Art History

12 Fascinating Treasures of Byzantium.

Positioned on the crossroads between Western Europe and Asia, Byzantium was for a very long time the centre of the world. As a direct continuation of the Roman Empire, from the fourth century onwards to its collapse at the hands of the Ottomans in 1453, its influence was immense and is still felt today. Evidence of its profound influence is found for example in Western law, religious Orthodoxy, architecture and artwork. Even now we continue to unearth coins, jewelry, pottery and other artifacts that tell us something about the Byzantines.

This article, like my previous two-part series on Byzantine mosaics and my exploration of magnificent Byzantine ivories, will attempt to look at some of the most interesting Byzantine treasure that has survived. At a later date I hope to expand this series, but for now here are twelve fascinating treasures that have captured my imagination over the years.

Detail of the Charioteer Textile (Also referred to as the Shroud of Charlemagne), early 9th century, 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 In all probability it originally made its way to western Europe as a diplomatic gift from Constantinople.

The Antioch Chalice, probably from Antioch or the Syrian village to the south, named Kaper Koraon, mid 6th century.

Discovered in 1910, near the ancient city of Antioch, the silver gilt Antioch Chalice, was once promoted as the possible cup of Christ, by a New York dealer in an attempted to attract interested buyers, today seems like stuff of legends. Undoubtedly, there would have been many people willing to believe the existence of a sacred drinking cup used by Jesus and his apostles at the Last Supper. By 1950, those theories were thrown out the window and it was brought by the Metropolitan Museum of Arts. Reappraised by more experts and scholars, it is thought to be now a magnificent creation from the first half of the 6th century, which was probably used for the Eucharist. Other scholars more recently have come to the conclusion that the drinking cup is fact not a chalice, but a standing lamp, typical of lamps used in churches during the 6th century.

Gold hyperpyron of Alexius I, probably minted 1092-1118, Thessalonica.

It is an astonishing feat to imagine that the gold coin created by Constantine in the early fourth century, known as the solidus or nomisma, would retain its purity and value (4.5 grams of gold per coin) for over seven centuries. (Diocletian introduced the first slightly heavier prototype of the solidus in 301.) It was used so widespread throughout the empire that trade and savings prospered and it paid for important government institutions and projects. Unfortunately, early in the eleventh century it began to increasingly depreciate in value and purity, largely caused by a number of unwelcomed factors, such as inferior alloy coins, military disasters and civil war.

In its place Emperor Alexius I Komnenos (1081-1118), initiated a recovery plan for the ailing Byzantine currency during the first decade of his reign. Expect it wasn’t simply a reissue of old coinage, it was the minting of a totally new high-quality gold issue. The Hyperpyron came about because the Byzantine monetary system was inevitably in need of a serious overhaul. It appearance interestingly coincided with Alexis making his eldest son John his successor. How better to celebrate a coronation by issuing a new coin!

The hyperpyron (scyphate or concave in shape) was minted at the same standard weight, as the old solidus and was almost all completely pure gold at 201/2 carats, compared to the old solidus at 24. It too, however, suffered the same fate as all other previous gold coins and began a gradual slide into depreciation. By the fourteenth century, it had depreciated to half its original value. Eventually, the Byzantines love affair with gold coinage, was substituted in favour of Italian currency.

Steelyard Weight with a Bust of a Byzantine Empress, 5th century, The Met Museum, New York.

Byzantine steelyard weights of many different sizes were once used to weigh products, suspended from a Steelyard balance. This bust weight (above) with a bronze hook would have been moved smoothly along the Steelyard bar until it balanced, determining the price a customer would pay for most goods. Bust weights like this often took the shape of Byzantine empresses. The likeness of this particular bust is associated with the Theodosian dynasty.


Bust of a Byzantine empress, possibly Theodora, 6th century, Sforza Castle, Milan.

I almost feel silly explaining who was Empress Theodora, nonetheless, she was arguably the most powerful woman of the middle-ages and Byzantine history. Her intelligence and abilities to make shrewd political decisions made her Justinian’s most trusted adviser. Almost by default, she stands along side her husband emperor Justinian as one of the most recognized faces of Byzantine art. The best-known representation of her exists in the Church of San Vitale as a mosaic portrait for the all whole world to see. I cannot think of any other representation of her that exists, other than the interesting bust of a Byzantine empress in the Sforza Castle Museum, in Milan, believed to be possibly Theodora. When you compare the bust, up against her Ravenna mosaic, there is a striking likeness.

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 calender 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.

Colossus of Constantine, 4th century, Palazzo dei Conservatori, Rome, Italy.

