501 Treasures of Byzantium: No. 21-30.


No.21: The Palace of the Porphyrogenitus, Constantinople (Istanbul), 13th century.

The Palace of the Porphyrogenitus, also known by its Turkish name Tekfur Sarayi, was once an annex of the greater palace complex of Blachernae. It was constructed during the late 13th century, but by the 15th century it had suffered from terrible damage during the Ottoman bombardment. Magnificent in scale and built against the Theodosian land walls, it was probably the principal Imperial residence during the last centuries of the Empire. Of interest, is the sizeable courtyard that precedes it and its row upon row of arched windows.

The view of the palace above shows what it looked like before Ottoman restorations were completed in recent years, in which rectangular windows replaced arches, a tiled roof added and other significant changes made to masonry. Some critics have likened it to a 17th century Ottoman building or worse still as a holiday resort.


No. 22: The Our Lady of Vladimir, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

The Our Lady of Vladimir (Theotokos of Vladimir) is a medieval Byzantine icon of the Virgin Mary and Child. It is believed that the Icon was painted in Constantinople, some time during the beginning of the twelfth century, and was sent to the Grand Duke of Kiev as a gift. Soon after his death, his son Andrey Bogolyubsky plundered the Our Lady and many other religious treasures. Legend has it that the horses transporting the precious icon stopped near Vladimir and refused to move. So it seemed, with the Our Lady left stranded, Bogolyubsky had no choice but to build the magnificent Assumption Cathedral to safely house the icon. However by 1395, the icon was later taken to Moscow, to protect it from invaders from the east.
Today, she is regarded as the face of Russian Orthodoxy and often referred to as the protectress of Russia. On a personal note, I would say that she is one of my favourite icons.


 No.23: Obelisk of Theodosius, Constantinople (Istanbul)

Whether it was for theatre, vanity or an attempt to mirror ceremony and greatness, Theodosius I oversaw the removal in 390 of the great Egyptian obelisk of Pharoah Tutmose III from Alexandria to Constantinople. (Emperor Constantius II flirted with the idea of shipping over the obelisk, but never got around to doing it?) Upon arriving in Constantinople, the ancient Egyptian obelisk was erected in the hippodrome, instantly becoming a flashy show piece. Today it remains one of the oldest and best preserved monuments in Istanbul. It sits on a base with imperial propaganda carved with four main scenes facing north, south, east and west. Interestingly, on one of the sides of the base, a relief shows Theodosius offering the crown of victory to the winner in a chariot race.


No. 24: The Psalter of Basil II, Venice, Italy.

From the pages of this rare psalter, Basil II is depicted as a warrior emperor receiving the submission of his enemies. From above Christ extends down a crown for Basil, which archangel Gabriel takes and precedes to place upon Basil’s head. St. Michael (on the left) hands Basil a lance, a symbol of power, that seems to frighten the enemies beneath his feet.

During his fifty year reign the Empire reached its pinnacle in power and wealth. He stabilised and expanded the Empire’s frontiers, he was much loved by the country farmer, where he sourced great pools of soldiers, and left the Empire a full treasury upon his death. But possibly above all else, he was best known for conquering the Bulgarians into complete subjugation with relentless campaigning year after year. He is therefore, more often that not referred to as Basil the Bulgar Slayer.

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No.25: Limburg Staurotheke, cathedral treasury of Limburg an der Lahn, Germany.

A reliquary is basically an impressive case or container in which fragments of the True Cross were kept. The Limburg Staurotheke is one of the finest examples of reliquary containers made in the tenth century. An inscription on the back of the reliquary identifies emperors Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos and Romanos I, as its patrons.

Long before it sat idle in the cathedral treasury of Limburg an der Lahn, in Germany, it was likely paraded around during battle by the Byzantine army, to bring them protection and good favour during wartime. Unfortunately, it would later become a part of the booty stolen by the armies of the Fourth Crusade and brought back to Germany.

The exquisite reliquary was constructed in two phases. The double arm cross was interestingly made first and adorned with gems. The case or container, fitted with a sliding lid, was made a few years after the cross. Of interest, is the lid itself, which features the nine central enamels showing Jesus with John the Baptists, the Virgin Mary and the twelve apostles. A handle at the top suggests that it could be carried around, for example, during battle or simply as a wall accessory, like an icon.

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No.26: Colossus of Constantine, Palazzo dei Conservatori, Rome, Italy.

It’s probably very easy to say that Constantine appearance on the Roman landscape was a game changer. But it is true. From York to Constantinople, his legacy is felt and in between he left something of himself in Rome. After he defeated Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, Constantine became master of Italy and Rome. It was while in Rome that Constantine took over many of Maxentius’ major building projects, which included the huge basilica (also known as the Basilica Nova) that Maxentius had begun in the forum.

