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Byzantine Iconography

Its significance in coinage issues

After Constantine I converted to Christianity, the Byzantines suddenly had a leadership problem. Unlike the Roman Empire that was expiring, they had to “sell” the concept of emperor as God from the start, as Christianity alone makes no provision for that establishment. Through a complicated series of liturgical and political modifications, they had to modify Christianity to accommodate their desire to retain the empirical political structures of the old Roman Empire. The emperor was not simply appointed by God, he was the co-regent with Christ on earth. It proved an effective strategy. The Byzantine government was to be operated as an empirical Theocracy. 

The old pagan system had plenty of gods, goddesses, and personifications that the people could attach their beliefs to.  The natural world provided all kinds “signs” that were explained as evidence of the existence of these gods.  Everything from lighting to sunshine, wind, thunder…everything was a sign from one of the gods.  Now that Christianity was introduced on a large scale by the emperor, Christianity had a problem.  The old pagan system was supported by thousands of images of their gods repeated over and over through the centuries which had the effect of cementing the pagan culture together. These images gave the pagans tangible things to latch on to.

Christianity being a relatively new concept to most pagans in the empire, really had only one symbol, a cross.  This one symbol was not sufficient to convey the message of Byzantine-style Christianity to the masses, so the Byzantines began to create all kinds of new religious pictures or iconography to lend support to Christianity, and more importantly, to reinforce the notion of the emperor as co-Deity. 

None of these icons were more important than that of Christ up to the 5th century when the Virgin Mary was declared “Mother of God.” It is Important to note that they “put their money where their mouth was” so to speak. To prove to all without a doubt as to how significant these images were, they had to be adorned just as their emperor was—with gold, silver, and precious cut stones. The common people made or bought painted wooden pictures of the Image of Christ, the Virgin Mary, or the Saints. These people would later be known as Iconodules. If one was too poor to buy an icon for their own, they did not have to worry—icons soon appeared on the coinage as well, from the lowly follis to the gleaming solidus.

The glittering religious relics and icons were intended to impress foreign nations as well.  The Byzantines assisted in the construction of a smaller version of St. Sophia in Kiev, for example.  Byzantine artisans adorned it with many icons of the saints and designed for it the same type of mosaics found in Constantinople. It was hoped that this might pacify the potentially envious leadership in Kiev, but also served the empirical goal of illustrating the dominance of the emperor over all other earthly kings.     

Iconography of Christ and the Virgin Mary

Gilt icons of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary were found all over Constantinople.  They were so important than men sometimes died protecting them during an attack.  Some of these icons were even carried into battle where the purpose was clearly to strike fear into the enemy.  What army would dare to fight against God and his co-regent emperor?  These images truly terrified whole armies—you might say they literally “put the fear of God” into them.

This also illustrates the dramatic difference in how the Byzantines presented their version of Christ versus the Christians of the west. In Constantinople, Christ is always presented as the King of Kings, often enthroned, always in vibrant color, and all-powerful. Never was Christ portrayed as He was in the west—suffering and dying on the cross.  In fact, Byzantine crosses were most often presented bare, as in the case of the solidus and hexagram coinage in particular.

Byzantines might imagine that their army carrying a crucifix image (of Christ suffering) into battle might not have the same effect.  For the Byzantines, Christ HAD to be presented as the living, all-powerful co-regent to legitimize their own emperor, and this is precisely why we see these images repeated over and over throughout Byzantium. Christ is found on their coinage issues and throughout their mosaics and art. 

The most affordable of these coinage issues are bronze coins called “Anonymous Folles” which were produced from the period of John I (969-976 A.D.) to Alexius I (1081-1118 A.D.). They are “Anonymous” because they show the image of Christ on the obverse instead of the emperor. On the reverse there may be a large cross or a multi-line inscription such as, “IhSuS / XRISTuS / bASILEu / bASILE” (“Jesus Christ King of Kings”), or “IC-XC / NI-KA” ("May Jesus Christ Conquer").. These are the largest coins for the period as well, issues mostly running from 21mm to 32mm. The folles are divided up into 12 different classes (A1 through K) which denote their specific type.

The image of Christ appears on other bronze coinage issues which also shows the emperors;  

FOLLES: Constantine X, Constantine X & Eudocia 1059, 1068AD Romanus IV 1068, Nicephorus III 1078, 

TETARTERON: Manuel I 1143.

There is an excellent article on Christian images on coinage listed in this forum by Zach Margulies located HERE

Also important for us to understand today is that these images of Christ, the Virgin, and Saints, called “icons” were not merely pretty pictures.  Many people at the time believed that these images were actually active participants in their lives and worship. This is why iconoclasm created such a division.  Eliminating the icons was like taking away a person’s personal relationship with someone connected to the Deity. (A full discussion of iconoclasm is beyond the scope of this work, but see further recommended reading texts at the end.)

Because these images were “participatory” in the liturgy, it is not surprising to learn that while Constantinople was under siege before it fell in May, 1453, the Patriarch and his staff would parade these images around the walls of the city every day while in prayer for deliverance.

Iconography of the Cross

As previously mentioned, the image of the Holy Cross was not the same as the Cross used in the western territories. In Byzantium, the Cross was almost always presented bare. The gold and silver coinage bear a Cross usually presented on three steps.  The Cross is seen on the emperor’s crown, as a globus cruciger held by the emperor, and also appears at the top of the emperor’s staff at times.  We often see the Cross placed on coinage on steps and in exergue.  The image of the Cross was a powerful one for the Byzantines, and Christians might say, the original, symbol of Christianity. It’s unmistakable.

The Byzantines recovered the True Cross from Jerusalem and brought it to Constantinople, so every image of the Cross repeated in their coinage and iconography was a visual reference to what they saw every day in the city.  For others, a constant reminder of their emperor.

Far away from the capitol, coinage carried the message of Byzantine Christianity across the Mediterranean and well into foreign territories via many trade routes. People might be thousands of miles from Constantinople and know with a glance that the coinage they carried was Byzantine empirical issue, either from the capitol itself or any one of the numerous branch mints. And always comforted with a miniature icon they could easily hide away.

Dan R.



John Julius Norwich “A Short History of Byzantium

Helen C. Evans. “The Glory of Byzantium: Art and Culture of the Middle Byzantine Era, A.D. 843-1261”

Christa Schug-Wille. “Art of the Byzantine World”

Philip GriersonByzantine Coinage” (Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Collection Publications) January 31, 1999

P.D. Whitting. “Byzantine Coins”


John Romer “Byzantium: The Lost Empire” (DVD) The Discovery Channel.