At Large  May 16, 2023  Natasha H. Arora

Hagia Sophia's Zoe Panel as Byzantium’s Evolving Historical Record

Encyclopedia Britannica

Zoe Panel

The popular imagination often dismisses Byzantium’s aesthetic as a static, even regressive contrast to classical technique. Sumptuous and flattened, Byzantine methods abhorred naturalism, and designed art as they did their empire (330 to 1453 CE): as an earthly mirror of Christian heaven. However, this stylization endowed art from the Eastern Roman empire—particularly mosaics—with a politicizing contemporaneousness. Istanbul’s (formerly Constantinople’s) Hagia Sophia remains the most salient example of Byzantine architecture because of its constant adaptation to sociopolitical development; built by Emperor Justinian I (483 to 465 CE) in the sixth century as a Christian church, the building became a mosque, museum, and mosque again, in tandem with its city’s religious oscillation. Its renowned mosaics—particularly the Zoë Panel—embody this purpose as a Byzantine historical record.


Hagia Sophia exterior

Mosaics as a medium originate from Mesopotamia around the 5th century BCE, but dominated visual arts only in fifth- to fifteenth-century Byzantium. Ostrogoth King Theodoric (493 to 526 CE) brought the first fully realized sample of Byzantine art to Western Europe when he built the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy, and the medium took hold as one that could both reflect divinity and physically interact with live audiences. Splendidly dressed visitors, clad in jewel-toned silks or polished military armor could glimmer and sparkle against the jagged glass and gem-encrusted mosaics. This relationship was fully realized when the Hagia Sophia became the imperial family’s primary church. Justinian I installed its first mosaics—though more were added through the twelfth century—into the reign of Empress Zoë Porphyrogenita (978 to 1050 CE). Angled tesserae in the wall decoration not only caught sunrises and nighttime candlelight but reflected human vestments to elevate worshippers into works of art themselves. This phenomenological effect, therefore, activates the mosaic from a passive artistic form and demands audience participation on political grounds.

One obvious instance of this apotheosis is the mosaic panel’s depiction of the Empress Zoë and her husband Constantine IX Monomachos (1000 to 1055 CE) flanking Jesus Christ. Manmade, over-embellished loros costumes and headpieces attempt to mimic Christ’s effortless power, juxtaposed with a simple, bold blue chiton and nimbus. Yet the image unites divinity with human politics and summarizes Constantinople’s ecumenical zeitgeist.


Theodoric's Palace - Sant'Apollinare Nuovo - Ravenna, José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro

The couple’s gifts are even more intriguing: they offer Christ two significant objects to document their contributions to the empire. Constantine’s purse may symbolize royal donations to the Hagia Sophia (reiterating his piousness and encouraging public favor), but it also recalls how recent monetary changes—inflation and the introduction of coin denominations—built a Byzantine economy. The icon of money therefore cements the newfound imperial status Constantine gained upon marriage to Zoë. The Empress’ decree or chrysobull personifies an increasing trend in Constantinopolitan culture toward international trade. The scroll agreements also remind the clergy to recompense the crown with prayer for the royal couple. These two mundane social symbols are promoted by Christ as he raises his hand in a gesture of Orthodox benediction—even more sensational, he sanctifies Zoë’s third marriage.

Wikimedia Commons

Garden of Eden mosaic in mausoleum of Galla Placidia. UNESCO World heritage site. Ravenna, Italy. 5th century A.D.

A material reading of the panel both denies and preserves the scandal of its subject’s marriage. Constantine’s hastily reconstructed face and inscription are embarrassingly overcompensatory, and indicate the portrait was intended to be of Zoë’s previous husband, Michael IV (1010 to 1041) who allegedly helped Zoë murder her first husband, the nobleman Romanos Argyros (968 to 1034). The irony of Zoe’s attempt to cement Constantine IX as her truest husband in history and public favor while building him atop her former spouse is not lost on a twenty-first-century audience—but Christ coerces forgiveness from this looming 2.40 by 2.44-meter panel, and reminds viewers that the overwrought mosaic is a dynamic form, whose irregularity deliberately encapsulates human error. 

Glutted with jewels and fragmented tesserae, the Zoë panel and most other Byzantine art would have surely irritated the likes of Plato and Leochares, but the technical and political mobility of the mosaic cannot be underestimated. Ravenna’s Mausoleum of Galla Placidia and Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo are just a few more examples of how Byzantium’s empire conflated Eastern and Western aesthetics, human and divine selves; the tomb illustrates Christian paradise with indigo ceilings reminiscent of Persian mosques, and the basilica insisted on two-dimensional representations of both the nativity and Theodoric’s palace. The fluidity of Byzantium’s identities (national, religious, alternately iconographic and iconoclastic) created a living, responsive material art—which consequently emerges as a singularly accurate historical record of this animated empire.

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