Veneration is not Humiliation: A Theological Interpretation of the Mosaic over the Imperial Door of the Hagia Sophia

“If one called this day the beginning and day of Orthodoxy (lest I say something excessive), one would not be far wrong. For though the time is short since the pride of the iconoclastic heresy has been reduced to ashes, and true religion has spread its light to the ends of the world, fired like a beacon by imperial and divine command, this too is our ornament; for it is the achievement of the same God-loving reign.”[1]
Patriarch Photios, Homily 17

More than two decades after the resolution of the Iconoclastic Controversy—a political and theological struggle that created fissures within the Byzantine empire’s two most powerful institutions, state and church—the patriarch Photios (858-867, 877-886) dedicated the first figurative mosaic to decorate the interior of the Hagia Sophia with a homily that not only affirmed the orthodoxy of the iconophile position, but also demonstrated the unity of church and state on this theological issue that had proved so divisive. The image of the Virgin situated in the glittering apse of “The Great Church” may have been the first monumental icon ceremonially celebrated by both patriarch and emperor in the post-iconoclastic period, but it was by no means the last. The redecoration of the church that began in 867 had theological and political overtones.[2] The church itself was, after all, not just the seat of the patriarchy, but it was the imperial cathedral, the site of imperial coronation ceremonies, and the church where the emperor and his family participated in the liturgy and received communion.

In the late ninth or early tenth century a mosaic was installed in the narthex above the Imperial Door, where the emperor greeted the Patriarch and paused to light candles before joining the liturgical procession into the naos of the church.[4] The scene depicting an emperor bowed down on his knees with open hands outstretched in petition before Christ enthroned has no known precedent in Byzantine imperial iconography.[5] The mosaic is so unusual that Oikonomides characterizes it as “a hapax in Byzantine art.”[6] Inscriptions nearly always identify figures in Byzantine art, particularly in monumental art; but this prostrate emperor is anonymous, a detail that has been noted by scholars who concede that the lack of inscription cannot be “mere oversight” and most likely points to the fact that the identity of the emperor was intentionally obscured to allow for a broad range of meanings. Despite this observation, the range of meanings proffered by scholars remains surprisingly narrow. Although there may be debate surrounding the identity of the emperor, there is general agreement on the clarity of the meaning of the mosaic—the meaning must be political, a statement about the relationship between church and state after a long period of friction between the ecclesiastical and imperial spheres.

This view largely depends on interpreting the physical posture of a kneeling emperor as “extreme humiliation” before heavenly and, by implication, patriarchal authority.[9] According to this reading, the mosaic becomes “a record of the subjection of the earthly ruler to Christ and the church,”[10] an interpretation that would, as Hans Belting argues, make the image a “a statement of true political significance.”[11] However, I will argue that the political import of the image should not be allowed to eclipse the theological content of the mosaic. In contrast to interpreters who have been primarily attentive to the historical context that occasioned the creation of the mosaic and to the political implications of the image, I will focus primarily on its theological meaning. I propose that the mosaic is a pointed statement about the orthodoxy of the iconodule position—it is not an image to be venerated; it is an image that in its portrayal of the veneration of an icon of Christ by the most powerful figure in the empire publicly sanctions the practice, giving it the imperial and patriarchal seal of approval.

To set the stage, I will begin with a brief consideration of the historical situation, and then move to a discussion of the theological polemic inherent in the image that is expressed in the proskynesis of the emperor, in the figure of Christ enthroned, and in the iconic medallions of Mary and the angel Michael. Each of these compositional elements touch on theological issues that were at the center of the iconoclastic controversy—the veneration of holy icons, the incarnation as a justification for figurative representation of Christ, and the circumscribability of Christ, his mother, and spiritual beings. Leslie Brubaker’s observation that “images are the indices of socially constructed meaning and the constructors of social meaning,”[12] holds true for this mosaic, which touches on some of the most sensitive theological issues within Byzantine society in the wake of iconoclasm and which makes a powerful statement trumpeting “The Triumph of Orthodoxy”[13]


Scholars are in agreement that the mosaic above the Imperial Door was produced in the post-iconoclastic era in the late ninth or early tenth century. More precise dating of the image depends on the identity of the emperor represented at the foot of Christ’s throne and the identification of the historical incident that occasioned the creation of the mosaic.[14] A general consensus has arisen that the penitent ruler must be Leo VI, whose marriage to a fourth wife brought him into direct conflict with the patriarch Nicholas Mystikos.[15] The debacle came to a dramatic climax on Christmas Day 906, when the patriarch refused to allow the Emperor to enter the Hagia Sophia to celebrate the liturgy. Returning on January 6, 907 on the Feast of Epiphany, Leo VI was again barred from the church and, according to the author of the Vita Euthymii, “he cast himself on the ground and, having wept a long time, rose up again and said to the Patriarch: ‘Go in, my Lord, absolutely without hindrance from me. For, for the multitude of my unmeasured trespasses, rightly and justly am I suffering.”[16]

Such a public confrontation between patriarch and emperor must have sent shock waves through the city and featured prominently in the collective imagination of the time.[17] But Leo VI’s submission to the censure of the patriarch was not to last: he soon exiled Nicholas Mystikos after refusing to repudiate the Empress Zoe, mother to Constantine VII, Leo’s only son and heir to the throne. Even after Leo VI’s confession on his deathbed, the Tetragamy Quarrel, as the controversy surrounding Leo VI’s fourth wife came to be known, continued to be a source of unresolved tension between the imperial family and the patriarch until 920, when Constantine VII signed the Tomis Unionis, a document outlining regulations related to marriage that vindicated Nicholas Mystikos, “since it clearly ratified the righteousness of his acts.”[18] Subsequently, Mystikos was reinstated as patriarch.

