501 Treasures of Byzantium: No. 61-70.

No.61: Detail of the Charioteer Textile (Also referred to as the Shroud of Charlemagne), circa 800 CE, Musée national du Moyen Âge, Paris.

Imperial silk, reserved for Byzantine emperors, were always dyed purple. (Purple came to be associated in the Middle ages with Imperial power and domination.) It was illegal for foreigners to purchase these purple silks and strict rules were put in place to safeguard their production and distribution. Though occasionally these wonderful silks may have been sent as gifts to foreign dignities and kings. This exquisite royal silk (above) with a pattern illustrating a chariot drawn by four horses (quadriga), is believed be a fragment of the shroud in which Charlemagne was buried in 814. In all probability it originally made its way to western Europe as a diplomatic gift from Constantinople.


No.62: Gold Solidus of Constans, probably struck on the occasion of his Quinquennalia, Siscia, circa. 337-40. CE

The solidus of Constans, as pictured above, was probably struck on the occasion of the celebrations of the Quinquennalia of Constans in 338 AD. There also is another theory that it was possibly issued as a donative when Constantine II, as senior emperor, met up with his brothers to resolve and divide the empire between themselves in the Balkans. Its reverse, which is of most interest to this author, shows the three sons of Constantine I, enthroned and united together. Constantine II is pictured in the middle holding up his hand in benefiction. This picture of harmony, given their character and nature, unfortunately didn’t last long.


No.63: Missorium of Kertch (Silver Dish of Constantius II), ca. 343 CE, currently located in the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.

Constantius is arguably the most interesting of the three sons of Constantine I. He lived long enough, unlikely his brothers Constantine II and Constans, to have an immediate impact on the empire, primarily with his interference in church policies. He was after all a man who loved to wield absolute power. It was Constantius who first sat next to his father’s deathbed and schemed to put in place his plans for succession. Next he acted on behalf of his brothers to have his extended family massacred, so that there would be no doubt who was in charge. He was always prepared to put to death, murder or engage in civil war against men he considered his enemy, to hold onto his absolute grip on power.

His grip on power would see his accession to the throne begin in the year 337 with his brothers as co-Augustus, and later from 350 as stole Augustus, before succumbing to illness on a journey to teach his cousin Julian a lesson about betrayal. 

Having said that an emperor’s long reign is surely an important milestone whether or not they were an able ruler or a tyrant?  It is said that this silver dish (and probably many others) was made to commemorate his victories, in particular, his twentieth anniversary of his accession to power. (Constantius was a very young boy when he was first made Caesar in the year 324.)

The detail of this silver dish (below) shows the emperor Constantius, riding in triumph, with the personification of victory (Nike) and a foot soldier on either side of him. Upon the shield of the soldier lies the detailed Christian symbol chi rho ( a motif of the first two letters of Christ’s name in Greek, X and P).

The silver dish was found in Kertch, Crimea, but is credited as being made in Antioch.

No.64: Plaque of Saint Simeon, sixth century, Louvre, Paris.

This former Syrian treasure of the church of Ma’arrat an Numan shows Saint Simeon the Stylite perched on top of his pillar. It is said that Simeon held court from top of his fifty-foot column, for most of his life, where he received people who wished to seek out his advice. Legend also states that it was from this pillar that he boldly stood up to the devil disguised as a giant serpent. Plagues such as this one apparently helped spread the fame of Simeon across the Roman world. This form of life (stylitism) appealed to many people. The practice of standing or sitting atop of a high pillar away from the world, eased the concern of being overcome by worldly temptations.

No. 65: Ptolemy’s Handy Tables (Byzantine calendar), mid 8th century, Vatican City, Rome, Italy.

This Illumination is the middle section of the Vatican copy of Ptolemy’s Astronomy, which shows the universe ruled by the Sun God, Helios, disguised in imperial purple as the emperor. It is in essence a byzantine calendar, created during the eighth century for medieval astronomers. What is most interesting about this calendar is the fact that it cleverly avoids depictions of religious figures banned during the period we know as Iconoclasm. The image of the Helios and the emperor, for example, are so unambiguously intertwined, that not even emperor Constantine V, who commissioned its creation, had a problem with it.

