501 Treasures of Byzantium: No. 31-40.

 

No.31: St. Stephen’s Crown, circa 1070’s, Hungarian Parliament, Budapest, Hungary.

Also known as the Holy Crown of Hungary, St. Stephen’s crown was the coronation crown of over fifty Hungarian kings. It is said that true legitimacy as king, hinged on being crowned with it. St. Stephens crown was originally a gift sent by the Byzantine Emperor Michael VII Doukas to King Geza I of Hungary in the 1070’s.

The quality and craftsmanship of the gold crown is exquisite, decorated with enamel pictures. The front of the crown shows Christ enthroned in his rightful place as ‘ruler of mankind’ and flanked by archangels Michael and Gabriel and other warrior saints. The reverse of the crown (see above) depicts the Byzantine Emperor Michael VII at the peak of the crown, with his son and heir Romanos to his right, and on the left, King Geza, lower in rank or status to both the Emperor and his son. Interestingly, even though it was meant as a gracious gift to Geza, welcoming him as a Byzantine ally, it was in many ways also a ‘slap in the face’, highlighting his place in the pecking order of rulers, below Christ and Michael.

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No.32: The Library of the Monastery of St. Catherine, Mount Sinai Peninsula, Egypt.

The Library of the Monastery of St. Catherine is surprisingly considered the second most important library in the world. (The world’s most important library is in the Vatican museums in Rome.) It holds over some 3,000 manuscripts written in mainly Greek, then Arabic, Syriac, Georgian and Slavonic. Only monks and scholars are privy to the library. I am led to believe that scholars must first seek permission from the monastery to access the library, arguably because of an incident that occurred in 1844, when German scholar, Constantin von Tischendorf, stole the Codex Sinaiticus (No. 27 in this series) from the library, running off with it to Russia. He promised to return the manuscripts but never did. The loss of this extremely rare and importance bible, possibly the second oldest bible in existence, now rests in the British Museum. 

Attached to the library is also the Gallery of Icons. Its storage rooms contain more than 2,000 remarkable painted icons. These Icons were painted over time in the monastery or elsewhere since the sixth century. They are truly priceless!

Over more recent years the library has moved to document and make accessible its many treasures by digitally photographing the monastery’s manuscript collection in its imaging room.

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No.33: Icon of Christ and Abbot Mena, 6th or 8th century, from Bawitt, Egypt, currently in the Louvre Museum, Paris.

The most fascinating aspect of this Egyptian Coptic icon is the unusual position of Christ’s arm over the shoulder of St. Mena. Is it a gesture of protection or friendship? Some scholars have noted that it demonstrates our changing relationship with Christ. The icon was discovered on the site of a former monastery by a French archaeologist, in Bawitt, Egypt, in 1900. It is an encaustic on wood measuring 57 x 57 cm.

Mena was said to have been an Egyptian soldier in the Roman army, who refused to renounce his faith in Christ. He was subsequently executed for his dissent. Soon after he was venerated as a Christian martyr and miracle worker.

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No. 34: Sarcophagus of Constantina, c.354, Vatican Museum, Vatican City, Rome.

The gorgeous red porphyry sarcophagus, sculpted from two massive blocks, once housed the body of Constantina, daughter of Constantine the Great and wife of Gallus Caesar. Upon her death in 354, she was entombed in a mausoleum built for her along the Via Nomentana, which would later become the Church of Santa Costanza. Interestingly, the mausoleum housed both Constantina and her sister Helena, who joined her sister soon after.

The actual sarcophagus is impressive conveying all the craftsmanship you might expect for an Augusta. The choice of imperial purple also emphasis its importance. The front of the sarcophagus shows Cupids harvesting grapes, along with images of sheep and peacocks, which illustrates both Christian and Roman pagan overtones of the afterlife.

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No. 35: Icon of the Theotokos, “Of the Three Hands”, 8th century, Hilandar Monastery, Mount Athos.

There is a great story or legend behind the Theotokos, “Of the Three Hands, which sees St. John of Damascus praying before the Icon, begging her to heal his hand, which was cut off by the caliph of Damascus; on the orders of emperor and iconoclast Leo III the Isaurian, because St. John was a staunch defender of holy icons. As the legend states, St. John awoke from sleep the next morning to find his hand unharmed. He was so happy that she healed his hand, that he fashioned a silver hand in her honour and placed it on the icon.

Sometime in the first quarter of the 8th century, John of Damascus became a monk at Mar Saba monastery, on the outskirts of Jerusalem and donated the icon to the monastic community. Centuries later Saint Sava received it as a gift and took it to Hilandar, the Serbian Orthodox monastery, on Mount Athos. For short while, it was removed by Dušan of Serbia and venerated in Serbia, before it was eventually returned to Hilandar, presumably in the 15th century.

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No.36: Ring of Michael Attaleiates, 11th century, Constantinople, courtesy of Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Washington, D.C.

