501 Treasures of Byzantium: No. 10-20.


No.10: The city-fortress of Dara (Anastasiopolois), Mesopotamia, 6th century.

The city-fortress of Dara, was built by Emperor Anastasius, at the conclusion of his wars with Persia in 506. Its intended function was to keep in check future Persian aggression along the frontier. It was strategically built opposite the Persian stronghold of Nisibis. The Persians bitterly expressed disapproval of its construction, but their protests fell on death ears.

The city-fortress construction was unfortunately rushed, probably due to the fear of the Persians breaking the truce, and subsequently had to be further strengthened years later during Justinian’s reign. It would later play an important part in the coming wars between Byzantium and Persia. Today, portions of its walls, granaries and cistern still stand.


No.11: Romanos Ivory, probably 2nd half of the 11th century, Cabinet des medailles, Paris.

The Romanos Ivory is believed to be commemorating the coronation of Romanos II in 945 CE. The ivory was also probably created to acknowledge the imperial marriage between Romanos and Eudokia (Bertha, daughter of Hugo of Provence, king of Italy), a union of dynastic purpose, something that was occasionally done for the sake of union. Interestingly, Romanos was married off at about six years of age, but his portrait shows him older (though still youthful in appearance).

Romanos would later remarry, upon the death of Eudokia, but would come to be dominated by his new wife, Theophano. Romanos would die of natural cause at the age of only twenty-five. His only worthwhile legacy it seems was the reconquest of Crete in 961.


No.12: Gold hyperpyron of Alexius I, probably minted 1092-1118, Thessalonica.

It is an astonishing feat to imagine that the gold coin created by Constantine in the early fourth century, known as the solidus or nomisma, would retain its purity and value (4.5 grams of gold per coin) for over seven centuries. (Diocletian introduced the first slightly heavier prototype of the solidus in 301.) It was used so widespread throughout the empire that trade and savings prospered and it paid for important government institutions and projects. Unfortunately, early in the eleventh century it began to increasingly depreciate in value and purity, largely caused by a number of unwelcomed factors, such as inferior alloy coins, military disasters and civil war.

In its place Alexius I Komnenos, initiated a recovery plan for the ailing Byzantine currency during the first decade of his reign. Expect it wasn’t simply a reissue of old coinage, it was the minting of a totally new high-quality gold issue. The Hyperpyron came about because the Byzantine monetary system was inevitably in need of a serious overhaul. It appearance interestingly coincided with Alexis making his eldest son John his successor. How better to celebrate a coronation by issuing a new coin!

The hyperpyron (scyphate or concave in shape) was minted at the same standard weight, as the old solidus and was almost all completely pure gold at 201/2 carats, compared to the old solidus at 24. It too, however, suffered the same fate as all other previous gold coins and began a gradual slide into depreciation. By the fourteenth century, it had depreciated to half its original value. Eventually, the Byzantines love affair with gold coinage, was substituted in favour of Italian currency.


No.13 Mosaic of Theodore Metochites, Chora monastery, Constantinople (Istanbul).

The monastery of the Christ Chora is considered to be one of the most beautiful surviving Byzantine churches to have been constructed. Inside the Chora, visitors to the church in modern-day Istanbul will be taken aback by the range of subjects of mosaics that appear on the walls and domes of the monastery. In the most ambitious mosaic programme of the early fourteenth century, the visually striking detail of scenes from the Bible, miracles, saints and of course, the Christ Pantokrator, appears to be every square inch of the church.  Most of these wonderful mosaics were financed by Theodore Metochites between the years 1315 and 1321. The vain Theodore Metochites can’t help but tell his fellow Christians that he is the restorer of the church, by the inscriptions on the left of his mosaic. Wearing an exotic court costume and turban, he presents the Chora church to Christ.


No.14: Peacock floor mosaic, ruins of the Byzantine church in Nahariyah, Western Galilee, Israel, 6th century.

The peacock has a long history of being worshipped as a pagan deity or used as a symbol by royalty and the wealthy. Its use in the art of medieval Europe was also largely symbolic and generally related to Christianity. It is from this Christian perspective and interest in Byzantine art that the image of the peacock first appealed to this author. Adorning the floor and wall mosaics of many surviving Christian and Byzantine churches, you are instantly struck by the peacocks vibrant colors and beauty, in particular its ‘all seeing eye’ feathers. 

One of the most beautiful peacock mosaics (in my opinion) is found at the ruins of the 6th century Byzantine church in Nahariyah. Part of a larger mosaic featuring also other birds, hunting scenes and plants, it boasts up to 17 different coloured tesserae. The church survived early into the 7th century before it was torched during the Persian conquests.