No. 66: Colossus of Barletta, mid 4th or 5th century, originally looted from Constantinople, Barletta, Italy.

This fourth century colossal bronze statue is believed to be the last of the triumphant Roman emperors, Valentinian I, who systematically patrolled and fortified the west. (Other suggests included emperors Theodosius II and Marcian.) It survives (much restored with stumpy legs) in the southern Italian town of Barletta. You may wonder what on earth does it have to do with Byzantium? Well, it is believed it was originally looted from Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204, but was subsequently lost at sea, before somehow managing to wash up off the coast of Barletta. Other than that we don’t know much more about its origins.

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No. 67: Votive Crown of Leo VI, circa 886-912, Treasury of St. Mark, Venice, Italy.

This precious votive crown with rubies and pearls, too small to be ever worn, was made as an offering to a church (presumably in Constantinople) as probably an altar piece. It is believed to be from the late ninth century, which leads us to conclude that the emperor surrounded by apostles is Leo the Wise.

It is said to have been found in Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade, where our Venetian friends helped themselves to yet again another Byzantine treasury. Once it arrived it Venice it was adapted and remodeled into the base of a small shrine to the Virgin Mary.

No. 68: Vienna Genesis (biblical codex), 6th century, Syrian origin, Imperial Library, Vienna.

We have no way of really knowing who this biblical codex was made for or for what purpose. But it is assumed that it was likely made for a wealthy family or just maybe a member of the imperial Byzantine family. The remaining fragments of parchment, all dyed purple in colour, are associated with royalty, so maybe here lies our first clue?

Believed to be originally crafted and bound in Syria or Palestine, all that remains of this early Byzantine manuscript are twenty-four pages with Greek translations of the Book of Genesis. Its surviving pages are believed to have been part of a much larger manuscript of 96 pages. Each page was roughly set out with Greek text as the top, while the bottom half contained wonderful painted illustrations of people and events from the Genesis story.

No. 69: Icon of the Archangel Michael, Constantinople, 12th century, Basilica di San Marco Treasury, Venice, Italy.

Saint Michael is considered arguably the greatest of the archangel warriors and in turn was greatly revered throughout the Byzantine empire, especially in Constantinople. In Constantinople, for example, emperors including Justinian, built and dedicated churches to the archangel Michael, moreover his apse mosaics once bedazzled church-goers, and his heavenly likeness was crafted onto precious icon panels.

That said, there are two amazing surviving examples from Constantinople of archangel Michael from the treasury of San Marco that take my breath away. The first is a panel with a half figure of archangel Michael (which I will featured next time) and the second is this full length silver-gilt and enamel icon featured above.

He stands in front of a richly decorated enamel background, representing the garden of paradise, as a military saint holding an orb in his left hand and a sword in his right. His magnificence wings and imperial dress stand out without a doubt as my favorite features on the panel.

No. 70: Church of Panagia Chalkeon, 11th century, Thessaloniki, Greece.

In the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki stands a quaint 11th century Byzantine church. That said much of its architectural grace and eccentricity can be traced to Constantinopolitan influence. Of interest is its use of arches and the fact that the church is completely made of deep red brick.

The interior has a traditional Byzantine cross-in-square plan with three apse and a narthex. So much of the original wall paintings of the church are gone, all that remains of interest from its glory days are the frescoes on the dome, depicting the Ascension of Christ, and on the narthex, which depicts a sitting Christ presiding over the Last Judgment.

With the conquest of the city in 1430 by the Ottoman Turks, the church was turned into a mosque, but would revert back to a church after the end of Ottoman occupation in 1912.

Photo Credit: Every effort has been made to trace and acknowledge where possible all the images used in this article. The image of the Church of Panagia Chalkeon is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 license. All other images appear to be in the public domain with the exception of a few, whose status seems unclear. I make use of them under the rationale of fair use for educational purposes. If any errors exist please let me know.