Oikonomides argues that these events—particularly the showdown between emperor and patriarch in front of the Imperial Door—provided the inspiration for the mosaic in question, which Nicholas Mystikos commissioned just after 920 as a monument to his triumph over the emperor, concluding that the posture of the emperor in the mosaic signifies “extreme humiliation”[19] and that the image as a whole functions as “a picture of the subjection of the earthly ruler to the Eternal Ruler’s commands as carried out by the latter’s representatives.”[20] The mosaic functions, then, as a symbolic warning to future emperors who would pass through the imposing doors.[21]


The interpretation of the mosaic as a political message from patriarch to emperor strikes me as unsatisfyingly one-dimensional, particularly because it assumes that the emperor’s proskynesis, the act of bowing down before the enthroned Christ, should be interpreted as “extreme humiliation.”[22] This reading of the image borders on anachronistic—an imposition of modern Western sensibilities on an ancient Eastern practice that carried a host of associations in the Byzantine mind.

During the iconoclastic period proskynesis as the physical expression of the veneration of the holy icons was a lightening rod for controversy, prompting theologians of the period to articulate a justification for the practice. John of Damascus defined veneration, physically expressed by proskynesis, as a symbol of submission and honor, carefully delineating no less than five kinds of veneration owed to God, all of which are due to the holy icons since the veneration of the image passes to the divine archetype.[23] In John’s estimation veneration of Christ, and icons of him, was not only appropriate, it was necessary. Proskynesis was recognized as a legitimate response to a visual representation of the Word made flesh, a point made clear in a speech given by Patriarch Germanos in 730: “When, to come straight to the point, we contemplate the figure of the true God made man for our redemption, we are cast down, for we remember with awe his presence in the flesh on earth, which happened because of his great compassion.”[24]

After the final resolution of the iconoclastic controversy in 843 when the Empress Theodora ensured the restoration of images in churches throughout the empire, proskynesis was seen as “the most effective demonstration of adherence to the official doctrine of the Church,”[25] in step with the decision of the Second Council of Nicea (787), which unequivocally affirmed the practice and placed under anathema those who failed to “salute the venerable images.”[26] The emperor Basil I gave voice to the post-iconoclastic imperial perception of proskynesis in a speech before the Eighth Ecumenical Council (869), expressing the view “that there is no shame in prostrating oneself before God,” adding “that he would be first to throw himself to the ground in proskynesis, regardless of his purple and his diadem.”[27] To the tenth century Byzantine populace, then, the image of an emperor prostrate before the throne of Christ was more likely to convey the emperor’s Orthodoxy than his humiliation. Submission before Christ was viewed as righteous and essential, not as shameful and weak.

Nevertheless, the humility of the emperor is striking because his posture is so obviously different from that of other members of the imperial family portrayed in the Hagia Sophia, all of whom stand erect, regal, dignified.

Mosaic over the southwestern door into the narthex of the Hagia Sophia. Constantine and Justinian offer Christ models of the city walls and imperial cathedral.
Mosaic over the southwestern door into the narthex of the Hagia Sophia. Constantine and Justinian offer Christ models of the city walls and imperial cathedral.

In the mosaic over the door in the southwestern portal, Constantine and Justinian barely incline their heads in the direction of their heavenly sovereign, to whom they offer models of the city and the church, respectively. But even if the image of a prostrate sovereign is unique in imperial monumental iconography, the image does have a clear precedent in illustrated manuscripts of the time—a precedent that touches on the role of the emperor as the ideal priest-king and sheds light on the theological implications of our mosaic.

The oldest known Byzantine image of the penitence of King David appears in f.143 of the Paris Gregory—an illustrated collection of the sermons of Gregory Nazianus produced for Basil I by the patriarch Photios in the late ninth century. David is depicted bowed down on his knees, his hands open and outstretched, penitent before Nathan, who confronts him with his sin with Bathsheba. The painting bears obvious parallels to our mosaic, and the likeness of the two humbled rulers is undeniable. David’s penitence was part of the well-known corpus of Old Testament Byzantine iconography: similar images can be found in the Paris Psalter (, Khludov Psalter, Sacra Parallela, Bristol Psalter, Marciana Psalter, and Vatican Book of Kings.[29] In each of these instances, David’s prostration is clearly a sign of his admission of guilt, and his outstretched hands demonstrate his plea for restoration and forgiveness, evidence that seems to add weight to the interpretation that the mosaic over the Imperial Door represents a particular emperor in need of repentance.[30]

