501 Treasures of Byzantium: No.51-60.


No.51 Harbaville Triptych, 10th century, Constantinople (Istanbul).

This is one of the most richly detailed ivories to come from a workshop in Constantinople. Just look at the detail of Christ’s throne as an example. It was made in the 10 th century, maybe even the 11 th century, and has been associated with the Romanos group of ivories.

The base relief figures depict Christ, John the Baptist, the Virgin and other saints and martyrs. Of interest, is the warrior saints depicted in the wings (inside doors), which might suggest that it was commissioned for a patron who was a member of the Byzantine army?

The Harbaville Triptych measures 11 inches x 9 inches (28 x 24cm) when fully opened. Currently located in the Louvre in Paris.


No.52 Barberini Diptych, 6th century, probably from Constantinople (Istanbul). Currently located in the Louvre, Paris.

Not another ivory I hear you say!

The triumphant Byzantine emperor on a rearing horse has often been identified as Justinian, or even possibly Anastasius or Zeno. Although some historians identify this ivory with Anastasius (because of the combination of pagan and Christian motifs), it is now generally agreed to be Justinian.

Putting that debate aside, this wonderful five-part ivory has almost every important image that is associated with imperial power. For example, we can see Nika, the goddess of victory, in the top corner, extending a crown to the emperor. Gaia, goddess of the earth, is holding the emperors foot possibly as a gesture of domination. Behind the emperor’s lance and in the bottom panel are cowering barbarians who submit and offer tribute to the triumphant emperor. Finally, a Roman consul on the left holds and offers a gift to the emperor (which was presumably matched by a second consul figure on the empty right panel which is now lost).

Interestingly, with our eyes drawn to the central panel, it might be tempting to ignore the figure of Christ above the emperor. He is beardless and youthful a lot like the pagan god Apollo.

Currently located in the Louvre in Paris.


No. 53: Christ Pantocrator in the Monreale Cathedral, 12th century, Sicily.

The Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary in Monreale is often regarded as one of the wonders of the medieval world. It is a Norman church that resembles a fortress with its two towers. Inside, however it resembles a glittering heaven, made up of gold mosaics, decorated by master Byzantine craftsmen, brought to Sicily from the Byzantine Empire by King William II.

It wasn’t uncommon for foreign rulers to employ Byzantine artists. For instances, the interior of Islamic religious buildings were sometimes painstakingly decorated by Byzantine mosaicists because of their great abilities and skills. Two examples that are often mentioned, where Byzantine mosaicists were employed are, the interiors of the Dome of the Rock (691) and the Great Mosque, Cordoba (965).

As visitors to Monreale enter the Cathedral, the long aisle focuses the visitor’s attention on one image in particular, the Christ Pantocrator. It is truly impressive as the arms of Christ extend across the apse to welcome the faithful. In short, it is quite typical of most images of the depiction of the Christ Pantocrator. He is holding the bible in his left hand, while his right hand is raised in blessing. He certainly gives the impression of being ‘the Ruler of all’.


No. 54: Detail of the portrait of Justinian I mosaic, 6th century, Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna.

Located at the entrance of Sant’Apollinare Nouvo is a portrait of Byzantine Emperor Justinian. It is the lesser known mosaic of the emperor found in Ravenna. The more famous portraits of the emperor (surrounded by his entourage) is found in the San Vitale, which we will present here in this series at later date.

Under Justinian’s reconquest of Italy, Ravenna was one of the cities where Arian property was requisitioned, which included the Arian palace church of Theodoric. In the Sant’Apollinare Nuovo (which we known it as now) the Byzantines went about tearing down or purging many of the reminders of its former ruler Theodoric the Great. One of those reminders is the refashioned mosaic portrait of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, which might have been in fact King Theoderic?

To me, it seems a little rough or rushed (unlike the San Vitale portrait) and some commentators have suggested that the portrait resembles the face of Theoderic rather than Justinian? The lettering identifying the emperor above his head is defiantly from a later restoration.


No. 55: Ivory relief of the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste, probably from Constantinople, 10th century, Bode Museum, Berlin.

According to St. Basil, Bishop of Caesarea, forty soldiers who openly confessed to be Christians were martyred during the reign of Emperor Licinius in the Roman east during the early fourth century. They were forced to strip naked and stand upon a frozen pond near Sebaste, in the hope that they would renounce their allegiance to Christianity before freezing to death. But like all typical martyr stories, the soldiers refused to disavow Christ and froze to death. The next day, all of those that did not die were burned and their ashes scattered into the river.

