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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Art and Death in Medieval Byzantium

Dramatic illustrations of saintly deaths, as well as elaborate tombs featuring portraits of the deceased, were among the most powerful and persistent images in medieval Byzantium from the ninth to the fifteenth century. Such artistic monuments expressed both individual and communal ideas about death, and life after death. Byzantine Christians believed in the soul’s gradual separation from the earthly body after dying, led forth by the archangel Michael. This separation of the soul from the flesh happened over the course of three days and concluded ultimately, at the end of time, in the Last Judgment, a belief held commonly by medieval Christians in both East and West. At the Last Judgment, the individual soul was either eternally condemned to hell or placed among the saved in the gardens of Paradise.

Mindfulness of death coupled with the personal obligation to pious behavior and good works were pervasive in Byzantine religious thought and practice. This ethos was succinctly expressed by Archbishop Symeon of Thessaloniki (d. 1429) in the opening of his sermon on death: “We are unendingly and ceaselessly in every moment obliged to care for the things concerning the fearsome and inexorable end of our lives.” Regular prayers offered by the living on behalf of the dead were believed to increase the likelihood of the soul’s favorable judgment. In Theodora Synadene’s charter for the nunnery of the Virgin of Sure Hope in Constantinople (1327–35), the foundress makes this point clear: “[May] the commemorations of the departed be celebrated, as I have instructed, with all zeal and diligence. Thus may the Lord look mercifully and graciously on the souls of those who are commemorated, and give them rest in a bright place . . .” In Byzantine religious practice, prayers could be spoken on behalf of the dead to increase the likelihood of a favorable judgment for that individual at the end of time. Such prayers for the dead in Byzantium were performed in a number of contexts, including: in personal prayers spoken by individuals remembering deceased relatives and loved ones; in monastic rites of commemoration for individuals or families, conducted by nuns and monks at the request of a monastery’s original founder or later benefactors; and in the brief prayers for the entire community of the dead spoken during the regular performance of the Divine Liturgy, or Eucharistic service. Artistic imagery related to death and salvation often served as the immediate backdrop for these rites in honor of the dead.

Important views concerning death were expressed in rich narrative scenes such as the Virgin’s Koimesis, or “falling asleep,” a scene known in the Latin West as the Dormition (17.190.132). The Virgin‘s peaceful falling asleep in death, combined with Christ’s tender embrace of her soul—represented in Byzantine art as a swaddled infant—rendered an ideal image, one in which the Virgin’s soul was conveyed to heaven immediately upon her death. Scenes including the Virgin’s Koimesis, the Crucifixion of Christ (17.190.715ab), and Christ’s Anastasis, also known as the “Harrowing of Hell”, appeared in monumental scale in fresco and mosaic on the walls of churches, often surrounding tombs, and on more intimate objects of personal devotion, including portable icons and pendant reliquaries, displayed at tombs. Entire decorative programs focused on these themes, as well as the Last Judgment, were featured in funerary chapels placed to the north, west, or south of the main church, as well as in annex spaces below the church, in some cases referred to as crypts. One such famous example is the southern funerary chapel in the Church of Christ in Chora, Constantinople, a foundation restored and enlarged by the imperial prime minister, Theodore Metochites, in 1316–21. Chapels were popular interior locations for tombs, as was the church nave (the church’s central ritual space) and the western narthex, or entrance vestibule.

Among the most elaborately decorated funerary monuments in medieval Byzantium was the niche tomb, or arcosolium. The niche tomb was set against or built into the church wall and framed a sarcophagus below. Portraits of the deceased alone or in family groups popularly decorated such arcosolia. These portrayals of the deceased could be executed in large-scale fresco painting or mosaic on the back wall of the arcosolium, or they could be completed in relief carving on the sarcophagus itself. Such images conveyed the physical attributes of the subject, as well as signs of his or her social and economic status, including membership in the elite families of the empire. One of the most significant characteristics of such Byzantine funerary portraiture was the portrayal of the subject as if he or she were still alive, rather than asleep in death. In this context, the deceased stands beside family relations, and can also be shown praying to saintly intercessors in the same composition.

The decorated stone sarcophagus, a centerpiece of the niche tomb, had long been a standard in Early Christian as well as pagan burial in the Mediterranean world (1991.366). This tradition was continued in medieval Byzantium, although increasingly the body of the deceased was laid to rest below the church paving. The decorated sarcophagus—without a corpse inside it—was maintained as a symbol of the body’s presence nearby, and connected this tradition with the earliest Christian burials. Sarcophagi were decorated with a wide range of motifs in relief carving, including intricate floral and vegetal forms, geometric patterns, sacred narratives, and inscriptions naming the deceased. In more rare examples, sarcophagus panels could be decorated with the ancient mythological figure of the griffin (2000.81), which served as a guardian for the tomb and drew upon Byzantium’s longstanding ties to Greco-Roman art and culture. In the Metropolitan’s panel, which formed the short end of a rectangular sarcophagus, the griffin is framed by a medallion and is surrounded by rich intertwining vines and pomegranates at the panel’s four corners, a symbol of eternal life. The seeds of the pomegranate fruit were a common ingredient in the traditional offering of kollyba, a mixture of grains and fruits, distributed on commemorative occasions.

Tombs were also located outside the Byzantine church in adjacent open-air cemeteries, forming an integral part of both the public and sacred landscapes around the church. Gravemarkers in stone, wood, and ceramic were commonly placed in these outdoor cemeteries to identify individual graves, and the most elaborate examples could combine both text and images. A parallel for this type of medieval Christian gravestone comes from the former Byzantine territory of Egypt: a stone gravemarker dating from the seventh to ninth century that records the name of the deceased in the local Coptic language (36.2.6).