Nonetheless, even if we view the veneration portrayed in the mosaic as confessional, in line with Brubaker’s observation that “David’s proskynesis visualized Byzantine confessional practice,”[31] there are still two good reasons to see iconophile resonances here. First, John of Damascus, whose Treatise on the Divine Images was one of the most influential apologias for icons, had explicitly defined repentance and confession as the fifth kind of veneration owed to God—“for when we have sinned we venerate God and fall down before him.”[32] And second, “the reinstatement of images that had been violently removed was presented [by the iconodules] as an act of atonement.[33] Moreover, it was an act of atonement for which the emperor wanted to receive credit, as the now badly damaged mosaic inscription accompanying the apse mosaic in the Hagia Sophia makes abundantly clear: “The images which the imposters [iconoclasts] had cast down here pious emperors have again set up.” If “pious emperors” have drawn attention to their faithfulness in restoring icons to the interior of the church with a public mosaic inscription in the apse, it seems probable that they would be pleased by an image in the narthex portraying an emperor piously assuming the appropriate orthodox position before them—proskynesis.

Any image associating the Byzantine emperor with the King of Israel, God’s anointed and the progenitor of Christ, even one portraying his humility, was bound to be flattering to the imperial family. Indeed, as an ideal ruler David was the Old Testament figure most frequently associated with the reigning emperor in Byzantium—as evidenced by a carved ivory box housed in the Palazzo Venezia in Rome that depicts the Byzantine imperial couple surrounded by scenes from the life of David.[35] The relationship between the emperor and the ideal Israelite king was so deeply significant to the Byzantines that both iconoclasts and iconophiles used the comparison to advance their agendas. McGuckin argues that the iconoclast emperor Leo III’s political theology was derived from his conviction that his status as King-Priest gave him the authority to pronounce judgments bearing on the church as a whole, an authority he exercised when he commanded Gregory II to remove all icons from churches in the empire.[36]

Leo’s iconoclast understanding of his prerogatives as a divinely appointed ruler contrasted with the iconophile view articulated by the monks that “the king fulfilled his religious role only insofar as he stood within the communion of the elect and not over it.”[37] Although Leo III’s iconoclastic policy was ultimately defeated, his political theology that perceived the Byzantine emperor as an extension of the Davidic line was not fundamentally challenged. Kazhdan and Epstein observe:

It was the emperor who gained most from Iconoclasm. The Byzantine church was made subject to imperial power. After the end of the ninth century, emperors twice placed the patriarchate within the imperial family…. The idea of the emperor-priest as expressed by an Iconoclast emperor found its realization, albeit in a slightly altered form, after the defeat of Iconoclasm.

After the resolution of the iconoclastic controversy, political and ecclesiastical power was consolidated around, sometimes even within, the imperial family. If Kazhadan and Epstein are correct in their reading of the post iconoclastic social milieu, then an interpretation of the mosaic over the Imperial Door as a statement of the patriarch’s triumph over the emperor would be at odds with the complex political realities of a time in which the power of the imperial family was on the rise.[39]

The end of iconoclasm may be seen as “the starting point of a new ‘synthesis,’ a union of Church and Empire,”[40] and the architect of that synthesis was the patriarch Photios, who explicitly delineated the responsibilities of the church and the state in the Epanagoge, a document composed at the request of the emperor Basil I. The Epanagoge expressed the “dual doctrine” of Church and State in the ninth century not as a strict separation, but as a “close association.”[41] During the iconoclastic controversy, Byzantine emperors such as Leo III and Constantine V had been vigorously involved in theological debates, and while Photios was keen to preserve the church’s autonomy regarding issues of faith, exegesis and interpretation of the scriptures, formation of dogma, and rules regarding church life, he was well aware that the state plays a vital role in the preservation of the Church. In the Byzantine “diarchy of Emperor and Patriarch”[42] there was a careful balance of power between two institutions in which the Emperor retained the authority to banish the patriarch and the patriarch retained the authority to refuse the emperor communion—powers that both exercised throughout the late ninth and early tenth centuries.[43]

Proskynesis as veneration. The emperor leads the faithful in demonstrating the proper position before holy images.
Proskynesis as veneration. The emperor leads the faithful in demonstrating the proper position before holy images.

If there was one issue around with these two powers coalesced, it was the orthodox faith: “One must emphasize again and again that in the Byzantine vision of the ideal the Church and the state were not connected by juridical definition and delimitation of their spheres of action, but by the Orthodox faith: the faith and doctrine of the Church which the Empire had accepted as its own faith.”[44] It is possible, then, to interpret the emperor’s proskynesis before an icon of Christ Pantocrator as a portrayal of the type of veneration expected of every faithful Orthodox Christian. Seen from this vantage point, the emperor appears to be the paragon of orthodoxy bowing before the one universal ruler, not a humbled submissive groveling before the ascendant power of the patriarch. The fact that no emperor from the tenth to the early fifteenth century ever saw cause to remove or alter the image suggests that the Byzantine court wasn’t humiliated by the mosaic, but chose to preserve it for posterity because the message it conveyed was one they championed.


