Reference address :

ELPENOR - Home of the Greek Word

Athos Holy Mount

Byzantine Minor Arts

The Original New Testament

Few civilisations have left examples of minor arts of such exquisite quality as the Byzantine, and that in spite of the fact that relatively little of its artistic production – especially of small objects – has survived its troubled history. Fortunately there are written descriptions of some of the more important pieces from each period, and these sources enable us fill in some of the blanks. Byzantine authors such as Paul Silentiarios, George Cedrinos and the Emperor Constantine VI Porphyrogennitos, poets such as Manuel Philis, and visitors to Byzantium, mainly from the West, wrote of the treasures amassed in its churches and palaces, especially in Constantinople. This wealth was principally in the form of cloth-of-gold and precious works of minor arts, which were later plundered from the churches, palaces and monasteries by the raiders who seized or sacked the Empire’s urban centres, particularly its capital. Constantinople was taken twice, by the Crusaders in 1204 and by the Turks in 1453; and we know that in the wake of these two catastrophes most of the city’s celebrated treasures disappeared, either to ornament churches and palaces in Western Europe or, in the case of works crafted in gold and silver, to be melted down for their metal. Such items as were saved in the Hellenic world owe their preservation either to their having been buried by their owners, as in the case of the treasures of Cyprus and Mytilene, or to having been kept in one of the few monasteries – such as those on Mount Athos – which managed despite the pillaging to retain some part of their wealth.

Our knowledge of the wealth of the Byzantine churches and monasteries derives from the typika of the various monastic foundations, incorporated into which are brevia, or registers of the real and personal property belonging to the monastery. These brevia list the private gifts made to the monastery or church, describing the items, often in considerable detail, and were usually produced in several copies, so as to facilitate inventory in case of loss. They also reveal that consecrated ecclesiastical vessels were held in higher esteem than other portable items, such as icons and manuscripts. Also worthy of remark is the fact that most of the objects of this type still preserved in the Athonite monasteries were gifts from Emperors or from members of the Byzantine ruling class, offered as tokens of piety and frequently bearing dedicatory inscriptions: examples include the chalice and the paten offered by the Despot of Ioannina Thomas Preljubovic (1348-55), now in the Monastery of Vatopedi and the Great Lavra, and numerous icon revetments, such as those offered to Vatopedi by its Hegumen Theosteriktos (12th c.) or by Anna Cantacuzene Palaeologina, wife of Manuel III Comnenos and Empress of Trebizond (1390-1412).

While most of these objects, such as the ecclesiastical vessels, the silver gilt icon revetments, the sacred books and crosses covers, were made for use in the monastery churches, there are many examples of items originally made for the Byzantine nobility and later offered or bequeathed to a monastic foundation: these include most of the miniature icons of ivory and steatite and the pectorals of jasper, sardonyx or precious metals. These works, often made exclusively in the imperial workshops, like the precious silk fabrics, were officially protected by the state. This protection combined with restriction exports guaranteed quality control in production and consequently upgraded value. Such articles were thus both exceptionally costly and highly treasured, even in the West. Their value lies chiefly in their unusual technical perfection combined with an elevated aesthetic artistry which followed the predominant trends in the monumental art. The costliness of these small treasures owes less to the precious materials of which they were made than to their workmanship, at once delicate and ornate, which set them apart from other contemporary examples of gold and inlay work and caused them to be copied in neighbouring countries to the North and West.

The monasteries of Mount Athos do not preserve examples of miniature works from the early Christian period; their treasures of minor artss dates from the Macedonian and Comnenian period, and the Palaeologan Renaissance. The articles from the tenth and eleventh centuries, the period known as the Macedonian Renaissance, such as for example the steatite icon of St George in the Monastery of Vatopedi (no. 9.1), the bema door from the Protaton with its inlaid ivory ornamentation (no. 9.15), and the jasper panagiarion from the Monastery of Chelandari (no. 9.8), are all examples of an art marked by a conscious revival of features from classical Greek tradition. The differences in expression and rendering of the classical in the works of this period owes as much to each artist’s individual approach to the classical heritage as to the use of different models. The humanism of the age of the Macedonian Emperors, however, conferred a homogeneity on its art such that comparisons between paintings and ivories, between enamels and miniatures, become perfectly valid.

While the minor artss preserved their classical heritage during the age of the Palaeologans (1363-1453), the period which produced most of the miniature treasures preserved in the Athonite monasteries, various elements and techniques from the lands lying beyond the Empire’s eastern and, especially, western borders had begun to penetrate Byzantine art. Innovations began to appear: established motifs of Orthodox iconography were rendered in the translucent enamels commonly used in Italy, Gothic-inspired ornamentation was added to works whose shape and remaining decoration were purely classical (Jasper no. 9.14, chalice of Preljubovic), and eastern motifs, such as heraldic animals, were used to add a touch of the exotic to ornamented items (Jasper no. 9.14, Vatopedi bema door).

