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Depictions of power in the imperial art of the early Macedonian Emperors: Basil I, Leo VI and Alexander

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posted on 2023-06-09, 01:13 authored by Neil Churchill
The last comprehensive study of Byzantine imperial art was published in 1936 and there have been surprisingly few investigations of the art of the Macedonian Dynasty, despite their reputation as active propagandists. Most studies of imperial art have taken a centuries-long perspective, identifying major patterns but overlooking choices made by or on behalf of individual emperors. This thesis considers imperial in the reigns of the first three Macedonain Emperors: Basil (867 - 886) and his sons Leo (886 - 912) and Alexander (912 - 913). It seeks to understand how they constructed images of their power and what imperial art says about the power dynamics at Constatinople. Chapter 1 considers imperial portraits. It concludes that although elements of the imperial image were unchanging, there were nevertheless important differences in the public images put forward by each emperor. Basil’s physical power was often depicted, whilst Leo was depicted as a wise ruler. Aspects of emperor’s private lives are also visible in their art. Chapter 2 charts the changing iconography between reigns. It studies the emergence and development of the motif of an emperor being crowned by a heavenly figure, which signified the idea of anointing, and its assimilation into imperial art. The chief innovator in terms of imperial iconography, however, was Alexander, and not Basil. Chapter 3 considers Basil and Leo’s records as builders and renovators of churches, monasteries, palaces and other buildings. Whilst multiple motives were at work, Basil and Leo acted in different ways. Basil’s activity, it is argued, partly reflected his response to the earthquake of 869, which might have jeopardised the perceived legitimacy of his seizure of power in 867. Chapter 4 considers power relations between the emperor and other members of the imperial household. It finds evidence of tension, for example between Basil and his surviving sons Leo and Alexander, as well as examples when imperial behaviour was not dynastic in character. Chapter 5 examines the relationship bwteen emperor and patriarch, at a time when there may have been ideological differences about the extent of imperial power. It suggests that patriarchal art presented a potential challenge to unfettered imperial power, which Basil was prepared to accept but which ran counter to the way that Leo saw his own authority. The study of imperial art in these decades supports that interpretation that art was evolutionary and adaptive in character. Yet it was more grounded in the ideas, chaacter and preferences of individual emperors than has often been recognised and did, on occasion, respond to topical concerns, hopes and fears.


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  • eng


University of Sussex

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