The Imperial Image

Individual Portrait or Generic Ruler

The imperial image appears on all the seals issued by the rulers of Byzantium, with the exception of those of some of the Iconoclast emperors. Over time the imperial portrait adapted to reflect changing fashion: clothing and imperial regalia altered, beards became a sign of manhood, and turned busts transitioned into facing busts, three quarter busts, and standing figures. One thing remained constant—the seals contained an image of the majesty of empire. The ruler was depicted dressed in, and holding, symbols of authority and power. Yet the way the person beneath the costume was illustrated changed greatly, and these changes reveal much about the emperor himself and the time in which he lived. This section traces the development of the imperial image from the stylistic representations of the sixth century, via the portraiture of the seventh century and of the Macedonian period, to the generic images that became dominant from the eleventh century until the end of the empire.

The emperors of the sixth century depicted themselves in a rather generic way. Between one emperor and the next, from Justin I (518–527) to Maurice (582–602), almost nothing changed in the way the emperor's face was shown. Justin I, Justinian, and Justin II are shown nimbate, while Tiberios II and Maurice are not. For a brief period, perhaps one year, Justin II was depicted with a short beard. Beyond that, the face of each ruler closely resembled that of his predecessors. The inscriptions, however, do change, each being updated to fit the new emperor. Thus while it was important to demonstrate in words that Justin II had succeeded Justinian I, visually the priority was to portray a never ending procession of imperial power; continuity, not individuality, was key.

The fashion for stylized representations of the emperor changed when Phokas murdered Maurice in 602. From then until the beginning of the eighth century the emperors took care to place not only their names, but also their likenesses on seals and coins. Phokas (602–610) himself is instantly recognizable due to his pointed beard. His successor, Herakleios (610–641), took Phokas's decision to use a portrait of the emperor two steps further, by adding portraits of his sons and by depicting himself aging. Thus seals from early in his reign show a young man with a tidy beard alongside his infant son, and seals from two decades later show Herakleios as an old man with a large bushy beard and mustache, and with a son who matches him in height. This depiction of aging was adopted by all the members of Herakleios's family. None of the men who ruled after Justinian II, either between his two reigns or after his final overthrow and execution, survived for long enough to need to show themselves aging on their seals or coins. Without exception, however, they all continued the tradition of Phokas in depicting actual likenesses of themselves, rather than stylized representations of imperial power. The last of these to be represented in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection is Philippikos (711–713), who is shown with a curly beard, wearing his consular costume.

In the design of imperial seals, as in so much else, the reign of Leo III (717–741) ushered in great changes. Although he initially followed the designs of his predecessors by depicting his own image and later adding that of his son, Leo soon instituted a new, aniconic design that did not feature the imperial portrait. Instead the emperor, and often his colleague, was represented in the finely formed inscription on the reverse of the seal. As all of the emperors from the first Iconoclast period had the names Leo or Constantine, the inscriptions remained constant, either reading Leo and Constantine or Constantine and Leo; the impression of the continuity and timelessness of imperial power is akin to that given by the sixth-century progression of identical portraits.

Following the overthrow of Iconoclasm in 787, the imperial image returned to seals and was used by Constantine VI (780–797), Eirene (797–802), Nikephoros I (802–811), and Staurakios (811). These images, however, display a move away from portraiture, a trend which can be seen on the coins of the eighth century. Apart from the distinction of gender (only apparent because of differences in costume) and of age or seniority (shown through the presence or absence of a beard), no attempts were made to represent the emperor as a specific individual. Aniconic seals were restored along with Iconoclasm in 814 and continued until the final restoration of icons in 843. With the return of icons in the religious sphere, images of the emperors returned to their seals. However, there was no return to the portraiture of the seventh century, but rather the resumption of the stylized representations of 780–814.

Basil I, and the early members of the Macedonian dynasty he founded, continued to show themselves in the iconoclast style that had been common for over a century. Basil I, Leo VI, and Alexander all depicted themselves alongside their junior colleagues on their seals, but although the two emperors wear different regalia, the only way to distinguish between them physically is by the presence of a beard on the face of the senior ruler. Even here we are not seeing an attempt at representing the real image of a bearded, older emperor. In many cases the junior emperor was also an adult, and thus likely bearded, in fact the image of a junior emperor remained consistent whether he was an infant or an adult. The beard denotes seniority, not whether the individual in question actually had facial hair. Although the early Macedonians did not use portraits on their seals Leo VI struck a type of solidus on which he placed a portrait of himself. This reform was not adopted by his brother and successor Alexander.

As under Phokas in 602, it was a usurper who reinstated the use of individualized images on seals. In ca. 929 Romanos I Lekapenos decided to change the design of his seals. Previously he had been depicted, along with his son–in–law Constantine VII and his son Christopher, in the style common since the institution of Iconoclasm by Leo III. On his new seals a portrait of Romanos is shown in the centre, although Constantine and Christopher continued to be depicted in the old style.

When depicted alone all of Romanos's successors until the mid-eleventh century continued this use of portraiture. The trend is particularly noticeable in the very fine seals of Constantine VII. Although the portraits of the emperors from John I Tzimiskes to Isaakios I Komnenos are not are as well executed as those of Romanos I and Constantine VII there does seem to have been a conscious effort to distinguish the features of one emperor from another. On seals representing joint rulers, Constantine VII and Romanos II, and Basil II and Constantine VII, traditional stylized representations of the emperors were used instead of portraits.

With the rise to power of Constantine X, the Middle Byzantine experiment with portraiture on seals ended. Constantine and all of his successors chose to be depicted standing. The small size of Byzantine seals did not allow the engravers the space to carve exact likenesses on a standing figure. As with seals from the sixth century, it is the inscription that allows us to distinguish between one emperor and another, a process aided by the fact that most emperors after Constantine X chose to include their family names on their seals. Thus we can distinguish between Alexios I Komnenos and Alexios III Angelos, and between John II Komnenos and John III Doukas Vatatzes; however the seals of Andronikos II Palaiologos and Andronikos III Palaiologos are very difficult to tell apart.

 

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