501 Treasures of Byzantium: No. 42-47.

No.42: 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.43: 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.44: 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.45: 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.46: Imperial portrait of Leo I the Thracian, 5th century, Louvre Museum, Paris.

On the 7th February, 457, a Thracian by the name of Flavius Valerius Leo was crowned as emperor. What was significant about his coronation is that he was the first emperor crowned by the patriarch of Constantinople. Interestingly, under his reign, the empire made a definitive move away from military authority to a religious ‘ mystical concept of soveignity’. (Leo was a champion of Nicene Orthodoxy.) He was also known unflatteringly as ‘The Butcher’, who cleansed himself of his barbarian general Aspar. He murdered Aspar and his son, in 471. Some say he was hardly deserving of the unofficial title because, by the standards of the time, he had astonishingly little blood on his hands. Leo would reign as emperor of the East and intermittently over the whole of the Roman Empire for seventeen years until his death in 474.


No.47: 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).

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 Shemokmedi relief icon 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 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.