Hans Belting has made the intriguing proposal that the mosaic over the Imperial Door should be seen as a “pictorial document that made official the emperor’s penitence before his heavenly sovereign.”[45] Belting’s suggestion implies that the mosaic is a visual representation of one document in particular—the Tomis Unionis, signed by Constantine VII in 920 to bring a long awaited end to the nearly two decade long Tetragamy Quarrel. But in the interest of taking into account the broader range of meaning inherent in the mosaic, I propose that the imagery must also reflect theological documents, particularly the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils that culminated in the Seventh Ecumenical Council (787), which officially sanctioned the production and veneration of icons.

There could have been no more powerful statement of the unity of Church and State around the iconodule position than the ceremonial greeting of emperor and patriarch under the Imperial Door, where, once our mosaic was installed, they stood side-by-side under an iconic representation of Christ Pantocrator, the “King of Kings and the Lord of Lords,” holding an open text inscribed with the words, “Peace be upon you. I am the light of the world.” This particular image of Christ seated on an imposing lyre throne would have been well known to the residents of the city because it was printed on coins minted during the reign of Basil I (867-886) with the inscription “Rex regnantium,” Ruler of rulers[46]—coinage that was certainly still in circulation when the mosaic was installed. This icon of Christ is one, then, that the imperial court had officially endorsed: “[I]t is the official portrait of Christ that the victorious party prescribed for general veneration at the court.”[47]

But the mosaic could not have been solely an imperial statement. There is no doubt that the patriarch must have had a hand in commissioning the image and in approving the iconography gracing the most exalted entrance to the church that served as patriarchal seat.[48] From a theological perspective, there was no icon that more clearly embodied the Christological debates that had topped the agenda of all seven Ecumenical councils than the image of Christ himself, and it was the definition of the doctrine of the incarnation and the delineation of the two natures within Christ that had made the formation of a distinctly Christian aesthetic possible.[49] After all, from the Byzantine perspective, the “new order” of creation that had been initiated by Christ’s incarnation and sealed by his resurrection had “affected all of human life and thought, also every branch of metaphysics, including not only ethics but aesthetics.”[50] When suspicion arose regarding holy images, the doctrine of the incarnation, the co-existence of God and man in one physical body, became the core argument in the defense of icons.[51] Jaroslav Pelikan observes:

[T]he figure of Jesus Christ was the indispensible key to the meaning of the icons…. The dogma of the person of Jesus Christ, as this had been codified by the ecumenical councils and the creeds, was to supply the fundamental justification for the Christian icons in the church…. Thus the Incarnation of Christ as divinity made human did make it possible for Byzantine theology to affirm the validity of aesthetics and of representational religious art.[52]

The Council of Chalcedon (451) had ruled that Christ was “in two natures without confusion, without change, without division, without separation,”[53]—divine and human, perfect God and perfect man.[54]

ChristEnthronedFrom the iconoclastic perspective, any artistic representation of Christ was only capable of depicting his human nature, since the divine nature was spiritual, uncircumscribable and invisible, so that such an artistic representation involved an act that necessarily (and heretically!) denied the co-existence of the two natures within him.[55] During the council of 754, the iconoclast Emperor Constantine V sought to prove that the Christological argument, specifically the implications of the incarnation, could not serve as a justification of holy images.[56] It is not surprising, then, that in the iconophile response to the iconoclast challenge, crafted by the Abbot Theodore of Studion (759-826), the paradoxical nature of the doctrine of the incarnation formed the centerpiece of his reflections, which affirmed that in Christ the impossible had been realized—the invisible had been seen.[57]

In Theodore’s estimation, “He who in His own divinity is incircumscribable accepts the circumscription natural to His body. Both natures are revealed by the facts for what they are: otherwise one or the other nature would falsify what it is.”[58] The restoration of images in 843, vaunted as “The Triumph of Orthodoxy,” confirmed that Theodore’s apologia framing the theological—specifically Christological—issues at the heart of the controversy had satisfied both the imperial court and the church, both of whom embraced icons with renewed vigor.[59]

The mosaic over the Imperial Door of the Hagia Sophia, in which an image of Christ dominates the center of the composition, can reasonably be understood as a “pictorial document” commemorating the Triumph of Orthodoxy and as giving visual expression to the definitive orthodox doctrine on icons as defined by the Seventh Ecumenical Council. As an integral part of the redecoration of the church that functioned as “the spiritual center of the empire,”[60] the mosaic would have been received as a powerful iconodule statement.


We have discussed the mosaic as a pictorial document, but in many ways the iconophile position was animated by the reality that images speak a different language than texts. In her detailed study of, an illustrated manuscript produced in roughly the same period as the mosaic under consideration, Leslie Brubaker observes that “pictures anathematized anti-image sentiments more actively than any text ever could: they were self-validating, and they had the power of immediacy.”[61] And if there was one image that would anathematize anti-image sentiments, it would be a picture of an icon—which is precisely what we find in the mosaic above the Imperial Door.

