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The Byzantine Empire

ASAG Journal

Ancient Byzantine art refers to the artistic style and culture that emerged during the Byzantine Empire, which lasted from the 4th century to the 15th century CE. Byzantine art was heavily influenced by the early Christian art of Rome and the eastern Mediterranean, but also incorporated elements from other cultures such as Persia and Syria.

One of the most distinctive features of Byzantine art is its use of mosaics, which are large, intricate works of art made up of tiny pieces of colored glass, stone, or other materials. These mosaics often depicted religious scenes or figures, such as Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints, and were used to decorate churches and other public buildings.

Another hallmark of Byzantine art is its use of gold leaf and other precious materials, which were used to create dazzling works of art that reflected the wealth and power of the empire. Byzantine artists also excelled in the areas of icon painting, manuscript illumination, and fresco painting, producing some of the most beautiful and intricate works of art in history.

Overall, Byzantine art is significant because it reflects the religious and cultural values of the Byzantine Empire, and represents a unique and influential artistic tradition that continues to inspire artists and scholars today. Byzantine art also played an important role in the development of Western art, particularly during the medieval period, and helped to shape the artistic and cultural heritage of Europe and the Middle East.

The hidden messages in early Byzantine art

& the Barberini Ivory

Ani Margaryan

ASAG Journal

October 29, 2020

*The Barberini ivory is a Byzantine art ivory leaf from an imperial diptych dating from Late Antiquity, now in the Louvre in Paris. This is the only near-complete leaf of an imperial diptych to have come down to us and one of the most well-known artworks of the Byzantine Empire. It owes its name to Cardinal Barberini, to whom Peiresc gave it as a gift, on the back is a list of Barbarian kings and officials of the region, so the early researchers called it also “Barbarianivory.” The artwork was created in the Byzantine Empire in the first half of the sixth century; this period is marked with the rule of Justinian the First Great (527-565).

The upper panel

The upper horizontal panel represents the “St. Saviour in glory”- the medallion in the middle of the composition with the bust of Jesus Christ, which is being held by symmetrically arranged two winged figures considered to be angels or archangels. On his left and right sides the Sun, the Moon, and the Star are depicted schematically, and the medallion itself is the symbol of the Earth or the World, so the whole composition represents Jesus as the conqueror and the Lord of the Universe.


The Upper Panel (Credit: Commentarios de Historia del Arte, 2021)

The interpretation of the beardless and young image of Christ- the iconographic type known as “Emmanuel” has some indirect parallels with the aspiration of the Ancient Greeks of depicting both the humans and Gods in their young and idealized appearance. The iconographic theme “Christ in glory” or “Cross in glory” is frequently executed in Early Christian monuments. However, the structure of the composition and the origin of protagonists are inspired from the Roman marble sarcophagi reliefs of the first to fourth centuries where the deceased soldiers’ or generals’ bust (imago clipeata) in the medallion is being ascent to the heavens by the nude winged figures of Telus and Oceanus.


The left panel

On the left vertical panel there is a male figure in the military attire, standing with one foot in front of another, perhaps captured in the pose of walking, under the arch decorated with two Corinthian orders. On his hand he is holding a female figurine of the winged Victory- Roman goddess of triumph who herself standing in one foot, the other is raised up, she holds a laurel wreath intended for the figure on the central panel to whom the male figure is moving. The interior with the Corinthian orders, type of sandals, the military uniform, the Victory in almost transparent gown which does not hide her body forms, and the wreath- borrowed from the Roman art. The identity of the male figure still is a question of debate, in fact, there are at least three theories on this issue: a Byzantine army soldier, a general of the same army, or a consul.

Male in Military Attire (Credit: Oneonta education, 2022)

