The image depicts Christ draped in blue robes, and framed by a halo and cross. This style of iconography is called 'Christ Pantokrator' (or Pantocrator). In his left hand he holds a book that would represent either the Gospels or the New Testament. Traditionally, the Christ Pantokrator would make a gesture of blessing with his right hand, but this image shows a different gesture, which could be a variant of the blessing, or an 'Orator's gesture', signaling the right to speak . The IC and XC are the Greek monogram for Jesus Christ. The other words running vertically signify Jesus' fully divine and human nature (on the left and right respectively).
Large Byzantine mosaics were set into church walls, or build into the apex of a church's domed ceiling, where it would be closest to God. Reconstruction of these mosaics revealed that they were likely created on location. They would have been set in three layers of plaster, with an outline on the outer layer [Mullett]. Before completion, the artist would have used paint to accentuate certain features and take into account unique lighting and visibility conditions.
In the 12th Century CE, the Byzantine Empire was hardly at the height of its power, but Constantinople was still an incredibly wealthy city; the Byzantine throne was constructed from gold, and a golden tree would have stood beside it. Archeological finds from this time period include "a large number of silver plates and dishes, [...] ivory caskets, [...] and there was, of course, a good deal of jewelery intended for personal use" [Rice, 148]. Icons were often "carved of ivory, cast in precious metals or enameled, and encrusted with gems" [Brubaker, 116]. This glass and stone used in this piece would have been common, and even the gilt leaf around the frame would not have been extravagant for many of the mosaics of this time.
The mosaic is currently located in the Byzantine art collection at the Bode museum in Berlin . The museum website doesn't have any information on how it was recovered.
Local Historical Context
What we call the Byzantine Empire was known at the time as the Roman Empire, and the people thought of themselves as Romans. The Empire was founded by Constantine the Great, who moved the capital from Rome to Constantinople (naming it after himself), and made Christianity the official religion [Brooks 2009]. The Emperor was “God's vice-regent on earth” (Mullett), and claimed to be the defender of the Orthodox church. The church, and religion in general “played a more active part in life and thought than in most other states of mediaeval times” [Rice, 149], and the church was likely the source of most art produced in the empire. Due to the church's importance, the Emperor would have had the responsibility to implement synodal decisions, though his power was never parallel to that of the Pope. Although Constantinople was the largest city in the Western world, “The single largest source of tax income for the state appears to have been agriculture rather than animal husbandry” [Evans].
This mosaic is an icon of Christ, and it would have had a special place in Byzantium. The use of icons in worship and religious services was hotly debated at the time, and Emperor Constantine V introduced legislation that banned the use of icons, beginning a period called the iconoclasm [“image breaking”]. This mosaic would have been one of many icons of Christ made at this time, but it is still significant in the larger story of how people worshiped their gods.
The first religions in Mesopotamia and Egypt revolved around worshiping temples or statues that housed the local god. These religious symbols, or idols, were believed to provide protection for the city, in exchange for sacrifice.
In the Byzantine Empire, God was rarely invoked directly during prayer. Instead, they would “ask an intermediary (usually a saint or the Virgin, but sometimes a living person believed to be sufficiently holy to have special access to the divine) to arbitrate or intervene on their behalf with Christ” [Brubaker, 10]. The 'cult of saints' believed that the holiness of saints remained attached to their bodies, even after death. This belief eventually evolved, so that a saint's holiness was also associated with portraits. This development was unique to Byzantium, but can be seen as a continuation of a trend that predated the empire.
Religious images depicting the saints, the Virgin, or Christ were called 'icons', and they were believed to hold special power. While paintings and mosaics are the most common archeological finds, these images were also found on coins , and statues. The importance of icons in religious worship grew, until there was a change in the 7th century CE. In this time the Islamic empire had conquered most of the Byzantine empire, and the Christians now living under Arab rule viewed it as an apocalyptic age [Brubaker]. In order to maintain control, the church implemented new rules to regulate and control the powers of sacred images, and address the insecurities brought about by the Islamic conquests.
There was stiff resistance to the new power of images- what was the difference between worshiping an icon, and worshiping an idol? Idol worship was forbidden by Exodus 20:4 [Brooks 2001]. Also, as Islamic authority grew in the 8th century CE, efforts by Constantine V to limit the power of icons, may have been an effort to usurp religious power, and centralize authority back in the hands of the Emperor. Finally, Muslims were forbidden from even painting their prophet Mohammed, and Christians may have seen Arab victories as a sign of God's favor; the iconoclasm could have been emulation of Islamic practices in order to curry favor. Whatever the reason, religious icons were banned, and many of them were destroyed or defaced.
The iconoclasm continued, with varying levels of enforcement, until 843 when Michael III rescinded the ban. In the middle period old iconic styles were reinvented, and “ distinct portrait types for individual saints” [Brooks 2001] were developed. The church at Nikaia “sanctified practice by legitimizing the veneration of holy portraits” [Brubaker, 115] in 787 and again in 843. Instead of destroying the importance of these images, the iconoclasm may have perpetuated their reverence to this day. Icons were common donations given by the faithful to to local churches and monasteries. With the proliferation if iconic images, the physical attributes of individual saints became regularized, so that an individual would always recognize each saint, even in a different part of the Empire.
Brubaker, Leslie. Inventing Byzantine iconoclasm. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2012.