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ALEVTINA TANU // The Mother of God and Mothers of Kings: Two Examples of Appropriation of Marian Iconography in the Eastern Orthodox World


The article addresses two medieval images, a fresco from Serbia and a Byzantinizing enamel, which borrow the iconography of two Marian feasts and feature royal figures who are explicitly modelled on the figure of the Mother of God. For the deeply religious eastern Orthodox societies such as medieval Serbia and Georgia, the production of images where secular women are likened to the Mother of God seems unusual and daring. Analysing the historical and social contexts behind the creation and potential functions of these extraordinary images, I argue that these visual comparisons of the royal women with the Mother of God were made in order to enhance their image of power or to demonstrate their royal motherhood, and specifically their ability to give birth to an earthly king who symbolised Christ in Heaven.


Figure 1. Khakhuli Triptych, 11th and 12th century, 1.47 m x 2 m, Georgia. © Georgian National Museum.


Two unusual cases of royal imagery produced in Byzantium or on the fringes of the Byzantine Empire have a strong visual affinity with the ubiquitous iconography of important religious feasts dedicated to the Mother of God. The first is a small enamel medallion from the famed twelfth-century Khakhuli triptych in Georgia (Fig. 1). Dating to the eleventh century, the medallion portrays an angel and a female figure clad in imperial robes (Fig. 2).[1] The reason for isolating the enamel from its setting is that most of the enamels associated with the Khakhuli triptych appear to have once been parts of other luxury objects sent as diplomatic gifts to Georgia from Byzantium, and recycled and incorporated into the frame and wings of the triptych by two twelfth-century kings of Georgia.[2] Although some of the enamels may have Georgian origin, they were not produced for this triptych initially. There is no consensus on the origin of this particular Khakhuli medallion, and whether it was produced in Byzantium or Georgia remains a matter of dispute. The second image is a thirteenth-century fresco from the Sopoćani church in Serbia, which depicts the death of Anna Dandolo, the Venetian wife of King Stefan the First-Crowned of Serbia (Fig. 3).


Figure 2. Empress and Angel, enamel medallion, ca 11th century, ca 5 cm × 4.4 cm, Kha-khuli Triptych, Byzantium or Georgia. © Georgian National Museum. Courtesy of the George Chubinashvili National Research Centre.


Figure 3. Death of Anna Dandolo, 1263-1268, fresco, north wall of the inner narthex, Holy Trinity Church, Sopoćani, Serbia. Photography by Scott Newman.


Although the enamel and the fresco come from disparate historical and geographic contexts, differ in size and material, and were produced two hundred years apart, they were both produced in the Byzantine or the Byzantine-influenced world: at the time of execution, Georgia and Serbia both had very close links with Byzantium, sharing the same Orthodox Christian faith and eagerly absorbing the fruits of Byzantine culture.[3] The main reason for discussing the Khakhuli enamel and the Sopoćani fresco in the same article, however, is that both of them incorporate the widespread iconography of two Marian feasts and model the female royal figures on the figure of the Mother of God. Such imagery is very rare in Byzantine or Byzantine-influenced visual art. The present study will consider the potential inspiration behind these images, offering an explanation for the parallel drawn between the female royal figures and the Mother of God. I will argue that the main driving force behind this association was the desire to emphasise the importance of royal motherhood, simultaneously elevating the status of royal women.

The Khakhuli enamel medallion shows an angel addressing a female figure. It is redolent of the iconography of the Annunciation, where the Archangel Gabriel announces to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive and give birth to Jesus. The angel on the enamel has his hand raised in a gesture of either speech or blessing, but unlike the Annunciation scene, he holds a scroll in his left hand.[4] The woman also holds a scroll with her left hand and she has her right hand in an open palm gesture, as if she is greeting the angel or receiving his words with piety and humble consent, just as the Virgin Mary does upon receiving the good news (eleventh century, Fig. 4). However, the female figure, even though she is evidently placed in Mary’s position, is dressed in different attire. Standing on a footstool, she is wearing a crown and imperial dress with a loros, a long, jewel-encrusted cloth which formed part of the Byzantine imperial costume. From her clothes, it is clear that the woman is an empress or a queen, although as there are no accompanying inscriptions on the image it is impossible to identify her with certainty.


Figure 4. Annunciation, 11th century, reliquary, Byzantium. Treasury, Onze Lieve Vrou-wekerk, Maastricht, The Netherlands.


The Sopoćani fresco is located in the inner narthex of the main church, in the lower register of the north wall. Anna Dandolo, the wife of the First-Crowned king of Serbia and granddaughter of a Venetian doge, is lying on her deathbed, surrounded by her family and a large group of people, probably court and ecclesiastical officials. In the centre of the image, behind Anna’s deathbed, is the large figure of her son, the Serbian king, Stefan Uroš I (r. 1243–1276), who bends over his mother’s body with his hands raised in supplication. To Stefan’s right an angel holds a baby clad in swaddling clothes. In front of the deceased a female kneeling figure, traditionally identified by scholars as Stefan Uroš’s wife, Helena d’Anjou, is mourning whilst leaning on Anna’s recumbent body.[5]

The composition is strongly reminiscent of the iconography of the Dormition of the Mother of God, where she is portrayed in a recumbent position surrounded by Jesus and His disciples. The visual affinity can be clearly discerned when comparing the funerary scene with the Dormition scene in the nave of the church at Sopoćani (thirteenth century, Fig. 5). The former image shows Anna lying on her deathbed in the centre, dominating the image in the way that the Theotokos (Mother of God) does. The central position of Christ is occupied by Stefan Uroš. The congregation of apostles present at the Dormition are substituted by family members and courtiers mourning by Anna’s lavish deathbed. In the Dormition scene Christ holds a swaddled baby, which represents the Virgin Mary’s soul being taken to Heaven. Anna Dandolo’s soul is also shown in the form of a baby, with the only difference being that it is transported to Heaven by an angel rather than Christ.