Once Constantine got his hands on it, he extensively realigned, completed and reburbished the huge basilica, with all attention focused inside on the colossal statue of himself. It is said that it once stood fifteen metres high, but all that is left of it is fragments and his impressive head. It was here that these fragments of the statue were later found and removed by artist Michelangelo, in the sixteenth century, to the nearby Palazzo dei Conservatori. Today, Constantine’s statue is still found in the Capitoline Museum.


No. 27 Codex Sinaiticus, mid 4th century, British Library, London, UK.

The invention of the codex, a series of pages bound down one side, not only replaced the scroll, but created a revolution in book-making. Evidence of the codex prior to the fourth century is scarce, but thereafter it would truly blossom under Christianity, who would arguably come to play a central role in its development.

One of the most important books in the world is the mid-fourth century handwritten codex (manuscript), which contains the most earliest and most complete version of the Christian Bible in Greek. The care with which it is put together is breathtaking, transcribed by probably the best scholars in the empire.

The Codex Sinaiticus came to the world’s attention when it was discovered in the library of St. Catherine’s Monastery in 1844, when a German scholar by the name of Constantin von Tischendorf spotted some leaves of the Codex, according to him, in a basket to be burned in the ovens. He removed fourty-three leaves, taking them to Leipzig. He returned again in 1853 for the remainder of the Codex but left empty handed. Back again for the third time, with the support of the Russian Tsar, he was more successful in finding the rest of the Codex. Given permission to study it closer in Cairo, he instead hatched an underhanded plan to run off with it to Russia, where he presented it as a gift to the Tsar. He, of course, promised to return the manuscripts but never did. The loss of this extremely rare and importance bible from the monastery, possibly the second oldest bible in existence, is a story in itself for another day but for now most of it rests in the British Museum. 


No.28: The Aqueduct of Valens, 4th century, Constantinople (Istanbul).

In modern Istanbul, standing impressively over the traffic on the busy Atatürk Bulvarı is the Aqueduct of Valens. (Today it is known better as the Bozdogan Kemeri.) It is a two-story structure standing at a maximum height of about twenty metres and characterized by Roman arches along its whole length. Originally almost one kilometre in length (971 metres), spanning the valley between the third and fourth hills of Constantinople, only nine hundred and twenty metres still remains. It was a part of the single longest ancient aqueduct system ever built that supplied water to Byzantium’s most important city. From the vicinity of Bizye (modern Vize) to Constantinople the long distance water channel was over 250 km long. Over incredible terrain, it travelled across more than 30 stone bridges and through kilometres of underground tunnels, until it reached the Valens aqueduct bridge in the heart of the city.


No.29 Column of Constantine, 4th century, Constantinople (Istanbul)

Constantine’s legacy is still dotted throughout modern day Istanbul, even though most of his original city has vanished. One landmark that still bares any resembles to fourth century Constantinople is Constantine’s Column. The column, made of ten porphyry drums or blocks, supported a bronze statue of the emperor showing him as the pagan god ‘Apollo’. Unfortunately, the staue itself was torn down by a storm in 1106 CE.

Originally it stood at about 50 metres in height, which included both the marble base and the statue on top. Legend has it that underneath the column, Constantine had buried important relics such as, the nails of the cross, Noah’s axe and the statue of Roman goddess Pallas Athena.


No.30: Steelyard Weight with a Bust of a Byzantine Empress, 5th century, The Met Museum, New York.

Byzantine steelyard weights of many different sizes were once used to weigh products, suspended from a Steelyard balance. This bust weight (above) with a bronze hook would have been moved smoothly along the Steelyard bar until it balanced, determining the price a customer would pay for most goods. Bust weights like this often took the shape of Byzantine empresses. The likeness of this particular bust is associated with the Theodosian dynasty.

Photo Credit: Every effort has been made to trace and acknowledge appropriate credit. All images are in the public domain except the image of the Colossus of Constantine which is used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 license. The Column of Constantine is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license. The image of the Codex Sinaiticus itself is in the public domain and is provided only for non-commercial personal and educational use, by the British Library, Leipzig University Library, St Catherine’s Monaster at Sinai and the National Library of Russia. The Steelyard Weight with a Bust of a Byzantine Empress 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 OASC).


Categories: 501 Treasures of Byzantium

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3 replies

  1. Enjoying your series and making a list of how many I have seen in person.


  1. The Monastery of Saint Catherine. – The History of the Byzantine Empire
  2. 501 Treasures of Byzantium: No.31-40. – The History of the Byzantine Empire

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