icons.) Interestingly, have you ever noticed that in every single icon of Gabriel, he is depicted with curly hair? It seems to denote purity and the incorruptibility of the angels. Charged with announcing all the mysteries in preparation for the incarnation of Christ, it is easy to see why Gabriel is a favourite angel depicted in Byzantine/Orthodox art.
No.2: The Icon of the Ladder to Paradise of St. John Climacus.
This icon, on a wooden panel (41×29 cm) is also a treasure from the Monastery of St. Catherine. It is a representation of the difficult path monks must go along with in order to attain ‘moral perfection’. As they climb the ladder, they are continuously assaulted and harassed by shadowy devils, symbolic of sins and temptations. These devils do their best to make the monks fall from grace.
No.3: Detail of the mosaic of Empress Zoe in Hagia Sophia, Constantinople (Istanbul)
If Justinian is the ‘poster boy’ of Byzantium (with his Ravenna mosaic plastered on more history book covers than any other), his wife Theodora is the equivalent for women of Byzantium. Although, I believe that symbol of Byzantine women is rivalled by Empress Zoe, who easily is one of my five favourite rulers of Byzantium.
The historical record shows her ruling jointly with her sister Theodora for a handful of months in 1042, but her dynastic influence is far greater. I am also as much as infatuated by her great beauty, as I am of her role as empress. In her early twenties she was betrothed to Otto III, but she would arrive in Italy to find that Otto had died. Her first marriage of convenience would not occur until 1028 with her dying father arranging for her to marry Romanos III Argyros who would become the next emperor. Amazingly, after her first husbands death she would elevate three other men to the throne of her choice. These three men who ruled with her were all dependent on Zoe for their authority. When Michael V tried to usurp imperial power by exiling Zoe to convent, Constantinople broke out in riot. He was blinded and removed for power, leaving the two sisters to rule for a short period in 1042 with Zoe the senior empress.
The detail of the famous mosaic of Zoe shimmering in gold from the galley of Hagia Sophia is an everlasting reminder of her status. The legitimacy of her husbands to be seen physically next to her on the mosaic was incredibly important. The face and names on the mosaic was change to reflect who she was married to at the time.
No.4 Woman carrying a pitcher 6th C. Pavement of the Imperial Palace Istanbul, Museum of Mosaics.
There isn’t a lot that remains of the Great Palace of Constantinople. Tourists today can still get a glimpse of the some of the amazing floor and wall mosaics that survived from the long past home of Byzantine emperors. Amongst scenes of both nature and mythology is this interesting mosaic of a woman carrying a pitcher. Only a fraction of it survives, but I find it intriguing nonetheless.
No.5: Detail of the kings, David and Soloman, from The Descent into Limbo (Anastasis) wall mosaic, Nea Moni, Chios, 11th C.
One of the great rulers of Hebrew history, Soloman stands side by side with his father. He is usually depicted as a young man without a beard, but in this case he is definitely bearded. To differentiate between the two, Soloman (to the right) has a darker beard.
This detail appears on The Descent into Limbo mosaic in the Nea Moni monastry in Chios. Commissioned by Emperor Constantine Monomachos IX, the monastry was built by artists sent from Constantinople in the 11th Century.
No.6: The Church of the Rotunda, Thessanoliki.
Some art historians have said that the enormous richly decorated dome mosaics of the Church of the Rotunda, would have once felt heavenly in appearance during its day, before it was defaced and converted into a mosque by the Ottomans. It was originally built for Constantine the Great’s rival, Emperor Galerius (ruled 305-11) as a mausoleum. However, for whatever reason Galerius wasn’t buried there and the Rotunda stood empty for years until Constantine commissioned it to be built as a church. Its vast interior including the dome was subsequently decorated in mostly shimmering gold mosaics.
No.7: Pilgrim’s St. Mena flask between two camels, (probably) Abu Mina, Egypt, c. 4th-7th century.
This terracotta ampullae was used by Christian pilgrims to carry back home water or oil from the great pilgrimage site at Abu Mena, near Alexandria of St. Mena. Scores of flasks very similar to the one above have been found by archeologists with St. Menas name and image stamped upon it. He was a late-third-century Egyptian Roman soldier who was martyred for his Christian faith. Pilgrams visiting the site at Abu Mena most probably hoped to be healed from sickness, merely by being in the vicinity of his burial site.
No. 8: The Ascension. Manuscript illumination. Homilies of James of Kokkinobaphos, 12th Century.
Second only to the Hagia Sophia, it would not surprise me that the building represented in this manuscript is the Church of the Holy Apostles. The church and its status was revered by both emperors and patriarchs. Most of the early Byzantine emperors were buried there too. However, its most important treasures were the relics of saints and martyrs and its vast wealth of gold and gems that it had accumulated over time through donations. It would never be the same again after the 1204 sack of Constantinople, even though it was restored late in the 13th century. Eventually, it was demolished by the Ottomans, because it had fallen into a horrible decaying state by the mid fifteenth century.
No. 9: The 6th century Basilica Cistern, Constantinople (Istanbul).
It is believed that the original cistern was built during the 4th century. However it had to be rebuilt by Emperor Justinian in the sixth century, after the Nika riots of 532 destroyed it. Under Justinian’s supervision its underground chamber was enlarged to stand approximately 65 metres wide and 143 metres long. It is supported by 336 columns, neatly arranged in twelve rows. Its awe-inspiring cathedral-shaped roof and columns gives it the feel and look of a magnificent Christian Basilica. For more on the Basilica cistern, click here.
Photo Credit: Every effort has been made to trace and acknowledge appropriate credit. All images are in the public domain except the cathedral-like cistern, which is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license. The St. Mena’s flask image is used under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license and the Church of the Rotunda image is under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.