The monasteries on Mount Athos have preserved miniature Byzantine works of art executed in a variety of materials, including ivory, steatite, bone, semiprecious stones, precious metals and wood, and decorated in a variety of techniques: repousse and fretted relief, incision, and enamels, damascened work, niello, etc.

Ivories were among the most highly valued objets d’ art, both in antiquity and throughout the Byzantine period. This material – obtained mainly from India, occasionally from Africa – was one of rare beauty and relatively easy to work; but the difficulty of supply added to its costliness, especially during those periods when the roads to India and Africa were dangerous or even impassable. At these times ivory craftsmen would resort to such substitutes as the bones of large animals – camels, bovines, horses, even exotic animals like the rhinoceros. Written sources confirm the abundant use of ivory in the early Byzantine period: it was used to make book covers and as an inlay for articles of furniture, thrones, doors, caskets, diptychs and other items. Constantinople and Alexandria were the principal ivory-working centres.

The abundant production of ivories characteristic of the early Byzantine period came to an end in the seventh century, before reviving again in the late ninth century and reaching a peak in the tenth. Ivory, however, is a material which presupposes both economic prosperity and a love of luxury: the production of ivories soon began to decline, and by the eleventh century Constantinople’s flourishing ivory workshops were using other materials, including bone and steatite: this is evident in the early steatite carvings of the eleventh century, which are clearly copies of ivories. The finest of the ivories, then, as well as the bulk of their production, belong to the tenth century. The number of articles crafted declined through the eleventh century, and by the twelfth century ivories were rarely being made.

During the middle period in Byzantine sculpture (10th-11th c.) ivories, even those of a religious nature, were mainly produced for secular magnates; such works included private portable icons and small caskets. At the same time craftsmen in ivory were also decorating furniture, ecclesiastical and secular, such as the bema doors of the Protaton (no. 9.15) and the Monastery of Chelandari. This period, however, is essentially associated with the art of the portable icon, especially in the form of miniature icons and triptychs in ivory, which were produced in considerable numbers. These costly miniatures were designed for the personal devotion of the ruling class. Their content was patently liturgical, favourite subjects including the Great Deesis (Christ flanked by the Virgin and St John the Baptist), scenes from the Dodekaorton, such as the Crucifixion in the Monastery of Dionysiou (no. 9.16), or images of Christ and the Virgin. Such works were frequently sent as gifts accompanying ambassadors to western and northern Europe, and as imperial gifts to western delegations. Thus numerous examples found their way to the West, where however they did not retain their original purpose, but were dismantled and re-used, often to decorate the covers of sacred books or other objects.

Another type of ivory was the caskets known as the 'rosette caskets'; these were usually decorated with secular motifs and used as jewel boxes or, in the West, as reliquaries. Decorated with figures or scenes from classical Greek art, they were modelled on contemporary illuminated manuscripts and icons. Many ivory workshops have been identified, each characterised by its preferred models. The works of this period have been classified into four groups, each probably associated with a corresponding workshop. Few ivories remain in the Athonite monasteries; of those that have survived, the two bema doors from the Protaton (no. 9.15) and the Monastery of Chelandari have been attributed to the 'painterly' or 'classicising' group, while the Crucifixion in the Monastery of Dionysiou (no. 9.16) may be attributed to the 'Romanos group'.

From the eleventh century on, as we have seen, miniature ivory icons largely gave way to carvings on steatite, the 'undefiled stone' of the Byzantines. This material, readily available in the Mediterranean basin, was both cheaper than ivory and relatively soft and easy to work. By the eleventh century the art of the craftsmen working in steatite was achieving a remarkable plenitude in the imitation of ivory-work. The natural tints of this stone – pale green or grey-green – were enhanced by the adjunction of colour and by gilding. The works closest in style to the ivories were produced in Constantinople, which from the tenth through the twelfth centuries knew a prolific production of miniature icons carved in steatite. The variety evident in the style and iconography of the works created in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries reveals the spread of the production of steatite and the establishment of workshops in provincial centres, which produced articles for the personal use of private individuals, mainly miniature icons, like those of St George (no. 9.1) and of the Dodekaorton (no. 9.4) in the Monastery of Vatopedi, and pectorals. The Athonite collections include numerous examples of icons, in a variety of forms, carved on steatite; these were usually gifts from various individuals, whose names, as handed down by tradition, accompany them. The oldest of these, the miniature icon of St George in the Vatopedi Monastery, is an eleventh-century work, while the silver revetment of its frame has been dated to the fourteenth century. Of the other miniature icons, all from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, two are double-sided (nos. 9.2, 9.6), attesting to the skill of the craftsmen who made them. Steatite was also used for panagiaria like those in the monasteries of Xeropotamou (no. 9.5) and St Panteleimon (14th c.), remarkable for the richness of their iconographic decoration.

