Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Saints and Other Sacred Byzantine Figures

The main focus of Byzantine devotion was the Virgin Mary, but certain other sacred figures were prominent in Byzantine spiritual life as well. Two of the most important and frequently depicted saints were the apostles Saint Peter and Saint Paul. They appear in silver panels (50.5.1; 50.5.2), cloisonné enamels (17.190.670; 17.190.673), and ivory (17.190.132), as well as other media.

A very popular religious figure was Theodore Teron, the warrior saint traditionally represented with a dark pointed beard and either riding a horse or slaying a beast. On the intaglio gemstone illustrated here (1999.325.227), he is shown slaying a multiheaded dragon with a long lance. The composition of this scene is reminiscent of classical renditions of Herakles slaying the Hydra.

The archangel Michael, who appears in Revelation 12:7–9 fighting a dragon, is another popular saint in Byzantine art. Like Theodore, Michael is depicted with warrior attributes and venerated as a military saint. On a capital depicting a bust of Michael (1983.167), he wears the traditional dress of the archangels and carries a trilobed scepter in his right hand and, in his left, an orb with a cross symbolizing the divine cosmos. Whereas this bust is most likely from the interior of a Late Byzantine church, Michael also appears in smaller and secular works of art. For example, an oval cameo of an archangel (40.20.58) is most likely a portrait of Michael. Here he wears full military costume and holds a sword sheath in his left hand and a sword in his right.

Some painted icons show fully imagined portraits of other saints, such as John the Theologian and Nicholas from group of 4 Icons (2013.980a, d). Icons of saints can also exist as wall paintings (2000.526). A typically Byzantine practice is to assemble a whole group of saints, like a pictorial litany. Often these are arranged to form a frame around another image, such as in this steatite multipart icon (63.68.1–.13) and this frame of enamels (17.190.670).