Figure 5. Dormition, mid. 13th century, fresco, west wall of the nave, Holy Trinity Church, Sopoćani, Serbia. Photography by Scott Newman.


The fresco with the death of Anna Dandolo and the enamel with the archangel and the female royal figure both incorporate and modify the iconography of the Marian feasts of the Dormition and Annunciation. However, despite Anna and the empress being put in the position of the Mother of God, their dress clearly identifies them as royal figures. Therefore, there was probably no intention to confuse the viewer, but only to make an allusion to the Theotokos. Evoking associations between these female royal figures and the Mother of God, these examples of appropriation of Marian imagery were aimed at boosting their status and magnifying them in the eyes of the viewer.


The Tradition of Comparison

Before discussing the reasons for these associations, it is important to consider where the idea of comparison of the female royal figure to the Mother of God might have originated. There was a long-standing tradition of comparison in Byzantine literature and art, dating back to late antiquity. The rhetorical device of sygkresis (comparison) was a very important component of panegyrics and encomia (speeches of praise): the praised historical figures could be likened to the holy forefathers, as is the case of the fourth-century church father, Gregory of Nazianzus, who compared his parents to Abraham and Sarah.[6] In the ninth century, Patriarch Photius likened the Emperor Basil I to David, the Old Testament king and prophet ‘…for his qualities of sympathy, gentleness, and brotherly love.’[7] The most striking comparison of all, however, was that of the Byzantine emperor to Christ Himself. In the inscription on the back of the Cross from the tenth-century Limburg Staurotheke, for example, the Byzantine emperors, Constantine VII Porphyrogenitos and his son Romanos, are compared to Christ. Christ’s Crucifixion is paralleled with the adornment of the Cross by the emperors, and His smashing of the gates of Hell with the Cross is likened to the emperors’ crushing of ‘… the temerities of the barbarians’ with the Cross.[8] A twelfth-century poet, Theodore Prodromos, wrote that Constantinople enjoyed the rays of two suns, the first sun being Christ, the Sun of Justice, and the second the shining light of the emperor.[9] As Cyril Mango noted, ‘the Byzantines imagined God and the Heavenly Kingdom as a vastly enlarged replica of the imperial court at Constantinople’ and ‘their mutual resemblance was taken for granted.’[10]

In the Sopoćani fresco, King Uroš I stands bending over his mother’s deathbed in the same position as Christ in the Dormition scene. Uroš’s dominating figure, his royal garb and a hemispherical crown make him the most important among the people present in the scene. The parallel between the king and Christ is evident. Due to their close links with Byzantium, Serbian rulers were influenced by Byzantine models of royal power, in which parallels between an emperor and Christ were deeply embedded. Following the example of Byzantine emperors, Serbian sovereigns also believed that an earthly ruler was ‘a living icon of Christ.’[11]

In the Byzantine oral and written traditions, the comparison of the emperor to Christ was a very common feature. There even exists a term which describes this imperial ideology, where the image of the emperor was modelled on Christ, and the emperor was perceived as a Christ-like figure: Christomimesis. Evidence shows that most lead seals featuring images of Christ were made for Byzantine emperors.[12] A close association between the earthly and the Heavenly King was established and the emperor’s Christomimetic role was emphasised due to a lack of accompanying invocations addressed to Christ.[13] In visual culture, however, images where the Byzantine emperor is explicitly likened to Christ are relatively rare. Perhaps, the Byzantines were bolder and more expressive in their rhetoric than in their commissions of figurative art. One of the few examples where the emperor is portrayed in a Christ-like manner can be found in the first folios of the homilies of St John Chrysostom (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Coislin 79). The manuscript contains a miniature which references the iconography of the Deisis, where Christ stands between the supplicating figures of the Virgin and Saint John the Baptist. Instead of Christ, the eleventh-century miniature depicts the Emperor Nikephoros III Botaneiates (r. 1078–1081), flanked by St John Chrysostom and Archangel Michael, who turn to him presenting the book of homilies (Fig. 6). Another example is a tenth-century wall painting of the Emperor Nicephoros II Phokas (r. 963–969) and his family in the north apse of Çavuşin Church or the Great Pigeon House in Cappadocia. The emperor stands in the centre of the apse flanked by his family members. Their poses clearly repeat the iconography of the Deisis and the fact that they are in the apse, one of the most sacred parts of the church, confirms the emperor’s imitation of Christ’s supreme position.[14]


Figure 6. Nikephoros III Botaneiates between the Archangel Michael and St John Chrys-ostom, 1078-1081, miniature, Homilies of John Chrysostom, Coislin 79, fol. 2, Constanti-nople. Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris.


All these comparisons between the emperor and Christ shared one aim – the elevation of the power of the basileus (king) and the enhancement of his authority. The eleventh-century author Kekaumenos mentions in his Strategikon that God made the emperor ‘an earthly God’, who can act as he pleases without restrictions.[15] Indeed, the emperor was not legally responsible for any of his actions. Divinely appointed by God, he could not be restricted by human laws.[16] Roger II, the king of Sicily who ruled between 1130 and 1154, modelled his image on the Byzantine emperor and had himself depicted in the famous Martorana mosaic receiving a crown from Christ. Not only does he look like a Byzantine emperor, but he also bears a visual resemblance to Christ.[17] The composition is also reminiscent of the Baptism scene where St John the Baptist is shown standing above Christ, who is in the river, and placing his hand on Christ’s head.

