Magical Uses of Imagery in Ancient and Medieval Byzantine Art
By Dr. Edmund C. Ryder
Adjunct Professor of Art History
Christianity was central to the outlook and personal identity of the average Byzantine; nonetheless, there is abundant physical evidence that some types of popular religious or “magical” practices were widespread from late antiquity to the end of the empire. Many of these activities concerned protection from danger, and more frequently issues of health. The word apotropaic, which literally refers to warding away evil, is often applied to such ritual behaviors.
Byzantine medicine was often impotent at remedying maladies, thus simple ailments had the potential to progress into life-threatening issues. Because the cause of many illnesses was unknown, they were sometimes attributed to the effects of the evil eye or to spells. As a consequence, the public turned to church-sanctioned methods and ritualistic practices to prevent physical and spiritual illnesses. For instance, images of Christ and the saints were placed on cameos, glyptic objects, and fragments of clothing to garner protection from unknown forces. These images were sometimes augmented with texts that were used for protective or healing purposes. Such practices technically fell within the purview of the church, although they often pushed the boundaries of acceptable usage.
One popular method of employing imagery as a form of spiritual protection was to place it on articles of clothing. Most extant examples were excavated in Egypt, where the dry, antiseptic sand preserved them. Christian and pagan themes were created in tapestry weave and later attached as decorations on secular garments, primarily linen tunics. These images were incorporated within roundels (orbiculi) and quadrangles (tabulae) or on strips (clavi). When used for apotropaic purposes, such imagery was often placed on inconspicuous parts of a garment, an indication that the image was not intended to “edify” a human audience; rather, it served primarily as “protection” for the wearer, and was intended to repel evil spirits.
A fifth-century linen tunic, probably from Panopolis (Akhmim), is representative of the basic type of garment worn during late antiquity. These T-shaped tunics open at the neck; the garment would be put on over the head and later cinched with a belt. Although the images on this example represent Dionysiac scenes, some pre-Christian imagery could be polyvalent and equated with Christian subtexts. Dionysos evoked complex associations with death, resurrection, and abundance that suggested parallels with Christ.
Furthermore, Dionysos’ intimate association with wine was seen as a symbol of the Eucharist. The presence of Dionysiac imagery on such garments indicates that the owner was either a devotee of the god or perhaps a Christian who understood the imagery’s Christian subtext.
An example of a textile with purely Christian imagery is a seventh-century roundel featuring the story of Joseph. Images narrating the life of Joseph were extremely popular in Egypt, and many examples are found on child-sized garments. The episodes recount the various dangers and trials Joseph overcame during his childhood through the assistance of God, thus the use of such imagery on children’s tunics was highly appropriate. Moreover, the Egyptian church believed that biblical stories, such as the story of Joseph and episodes from the infancy of Christ, positively reflected Egypt’s importance in the framework of sacred history, and, in the case of Joseph, served to glorify a “local” holy personage.
Roundels like this were typically placed near the hem or in the shoulder area of a garment. Another roundel in the Museum’s collection, woven in silk, bears an image of mounted warriors spearing a lion. Images of riders victorious over the forces of evil were thought to protect the owner from similar evil forces. The horsemen on this silk roundel are shown killing a lion. In ancient, pre-Christian Egypt, wild animals frequently symbolized the powers of chaos. This image provides an example of a pagan theme that became a source for the Christian iconography of saints on horseback, such as George, Sisinnios, and Theodore. What appears initially as a secular, aristocratic image is infused with a sublimated religious and protective theme.
Apart from clothing, the Byzantines also employed gemstones to counter the effects of illness and to ward off the omnipresent danger of the evil eye. A belief in amulets and the magical properties of stones was not relegated to the realm of the uneducated and superstitious. During the eleventh century, the author and intellectual Michael Psellos (1018–ca. 1081), describing the various effects of gems in his Concerning the Power of Stones, observed that the knowledge of these medicinal effects dated back to the ancient Sophists Anaksagaoros and Empedokles, an attempt, perhaps, to give this belief system a veneer of authority. Psellos lists the properties of various stones: for example, agate cures headaches, sardonyx prevents miscarriages when girded around the waist, and hematite, literally “blood stone,” when mixed with water, cures eye problems. Hematite was also believed to stop hemorrhages, and it was used for amulets intended to alleviate menstrual problems.
An example of a talisman that perfectly blends iconography and the “curative” properties of the material is a hematite amulet carved in intaglio depicting the Woman with the Issue of Blood, who is miraculously healed by touching Christ‘s robe. It is likely that the woman who wore this object suffered from uncontrolled bleeding; she hoped to be cured, like the woman depicted on the amulet, through her own faith but also through contact with the material properties of the stone, which was believed to absorb blood. If the figure on the reverse represents the cured woman, the desired outcome is represented on the amulet.
The oval intaglio with an image of Saint Theodore Teron slaying a dragon was carved out of agate around 1300. Military saints were extremely popular in Byzantium, and they were believed to be the celestial guardians of the Byzantine empire. In this small image, Saint Theodore kills a multiheaded dragon; the figure’s stance and iconography have precedents in classical imagery of Herakles killing the Hydra. Military saints are typically represented as physically fit and in vigorous action; this contrasts with images of sainted monks and bishops, whose hieratic poses and spectral bodies underscore their asceticism and rejection of the body. Here we see the youthful saint actively engaged with his legs wide apart. The action of the saint, as he thrusts his spear into the monstrous dragon, a symbol of the devil, highlights the apotropaic function of this object.
Perhaps the most important protector of mankind against evil was the Archangel Michael. During the late Byzantine period, he was occasionally represented together with the figure of the Prophet Daniel, who symbolized salvation for the faithful. The Byzantines typically represented the Prophet Daniel in “orientalizing” costume, such as a square hat, boots, and a mantle with a clasp. These signs indicated that the story of Daniel took place in Babylon, at the court of Nebuchadnezzar. The presence of the Archangel Michael and the Prophet Daniel on a single pendant offered its owner protection from spiritual and physical dangers as well as the possibility of redemption.
Originally published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, September 2008, under the terms of a Creative Commons 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication license.