We have already mentioned that the image of Christ is iconic, and would have been recognized as such by residents familiar with the image printed on coinage and replicated in churches throughout the city. But the images of Mary the Mother of God and the archangel Micahel provide an even more explicit iconodule statement, in the sense that each of these figures is depicted as an imago clipeata, their portraits enclosed within medallions that function as iconic frames or halos, and as theological statements concerning the possibility of circumscribing a spiritual presence. They are icons within an icon; images within an image. These types of icons in tondo often appeared in marginal psalters dating from the post-iconoclastic period,[62] where they have clear iconophile resonance because they indicate that the individuals portrayed were “physically present and visible.”[63] The medallions function as a window into the divine realm, giving the viewer immediate access to the true prototype of the individual portrayed. Moreover, the medallions have iconophile liturgical significance because portraits of intercessors appeared in medallions on the iconostasis of Byzantine churches. During the iconoclastic period these medallions were removed, burned, broken, or whitewashed; but in the post-iconoclastic period the practice of placing medallions on the iconostasis “became the rule, and a system was developed that placed the images in an order with liturgical meaning.”[64]

Icons within an icon.
Icons within an icon.

Medallions appear, too, in illustrated manuscripts where they carry an unmistakable iconophile polemic. Empress Theodora, who presided over the reintroduction of the veneration of images in 843, is shown holding a medallion with the portrait of Christ in an early tenth century church calendar.[65] The painting of the crucifixion in the margins of the Khludov Psalter (850-75) f.67r is perhaps the most reproduced iconophile polemical image of the period.[66] Two soldiers offer vinegar and gall to the crucified Christ (an illustration of Psalm 69:21), while in the foreground two iconoclasts, identified as Patriarch John VII and a bishop, raise sponges dipped in whitewash to an icon of Christ clearly depicted within a medallion. The chalice holding the whitewash is identical to the chalice holding the gall and vinegar, making the comparison between the two actions unambiguous: the iconoclasts were crucifying the savior all over again. John Lowden has described the theological implications of icons within medallions in a passage that bears repeating:

Much of the debate in the Iconoclastic Controversy centered on the circumscribability of God. All Christians believed God to be omnipresent. Therefore to circumscribe him would be to define him as a being in a single place, which could be to deny his true divinity…. The contrary argument was that when God became man in Christ he allowed himself to be circumscribed … and therefore it was quite appropriate to represent God circumscribed in the person of Christ. In terms of images, the language of discussion has a special resonance, for in Greek the verb ‘circumscribe’—perigrapho—literally means ‘I draw round’. So every time an artist took up a pair of compasses to inscribe a halo or a medallion, he quite literally ‘drew round’ the image within. To represent Christ in a circular image was thus to argue against the iconoclasts by demonstrating God’s circumscribability.

The iconic medallions in the narthex mosaic, then, punctuate the position deemed orthodox after 843 stating that divine beings could be circumscribed.

In the mosaic over the Imperial Door it is not Christ who is inscribed within a medallion, but Mary and the archangel—both characters that carry import for iconophiles since iconoclasts had challenged the legitimacy of the cult of the Virgin and the orthodoxy of anthropomorphizing angels who were incorporeal spiritual beings.[68] Mary’s open hands are extended in the orans position, a gesture that visually confirms her role as an intercessor for the emperor below.[69] The concept of Mary as intercessor and bridge between heaven and earth held considerable significance for iconophiles, who in Jaroslav Pelikan’s estimation, seemed “to be almost insouciant in their manner of speaking about her ‘divine’ qualities; for ‘divine’ was indeed the right word for her as Theotokos.” The cult of the Virgin became so entangled with the iconophile cause that they were nearly indistinguishable—iconoclasts, under the emperor Constantine V’s leadership, repudiated icons and “the oppressive status of the Virgin.”[70] But in this mosaic she has clearly reclaimed pride of place in the city where she was revered as a special protector whose presence was vital for the salvation of the city.[71] While the Virgin watched over the city, the angel Michael was the guardian of the church, as evidenced by his portrayal in a mosaic in the southern outer vestibule of the Hagia Sophia.[72] The two icons together—Mary the guardian of the city and Michael the guardian of the church—make a powerful visual statement symbolizing the unity of state and church around the veracity of the iconophile position.


It would be artificial to make a strict distinction between political and theological polemics in the Byzantine context, in which church and empire had been perceived as essentially coterminous since the fourth century, when the imperial family officially espoused the Christian faith. But in the scholarly predilection to interpret the mosaic over the Imperial Door as a political statement reminding the emperor of his place in the divine economy and his subjection to divine authority, the political has eclipsed the theological content of the image in a way that obscures the fuller meaning of the mosaic, whose meaning is multivalent. Since so much attention has been givento the political and historical content of the mosaic, it has been my hope to correct the imbalance by attending to the theological meaning within the image. There can be no doubt that Byzantines took the power of icons to reveal theological truth seriously—a point elucidated by the patriarch Photios in his homily dedicating the mosaic of the Virgin in the apse of the Hagia Sophia:

[T]he comprehension that comes about through sight is shown in very fact to be far superior to the learning that penetrates through the ears. Has a man lent his ear to a story? Has his intelligence visualized and drawn to itself what he has heard? Then, after judging it with sober attention, he deposits it in his memory. No less—indeed much greater—the power of sight. For surely, having somehow through the outpouring and effluence of the optical rays touched and seen encompassed the object, it too sends the essence of the thing seen on to the mind, letting it be conveyed from there to the memory for the concentration of unfailing knowledge.

