Medieval Wall

Jul 17 2010

Categories: Painting

Images of Byzantine Emperors in Mosaics of Hagia Sophia


Hagia Sophia holds preserved one of the largest corpuses of mosaics imaging Byzantine emperors. They are sacramential mosaics, in which the emperors are displayed bearing gifts or kneeling before the Christ or Virgin Mary. Residing on the walls of the church, where figures of saints are usually displayed, the emperors, shown with aureolas on their heads, are also represented as holy figures.

Emperor and Art in Byzantium

Byzantium was founded in 330 when the Roman emperor Constantine had chosen a Greek colony Byzantion to be the new metropolis of the Eastern part of the Roman Empire. In a few years he expanded the city and fortified it heavily. The new metropolis got its name after its founder – Constantinople. Under the rule of Constantine’s sons and grandsons, the Eastern Roman Empire amalgamated with the Western Empire several times, but in 395 emperor Theodosius finally divides the Empire to the Eastern and the Western. The Eastern part was heavily influenced by the Greek, Helenic civilization, and the Western by the Latin.1 „Eventhough Byzantium was aware of its relation to the old Rome, through time it alienated further away from the original Roman foundations. Culturally and linguistically the hellenization and theocratization of the Empire was manifesting further more (during the emperor Heracliu’s reign, the government will have started using Greek language exclusively, and the Greek word basileus will have become the official title of the Byzantine rulers.)“.2 In Byzantium the ruler and the Church were very interwined, and the emperor had also a very high influence on the religion itself. Since emperor Arcadius and his banishment of the patriarch John Chrysostom,3 the Church is subjected to the supreme authority of the emperor.

Images of Emperors in Hagia Sophia

In 11th century, a special type of sacramental painting is developed in Constantinople. The paintings display Christ or Virgin Mary sitting in the throne amid the emperor and the empress. Hagia Sophia was, as a court’s church, especially suitable for such displays.4

Virgin Mary Amid the Emperors Justinian and Constantine

Virgin Mary Amid the Emperors Justinian and ConstantineThis mosaic resides in the southern portal narthex and they are originated in 990. It is believed that this mosaic was made for the emperor Basil II, who notably admired those two of his great predecessors. Although it is generally acknowledged this mosaic dates from the 10th century, there are some doubts to this theory.5 The mosaic itself displays Virgin Mary on the throne, with Christ in her lap, holding a pen and a scroll in his hands. They are being approached by the emperor Justinian on their left. Justinian is holding in his hands a model of the church of Hagia Sophia. In the opposite, the emperor Constantine is holding in his hand a miniature model of the city of Constantinople, named after him. They are both offering these sacramential gifts to the Virgin Mary. Format of the mosaic is semicircular, and it also shows an indication of space. Even though its background’s colour is gold, the low part, containing the characters, is green, therefore marking the ground. The heads of all the characters, including the two emperors, are surrounded by aureolas, thereby classifying the emperors themselves divine, or sacred. The mosaic is realized particularly meticulously, with numerous details on the emperor’s outfits and crowns. Next to them are different inscriptions celebrating their rulership.“This mosaic is not just a mere artistic expression of a certain theme, but it shows a distinct relation of the Church and the Empire with God, who bestows his blessings to the church, the ruler and the state.“.6 Remarking glorious ancestors, and the setup of the Empire’s capital city, and its primary church, signifies the reconstruction of the city and the entire Empire under Basil II.

Pantocrator Amid Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos and Empress Zoe