Another branch of the art of sculpture practised during the Byzantine era is that which produced items made of semiprecious stones carved or incised with decorative motifs. Mostly pectorals and miniature icons, but also including examples of ecclesiastical vessels, such as patens, these articles are stylistically very similar to the steatites, and may well have been carved in the same workshops. One factor contributing to this similarity is the tendency to follow, in both the style of carving and the iconographic rendering of the subjects, the artistic currents of the age to which the item belonged – always of course within the limits imposed by their small scale. They are usually decorated with a religious repertory, and were intended for the use of the layman, who wore them as amulets and frequently offered them as votive gifts. The Athonite monasteries have preserved a number of these votive pectorals, some in the form of simple cameos, like the three belonging to the Monastery of Chelandari (nos. 9.11-9.13), and sometimes with costly mount, like those (no. 9.10) belonging to the Monastery of Vatopedi. There are also a number of panagiaria in stone or bone with metal mounts which are particularly interesting for the variety of their iconography, like those in the Monastery of Chelandari (nos. 9.8, 9.9, 9.17). Early examples, like the eleventh-century one in the Monastery of Chelandari (no. 9.8) present in plain compositions the relation between the Virgin and the Incarnation of Christ, while in a later period (12th-14th c.), although the symbolic content remains the same, the composition seems to become more populous and more complicated.

According to sources including Procopios and Paul Silentiarios, the art of the Byzantine goldsmiths must have achieved remarkable levels of craftsmanship and artistry. Unfortunately, the larger examples of the goldsmith’s art that they describe or mention, such as the thrones and the statues of emperors in the palaces and the pulpits, templa and altars in the churches, have all been lost.

In the small scale works in gold and silver that have survived from both early and later Byzantine periods, the principal characteristic is the tendency to introduce polychromy, mainly through the use of precious and semiprecious stones but also through the exploitation of a growing mastery of alloy and fused work. With niello, enamels, precious and semiprecious stones and precious metals in a variety of amalgams which gave them a wide range of tints, Byzantine craftsmen achieved remarkable effects of polychromy in their work.

Constantinople had always been the principal centre of gold- and silver-workshops from its founding to its fall. With the city’s rapid expansion, the Imperial Court had naturally attracted the finest craftsmen in the realm to meet its demands; but other large centres, including Rome and Thessaloniki, produced their own work. The imperial control stamps on most articles are of assistance today in dating and cataloguing these items.

Like the other branches of the minor artss, the goldsmith’s craft also flourished, particularly during the period of the Macedonian dynasty. This is not only evident in the numerous works, mainly ecclesiastical, that have survived, but is also attested by written sources, which mention church walls revetted with silver, silver ciboria, enamelled icon-stands and icons revetted in gold and enamelwork, like those of St Michael in the Treasury of San Marco. The growing veneration for relics multiplied the number of reliquaries and varied their forms. The most costly were used to encase fragments of the True Cross, and the Athonite monasteries have preserved a number of the finest examples of this type.

The technique particularly typical of the middle Byzantine period was that of cloisonne enamel, although other techniques continued to be used, and indeed were frequently combined, as we see in numerous surviving ecclesiastical vessels. Our knowledge of such articles, made of precious metals or semi-precious stones and ornamented with enamel and gemstones, comes mainly from those preserved in Athonite monasteries, in the Treasury of San Marco in Venice and in other Western cathedrals, relics of the pillaging of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204. After the eleventh century, however, and particularly during the age of the Palaeologans, there was a growing tendency to produce articles of similar appearance but of lesser material value. Thus gold in most cases gave way to silver or silver gilt, gemstones to semiprecious stones or glass; smaller pearls were used, painted miniatures and painted glass replaced enamel work. Icons, processional crosses, and the covers of sacred books were sheathed in silver, of embossed or filigree work and frequently embellished with enamel. These works are remarkable for their vivid colours and their intricate ornamentation, quite different from the austere lines of earlier examples; these, however, were not rejected but rather reworked in a new and freer form. The Monastery of Vatopedi has a remarkable collection of fourteenth-century silver gilt icons, while covers of codices binding from the eleventh-fourteenth centuries are preserved in the Monastery of Iviron and the Great Lavra, among others.

Equally admirable, although less costly, are the examples of copper and bronze work from the Byzantine era. The Byzantines inherited the ancient Roman art of copper-casting, which flourished in Constantinople and probably in Thessaloniki: there were, in fact, coppersmiths’ quarters in both those cities. These craftsmen produced a wide variety of both religious and household items. The former included crosses, large ones for churches, like the example from the Monastery of Docheiariou (no. 9.26), and smaller ones for personal use, stands for votive lamps, candelabra like the two pairs from the Great Lavra, oil lamps, katzia like the one from the Monastery of Simonopetra (no. 9.27), censers, polykandela, and other articles. Much of their production, even though decorated with crosses, was destined for household use.

