501 Treasures of Byzantium: No. 41-50.


No.41: Troyes casket with emperors and hunters, 10th century, Catherdral of Troyes, France.

This surprising treasure resides in the Cathedral of Troyes, in France. It is believed that it was brought from Constantinople to Troyes, by bishop Jean Langlois, after the great city was sacked during the Fourth Crusade in 1204.

Despite some obvious cracks in the lid and end panels, the Troyes casket is incredible. It is made entirely from sculpted ivory panels that were once originally held together by ivory pegs. Today the casket is held together by small pieces of metal, but that doesn’t seem to diminish its beauty.

Wonderful sculpted scenes of emperors and hunters are featured on all sides of the casket. The lid features two emperors carrying spears on decorated horses on either side of a walled city. The people in the city appear to sing the praises of the emperors with arms outreached. Interestingly, the emperor on the right appears to be offered a crown. (Art historians often wonder whether the lid is in fact really only showing one emperor, repeated for decorative purposes?) On the rear panel a scene depicts a hunter using a lance attacking a wild boar with the aid of hunting dogs. While the front panel (as seen above) shows a lion hunt with two riders perfectly positioned between a lion. The two ends of the casket, which often get overlooked, depict a long-necked bird, which seems to resemble a phoenix, as a symbol of rebirth.


No.42: Roundel with the Virgin Orans, 11th century, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

This carved dark green (serpentine) disk or relief has an inscription that implores the help of the Virgin for the emperor Nikephoros III Botaneiates (1078-1081). It says “God-bearer, help the Christ-loving lord Nikephoros Botaneiates”. The Virgin is veiled and haloed with her hands raised out in front of her chest.

It has been suggested that this roundel was a decoration sculptured for the elderly Nikephoros’ tomb, while other have also suggested that it may have been an inlay in a piece of church furniture, like a chair, or simply a show piece set into a door? We will never really know for sure, but my guess is that it might have been a relief for his imperial tomb.


No.43: Shemokmedi Relief Icon, 11th century, Georgia.

I am always dumbfounded when I come across something so beautiful, as this silver and gilt icon, that is believed to have come from the medieval Monastery of Shemokmedi, Guria, in Georgia.

The three integrated scenes above show episodes from the passion of Christ. Beginning with the scene with the cross, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus steady and remove Christ from the cross. They meticulously make preparations for his burial in the scene that follows. Beneath the preparation scene is the incident at the tomb, which shows Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary”, greeted by an angel who proclaims Christ has risen pointing to the stone coffin. Finally, along the bottom of the icon, Pilates soldiers are fast asleep.


No.44: Inlaid Marble Icon with Saint Eudokia, 10th century, Archeological Museum of Istanbul, Turkey.

This gorgeous female figure, inlaid with coloured glass, has been long identified as the fifth century empress Eudokia. She was the wife of emperor Theodosius II in 421. The marble panel has been dated to the 10th century due to various archaeological and historical factors such as the figural style adopted in its creation. It was discovered outside the Lips Monastery in Istanbul in 1929.


No.45: Icon of Saint Peter, 7th century, Monastery of St. Catherine, Sinai, Egypt.

The Monastery of St. Catherine is truly a treasure trove of precious icons and artifacts. This sixth or seventh century icon of St. Peter is a wonderful representation of the “Apostle of the Apostles.” (A friend of mine makes a great argument that I shouldn’t call this an icon. That it more likely is an ex voto depiction of St. Peter.) More often than not, we see him in his familiar pose with grey hair and a close-cropped beard, dangling or holding his keys from his wrist. In this representation, he is holding a cross in one hand and three keys in the other. His face is framed in front of a gilt aureole that seems to magnify his saintly importance. Of interest too, is the three medallions which likely represent an Egyptian boy (who was cured), Christ ( in the centre), and the boy’s mother (on the right).


No.46: Detail of the Transfiguration, 6th century, Monastery of St. Catherine, Mt. Sinai, Egypt.

Transfiguration of Christ was made during the reign of Emperor Justinian. Its lavish style and painstakingly obvious craftsmanship is attributed to the work of artists from the imperial school in Constantinople. Though, if you look carefully at the mosaic, you will notice that even the most experienced Byzantine artists can make obvious mistakes, for instance, in the case of St. Peter’s two right feet!