Pantocrator Amid Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos and Empress ZoeThis mosaic, stationed in the southern gallery, shows three characters. The one in the middle is the Christ Pantocrator sitting in the throne, and standing next to him are emperor Constantine IX Monomachos and empress Zoe. The emperor and the empress are clothed luxuriously, with precious stones and pearls, whilst the Christ’s clothing is slightly simpler. Constantine holds a sack of gold, and Zoe holds a scroll with the list of her donations to the Church. This obviosuly indicates this mosaic’s sacramential nature. It originated between 1028 and 1034, but in 1041 was partially chipped, and then in 1042 finalized in its altered form.7 The reason for this was that empress Zoe was married to emperor Romanos III Argyros, who died in 1034; however, in 1041 Michael V assumed power, banished Zoe, and chipped the mosaic. Afterwards, the people summoned her back, and she married Constantine Monomachos soon after her return. After the mosaic had been rebuilt in 1042, a new emperor, Constantine, was displayed in it instead of Romanos III.8 This is a vivid example of how Byzantine court and state policy could be visible even in an artwork and its history. Stylistically, this mosaic is a continuation of the 9th and 10th century works, also residing in Hagia Sophia. Nevertheless, the figure of the Christ is slightly different then this period’s regular kind. Such display of Christ would have been expected much later, in the 11th century. The explanation for this lies in the fact that all the three heads have been restored later on, which was first observed by Whittemore when he noticed the tiles on the heads part of the mosaic are slightly thicker then the rest.9

Virgin Mary with Emperor John II Komnenos and Empress Irene

Virgin Mary with Emperor John II Komnenos and Empress IreneThe mosaic resides in the eastern wall of the southern gallery. By style, it is very similar to the prior, also residing in the southern gallery. The central figure is Virgin Mary in a blue maphorion holding the baby Christ in her arms. Emperor John II Komnenos and empress Irene are dressed luxuriously, wearing crowns on their heads, and holding the same objects as Constantine and Zoe in their hands. The emperor carries a sack of gold, and the empress a scroll. Virgin Mary’s lips are flat, the same as Christ’s, and their cheeks are convex and modelled rather traditionally, just like on the three characters in the previous mosaic. The Christ’s expression is somewhat ominous (as in grown-up, instead of a child), which contrasts to Virgin Mary’s equanimity. The portraits are more precise here then in the image of Constantine and Zoe, probably as a result of a subsequent restoration. John Komnenos is displayed showing expressive personality, whilst the empress, whose beauty was written about even at their time,10 is presented here in a slightly more conventional manner.

Emperor Alexios Komnenos

He found his place banked with emperor John Komnenos and empress Irene, on the eastern wall of the southern gallery. In the display, the emperor is seventeen years old. His face is agitated, and the wide, relaxed mouth even emphasize this impression. C. Rufus Morey believes there are two tendencies in this type of portraits. Firstly, there is a significant resemblance between these and the portraits of donors on the walls of Serbian churches from the middle of the 12th century. Secondly, they, along with the previous image of Christ, indicate an antirealistic style, which was soon to be widely accepted, therefore disturbing the steady balance of classical byzantine style.11 These pieces from Hagia Sophia are the first examples of a later phase of Byzantine art in Constantinople. That style was up until then illustrated only in provincial works so it was commonly known as the macedonian style.12

The Christ and Emperor Leo the Wise

The Christ and Emperor Leo the WiseIt is located above the main entrance from the narthex to the nave. Christ is presented on the throne, blessing with his arm, and holding an inscription in another. On his left is emperor Leo the Wise kneeling prone before him. Inside the medallions on his left and right are images of Virgin Mary and archangel Gabriel. As shown here, they are the emperors spiritual proponers, their apperance here may signify their imperial patronage.13 Leo was the first successor of the emperor Basil, who is the founder of the Macedonian dinasty. This was documented by his contemporary Anthony of Novgorod: „… a large image above the portal displaying the emperor and lord Leo the Wise with a gemstone on his forehead that lights the church of Hagia Sophia at night“.14 The gemstone might be the cross made of pearls above the emperor’s diadem. If this lunette dates from the period of Leo VI, then it shows the continuity in making of mosaics in Hagia Sophia starting with his predecessor Basil the Macedonian. Basil’s Life does not mention any other mosaics related to his patronage, even though the 9th century style can be seen in other mosaics of this church as well.15