Their veneration would soon after become widespread all over the east and in time across the whole empire. It also doesn’t come as a surprise that early Christian artists would eventually become enthralled by the story of the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste. In art, especially in this ivory relief (above) they are typically shown huddled in despair standing on a frozen body of water.

Today, their feast is still celebrated in both the Orthodox and Catholic Church.


No.56: Gold medallion of Ticinum with Emperor Constantine I and the sun god Sol Invictus, 313 CE, Paris Cabinet des Medailles.

The sun god Sol Invictus slowly began to appear on Constantine’s coins and medallions from at least 310 to until 325 CE. His devotion to the Sun God is especially evident here on the observe of this medallion. It shows Constantine shadowed by the sun god Sol Invictus as his twin. Interestingly, Constantine is dressed in a military uniform wearing a diadem-like laurel wreath and holding a spear and a richly decorated shield, that features a chariot drawn by four horses of the sun god.

With the issue of this medallion, Constantine is perhaps making it clear that although he gave Christians religious tolerance in 313 CE, by no means did he want to rely solely on the Christian’s god to secure and validated his position as sole ruler. He kept his faith in many of Rome’s gods, especially Sol Invictus and the goddess Victoria. It was only in his last ten years or so, as sole ruler that he truly began to favour the Christian god. Interestingly, Constantine did almost everything he could to promote tolerance and the endeavors of the Christian church, but didn’t convert to Christianity himself until his deathbed.


No.57: Reliquary Cross of Justin II, Constantinople, 568-74, Treasury of St. Peter, Vatican City, Rome, Italy.

The majestic Reliquary Cross of Justin II is said to hold fragments of the true cross. It was given to Rome by emperor Justin II as a spiritual gift. Some historians believe that the cross was accompanied with supplies of grain and military support to Rome, when the Italian peninsula came under threat from Lombard invasions. The Latin inscription on the cross reads: “Justin and his consort give to Rome a glorious treasure in the wood by which Christ subdued the enemy of mankind”.

In 2009, this majestic reliquary cross was restored to what it might have looked like during the sixth century. It involved removing centuries of grime and replacing the brightly colored stones that were obviously added in the centuries since it was first gifted to Rome. In its place, imperfect pearls were reset that would have been more characteristic of the time. The most significant modification is a circle of 12 new pearls that now surrounds the relic.

On the reverse of the 40.7 x 31.5 cm relic (not pictured here), we have images of emperor Justin and Sophia on the ends of the two arms of the cross, with two portraits of Jesus on the top and bottom.


No.58: 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.


N0. 59: Fragment of the floor mosaic with the Personification of Ktisis, 6th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art

It is believed that this marble and glass mosaic once decorated the floor of a large public building, sometime during the first half of the sixth century. It depicts Ktisis, the personification of the act of generous donation or foundation, holding the measuring tool for the Roman foot. To her right, a smaller well-dressed man extends towards her a cornucopia as a gift.

What I love most about this well-known Byzantine mosaic is the detail of Ktisis gorgeous face. Just look at those stunning eyes and flushed red cheeks. The bejeweled crown and ear rings also add much to her allure. 


No. 60: The David Plates, Constantinople, circa 629-30 CE, Metropolitan Museum of Art collection.

The David Plates are a set of nine lavish silver plates with scenes of David’s life. They were originally discovered in Karavas in Cyprus in 1902. Today, the Met Museum owns six of these plates, including the largest plate seen here in the above image. While the other three reside at the Cyrus Museum in Nicosia.

Interestingly, on the back of all the plates, Emperor Heraclius control stamp can be found, which immediately links the silver plates to the early seventh century. They were presumably commissioned by the Emperor to celebrate his great victory over the Sassanid Empire in 628-29. (This period also saw Heraclius restore the True Cross to Jerusalem.) It is believed he likely chose the biblical story of David verses Goliath to draw a connection between himself and the hero David. Was Heraclius, like David, the underdog who defeated the giant? In Heraclius case, the giant, Goliath was the Sassanid Empire?

Photo credits: All images are in the public domain except the following: The Christ Pantocrator in the Cathedral of Monreale is by flickr user Felipe Garcia and is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial- No Dervis 2.0 license. The portrait of Justinian I is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license. The restored image of the Cross of Justin II presumably belongs to The Associated Press and the pre restoration image status is unclear. I use both image of the cross of Justin II under the rationale of fair use because no free alternative seems to exist.  Furthermore, it 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 portrait of Leo I is used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 license. The mosaic fragment of Ktisis 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). The David Plates image is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license.