After the word had been privileged over the image for quite some time, the pendulum had swung back in full force, and Photios’ comments seem meant to drive home the new hegemony of the image. The patriarch is unequivocal in his affirmation that images convey meaning and inspire knowledge. The homily in its entirety reveals that the knowledge Photios has in mind is theological in nature. But in his generous reception of images as vehicles for theological truth, Photios seems unaware of the risk that images in their specificity have the potential to restrict theological reflection when viewers are required to receive them in a certain way or to ascribe to them a singular meaning. Even images, like the mosaic in the narthex of the Hagia Sophia, that are rich enough to carry multivalent meaning become flat when they are repeatedly read from one vantage point only—whether political, social, or ecclesiastical. More concerning is the possibility that images imposed on a group of committed congregants can become oppressive when the visual range of expression is restricted to a set catalogue that calcifies over time. When visual innovation runs the risk of invoking charges of heresy, artists become necessarily reticent to attempt any new visualization of theological truth that might be more powerful and relevant as cultural contexts shift over time.

If the patriarch’s homily celebrates “The Triumph of Orthodoxy” in word, the mosaic over the Imperial Door impresses on the viewer an image of what that victory looked like in terms of liturgical practice and church decoration—liturgy and imagery that over the centuries the Eastern Orthodox Church has carefully guarded from creeping change in the interest of protecting correct doctrine. In the centuries after the resolution of the iconoclastic controversy, iconophiles like Photios were most concerned with ensuring there would be no revival of the heresy that they had fought to annihilate—the belief that Christian images were a revival of pagan idolatry and so there should be no Christian images at all. One concrete way of countering that heresy was commissioning art to fill worship spaces, and there was no worship space in the Byzantine Empire that was more venerated than the Hagia Sophia. It is not surprising, then, that a visual document celebrating the restoration of the image would be fashioned for the church that set the standard for all others. The proskynesis of the emperor, the official imperial icon of Christ Pantocrator, and the medallions that function as images within the image all collectively endorse the veneration of icons and the Orthodox doctrine regarding holy images as expressed by the Seventh Ecumenical Council (787), an explicit visual theological statement over the ceremonial entrance to the most influential church in the empire.

This article was originally published in CRUX, Winter 2013 (48:4). CRUX is quarterly journal of Christian thought and opinion published by faculty and alumni of Regent College, Vancouver, associated with University of British Columbia.


[1] Homily 17, delivered by the Patriarch Photios from the ambo of Hagia Sophia on the occasion of the dedication of apse mosaic of the Virgin (867). Translated by Cyril Mango, The Homilies of Photios Patriarch of Constantinople: English Translation, Introduction and Commentary (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958).

[2] The redecoration was finished in the tenth century and included new figures on the north and south tympanum walls that included church fathers and contemporary patriarchs. John Lowden, Early Christian & Byzantine Art (New York: Phaidon, 1997), 198.

[3] Imperial participation in the liturgy is described in detail in The Book of Ceremonies (De Ceremoniis) compiled by Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos (913-959), who lists no less than seventeen ceremonies in which the emperor officially participated. Robert Taft, Through Their Own Eyes: Liturgy as the Byzantines Saw It (Berkeley: InterOrthodox Press, 2006), 47-54. See also Robert Ousterhout, “The Holy Space: Architecture and the Liturgy,” Heaven on Earth: Art and the Church in Byzantium, ed. Linda Safran, (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University, 1998), 82-85; and Rowland Mainstone, Hagia Sophia: Architecture, Structure and Liturgy of Justinian’s Great Church (London: Thames & Hudson, 1988), 234-235.

[4] The emperor’s participation in the liturgical procession dates from at least the sixth century. The sixth century mosaic in San Vitale in Ravenna showing Justinian with the bishop Maximianus in procession to the apse of the church is a splendid visual depiction of the practice that continued at least through to the tenth century. Mainstone, 234-235.

[5] “But it must be stressed that, as has been pointed out, the theme of an emperor prostrating himself in front of Christ is very unusual in Byzantine imperial iconography; in fact, our panel may be the only relatively early example.” Nicolas Oikonomides, “Leo VI and the Narthex Mosaic of Saint Sophia,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 30 (1976): 156.

[6] Ibid., 153

[7] Lowden, Early Christian and Byzantine Art, 190.

[8] Nicolas Oikonomides study takes this line and has framed all subsequent discussion of the interpretation of the mosaic. Oikonomides, “Leo VI and the Narthex Mosaic of Saint Sophia,” 151-172. See also, Hans Belting, Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).

[9] This view is articulated most forcefully by Oikonomides, “There is no doubt in my mind that, if there is symbolism in this scene, it is the symbolism of extreme humiliation on the part of the emperor represented.” Oikonomides, “Leo VI and the Narthex Mosaic of Saint Sophia,” 156.

[10] Robin Cormack, Byzantine Art, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) 123.

[11] Hans Belting, Likeness and Presence, page number?