Significance of these Mosaics

By familiarizing with the style, the iconography and the setting of these mosaics, one can assume some conclusions on their significance. First of all, it is important to notice the role and the position of a byzantine emperor, basileus. Along with the civil government, he had large authorities regarding the issues of the Church (i.e. the iconoclastic period was started and ended by the emperors). In artistic displays, emperors and empresses, apart from the attributes of their profane government and luxurious clothes with pearls and gemstones, have also had aureolas. By this, they have been charactered as saintly or divine. On most of mosaics represented here, emperors and empresses are displayed together with Virgin Mary or Christ. Still, they are not displayed as equals, instead the emperors are bearing gifts or bowing to the Christ and Virgin Mary. This infers that these are all sacramential mosaics. Their purpose can especially be seen by the attributes held by the empresses (i.e. Zoe or Irene), and that is the scroll with a list of imperial endowments. On the other hand, the emperor carries a sack of gold. We can conclude from this that, with these gifts to the Church in this world, they were trying to secure a better place for them in the next one. And to make a bigger point, they created these sacramental mosaics in the main church of Constantinople – the Hagia Sophia. With this they were setting an example for the common people, and by showing their act emphasizing their generosity and humility before God. On the other hand, this way they are showing to the little man, passing by these mosaics, of their generosity and true religious life, therefore encouraging him to follow his emperor’s example. Naturally, this way the image of the emperor is preserved on the walls of the court’s church, for the next generations to remember him, as a good and righteous ruler.

  • Mosaic is a technique that is particularly characteristic for Byzantine art
  • The age of Iconoclasm was initiated and completed by the Byzantine emperors
  • In these visual representations of emperors and empresses beside attributes of their government they are also shown with halo
  • ANĐELKO BADURINA, Leksikon ikonografije, liturgike i simbolike zapadnog kršćanstva, Kršćanska sadašnjost, Zagreb, 2006. [1979.]
  • ANDRE GRABAR, Vizantija, Vizantijska umetnost srednjega veka (od VIII do XV veka), Novi Sad, 1969.
  • CHARLES RUFUS MOREY, The Mosaics of Hagia Sophia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, Vol. 2, No. 7, str. 201.-210., 1944.
  • CHRISTA SCHUG-WILLE, Bizant i njegov svijet, Otokar Keršovani, Rijeka, 1970.
  • ANIA SKLIAR, Bizant, Extrade, Rijeka, 2005.
  • MELITA TOMAŠEVIĆ (ur.), Povijest svijeta, Marjan tisak, Split, 2005.
  • 1 (ed.) MELITA TOMAŠEVIĆ, Povijest svijeta, Split, 2005., 333.
  • 2 „Premda je Bizant bio svjestan svoje veze sa starim Rimom, tijekom vremena sve se više udaljavao od prvotnih rimskih osnova. U kulturi i u jeziku sve se jače očitovala helenizacija Carstva i njegova teokratizacija (od vremena cara Heraklija i vlada će se početi služiti isključivo grčkim jezikom, a grčki naziv basileus postat će službeni naziv bizantskih vladara.)“ (ed.) MELITA TOMAŠEVIĆ (note 1), 333.
  • 3 Opširnije u (ed.) MELITA TOMAŠEVIĆ (note 1), 333.
  • 4 CHRISTA SCHUG-WILLE, Bizant i njegov svijet, Otokar Keršovani, Rijeka, 1970., 164.
  • 5 First of all, because the mosaic looks is difficult to accept as style from the late tenth century. Figures of strong volumes were placed in an area that does not appear in Byzantine art of this period.
  • 6 „Ovaj mozaik nije samo puki likovni prikaz zadane teme nego pokazuje jasnu povezanost Crkve i države s Bogom koji blagoslivlja crkvu, vladara i državu (grad).“ MILUTIN GARČEVIĆ, Mozaik, Zagreb, 2006., 160.
  • 7 CHRISTA SCHUG-WILLE (note 4), 164.
  • 8 CHRISTA SCHUG-WILLE (note 4), 164.
  • 9 CHARLES RUFUS MOREY, The Mosaics of Hagia Sophia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, Vol. 2, No. 7 (Mar., 1944.), 204.
  • 10 CHARLES RUFUS MOREY (note 9), 205.
  • 11 CHARLES RUFUS MOREY (note 9), 205.
  • 12 CHARLES RUFUS MOREY (note 9), 205.
  • 13 CHARLES RUFUS MOREY (note 9), 207.
  • 14 CHARLES RUFUS MOREY (note 9), 206.
  • 15 CHARLES RUFUS MOREY (note 9), 207.


add comment +

Your comment