No.15: A heavy stone door in the Derinkuyu underground city, Cappadocia, Turkey.

There are several underground cities in Central Anatolia that make Cappadocia truly an amazing place. The Kaymakli and Derinkuyu underground cities, for instance, are connected through miles of tunnels. Derinkuyu is said to be large enough to shelter a staggering 20,000 people together with their food stores and valuable livestock. During times of conflict, especially during the Byzantine-Arab wars, the Cappadocians took refuge in these underground cities, often blocking entrances with heavy stone doors and setting traps for intruders.


No.16: The Antioch Chalice, probably from Antioch or the Syrian village to the south, named Kaper Koraon, mid 6th century.

 Discovered in 1910, near the ancient city of Antioch, the silver gilt Antioch Chalice, was once promoted as the possible cup of Christ, by a New York dealer in an attempted to attract interested buyers, today seems like stuff of legends. Undoubtedly, there would have been many people willing to believe the existence of a sacred drinking cup used by Jesus and his apostles at the Last Supper. By 1950, those theories were thrown out the window and it was brought by the Metropolitan Museum of Arts. Reappraised by more experts and scholars, it is thought to be now a magnificent creation from the first half of the 6th century, which was probably used for the Eucharist. Other scholars more recently have come to the conclusion that the drinking cup is fact not a chalice, but a standing lamp, typical of lamps used in churches during the 6th century.


No.17: The Gate of the Spring (Pege)

The Gate of the Spring (Pege) or Selymbria Gate, through which Michael VIII’s Byzantine army secretly entered through a passage and then attacked the wall from the inside and opened the gate in their recapture of Constantinople on July 25, 1261. Micahel VIII would himself enter into the city some 20 days later in triumph.


No.18: The Procession of Female Martyrs, Basilica of San Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna.

During the time of the Byzantine reconquest of the sixth century, General Belisarius made the city of Ravenna the capital of the exarchate that represented the distant Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in the West. It probably didn’t come as a surprise that under Justinian’s conquest of the city, Arian property would eventually be requisitioned, which included the Arian palace church of Theodoric. The Byzantines went about tearing down many of the reminders of its former ruler Theodoric the Great. The north side of the nave of San Apollinare Nuovo is one of the best examples of the changes the Byzantines wanted to incorporate (c.560). Although it saw fit to keep much of the original Italian traditions of the mosaics on the nave of the church, obvious eastern influences were added, in particular a newly incorporated procession of female martyrs. It is believed that these female martyrs probably replaced the mosaic images of Theodoric and his court.


No.19: Bust of a Byzantine empress, possibly Theodora, 6th century, Sforza Castle, Milan.

I almost feel silly explaining who was Empress Theodora, nonetheless, she was arguably the most powerful woman of the middle-ages and Byzantine history. Her intelligence and abilities to make shrewd political decisions made her Justinian’s most trusted adviser. Almost by default, she stands along side her husband emperor Justinian as one of the most recognized faces of Byzantine art. The best-known representation of her exists in the Church of San Vitale as a mosaic portrait for the all whole world to see. I cannot think of any other representation of her that exists, other than the interesting bust of a Byzantine empress in the Sforza Castle Museum, in Milan, believed to be possibly Theodora. When you compare the bust, up against her Ravenna mosaic, there is a striking likeness.


No.20: The Portrait Statue of the Four Tetrarchs, probably 4th century, Venice, Italy.

One of the most interesting statues ever commissioned or created is that of the Portrait Statue of the Four Tetrarchs. It is one of the best examples of shared power. It was designed to emphasis the union of the four emperors and their uncompromising stance in the face of internal and external pressures.

The sculpture was originally set up at a road junction on the Philadelphion in Constantinople. Our friends the Venetians plundered the statue during the Fourth Crusade in 1204. It was embedded in the wall of the Treasury of San Marco (see image below). In an amazing archeological find in the 1960’s, the missing original heel of one of the emperors (on the far right) was discovered. This portion of the statue resides in the Istanbul Archeology Museum.

Photo credit: Every effort has been made to trace and acknowledge appropriate credit. All images are in the public domain except the Alexius I Comnenus’ hyperpyron, the Dara city-fortress, Romanos Ivory and the image of Byzantine church peacock mosaic in Nahariya, which are all used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license. The Antioch chalice is used and license under the terms of the Metropolitan Museums of Arts terms of use (for personal enjoyment, study, educational purposes and scholarly publication). The Portrait Statue of the Four Tetrarchs is used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 license.