[12] Leslie Brubaker, Vision and Meaning in Ninth-Century Byzantium: Image as Exegesis in the Homilies of Gregory of Nazianzus (Cambridge Studies in Palaeography and Codico, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 19.

[13] “The Triumph of Orthodoxy” was the name of the annual feast commemorating the decision of the Synod of Constantinople in 843 that officially ended the iconoclastic controversy by approving the veneration of icons. The Eastern Orthodox Church still observes the feast every year on the first Sunday of Lent.

[14] Lowden outlines the three possibilities regarding the identity of the emperor: 1) Emperor Leo VI (886-912) atoning for his father Basil I, who murdered his co-emperor Michael III; 2) Emperor Constantine VII (913-59) seeking to atone for the actions of his father, Leo VI, who married four times, contrary to church law, in his desire for a male heir; 3) Image set up by the patriarch to remind one of those emperors of his constant need for repentance and prayer, and more generally of the need for humility before God. Lowden, 190. Oikonomides’ position, accepted by most recent scholarship, that the mosaic is an image of Leo VI’s repentance and was set up by the patriarch Nicholas Mystikos with Constantine VII’s approval, draws on all three of these possibilities.

[15] Oikonomides, 161. Brubaker follows Cormack, who takes a similar position (Brubaker, Vision and Meaning, 149). See also Belting, Likeness and Presence, 170, although he admits the possibility that the emperor may be Basil I.

[16] Oikonomides, 164-165. This scene is recorded in the Vita Euthymii, by an author who was an opponent of the patriarch, Nicholas Mystikos. Consequently, Oikonomides believes the source is trustworthy and not a fabrication. Oikonomides, 170. For a more complete discussion of the historical period, see also, George Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1969), 217-260.

[17] Although Oikonomides’s argument is persuasive, it seems impossible to rule out the possibility that Leo’s prostration was inspired by the iconography within the mosaic that may have been installed over the Imperial Door during the reign of his father Basil I.

[18] This document became so important that it was read every year from the ambo of every church in the empire and was commemorated with a religious procession between Hagia Sophia and Hagia Eirene. Oikonomides, 170.

[19] Ibid., 156

[20] Ibid., 172.

[21] Belting takes a similar line, Likeness and Presence, 170.

[22] Cormack, too, cautions against limiting the meaning of the mosaic to the political realm, stating, “An interpretation of a Byzantine mosaic along these lines puts all its weight on topicality and on a single meaning.” He further notes that the primary visual problem that those who embrace such a view must address is that “the prostrate position of the emperor does not necessarily imply humiliation.” Robin Cormack, Byzantine Art, 124-125.

[23] St John of Damascus, Three Treatises on the Divine Images, 3.27-32. John’s position that veneration of the image passes to the divine prototype was later echoed by the Second Council of Nicea (787): “[T]he honour paid to an image traverses it, reaching the model; and he who venerates the image, venerates the person represented in that image.” Belting, Appendix 8. The argument that icons represented real prototypes was utilized by the iconophile Nikephorus in his argument at the Council of 815. The presence of a real archetype for the holy images distinguished them in the minds of the iconophiles from idols, which were fraudulent precisely because they lacked a prototype. See Brubaker, Vision and Meaning, 28.

[24] Italics added. “The Defense of Images by the Patriarch of Constantinople,” reproduced in Belting, Likeness and Presence, Appendix 6, 502-503.

[25] Oikonomides, 172.

[26] “Resolutions of the Second Council of Nicaea” (787), reproduced in Belting, Appendix 8, 505-506.

[27] Basil’s speech is so suggestive of the imagery over the Imperial Door that it has been considered by some to be the inspiration for this mosaic. Oikonomides, 160.

[28] For a comprehensive analysis of, see Leslie Brubaker, Vision and Meaning in Ninth-Century Byzantium: Image as Exegesis in the Homilies of Gregory of Nazianzus, Cambridge Studies in Palaeography and Codico (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

[29] Ibid., 354; Oikonomides, 158.

[30] Interestingly, Brubaker believes the emphasis in the image of David’s repentance in Paris Gregory is not on the ruler’s guilt, but on divine forgiveness for his actions. Brubaker, Vision and Meaning, 193.

[31] Ibid., 352-356.

[32] St John of Damascus, Treatise on Divine Images, 3.32.

[33] Italics added, Belting, Likeness and Presence, 170.

[34] Lowden, 176.

[35] Brubaker, Vision and Meaning, 185-193.

[36] John A. McGuckin, “The Theology of Images and the Legitimation of Power in Eighth Century Byzantium,” St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, 37 (1993), 44.

[37] Italics added, McGuckin, 45-46.

[38] Epstein and Kazhdan, Change in Byzantine Culture in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985), 14.

[39] Epstein and Kazhdan argue that imperial regulation and power extended during the late ninth and tenth centuries. Leo VI consolidated his power by proclaiming supreme right over all the lands of the empire and established the first collection of trade regulations the empire had ever known. Epstein and Kazhdan, 16-23.

[40] Alexander Schmemann, “Byzantium, Iconoclasm and the Monks,” St Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly 3 (1959): 27.

