No, I do not really believe that art history has anything specifically to do with four marriages. After all, correlation isn’t necessarily causation. Just because your wife caught you with that girl from the art gallery last weekend does not mean that it the real problem here was with art history. More likely, the problem is with you and your attraction to art, which inevitably stems from being unemployed, mental illness, copious quantities of mind-altering substances, or some combination of the three. Anyhow, I shall get back to the topic at hand, which really has little to do with mocking artsy people, and will hopefully inform you a little about medieval spheres of secular and ecclesiastic authority.
I was doing a special assignment for my Byzantine archaeology course, and came upon a really interesting solution to the strange mosaic that sits over the imperial door in the Hagia Sophia. (For the non-Byzantinists here, that is Justinian’s great church from the 6th c. AD in what was Constantinople, now known as Istanbul.) Anyhow, take a good look at the mosaic. If you’re familiar with some other Byzantine mosaics, you’ll find that it is very strange. Note that there is no inscription identifying the prostrate emperor. Note also the lack of balance, as there is nothing to Christ’s lower left to balance out the prostrate figure, something also atypical of Byzantine mosaics. The angel in the medallion to Christ’s left is also odd, for there is nothing to suggest why he is there, nor why he appears to be so disinterested in the whole scene.
The first problem is identifying the emperor, since there is no inscription. Thankfully for us, the art historians are agreed that it probably dates sometime around the late 9th to the early 10th centuries. That leaves us with two potential candidates: Basil I and Leo VI. To deduce which of the two it may be, we have to turn to other sources. From the literary side, we know that the 11th century historian Ioannes Skylitzes calls Basil Κεφαλας (Kephalas) for his large head. A quick look at the mosaic reveals that the head of the emperor is rather regular, and thus strike against identifying the figure as Basil. There is an ivory carving in Berlin that is believed to portray Leo VI, and the figure there looks somewhat like the mosaic emperor. Two strikes against Basil. The final question is whether either of the men ever had any particular reason to be artistically portrayed in a subservient position. We know that Basil killed his predecessor with his own two hands, and felt quite bad about it. However, we also know that Leo VI got into a serious conflict with the patriarch that continued for almost a decade after his death. Recall that the Hagia Sophia was the patriarch’s church, not the emperor’s. Although in theory the emperor could have whatever he wanted in Constantinople simply by military force alone, we need to remember that the spiritual authority of the patriarch was enormous. This was his church, and this is a mosaic of a subservient emperor over the door where the imperial party would enter on major occasions. Considering the other evidence and that Basil’s concern for his own sin never caused such a conflict, it is reasonable to assert that the imperial figure on the mosaic is probably Leo VI.
Of course, this mosaic makes no sense without good reason behind why Leo should be prostrate, and for that we need to look at the history. It seems that Leo got into trouble with the patriarch for having four wives. He didn’t have all of these wives at the same time, of course. Now anyone who knows anything about the Orthodox Church of today is probably going to ask “but I thought that the Eastern tradition was far more open in general on the subject of marriage than the western?” In many cases, this is true. Eastern Orthodox priests could marry, although bishops could not. However, in the vein of St. Basil, they were quite particular about having multiple successive marriages. A second marriage is allowed. A third can be allowed in trying circumstances. A fourth is utterly forbidden. Unfortunately for Leo, he did not have a lot of luck with his wives. His first two died quite early on. His third died giving birth to a son, who also died. By this point, Leo was 35, and had used up all of his marriage options. It didn’t look like he was going to have a successor, and it appeared that the Macedonian House was to die out shortly after its bloody inception.
However, Leo did have a mistress. Her name was Zoe Karbounopsina (“she of the coal-black eyes”) and she gave birth to a son. Illegitimate children were simply a hazard of palace life. Even the patriarch was prepared to look the other way to the fact that the child was born out of wedlock, provided that Leo get rid of Zoe. The attitude of the patriarch is not really unsurprising. Perhaps we are horrified by the thought of a churchman turning a blind eye to this sin of Leo’s and his own preparations to christen the child, but that is due to our modern mindset. The patriarch was also a politician, but he understood the basic reality: if Leo had no successor, there was a good chance that civil war would break out. He preferred to avoid that thought, and simply ordered Leo to banish Zoe from the palace.
Leo obeyed, somewhat. However, it seems that within a few days, he was lonely (or he was in fear that the patriarch’s blessing was not enough to legitimate the child in the eyes of the aristocracy. There is no doubt that he knew that his own father had come to power by murdering a weak emperor.) He brought Zoe back into the palace, and their marriage was performed by a palace priest, in a palace chapel. He then proclaimed her augusta. The patriarch, the wonderfully-named Nicholas Mystikos, was furious. When Leo and the imperial party tried to enter the Great Church for a major religious holiday later that year, they found Mystikos standing in the narthex, with the imperial door into the church behind him sealed. He denied Leo entry, and the imperial party was forced to turn back.
