Divine Guardians

The Court of Heaven

The majority of Byzantine seals feature an image of a religious figure. The choice of figure was often related in some way to the owner of the seal. Soldiers tended to choose military saints, priests ecclesiastical saints, and monks monastic saints. It was quite common to choose your namesake, and later on, a family saint. Often the image would be accompanied by an invocation either to the saint, to Christ, or to the Mother of God asking for protection. Imperial seals are no different; the vast majority feature a religious image on one side, and sometimes on both sides. The iconography of the imperial seals is less varied than that of personal seals. In many ways, this reflects the universality underpinning the ideology of the imperial office. However, there are changes and these are significant for our understanding of the imperial place in the divine order and the emperors’ relationships with the Christian Church. Over time the emperors changed their divine associate from a pagan goddess to a Christian angel, then to the Mother of God before discarding images altogether and then finally settling on Christ. The Ruler of All on the obverse mirrored his earthly representative on the reverse. The propaganda value of religious iconography is every bit as important and powerful as the depiction of the emperor. After all, the emperor had a unique relationship with the divine—he alone was divinely appointed and acted as the temporal representative of God on earth. It should come as no surprise that the emperor is the only individual in Byzantine history to be shown standing next to a divine figure on his seals. This section of the exhibition traces the developments of the religious iconography employed by the Byzantine emperors on their seals.

 

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