The mosaic of the Transfiguration shows Christ standing within a blue mandorla, to make him stand out against the gold leaf background and from which miraculous and supernatural lights emerge. Importantly, he is accompanied by the figures of Moses, Elias and his closest disciplines, St. James, St. John and St. Peter, to whom he reveals his divinity.


No.47: The Apse Mosaic of the Virgin and Child,9th century, Hagia Sophia, Constantinople (Istanbul, Turkey).

The mosaic of the Virgin and Child is masterstroke of political and religious propaganda worthy of any state during the middle ages. It was consecrated by the patriarch Photios in a sermon on March 29th 867, and intended as a public statement, to illustrate the triumph of the Iconophiles, over iconoclasm in 843 CE. (It is believed to be the first figural image in a church in Constantinople to be commissioned following the controversial period of Iconoclasm.) The choice of subject of the Virgin, and in particular, the infant Christ was also significant because it celebrated the ‘incarnation of God as man’. Interestingly, an inscription around the mosaic reads: “The images that the heretics cast down from here, pious emperors have set up again.”


No.48: Imperial gold coin of Emperor Phocas, early 7th century, Constantinople (Istanbul, Turkey).

Like this solidus has two sides, Phocas also had two sides to his character. One side was apparently full of energy and drive and the flip side characterized by darkness and paranoia. It is said that he found it hard to gain legitimacy upon ascending the throne. I suppose it didn’t help that he executed his predecessor! Not even the good relations he shared with Rome and the Pope could save his doomed reign. In short, his cruel and murderous rule came to an end in 610 CE at the hands of Flavius Heraclius, the son of the governor of Carthage.


No.49: The Procession of Relics (Trier) Ivory Relief, mid 5th century, Constantinople (Istanbul, Turkey). 

This gorgeous ivory relief was probably made in one of the finest workshops in Constantinople during the middle of the fifth century CE. It is in my opinion a wonderful example of early Christian ivory art. It records the event of the arrival of relics to presumably the great city of Constantinople.

Beneath the towering Great Palace, an empress (believed to be Pulcheria) is shown receiving the relics of a Christian martyr, probably St. Stephen the Protomartyr. The horse-drawn carriage shows two bishops delivering their precious cargo to the almost complete church on the far right of the ivory relief. The church in question is believed to be St. Mary Chalkoprateia, which was built during the reign of Theodosius II.

However, the record above of this event has more recently been questioned, as to whether it really did take place during Theodosius reign (408-450). This event may in fact be a depiction of Empress Irene commemorating the rebuilding or renovation of the church of St Euphemia in front of the Hippodrome in 796? The depiction of the Chalkes Gate (far left hand corner of the ivory with the Icon of Christ perched on its highest point), also suggest that it could not possibly be a fifth century ivory, because the first version of the Chalkes gate was built during Anastasius’ reign (491-518). Interestingly, Empress Irene restored the bust of Christ on the Chalke Gate following iconoclast period, which controversially suggests, that the ivory just may be in fact an eighth or ninth century relief.


No.50: Medal of Emperor Constantine The Great, 4th century, Staatliche Münzsammlung (museum), Munich, Germany.

This issue was minted in 315 CE for the occasion of the celebration of Constantine’s tenth anniversary as emperor. The medals would have been presented as gifts to his officers and soldiers.

On the obverse side of this rare silver medallion, Constantine is shown wearing a helmet with an impressive plume (possibly peacocks’ feathers), and a Chi Rho monogram on its front. With one hand, he holds the reigns of the horse, and with the other he grasps a round shield and sceptre. Interestingly, the shield is decorated with the she-wolf with Romulus and Remus suckling beneath.

The reverse depicts Constantine standing on a podium, with the goddess of victory preparing to place a wreath on his head, to hail him as a victorious military commander. Below Constantine’s podium, his soldiers stand alongside their horses, witnessing the occasion.

Photo Credits: Every effort has been made to trace and appropriate acknowledge all the images used this article. All images are in the public domain except the Troyes casket, the Shemokmedi relief icon and the medal of Emperor Constantine which copyright status is unclear. I make use of them under the rationale of fair use for educational purposes. It also enables me to makes an important contribution to the readers understanding of the article, which could not practically be communicated by words alone. The Imperial gold coin of Emperor Phocas and the Trier Ivory relief are both used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license. The image of the apse mosaic of the Virgin and child is by flickr user George Rex and is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 license. The Roundel of Virgin Orans is courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum under their non commercial license which allows me to use their image for educational purposes on this non commercial website. If any errors appear please let me know.