Some of the most splendid works of art from Byzantium are small-scale objects of personal Christian piety. Miniature icons can be as brilliant and powerful as objects of grandeur, and even as impactful as large-scale Church décor. Such is the case with this exceptional and intricate two-sided medallion. Composed of intensely bright, glittering polychrome enamel, each side displays a bust of a Church Father with identifying attributes and inscriptions.
The apogee of art production in Constantinople is customarily considered to be the centuries of the Middle Byzantine Period, from the Ninth through the Twelfth Century. It was during this era that the fashioning of enamel for items of luxury was fully refined, and Constantinople was the centre of its artistry. The vibrantly-coloured enamel cloisonné mimics inlays of precious and semi-precious stones.
One side of this spectacular medallion portrays Saint George. He is depicted as a young, beardless man with a thick, dark, curly hair. His head is surrounded by a circular halo of bright turquoise hue. He wears a multicolored cope and holds a large cross before him. He is identified by an inscription. Saint George was a soldier in the Roman army in the Third Century. Born to a Christian family, he kept true to his faith and denounced an edict under the Emperor Diocletian that required all Roman soldiers to offer sacrifices to the Roman gods. He was tortured and executed at Diocletian’s orders – and became honoured and revered as a martyr to the Church. Saint George has since remained a prominent Church Father, especially emphasizing his military affiliations.
The other side of the medallion vividly portrays Saint Nicholas. The entire background is of bright turquoise and the circular halo surrounding the head of the elderly Church Father is bright green. He is depicted with a high forehead and receding hair line, with grey hair and full beard. He wears a rich blue cope and an omophorion of white with black crosses. He holds a book under his left arm and makes a sign of blessing with his right hand. He can be identified by these attributes, in addition to the inscription that surrounds him in the field. Saint Nicholas was a prominent Fourth Century Bishop and Church leader. The iconography as he is displayed here, with greying beard and holding a book, has remained virtually unchanged for well over 1500 years.
Cormack, R., Byzantine Art (Oxford, 2000).
Kitzinger, E., et al., Handbook of the Byzantine Collection, Dumbarton Oaks (Washington, DC, 1967).
Ross, M.C. and Weitzmann, K., Catalogue of the Byzantine and Early Mediaeval Antiquities in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Volume 2 (Washington, D.C., 1965).
T. S. Collection, London, 1963.
B. Y. Collection, Zurich, 1985.