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Seal of Gregory Asbestas Added to Collection

Posted On August 09, 2021 | 09:49 am | by jonathans | Permalink
Recent acquisition offers insights into the religious turbulence of ninth-century Byzantium

By Jonathan Shea

A seal recently added to the Dumbarton Oaks collection helps to highlight the beliefs and struggles of the Byzantine Church in the turbulent second half of the ninth century. It belonged to Gregory Asbestas, archbishop of Sicily, who rose to prominence in the immediate aftermath of the end of iconoclasm in Byzantium. Under iconoclasm, the production and use of religious images had been declared heretical; Gregory, an iconophile, became archbishop just a year after the restoration of icons in 843. Although Gregory’s side had prevailed, there was no way to know whether that state of affairs would continue—iconoclasm had been overturned once before in 797, only to become imperial policy again in 814. As such, Gregory’s seal was a very public statement of his support for icons. The reverse identifies Gregory in an inscription of five lines as “Gregory, archbishop of Sicily,” in the standard formula of the time. The obverse, however, was quite daring. In the center is a bust of the Virgin holding a medallion of the Christ child before her. She is flanked by two cruciform monograms invoking her help. Around the circumference of the seal is an inscription that reads, “we venerate you, Virgin, and the One born from you.” In this short text Gregory emphasizes two of the chief arguments of the defenders of images: in response to claims that they worshipped inanimate objects, iconophiles argued that they venerated them as a means of worshipping the prototype. Iconoclasts also declared that icons divided the divine and human natures of Christ, and thus were heretical. Iconophiles countered with arguments centered on the Incarnation, a side effect of which was to further elevate the status of the Virgin. By depicting the Virgin and inscribing references to two of the chief arguments of the iconophiles, Gregory was publicly supporting a return to iconography.

Obverse and reverse of lead seal of Gregory Asbestas, archbishop of Sicily, depicting Virgin holding Child.
Seal of Gregory Asbestas, Archbishop of Sicily (photos: Leu Numismatik AG, Web Auction 16, Lot 4118).

Even with the issue of iconoclasm settled, the Byzantine Church was wracked by division, often over how to treat former iconoclasts. Despite his fervent support for the iconophile position, Gregory came to side with the moderate patriarchs of Constantinople, Methodios I (843–837) and Photios (858–867, 877–886) against their more hard-line rivals, chiefly Ignatios (847–858, 867–877). Ignatios deposed Gregory as archbishop in 853. Gregory continued to resist Ignatios, inviting Pope Leo IV to intervene in the struggles within the Byzantine Church on his behalf. When Ignatios was himself deposed in 858, not only was Gregory restored, he also led the consecration of the new patriarch Photios. Gregory was deposed again when Ignatios regained the throne and then restored once more when Photios was reinstated in 877. He ended his career as Metropolitan of Nicaea (879­–880).

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Jonathan Shea is associate curator of coins and seals.