The central panel

The first researchers of this artwork suggested a number of theories on who is carved as the warrior and horseman in the central panel. Some of the early suggestions on the depiction of the consul, not the Emperor himself, come from the compositional and stylistic similarities with the “consular diptychs”, but the further studies on the representation of the main figure, the headdress or headgear in the form of the crown, the common features with the depiction of Justinian on the famous mosaic of San Vitale chapel, the head of the lion on his sandal made the scholars believe that it is the Emperor Justinian who is depicted. Moreover, the equestrian statue of Justinian which did not survive to us, the representation of Justinian as the horseman accompanied by Victory in the multiple solidus c. 534, as in case of the discussed ivory, the quantity of the Christian symbols combined with Roman motifs in the coins of Justinian, the stylistic features of the ivory with motifs close to Greco-Roman tradition, and some of them borrowed even without any change of symbolism and usage- left almost no doubt to classify this artwork within the frameworks of the Justinian age and as the rare artwork presenting him as the triumphant emperor. 
The muscles of the right arm holding the spear and the lower part of the bear leg aimed to show him as a physically strong warrior as war itself was not represented. The horse with two front legs raised, in the pose of “roaring” traditional in Greco- Roman art, has both stylistic and iconographical parallels with classical antiquity. The latter’s influence is noticeable on the disproportion of the Emperor’s figure, traces of deformation in the form and shape of his head which is obviously bigger in comparison with the other parts of the body, accentuating the facial expression of Justinian, which is calm, self-confident, full of grace and contemplation, contrasting with the Barbarian face next to his spear. And this calmness therefore quite different from the Roman samples, Justinian is not shown during the battle or being engaged in the war though we see his enemy behind the huge spear. He already won the war and one can admire the results, not the process as Ancient Romans tendered to do.
The eloquent battle scenes are replaced with the tranquil and confident character of the Emperor who does not see the need to represent his efforts on the way of his victory. And the result for the non-depicted victory is the image of the Barbarian next to the enormous spear, and we know he’s a Barbarian at least by his so-called “Phrygian cap”- the attribute which was largely used in Christian art to identify “non-Christians” or “enemies” of Christians. Even the depiction of the “enemies” in “Phrygian caps” is peculiar for Greco-Roman arts (see Ludovisi Battle Sarcophagus).


The Central Panel (Credit: Oneonta education, 2022)

Another Roman feature of the central panel is the use of allegorical figures: the female figure nearby the huge hoof of a royal horse, is looking straightly to the Emperor with admiration, holding his foot with one hand and her drapery with fruits with another, one of her breast is barely closed. This is an allegorical representation of the Earth or the conquered land or the goddess of Earth-Gaia and with her gesture, she’s demonstrating her support to Justinian and the fruits in her hands are the symbol of the prosperous kingdom. Her presence in this composition is another strong accent of the occurred triumph.

The bottom panel

According to the visual qualities and formal characteristics of this horizontal register, we can claim that the subject matter appears to be a “procession”- two human figures similar in clothing and appearance in the left corner and another couple in the right corner also with similar facial features and clothes are linked in the centre by the winged figure- an angel or rather a Victory. The group on the left with their hats, bearded faces, round-shaped big noses, long tunics combined with trousers or pants, are identified as the “barbarian” tribes from the West of the Roman Empire which was during the 6th-century invasions from time to time the borders of Byzantine Empire. One of them holding a circle-symbol of the divine kingship and power, the second one- golden coins in the basket.


The Bottom Panel (Credit: Oneonta education, 2022)

There is also a lion in a bowed position in their row. The current details all together symbolize the following idea: the Barbarians from the West pay tribute to the figure in the central panel-Justinian, by presenting him the best they have- the symbol of divine kingship, their wealth- the gold, and the lion, perhaps one of their symbols or just the allegory of their fallen kingdom bowing to the Byzantine Emperor.
The similar ideas dominate on the right corner too, but with a noted difference: here our gazes are upon the people, “non-Byzantines” from the East- bear-chested, with the Oriental turban, wide, knotted pants and sandals. So these people also accept Justinian as their emperor- giving him all their lands can provide them. The trunk of the elephant is almost touching the so-called “trophy” in the hand of Victory, and the use of the current detail especially in the very centre of the register stresses the idea of the conquest of the West and the East by the Byzantine Empire. The postures and gestures of the figures take their origins from the Roman arts, particularly the fourth-century obelisk reliefs of the Roman Empire Theodosius the First, but the idea of the procession with the highlighted ideology of the conquest and acceptance of the treasures from the conquered lands presented by the natives is yet depicted in the processional scene of the Persepolis, Apadana hall of the Persian kings (c. 520-465 B.C.E.) and seem to have a similar function- to reinforce the breadth of the dominance of the emperor.

The Barberini Ivory (Credit: Wikipedia, 2022)

A tiny compositional trait- the cornerstone of the content and function 

As the possible and obvious parallels with the Greco- Roman art and even certain artefacts are completely done revealing every single influence from Roman ivories and reliefs, a question comes to mind: the variety of motifs, figures, gestures, poses, facial features, and finally the structure of the scene directly and indirectly borrowed from Romans, actually Ancient pagan Romans, so what could be called “Christian” in this ivory? Justinian who was the possible patron of the current ivory wished not only to continue the history of the Great Roman Empire but also to propagandize his devotion to Christianity. So which part or detail of this artwork expresses the current idea and whether does express or not?

Let us have one more glance at the detail which seems to be not that significant: the depiction of the barbarian next to the spear of Justinian. The point is the enormous spear does not go through his body, his leg, and even his shoe. It seems the barbarian- and we already know he is a barbarian by his Phrygian cap and appearance common to the Western barbarians below- just hides behind the spear, holding it by one hand, and raising another pointing Justinian. The gesture of his hand refers to the “astonishment”, either meant to point once again the figure of the Emperor or revives the gesture of the apostles of “following the words of Christ”. Thus the composition claims that Justinian could and had that ability but did not want to kill his enemy on purpose, and the Barbarian himself expresses willingness to follow him. 