Considering this tradition as contextual to the creation of the fresco depicting the death of Anna Dandolo, I contend that it was likely made with the intent of celebrating the ruling family not only by likening the king to Christ, but also by drawing a parallel between the deceased queen and the Mother of God. Anna Dandolo’s husband, Stefan Prvovenčani (Stefan the First-Crowned), was the son of Stefan Nemanja, the founder of a new Serbian ruling dynasty. The new rulers were very successful in their territorial expansion and became independent from Byzantium not only politically, but also ecclesiastically. One of the ways through which the Nemanjić dynasty codified their newly acquired power was through the representation of themselves and their ancestors on church walls, since churches carried a religious significance and authority, and were the most frequently visited public spaces.[18] Following the Byzantine tradition, Serbian sovereigns used these spaces in their royal propaganda to project an image of their power and majesty. Often, they were depicted as donors presenting a model of a church to Christ or the Virgin. Véronique Deur-Petiteau has argued that dynastic portraits were placed in church narthexes in Serbia to present Serbian rulers as representatives of Christ on earth, guiding and enlightening their people.[19]

One such example can be observed on the east and south walls of the narthex in Sopoćani: full-size representations of King Uroš I and his wife Helena d’Anjou present their sons Dragutin and Milutin to the Mother of God with Child Christ on her lap, who are blessing and welcoming them. Local communities and passing guests were supposed to keep these images ‘…in memory as significant landmarks of the new political and religious construction of the country.’[20] In 1200 the Nemanjić rulers canonised their founder Stefan Nemanja, who came to be known as St Simeon; they brought his relics from Mount Athos, where he had spent his final years as a monk, to Serbia and represented scenes from his life on church walls, including in the adjacent south chapel at Sopoćani. The devotion of a special chapel to the founder of the dynasty, intended as a Nemanjić family burial place, is also very significant. The representation of Anna Dandolo, their first crowned queen consort and St Simeon’s daughter-in-law, in a composition which heavily alluded to the Mother of God, the most important female Heavenly figure, must have fitted well with the programme of promoting and amplifying the grandeur of the Nemanjić dynasty. The fresco immortalised Anna, establishing her as a no less than holy ancestor.

The fresco’s allusion to the Dormition scene also fits in with the ideological character of the programme of frescoes in the narthex, in which the idea of a sacred lineage for the Nemanjić dynasty was further developed. On the east wall, a representation of the Ecumenical Councils incorporates an image of the Serbian Church Council, summoned by Stefan Nemanja between 1172 and 1180 to eradicate the heresy of the Bogomils from his territory. A distinct parallel is established between Byzantine emperors, defenders of the true faith, and Stefan Nemanja, who is represented in a Byzantine costume presiding at the Council. This idea comes from the Life of St Simeon (Stefan Nemanja) written by his son Stefan, in which he introduces a parallel between the Serbian Church Council and The First Church Council of Nicaea summoned by Constantine in response to Arianism.[21] Thus, the composition depicts Stefan Nemanja as the Serbian Constantine. The programme of the narthex forms a clear concept of the holy lineage of the Nemanjić dynasty, where the special role of the founder is passed onto his descendants to lead the people entrusted to him for a new Israel. Indeed, the biblical story of Joseph is depicted on the west wall, whereas the south wall features the Tree of Jesse. The iconography of the latter echoes contemporary hagiographic sources, in which Stefan Nemanja is compared to the vine branch like a ‘new Jesse’ and the Serbian kings to the great Old Testament figures Jacob and Joseph.[22]

If we follow the hypothesis that the Khakhuli enamel was made specifically for the Georgian court, then this image might have also been connected with the promotion of Georgian royal power, and to the Byzantine tradition of comparison. The execution of the enamel in the eleventh century could be associated with events which took place under the King Bagrat III from the Bagrat’ioni dynasty, who unified the eastern and western principalities of Georgia to become the first ruler of the kingdom of Georgia in 1008. The Bagrat’ionis had already been looking up to Constantinople and partly modelling their visual language on Byzantine examples, but, as contended by Antony Eastmond, within the two centuries after the unification of Georgia ‘…Byzantine imagery dominated Bagrat’ioni art and determined much of the appearance of royal power’.[23] This imitation of Byzantine iconography and dress showed their self-confidence and aimed to impress the audience.[24]

In scholarship there is little consensus with regards to the identity of the royal figure depicted on the Khakhuli enamel. She has been variously identified as an eleventh-century Byzantine empress, either Zoe or Maria of Alania, or as an eleventh-century Georgian queen.[25] This makes her identification fluid and adaptable in different contexts. Shalva Amiranashvili has suggested that the empress on the enamel is Mariam of Vaspurakan, the mother of Bagrat IV (r. 1027–1072), who played an active role both at the Georgian court and abroad. Among her undertakings was a journey to Constantinople to seek peace for the East and put an end to the battles between Greeks and Georgians. Not only did she succeed in this diplomatic mission, but she also received the title of ‘curopalates (the one in charge of the palace)’, one of the highest titles in Byzantine court, for her son from Romanos III Argyros (r. 1028–1034) and brought the emperor’s niece Helena as a wife for Bagrat.[26] Such a close link with the Byzantine court was considered a significant success. The marriage is possibly represented on a wall-painting in the Georgian monastery of Oshki, now in the territory of modern Turkey.[27] Bagrat was also fortunate to arrange the marriage of his daughter, Maria of Alania, to the Byzantine Emperor Michael VII Doukas (r. 1071–1078). An enamel portraying this imperial couple crowned by Christ is also now found in the Khakhuli triptych. It is likely that the enamel was brought to Georgia by Maria of Alania herself when her father died in 1072.[28] If it is indeed Mariam of Vaspurakan who is depicted next to the Archangel in the Annunciation-like scene, then her successful mission to Constantinople could have perhaps inspired this composition, since the original Greek word for Annunciation, Euaggelismos, means delivery of good news.[29] Thus, the medallion might have served a similar purpose to the Sopoćani fresco, intended to enhance the image of the female royal figure by modelling her on the Mother of God and, if it was indeed of Georgian origin, on a Byzantine empress at the same time.