It’s probably very easy to say that Constantine’s appearance on the Roman landscape was a game changer. But it is true. From York to Constantinople, his legacy is felt and in between he left something of himself in Rome. After he defeated Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, Constantine became master of Italy and Rome. It was while in Rome that Constantine took over many of Maxentius’ major building projects, which included the huge basilica (also known as the Basilica Nova) that Maxentius had begun in the forum.

Once Constantine got his hands on it, he extensively realigned, completed and reburbished the huge basilica, with all its attention focused inside on the colossal statue of himself. It is said that it once stood fifteen metres high, but all that is left of it is fragments and his impressive head. It was here that these fragments of the statue were later found and removed by artist Michelangelo, in the sixteenth century, to the nearby Palazzo dei Conservatori. Today, Constantine’s statue is still found in the Capitoline Museum.

Plaque of Saint Simeon, 6th 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.

Codex Sinaiticus, 4th century, British Library, London.

The invention of the codex, a series of pages bound down one side, not only replaced the scroll, but created a revolution in book-making. Evidence of the codex prior to the fourth century is scarce, but thereafter it would truly blossom under Christianity, who would arguably come to play a central role in its development.

One of the most important books in the world is the mid-fourth century handwritten codex (manuscript), which contains the most earliest and most complete version of the Christian Bible in Greek. The care with which it is put together is breathtaking, transcribed by probably the best scholars in the empire.

The Codex Sinaiticus came to the world’s attention when it was discovered in the library of St. Catherine’s Monastery in 1844, when a German scholar by the name of Constantin von Tischendorf spotted some leaves of the Codex, according to him, in a basket to be burned in the ovens. He removed fourty-three leaves, taking them to Leipzig. He returned again in 1853 for the remainder of the Codex but left empty handed. Back again for the third time, with the support of the Russian Tsar, he was more successful in finding the rest of the Codex. Given permission to study it closer in Cairo, he instead hatched an underhanded plan to run off with it to Russia, where he presented it as a gift to the Tsar. He, of course, promised to return the manuscripts but never did. The loss of this extremely rare and importance bible from the monastery, possibly the second oldest bible in existence, is a story in itself for another day but for now most of it rests in the British Museum.

Icon of the Archangel Michael, Constantinople, 12th century, Basilica di San Marco Treasury, Venice, Italy.

Saint Michael is considered arguably the greatest of all of the archangel warriors and in turn was revered throughout the Byzantine empire, especially in Constantinople. In Constantinople, for example, emperors including Justinian, built and dedicated churches to the archangel Michael. Moreover, these churches were often decorated with his heavenly likeness onto apse of precious icon panels. That said, this amazing surviving full length silver-gilt and enamel icon (here above) of archangel Michael from the treasury of San Marco takes my breath away. It shows St. Michael standing guard before the garden of paradise, holding an orb in his left hand and a sword in his right. On a personal note, his magnificence wings and imperial dress stand out as my favourite features on the panel.

Bust of Leo, presumably 5th century, Louvre, Paris.

On the 7th February, 457, a Thracian by the name of Flavius Valerius Leo was crowned emperor of the Byzantine empire. What was significant about his coronation is that he was the first emperor crowned by the patriarch of Constantinople. Interestingly, under his reign, the Byzantine empire made a 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.

The surviving imperial bust of Leo showcased here (now found in the Louvre) is a wonderful example of Late Antiquity sculptural art. It’s an important piece, because not long after, a decline in this form of adulation occurred for various reasons, primarily religious in nature. It’s important to note although imperial busts fell out of favour, the depiction of Byzantine Emperors on murals and mosaics, and on coinage survived to the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

Pair of Wristbands with Birds and Palmettes, 9th century, Museum of Byzantine Culture, Thessalonica.

These wonderful pair of wristbands with birds and palmettes were crafted in Constantinople during the ninth century. They were found in Thessalonica, Greece in 1956. What is interesting about these ornamental wristbands is that they were believe it or not buried twice over the centuries. This incredible story first begins in 904 during the sack of the city by the Abbasid Caliphate. It is said that its wealthy owner buried the wristbands in what was once Thessalonica’s textiles district to safeguard them from plunder. When the owner failed to retrieve the wristbands, they were subsequently lost for centuries before they were rediscovered again. Its new owner(s) must have realised the significances of their find and thereafter held onto them until the next period of upheaval forced them too to hide the wristbands. Eventually when these prized wristbands were unearthed for a second time in 1956, they were found as part of a larger horde that included other jewelry and dozens of gold coins, primarily from Venice, as well as a large assembly of Ottoman coins, dating to the mid 1600s.

Robert Horvat is a Melbourne based blogger. He believes that the world is round and that art is one of our most important treasures. He has seen far too many classic films and believes coffee runs through his veins. As a student of history, he favours ancient and medieval history. Music pretty much rules his life and inspires his moods. Favourite artists include The Beatles, Pearl Jam, Garbage and Lana Del Rey.

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