The Ivory, left (Credit: Wikipedia, 2022) and The Ivory, right(Credit: Kornbluth Photography, Historical Archives, 2014)

If we turn to the Bible, we’d easily find the verses expressing the ideas of good treatment to foes-enemies, avoiding the violence on them, and that every act of establishing the peace with the enemies could be blessed by God. “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing." (Peter 3:9). Luke writes. “Therefore be merciful just as your Father also is merciful” (Luke 6:36), and finally Matthew tells the story of Christ’s teaching, “You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:43-45). And probably one of the reasons why in the bottom panel of procession barbarians- “evils” are not depicted kneeled or in the pose of begging or hardly suffering in torture in the defeated posture, are the following verses: “Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice”, (Proverbs 24:17) and "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” (Matthew 5:8). The Swedish theologian Ulrich Luz states that the ideas expressed in the current verses “considered the Christian distinction and innovation”, “Love thy enemies” is what separates Christianity from all earlier religions.

So the unknown artist or artists who created this masterpiece and were, as we supposed, from the Christian workshops opened by the court of Justinian, were aware of the new religion and used this motif to stress the image of the Emperor not only as the skillful warrior, triumphant in the “Roman” meaning of this word, but also “victorious” in “Christian” meaning-“peacemaker” who is blessed, who did not hate and decimate his enemies and is “good to them”. This stressed peaceful character of Justinian stands out when we compare to the Roman art samples (Ludovisi Battle Sarcophagus) where the foe is physically and emotionally enduring agony, and the imperial power is expressed in cruelly killing the barbarians and there is no place for mercy. Even comparing the Barberini Ivory with the much earlier artefacts such as the Victory Stele of Naram-Sin (2254-2218 B.C.E.) and Narmer Palette (3200-3000 B.C.E.), as the three artworks have the same narrative- “triumph of the ruler over his foe” and the same iconography in the meaning of “divine victory”. In ancient samples the figures of foes in miseries occupy large parts of the composition, but in case of the Byzantine ivory the very moment of forgiveness and mercy to the enemy-barbarian is pictured avoiding the bloody crowded scenes and human sufferings, even the participants of the procession below seem to be joyful to be the part of Justinian’s empire.

Why did the artists select this character exactly during Justinian’s age and for Justinian himself? At that time rather, the individual preferences of the patron were evaluated more than the artistic goals of the artist himself. The time this diptych was created Justinian ended the long-lasting war with the Sassanid Persia with the “The Perpetual Peace”(ἀπέραντος εἰρήνη), signed in 532 between the East Roman Empire and Sassanid Persia, and this diptych was a great tool of propaganda for the Emperor to represent his political decision as his own “victory”, forming the image of the almighty and wise ruler of Byzantine Empire which prefers peace and established order. More likely the bag with the money on the left panel indicates exactly the amount of gold Justinian paid for the peace with Sassanids. Justinian’s period was not peaceful at all: wars, rebellions, riots, invasions and the own ambitions of the Byzantine Emperor to build the second Roman Empire, so perhaps for stressing the equivalent of victories in these narratives which found their reflections on the Barberini ivory, artists included totally three images of Victories in only one diptych- the one in the procession- Romanised, with “trophy” the other in the hands of the general in the left panel and the last one in the process of crowning the emperor.

Our statement on this artwork to be of propaganda purpose becomes stronger when we explore a bronze panel (Byzantine and Christian Museum of Athens) from the same historical period. The latter’s composition is almost the replica of the Justinian image, the curves, the position on the horse, the gestures of the central figure with the Barbarian on the left. Thereby, the image of “peacemaker” and “peace-defender” Emperor was in need for that time so they repeated it again. Another historical fact which strengthens our theory on the Christian nuance of this ivory is the juridical reforms by Justinian. According to his “Corpus Juris Civilis", numerous provisions served to secure the status of Christianity as the state religion of the empire, uniting Church and state, and making anyone who was not connected to the Christian church a non-citizen. The very first law in the Codex requires all persons under the jurisdiction of the Empire to hold the Christian faith. So for the implementation of these rules Justinian could use numerous artworks just like Barberini ivory, mosaics in Ravenna and the repetition of the ivory composition on the bronze plaques as an example for the citizens of his vast empire how the words and the order of Christ should be followed by and that he is the one who deserves the crown of the Christian emperor who treats his foes with wisdom and kindness.


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The hidden messages in early Byzantine art the Barberini Ivory

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