The visual promotion of the Georgian ruling dynasty mainly took place in public places, through wall paintings or reliefs in churches or monasteries, similarly to the way it was done in Serbia by the Nemanjić two centuries later. Despite the small size of the Khakhuli enamel, measuring only five centimetres by four, which would suggest it was destined for private use, it might also have been accessible to a wider audience. As argued by Henry Maguire, there was no clear distinction between private and public function of objects in the Christian East, because they often moved from one sphere to the other.[30] Enamels of similar size were used to decorate crowns, chalices, book covers, and reliquaries. Kriszta Kostis has suggested that the medallion depicting the Annunciation scene might have been originally used to adorn a book cover together with other enamels, which is implied by the scrolls held by the empress and the angel.[31] However, when the Marian enamel was incorporated into the triptych in the twelfth century and placed at the royal monastery of Gelati in western Georgia, it acquired a public function. The central image of the Khakhuli triptych represents the Mother of God, accompanied by a dedicatory inscription which establishes a direct lineage between her, the Bagrat’ionis and the Old Testament King David.[32] Although the change in the physical setting of the Annunciation enamel following its incorporation into the triptych might have altered its original meaning, the association between a royal woman and the Mother of God further sanctified the legitimacy of the Georgian rulers.


Modelling the Mother of God

Since the earthly imperial court was perceived to be mirroring the Heavenly one, and the Virgin in Christian tradition holds second place after Christ, it would be logical to expect comparisons between the empress and the Theotokos. In scholarship, however, there are varying opinions about this. On the one hand, some scholars contend that Byzantine empresses consciously modelled themselves on the Virgin Mary and promoted her cult in order to secure their worldly position; one of the most cited examples is the fifth-century Empress Pulcheria, who is said to have linked herself to the Virgin as a Heavenly female guarantor of her imperial rights. Pulcheria allegedly went as far as to quarrel with Patriarch Nestorius, who had considered women impure and therefore banned the empress from the altar. Furthermore, she summoned an Ecumenical Council which, among other things, discussed the role of the Virgin and ratified the term Theotokos to address the Virgin.[33] Judith Herrin notes that Pulcheria also played an important role in establishing the Marian feasts.[34]

On the other hand, other scholars disagree that Marian devotion was promoted by Pulcheria, or even that Byzantine empresses modelled their image on the Virgin Mary. Liz James contends that the evidence that the Empress Pulcheria wanted to establish herself as representative of the Mother of God on earth is rather problematic. As she puts it, Pulcheria found it more useful to be associated directly with Christ as His bride: she kept her virginity, made her vows in the church of Holy Wisdom and took the Holy Communion at the altar like the male emperors did.[35] James argues that there was no special link between empresses and the Virgin, citing as evidence the fact that in other female imperial religious patronage there was no preference for imagery of the Theotokos over other saints.[36] Bissera V. Pentcheva argues that Pulcheria’s involvement with the Ephesus Council is based on later written tradition, and that wide construction of Marian churches and gathering of the Theotokos icons in Constantinople took place several decades after her death.[37]  By the seventh century, when the Virgin started to be perceived as a patron of Constantinople after having defended the city from the Avaro–Slavonic invaders, her association with the empresses was unlikely and her imagery too powerful and too significant to be associated with the empress exclusively. As patron of the imperial capital, Theotokos now belonged to the emperor. The empress’s devotional preferences ‘…were more general and less personal.’[38] This theory also seems plausible due to the lack of other examples apart from Pulcheria, but it does not exclude the possibility of occasional assimilations of female royal figures with the Mother of God.

Indeed, examples of written comparisons between empresses and the Theotokos may be scarce, but they do exist. Saint Ambrose of Milan in the fourth century drew a parallel between the Empress Helena, as a founder of Christian monarchy, and the Virgin Mary. According to Saint Ambrose, ‘Mary’s conception absolved Eve’s sin; Helena redeemed emperors.’[39] Furthermore, in a text describing a Constantinopolitan church devoted to the Theotokos, we find a record of images of the Emperor Constantine and his mother, Empress Helena, being paired with images of Christ and the Mother of God.[40] In a letter addressed to the Empress Irene, Theodore Studite, the eighth-century abbot of an important monastery in Constantinople, used epithets which were usually applied to the Theotokos to describe the monarch, thus elevating the empress by modelling her on the Virgin Mary.[41] Though there were occasional attempts to make these comparisons, they never became a norm. It seems there were no established formulas or rhetoric for comparing the female royal figure with the Virgin Mary or other saints, as there were for the emperor.[42] There is also no female equivalent to the term Christomimesis, which would linguistically connect the Empress to the Mother of God.