Mystikos had a solid case. Not only did he have his own patriarchal pronouncement exhorting the emperor to remove Zoe from the palace, he had Leo’s own law prohibiting fourth marriages. Nonetheless, Leo tried again at the Feast of the Epiphany in January 907, and once again found Mystikos between his party and the imperial door. This time, Leo broke down and fell to the feet of the patriarch, and begged him to allow him entrance into the sanctuary. Mystikos did not budge. Leo was again forced to turn around.
In February of that year, Leo prepared a new weapon to use against the patriarch: Rome. Rome and Constantinople had a rather frosty history. Rome had begun to assert itself as the primary see in Christendom back in the 5th century, although it generally had been rather unsuccessful, since the church in Rome had very distant access to imperial power. On the other hand, the patriarchate in Constantinople did have ready access to imperial power. This put the emperor in a good situation, pragmatically speaking. Rome’s distance and inability to have any serious effects on church politics in the east allowed it to be ignored. However, the emperor also needed a least tacit acknowledgement of imperium from the Roman church in order to maintain his claim to the entire Roman world. It allowed the emperors in the east to play the two sees off of each other. Should a patriarch arise that the emperor couldn’t control, he could call upon Rome. Rome was only too happy to answer him, because it meant a chance to intervene in eastern affairs, but it also provided a link to serious pragmatic (ie: potentially violent) political authority, which is a handy thing to have when the Lombards come calling. In this case, Roman legates showed up. Fourth marriages were no issue in the west, and this leverage allowed Leo to exile Nicholas Mystikos.
The new patriarch was no crony of Leo’s, but required the emperor to do penance. He also forced Leo to institute a new law against fourth marriages. However, he did allow Leo to keep Zoe, and allowed him into the Great Church, albeit as a penitent. The story does not end with Leo’s death in 912, but continues on after the accession of Romanos I Lekapenos in 920. When Leo died, Zoe technically held regency powers over her son, the future Constantine VII. In 920, Romanos, the droungarios of the fleet, seized power in Constantinople. Since there was still a battle going on over the issue of legitimacy and fourth marriages, he forced a conclusion to the schism.
It seems likely that Romanos commissioned the mosaic. This provides an answer to one of the questions: why would an emperor commission a mosaic that put him into a subservient position relevant to the patriarch? In this case, the mosaic worked for both Romanos and the patriarch. Placing a figure that all the immediate viewers would recognize as Leo aided Romanos because it discredited the still-nascent House of Macedon. The fact that the Hagia Sophia was the patriarch’s territory answers a few of the other questions. The location is obvious: an emperor performing proskynesis to Christ was supposed to remind rulers that they had left their realm upon entering the church. The lack of an inscription further serves to bolster the power of the patriarchate, as it makes the mosaic timeless, instead of contextual.
Two last issues need to be explained. Where is the precedent for this piece in Byzantine art, and what to do with the lack of balance and that strange angel? The precedent in Byzantine art appears in the Paris Psalter, in 2 Samuel. In this story, the prophet Nathan chides David for having sent Uriah to his death so he could steal Bathsheba, a story that I’m assuming everyone is familiar with. (Unfortunately, I cannot provide a link to a picture. You’ll have to see the horrible black and white photo in Oikonomides’ article.) Thus there is a precedent, just not in mosaic decoration. This is not really a stumbling block, for the entire idea of precedent relies on something being there before, and I suspect that the David and Nathan story was just too good to pass up.
As for the angel, I’ll try to make this as short as possible. When someone died in Byzantium, it was believed that an angel came and tore their soul from the world and their sins. The soul supposedly resisted this. Keeping somewhat in the original Hebrew motif, then, the angel was not necessarily a fun or pleasant being to be around. Considering that Leo seems to have had genuine fear of avenging angels in his last days, the fact that the angel looks so disinterested and is opposite Leo makes a lot more sense. Not only is he ignoring the emperor, there is no figure below him. This was the place of the damned, so the lack of balance in the scene suggests that the patriarch was trying to support the idea that Leo was not carted off to hell. This bolsters the patriarch’s own power, because it gives him some say in the personal salvation of emperors. Not only does this allow them to put the “fear of hell” in emperors like Ambrose did to Theodosius, it elevates their spiritual authority. If the emperor was Christ’s vice-regent on earth, but the patriarch had some say over whether Christ or not would accept him at the final judgment, it is clear that he is claiming enormous powers. This is, of course, just a claim. The power and fortune of the patriarchal office waxed and waned over time as they fought or cooperated with emperors and popes.
This has gone on long enough, and if you’re still reading, you probably deserve a medal. Hopefully you gleaned some useful information on the new dynamics of power in urban environments that Christianity introduced, as well as some [very minimal] understanding of the relationship and differences between the Eastern and Western churches.