Another category of cast metal items, again of Roman origin, were the great monumental doors which throughout the Byzantine age retained some of their pre-Christian features. One of the finest, and earliest, examples is the door of the Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (9th c.), once ornamented with crosses and flora motifs in relief, although this decoration has unfortunately been removed. The monumental door to the Athonite Great Lavra, created in imitation of this genre, is made not of solid bronze but in accordance with the more usual in the eleventh century technique of sheathing a wooden door with copper plaques or sheets. This sheathing is decorated with foliate crosses and twelve-petalled rosettes in repousse relief.

It was during this same period that a workshop in the imperial capital began to decorate doors with a sheathing of copper with inlaid gold or silver strips beaten into it. This was the technique known to the ancient Greeks as empaistike, now called damascening. Some marvellous examples of this art have come down to us, attesting to the renewal of this ancient technique and its role in the spread of Byzantine art forms across the countries of the West and North. A group of eight late eleventh-century doors from churches in Italy, most of which are still in situ, and a twelfth-century door in Suzdal, Russia, were, according to inscriptions, commissioned and manufactured in Constantinople. This attests to the city’s prominent role in the manufacture of copper products and the determinant role of its now fully international trade. A survival of this art in the Palaeologan period is seen in the damascening on the sheathing of a door in the katholikon of the Monastery of Vatopedi, which is thought to have been made in Thessaloniki for the Church of Hagia Sophia in the Byzantine co-capital. It has a series of ornamental panels, in which the damascening is probably done with red ochre, a fluid compound made of hematite which was used to impart a red colour to the inlay. The decorative motifs, for the most part non-figurative, show a close affiliation with the repertory used in thirteenth-fourteenth century Byzantine silk manufactories, thus creating an overall impression of painting. Niello, another form of metal inlay work, was also widely used in this middle Byzantine period, especially in the East. A fine example of this type of work is the pair of candelabra known as the Amalfi candelabra (11th-12th c.), from the Great Lavra.

In addition to the Byzantine objets d’ art preserved in the Athonite monasteries one must also note the few items of western manufacture from the same period, which were presumably acquired as gifts (nos. 9.29-9.31). These articles demonstrate that the steady flow of trade between Byzantium and the West resulted in the acquisition of a number of original works of art from western workshops, articles which entered into use and which not infrequently influenced Byzantine art by introducing new ideas. Works of art like the rock crystal chalice in the Monastery of Vatopedi or the Gospel covers with Limoges enamel in the Monastery of Dionysiou thus become even more fascinating.

Katia Loverdou-Tsigarida

General Bibliography: Ebersolt 1923. Rosenberg 1928. Brehier 1936. Csallany 1957, pp. 250-74. Coche de la Ferte 1958. Bank 1960. Beckwith 1961. Frolow 1961. Talbot Rice 1963. Delvoye 1965, pp. 171-210. Philippe 1970. Bank 1977. Bank 1978. Bank 1985. Bank 1986.

Exhibition and collection catalogues: Dalton 1901. Segall 1938. Walters Art Gallery 1947. Coche de la Ferte - Hadjidakis 1957. Ross 1962. Coche de la Ferte - Hadjidakis 1963. Byzantine Art 1964. Ross 1965. Weitzmann 1972. Venezia e Bisanzio 1974. Age of Spirituality 1979. Bulgarie medievale 1980. Metallkunst 1982. Tresors serbes 1983-84. Tresor de Saint Marc 1984. Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Art 1986. Byzance 1992. Byzantium 1994.

Ivories: Goldschmidt 1914-26. Volbach 1923. Longhurst 1927. Delbruck 1929. Goldschmidt - Weitzmann 1930, 1934. Morey 1936. Volbach 1952. Bovini - Ottolenghi 1956. Volbach 1976. Williamson 1982. Randall 1985. Martini - Rizzardi 1990.

Steatites: Orlandos 1935, pp. 567-8. Xyngopoulos 1948, pp. 265-73. Kalavrezou-Maxeiner 1985 (with earlier bibliography). Durand 1988, pp. 190-4. Totev 1992, pp. 123-8.

Enamels: Kondakov 1892. Hackenbroch 1939. Amiranashvilli 1962. Wessel 1967. Buckton 1988, pp. 235-59.

Exhibits per Monastery
Chronological Classification

The Authentic Greek New Testament Bilingual New Testament I

Icon of the Mother of God and New Testament Reader Promote Greek Learning
Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Learned Freeware


Reference address :