Despite the fact that there is little written evidence for comparisons between the Virgin and empresses, the Sopoćani fresco and Khakhuli enamel provide visual manifestations of this phenomenon, which makes them even more intriguing. The Marian allusion in the Sopoćani fresco might have been made on the basis of motherhood, whereby giving birth to a king was likened to the role of Mary as the Mother of God: just as the Empress Helena, Anna Dandolo similarly could have been compared to the Theotokos in her maternal role in the imagination of a donor of the fresco. Barbara Hill notes that ‘…the role of mother was the most powerful ideological role for women.’[43] An eleventh-century archbishop, Theophylact of Ohrid, believed that women could gain favour in the eyes of God when they became mothers and bore children.[44] The same attitude persisted in the following centuries and it did not exclude the royal women. One of the major roles of the emperor’s wife, in fact, was fecundity, in order to provide an heir to the throne: this is what defined the royal feminine.[45]  At Sopoćani, the central position occupied by Anna’s son, King Uroš, mirrors that of Christ at Mary’s Dormition. Motherhood takes central stage here, as Uroš stands by Anna’s deathbed together with his wife and their three children, witnesses of Anna’s successful role as a mother. The analogy between pairs of holy mothers and sons is amplified by the representation of Saint Helen and Saint Constantine – a very important mother and son duo in Byzantine iconography – on the west wall of the narthex, which is found in the same register directly to the left of the representation of the death of Anna Dandolo. The exact date of the execution of the fresco is unknown, but most scholars believe that it was made between 1263 and 1268, when Uroš I was in power.[46] It is likely that Uroš himself commissioned it: he had founded Sopoćani as a Nemanjić burial place, and it would not be surprising if he commissioned a funerary image in his mother’s honour, stressing the virtue of her motherhood and comparing her to the Theotokos. If it is indeed Mariam of Vaspurakan who is portrayed on the Khakhuli enamel, then it is conceivable that her comparison to the Mother of God was also made on the basis of her royal motherhood. In this case, representing the king’s mother in the place of the Theotokos could indeed be an extension of the Byzantine imperial tradition of Christomimesis. Such a depiction would not only magnify the queen mother, but by implication would also enhance the image of her son, Bagrat IV. Through the comparison of his mother to the Mother of God, Bagrat IV would be likened to Christ and would be put on equal footing with Byzantine emperors in his Chrsitomimetic role.

It is important to explain why in the eleventh and thirteenth century the comparison of a royal woman to the Theotokos would most probably allude to her royal motherhood. Ioli Kalavrezou argues that the Virgin’s maternal nature started to be stressed in the discussions during Iconoclasm, which lasted from the beginning of the eighth century until 843. To give a basic explanation of the dispute: adherents of the anti-image faction believed that visual representations of Christ separated His human and divine natures, and that representations of the Virgin and saints insulted their memory, because they live eternally with Christ.[47] The image supporters argued that since Christ was incarnated and seen on earth, He can be pictured and, therefore, ‘…to refuse to allow the portrayal of Christ was to reject His physical appearance on earth.’[48] Iconophiles emphasised the role of the Mother of God, because Christ’s human nature was directly related to her humanity and corporality.[49] Kalavrezou points out that the ubiquitous image of the Virgin tenderly holding Christ in her arms was developed over the course of several centuries, before it was officially sanctioned and promoted in the ninth century. Before Iconoclasm, the Theotokos was mainly identified as Maria or Hagia Maria, and her relationship to Christ was expressed in metaphors derived from the Old Testament; she was described as the New Eve, the Burning Bush, the Tabernacle. She was defined as God’s bearer, a vessel through which Christ was incarnated. Thus, the Mystery of the Incarnation was explained through metaphors, and references to the physicality of motherhood and childbirth were avoided.

After the Iconoclastic period, however, the promotion of the Virgin Mary’s motherhood became more explicit in both texts and holy images, and she started to be referred to as ‘Mētēr Theou (Mother of God)’ rather than Maria or Hagia Maria, appellations which were abandoned by the end of the ninth century.[50] In the following centuries her maternal role became more and more visible: the new iconography of the Deposition of Christ, for instance, depicting Christ taken down from the Cross and the sorrowful Mother of God by His side, revealing her maternal emotions, found visual currency. The earliest image of this scene is found in the Homilies of Gregory, a manuscript which dates to ca 880 (Paris, BNF, gr. 510). The Mother of God also became one of the protagonists of narrative scenes depicting the Passion of Christ, displaying emotions caused by the suffering and eventual death of her Son. In a well-known twelfth-century icon from Kastoria, the Mother of God holds Christ Child in her arms, while her face expresses anguish and sorrow; she looks to the side, as if hinting at the image of Christ represented on the reverse side of the icon.[51]

Having found solid ground, the emphasis on the maternal side of the Virgin did not disappear, but remained equally important to the images of the Theotokos in the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. Kotsis identifies the royal figure on the Khakhuli medallion as the eleventh-century Byzantine Empress Zoe (1028-1050), the daughter of Constantine VII, rather than a Georgian queen. Similarly to most of the scholars who have addressed this enamel, she looks at the piece in connection with two other stylistically and thematically similar enamels from the Khakhuli triptych. One of these depicts an empress standing next to Saint John the Baptist, and the other shows two female imperial figures crowned by the Mother of God. The stylistic analysis of the enamels reveals a possible close link to the Monomachos crown, where Constantine IX Monomachos is represented flanked by his wife, Empress Zoe, and her sister, Empress Theodora. There is even a possibility that they were manufactured in the same workshop.[52] Consequently, it is not unlikely that Zoe and Theodora are depicted on the three Khakhuli enamels. According to this hypothesis, one of them may represent Theodora and Zoe crowned by the Mother of God; another shows Theodora – who was forced to become a nun – next to John the Baptist, a desert ascetic considered to be a forefather of Christian monasticism; whilst the third one, which is the subject of this study, most likely portrays Zoe standing next to an angel in an Annunciation-like scene.