Enamel on gold rings were apparently very popular throughout the empire. But what makes this ring so rare is that it is connected with an illustrious Byzantine citizen. Around the hoop is an engraved inscription in Greek that reads, “Mother of God, help thy servant, Michael Attaleiates.”

Michael Attaleiates was a jurist and historian, who came to Constantinople about 1034. He was an important individual, who held various important positions in the imperial court and was rewarded with some of the highest honours available to public servants. It is thought that he died some time around 1080.

If we briefly focus on the ring, we can see on the bezel is a bust of the Virgin in enamel in pink, green and blue. Its craftsmanship is said to be second to none, made by a ‘fully mastered’ Byzantine artist.

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No.37: Ivory Plaque Fragment with Christ Crowning Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos, 10th century, Constantinople (Istanbul).

Under a ceremonial canopy, Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos is depicted being proclaimed emperor by Christ, who is standing on a footstool that elevates him above the emperor. This image would become over the years one of the best known images of Byzantium. Interestingly, the detail of this ivory was copied by the Norman mosaic in Sicily, where Roger II receives his crown from Christ.

The inscription on the ivory spells out in clear detail Constantine VII’s full titles and his legitimate claim to the throne. For much of his life, his destiny was in the hands of others, that was of course until he reached the age of forty, breaking the shackles of those around him, becoming sole emperor until his death in 959. His rule was generally steady, but he is best remembered for devoting a lot of his spare time to reading and study. He wrote many books on various topics, which included a manual on ceremonies and a handbook for the administration of the empire.

No.38: Christ as the Good Shepherd, Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna, Italy.

Many of the richest collections of Roman/Byzantine mosaics are found in Italy. The most famous of these mosaics are arguably found in the many churches of Ravenna. Magnificently suspended on the lunette over the north entrance of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, The Christ as the Good Shepherd, is one of the finest mosaics from the second quarter of the fifth century. In golden robes and with a golden halo and cross, Christ sits as a humble shepherd looking after his flock. (Interestingly, Christ is beardless, a lot like the Christ as Helios mosaic in the burial grotto of the Julii family, below St. Peter’s, in Rome.) The illusionism of the mosaic is absolutely breathtaking and powerful.

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No. 39: Icon of St. Catherine of Alexandria, 13th century, St. Catherine Monastery, Mount Sinai, Egypt.

This wonderful 75 x 51 cm tempera and gold on wood icon shows twelve scenes from St. Catherine’s life. The story begins with Catherine kneeing before an angel on the upper left corner and continues in a clockwise direction where it ends with her beheading.

Born in Alexandria probably in 292, St. Catherine lived a short life and died a martyr at only eighteen years of age. There are some who believe that her story is nothing more than a myth, however to millions of Christians worldwide, she is a veneered saint and great martyr.

Her road to martyrdom began when she dared to protest to Emperor Maxentius about his worship of pagan idols. The emperor, angered by her audacity to question his beliefs, made her stand before 50 philosophers, whose job it was to break her faith in Christ. These philosophers tried in vain to make Catherine see sense and to convince her that Christ was not God. It failed terribly as she argued back at them that Christ was almighty and in turn converted all fifty philosophers to Christianity. Emperor Maxentius was apparently stunned by what had happened and immediately had all the philosophers burnt alive. He then had Catherine condemned to be tortured on the wheel, but the wheel somehow miraculously fell to pieces. Her reprieve was short lived, at which she was beheaded. Once Maxentius was satisfied, Catherine body was taken away and buried in Alexandria. However, her body was sometime later taken away by heavenly angels and carried to the peak of Mount Saint Catherine where it remained for centuries. It was at some point in the ninth century that Sinai monks supposedly found her body on the mountain and took it to be buried in the Monastery named after her.

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No. 40: St. Demetrios with Donors, Church of St. Demetrios, 7th century, Thessaloniki, Greece.

It only takes sometimes one major saintly figure to inspire a city or population. I am alluding to Saint Demetrius of Thessaloniki, a Christian martyr that suffered at the hands of Diocletian’s persecutions of the early fourth century. After his death, Demetrius became a popular cult figure among Christians, and it was during the Avar and Slav attacks against the great city of Thessaloniki, that miraculous military intervention became attributed to him for saving the city. Legend states that he was seen protecting the Thessalonians along the city wall. During one of the many attacks by the Avars and Slavs, the mosaic depicted here above was commissioned in his honour. The inscription on the far bottom of the mosaic reads: “You see the donors of the glorious house on either side of the martyr Demetrios, who turned aside the barbarous wave of barbarian fleets and was the city’s salvation.”

Photo Credit: All images used are in the public domain except the image of the Sarcophagus of Constantina which is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license. The image of the monk working in the library of St. Catherine is licensed and used under the Getty Images embedding service. The image of the Ring of Michael Attaleiates is courtesy of Dumbarton Oaks. I make use of it under the rational of fair use for educational purposes, to highlight an amazing historical object from Byzantium. Dumbarton Oaks are the copyright holders of the image.