[41] Despina Stratoudaki-White, “The Dual Doctrine of the Relations of Church and State in Ninth Century Byzantium,” The Greek Orthodox Theological Review, 45 (2000): 443.

[42] Schmemann, 32.

[43] Straoudaki-White, 449-450. The Patriarch Photios was twice exiled by Basil, Nicholas Mystikos was exiled by Leo VI, and, as we have already seen, Leo VI was denied communion by Mystikos.

[44] Schmemann, 32.

[45] Italics added, Belting, Likeness and Presence, 170.

[46] Belting, Likeness and Presence, 164. Coins minted during the iconoclast period were imprinted with a cross; but after 843, as a clear statement of the continuity of the iconophile position with the tradition and splendor of the past, the Empress Theodora began printing coins marked with a bust of Christ, an image that was used on coinage in the reign of Justinian I. The image of Christ enthroned was first used on coinage in the late ninth century during the reign of Basil I.

[47] Belting, Likeness and Presence, 170.

[48] Because the Hagia Sophia was the church of the patriarchate, the mosaic must have been placed at the command or by the assent of the patriarch. Oikonomides, 153.

[49] For an excellent appraisal of the centrality of the incarnation to the apologia for icons see Jaroslav Pelikan, Imago Dei: The Byzantine Apologia for Icons (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), 70-82.

[50] Ibid., 71.

[51] “Of old, God the incorporeal and formless was never depicted, but now that God has been seen in the flesh and has associated with human kind, I depict what I have seen of God. I do not venerate matter, I venerate the fashioner of matter, who became matter for my sake and accepted to dwell in matter and through matter worked my salvation.” St John of Damascus, Treatise on the Divine Images, I.16.

[52] Pelikan, Imago Dei, 77.

[53] Quoted in Moshe Barasch, Icon: Studies in the History of an Idea (New York: New York University Press, 1992), 268.

[54] The Resolution of the Second Council of Nicea (787) explicitly affirmed this doctrinal formulation, reproduced in Belting, Likeness and Presence, Appendix 8.

[55] This was not a concern unique to the eighth and ninth centuries; it had already been articulated by Eusebius in the fourth century in a letter responding to Constantine’s sister, Constantia, who had requested an icon from the bishop. Pelikan, Imago Dei, 72. Gregory of Nazianzus, too, expressed the paradox at the heart of the incarnation in these terms, arguing that Christ was “circumscribed in the body, uncircumscribable in the spirit.” Pelikan, Imago Dei, 78.

[56] Barasch, Icon, 263; Brubaker, Vision and Meaning, 29.

[57] Barasch, Icon, 266-268.

[58] Quoted in Barasch, Icon, 268.

[59] The proliferation of images in the city, especially images of Christ, is well documented. In 843 an icon of Christ was, significantly, re-instated on the palace gate, and in 856 the redecoration of the throne room in the palace was completed with an image of Christ Pantocrator ethroned in the dome directly above the imperial throne. As Belting observes, the icon “symbolized the new unity of the empire.” Belting, Likeness and Presence, 171.

[60] Belting, Likeness and Presence, 195.

[61] Brubaker, Vision and Meaning, 33.

[62] See for instance,, f.44r and f.16r both reproduced in Brubaker, Vision and Meaning, Fig. 58 and 59; also the Khludov Psalter, f.23v.

[63] Brubaker, Vision and Meaning, 220.

[64] Belting, Likeness and Presence, 233.

[65] Ibid., 109.

[66] Lowden, 180-182. Alternately known as the Chludov Psalter, Moscow Historical Museum, gr.129. Reproduced in Brubaker, Vision and Meaning, Fig. 57, 30, discussion on 28-29.

[67] Lowden, 183. See also Barasch, Icon, 279-280.

[68] Pelikan, Imago Dei, 164. The iconographic tradition of portraying Mary flanked by angels dates back to the sixth century. Pelikan, 159. Scholars who argue that the image is a political statement related to Leo VI’s fourth marriage, claim the angel must be a ‘gloomy angel’ (a quote from St. Basil) responsible for judging sinners, but who in this scene averts his eyes, and by implication his condemnation, because the emperor has repented. Oikomides, 177. The position is bolstered by the presence of a judging angel in scenes of King David’s repentance. Brubaker, Vision and Meaning, 352-354. In accepting the multivalent meaning of this mosaic, I believe both interpretations are valid and can coexist within the same image.

[69] See Belting for a discussion of the rise of the cult of Mary in the Byzantine Empire after the Council of Chalcedon (451) officially approved her identity as Theotokos, the Mother of God. Belting, Likeness and Presence, 32-36. On Mary’s role as intercessor, see Belting, 313-320.

[70] Belting, Likeness and Presence, 36.

[71] Ibid, 36.

[72] Ibid., 194.

[73] Patriarch Photios, Homily 17, translated by Cyril Mango in The Homilies of Photios Patriarch of Constantinople: English Translation, Introduction and Commentary (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958). Photios was reiterating an idea that had long been favored by iconodules and had been articulated by John of Damascus, the Patriarch Nicephorus, and Theodore of Studion, “who made the priority of sight a matter of theological doctrine.” Barasch, Icon, 278.