Empress Zoe married her first husband, Emperor Romanos III (r. 1028-1034), when she was fifty and, according to the historian and her contemporary Michael Psellos, she was desperately trying to conceive and produce an heir to the throne. Not only did she employ various medical treatments, but she also resorted to magic.[53] It cannot be excluded that the Annunciation-style image was a reflection of her hope. Serving as a model of divine motherhood, the Mother of God of the Annunciation was a favourite devotional object of Byzantine women. An eleventh-century reliquary from Maastricht, featuring the Virgin Hagioritissa on the front and the Annunciation on the reverse (Fig.4), belonged to a woman called Irene Synadene, and is possibly connected with her desire to conceive.[54] There also survives an eleventh-century lead seal stamped with the Annunciation scene bearing the inscription ‘Hail, thou that art highly favoured.’ The reverse side of the seal features a prayer, ‘Thou who hast received joy, give joy to Zoe’.[55] The first invocation is in praise of the Mother of God, and the second reflects Zoe’s desire to have a child and experience the joy of motherhood. It is conceivable that this lead seal belonged to the Empress Zoe, and that she could have used it in her private correspondence with doctors and counsellors when she was trying to conceive.[56] Even if the three Khakhuli medallions were produced during the joint rule of Zoe and Theodora in 1042, as Kotsis proposes, when Zoe was already in her sixties, it is possible that the imagery reflected the following events in chronological order: Theodora being sent to the monastery, Zoe trying to conceive a child, and the sisters’ joint rule after Theodora’s return from the monastery.


Figure 7. Histamenon of Michael IV. Obverse: Enthroned Christ, reverse: Archangel Mi-chael hands labarum to Michael IV, 1034-1041, 4.37 g, 25 mm, Thessalonica. © Dumbar-ton Oaks, Byzantine Collection, Washington, DC.


Along with the allusion to a potential motherhood in the Annunciation-style image, there may be additional explanations for placing the Empress Zoe in the position of the Theotokos. Zoe’s second husband, Michael IV, is represented on some of the coins minted during his reign standing next to the Archangel Michael, who in turn hands him a labarum, a military standard with a Christian symbol (ca 1034-1031, Fig. 7). The depiction of Zoe next to the Archangel Gabriel would have brought the enamel ‘…into dialogue with official imagery issued during Michael’s reign.’[57] I would argue that there is also a parallel between the Annunciation-style image of the medallion and the Baptism-style image on a tenth-century coin which shows the emperor crowned by John the Baptist. The image shows the saint placing his hand on the head of the emperor, following the iconographic standard of the Baptism scene. Saint John the Baptist’s hand was brought to Constantinople in the tenth century and played a crucial part in the ceremonies of the imperial court, as has been argued by Kalavrezou.[58] The image, however, was not repeated by later emperors, perhaps because it was too reminiscent of the iconography of the Baptism and the emperor was directly placed in Christ’s position. Instead, later images depicted emperors crowned by Christ.[59] It appears as if the Marian-like image of the Khakhuli medallion, where the female royal figure was evidently put in the Virgin Mary’s place, was also never repeated, perhaps because of its daring allusion to the Annunciation.


Kingmakers and Patrons

Comparing queens to the Theotokos as the Sopoćani fresco can show, offered the possibility of confirming or heightening the status of royal women beyond the role of mother, to contributing members of culture and society – in this life and in the next. Anna Dandolo’s importance at court hinged not only on her role as the queen mother, but also as a queen consort. She was the granddaughter of a Venetian doge, Enrico Dandolo (r. 1192-1205), and was Catholic by birth. It is believed that Stefan Prvovenčani’s marriage to Anna provided an opportunity for him to receive a crown from the Pope, which he so desired. Thus, her role was crucial in securing the Serbian ruler a kingship. The comparison to the Mother of God in the Sopoćani fresco, which aimed to commemorate Anna, was perhaps a demonstration of respect for her important contribution in the acquisition of the crown. Owing to her seminal role as the wife of the first crowned king, Anna Dandolo was immortalised not only in the fresco, but also in the monastery commemoration books where her name was recorded alongside male members of the Nemanjić dynasty.[60]

It is likely that Anna Dandolo’s daughter-in-law, Helena d’Anjou, who was very active in her patronage in Serbia, had some influence on the execution of the Sopoćani fresco.[61] Her place in the composition is rather prominent. She could have been painted next to her husband, the king, and their children, but instead she is depicted separately, kneeling by Anna’s deathbed in the foreground of the composition – an expression, perhaps, of Helena’s special affinity to her mother-in-law. They were both Catholic-born princesses who became consorts to Serbian kings, and their foreign background may have made them companions at the Serbian court. Indeed, if Helena played some part in the conception of the fresco, then there are grounds to speculate she may have been engaging with western visual tropes codifying the relationship between the queen and the Virgin. In the western tradition, queens often modelled their image on the Theotokos.[62] A good visual example is a miniature depicting the thirteenth-century queen of France, Blanche of Castile (ca 1230, Fig. 8). She sits on a throne, wearing a crown and a blue imperial garment, in a way which directly references, in composition and colouring, the Virgin. With her left hand she points to her son Louis IX, and the gesture of her left hand is reminiscent of that of a blessing. Depicted in the lower register, beneath the queen and king, are the author and scribe of this manuscript. Blanche’s patronage explains her general prominence and countenance, as well as the bold choice to liken herself to the Virgin.[63] The composition is modelled on the ubiquitous western iconography of the Coronation of the Virgin, which depicts the Virgin and Christ sitting on thrones, turning toward each other – a near-contemporary relief sculpture on the tympanum of the central portal at Chartres Cathedral contains a very similar composition.


Figure 8. Blanche of Castile and King Louis IX of France; Author Dictating to a Scribe, ca 1230, miniature, Moralized Bible, France, probably Paris. The Morgan Library & Museum.


Whilst certainly alluding to the Dormition scene, the Death of Anna Dandolo also contains some duality. In the left corner of the image, Christ and the Theotokos are depicted visiting the funerary scene. They are shown separately from the crowd, as if invisible, with nobody looking at them, and Helena d’Anjou kneeling with her back turned to them, unaware of their presence. Only the angel’s body is turned slightly towards Christ and the Virgin. Christ’s left hand is slightly raised, which cannot be a gesture of blessing, because the blessing can be given only with the right hand. His gesture might, instead, signify his readiness to receive Anna’s soul. The presence of Christ at the queen’s funeral may serve as a confirmation of Christ’s benevolence towards the deceased and his gift of Paradise to her. Christ and the Mother of God are not usually depicted side by side as adults in Byzantine iconography, with the exception of images of the Wedding at Cana, in which Christ transforms water into wine at the request of the Mother of God, despite His initial reluctance to reveal signs of His glory. The Mother of God is also depicted next to Christ in the Deisis scene, where she, together with Saint John the Baptist, intercedes for the people so that Christ may forgive their sins. Perhaps the Theotokos, beyond the emphasis placed on the virtue of physical motherhood, was included in the Sopoćani scene as an intercessor for the soul of the deceased. Hence two dimensions are represented in the fresco – the earthly and visible on one hand, and the Heavenly and invisible on the other. The inclusion of Christ and the Theotokos in the scene makes the allusion to the Dormition appear less daring: the king and his mother may evoke the figures of Christ and the Virgin, but do not substitute them.

The presence of Christ and His Mother at Anna Dandolo’s funeral, and the fact that the angel holds her soul, not only serve as confirmation of her salvation, but also imply that she will be placed among the saints in the Kingdom of Heaven. Just as depictions of the members of the ruling Bagrat’ioni dynasty on wall paintings in Georgian churches suggested that the rulers had very close links with the Heavenly world, so does the Dormition-style representation of Anna Dandolo in the Sopoćani narthex give her ‘quasi-saintly status.’[64] Similarly, in the Khakhuli enamel the female figure, be it Bagrat’s mother Mariam, Byzantine Empress Zoe, or some other royal woman, also assumes a holy status. Whilst she does not have a halo, her proximity to Gabriel speaks of her prestige: only worthy Christians can communicate directly with saints and angels. She does not wear the robe of the Mother of God, but the composition suggests she is depicted in her stead. By showing the royal woman conversing with the Archangel, and making a visual allusion to one of the most iconographically recognisable Marian feasts, her image is elevated and her authority, on earth and beyond, strengthened.

The Khakhuli enamel and the wall painting of the Death of Anna Dandolo in Sopoćani are extremely uncommon examples of the modelling of female royal figures on the Mother of God in Byzantine or Byzantine-influenced visual art. Although the earthly court was perceived to be a replica of the Heavenly one, and the emperor was often compared to Christ, the link between the empress and the Mother of God was rare. There are scarce examples of this comparison in written sources, but in visual art they are exceptional. Though more work on this field is necessary, this article begins to offer some evidence towards the possibility that the presence of Marian-style iconography in both the Sopoćani fresco and the Khakhuli enamel could have been an extension of the imperial ideology of Christomimesis applied to female royal figures. Anna Dandolo was compared to the Virgin with her high Heavenly status, which in turn bolstered the queen’s standing and the power of the Nemanjić dynasty, both as respected kingmaker and patron. In the Khakhuli enamel, the royal woman was depicted in an Annunciation-style scene, either in praise for a successful political mission, to reflect the empress’s desire to conceive and produce an heir, or to enhance her authority by bestowing upon her a quasi-saintly status. Thus, both the Sopoćani fresco and the Khakhuli enamel elevate royal women towards the Heavenly realm. The mothers of earthly kings are compared to the Mother of God, offering a powerful counter-imagery to the Christomimetic characterisation of emperors.


Alevtina Tanu completed the MA Special Option Byzantium and its Rivals at the Courtauld Institute of Art under the supervision of Prof Antony Eastmond in 2019. Since then, she has been conducting independent research on the Byzantine city of Thessaloniki and preparing for her PhD in Palaiologian art in the Balkans.


[1] Nikodim P. Kondakov, Geschichte und Denkmäler des byzantinischen Emails (Frankfurt am Main, 1892), 141; Dimitrij Gordeev, ‘K voprosu o razgruppirovanii emalei Khakhulskogo skladnia (Regarding the question of classifying the enamels of the Khakhuli Triptych)’, Mistestvoznavstvo Zbirnik, 1 (1928), 147-65, 157; Shalva Amiranashvili, The Khakhuli Triptych (Tbilisi: Khelovneba, 1972), n.p.; Guram Abramishvili, ‘Georgian Jewellery and Metalwork in the Middle Ages’, in Alexander Javakhishvili and Guram Abramishvili (eds), Jewellery and Metalwork in the Museums of Georgia (Leningrad: Aurora Art Publishers, 1986), 98-111; Kriszta Kotsis, ‘Mothers of the Empire: Empresses Zoe and Theodora on a Byzantine Medallion Cycle’, Medieval Feminist Forum: A Journal of Gender and Sexuality 48.1 (2012), 5-96.
[2] Titos Papamastorakis, ‘Re-deconstructing the Khakhuli Triptych’, Deltion of the Christian Archeological Society, 23 (2002), 231-232.
[3] Dimitri Obolensky, Six Byzantine Portraits (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 119.
[4] Nancy Ševčenko, ‘Written Voices: The Spoken Word in Middle Byzantine Monumental Painting’, in Susan Boynton and Diane J. Reilly (eds), Resounding Images: Medieval Intersections of Art, Music, and Sound (Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2015), 158.
[5] Vojislav J. Djurić, Sopoćani (Leipzig: E. A. Seemann Verlag, 1967), 19.
[6] Henry Maguire, ‘The Art of Comparing’, The Art Bulletin, 70.1 (March 1988), 93.
[7] Maguire, 93.
[8] Nancy Ševčenko, ‘The Limburg Staurothek and its Relics’, in Rena Andreade (ed.), Thymiama ste mneme tes Laskarinas Boura (Athens: Benaki Museum, 1994), 289.
[9] Henry Maguire, ‘Style and Ideology in Byzantine Imperial Art’, Gesta, 28.2 (1989), 228.
[10] Cyril Mango, Byzantium: The Empire of New Rome (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1980), 151.
[11] Eve Borsook, Messages in Mosaic: The Royal Programmes of Norman Sicily (1130-1187) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 3.
[12] John Cotsonis, ‘To Invoke or Not to Invoke: The Image of Christ on Byzantine Lead Seals. That is the Question’, Revue Numismatique, 170 (2013), 550.
[13] Cotsonis, 56.
[14] Antony Eastmond, ‘The Heavenly Court, Courtly Ceremony, and the Great Byzantine Ivory Triptychs of the Tenth Century’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 69 (2015), 74.
[15] Translated by the author: Kekavmen, ‘Sovety i rasskazy Kekavmena: sochinenie vizantijskogo polkovodtsa XI veka’, podgotovka teksta, vvedenie, perevod i kommentarij G.G. Litavrina (Moscow: Nauka, 1972), 274.
[16] Liz James, ‘Goddess, Whore, Wife or Slave: Will the Real Byzantine Empress Please Stand Up?’, in Anne J. Duggan (ed.), Queens and Queenship in Medieval Europe (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1997), 125.
[17] John Beckwith, Early Christian and Byzantine Art (London: Penguin Books, 1970), 257.
[18] Antony Eastmond, ‘“Local” Saints, Art, and Regional Identity in the Orthodox World after the Fourth Crusade’, Speculum, 78.3 (2003), 742.
[19] Véronique Deur-Petiteau, ‘Images, Spatialité et cérémoniel dans le narthex des églises en Serbie médiévale’, in Sulamith Brodbeck and Anne-Orange Poilpré (eds), Visibilité et présence de l’image dans l’espace ecclésial: Byzance et Moyen Âge occidental (Paris: Éditions de la Sorbonne, 2019), [Last accessed: 2 July 2020]
[20] Deur-Petiteau, n.p.
[21] Deur-Petiteau, n.p.
[22] Deur-Petiteau, n.p.
[23] Antony Eastmond, Royal Imagery in Medieval Georgia (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998), 39.
[24] Eastmond (1998), 30.
[25] Kotsis, 5-96; Abramishvili, 107; Avtandil Mikaberidze, ‘Die byzantinische Kaiserin Maria-Martha in Lichte neuer archäologischer Ausgrabungen’, in Guntram Koch (ed.), Byzantinische Malerei, BildprogrammeIkonographie—Stil (Wiesbaden: Reichert, 2000), 197-198.
[26] Lynda Garland and Stephen Rapp, ‘Mary of “Alania”: Women and Empress Between Two Worlds’, in Lynda Garland (ed.), Byzantine Women: Varieties of Experience 800-1200 (Burlington: Ashgate Publishing, 2006), 119.
[27] Antony Eastmond, ‘Greeks Bearing Gifts: The Icon of Xaxuli and Enamel Diplomacy Between Byzantium and Georgia’, in Ivan Foletti and Erik Thunø (eds), Medieval South Caucasus: Artistic Cultures of Albania, Armenia and Georgia (Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2016), 98.
[28] Eastmond (2016), 98.
[29] Amiranashvili, n.p., text next to figures 101-103.
[30] Henry Maguire, ‘The Cult of the Mother of God in Private’, in Maria Vassilaki (ed.), Mother of God: Representations of the Virgin in Byzantine Art (Milan: Skira, 2000), 279.
[31] Kotsis, 9-10.
[32] Nina Chichinadze, ‘Icons as Symbols of Power in Medieval Georgia’, Le Muséon, 122.3-4 (2009).
[33] Diliana N. Angelova, Sacred Founders: Women, Men, and Gods in the Discourse of Imperial Founding, Rome through Early Byzantium (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015), 244.
[34] Judith Herrin, ‘The Imperial Feminine in Byzantium’, Past & Present, 169 (November 2000), 18-19.
[35] Liz James, ‘The Empress and the Virgin in Early Byzantium: Piety, Authority and Devotion’, in Maria Vassilaki (ed.), Images of the Mother of God: Perceptions of the Theotokos in Byzantium (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2005), 146-147.
[36] James (2005), 150.
[37] Bissera V. Pentcheva, Icons and Power: The Mother of God in Byzantium (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006), 15.
[38] James (2005), 152.
[39] Angelova, 236.
[40] Angelova, 258.
[41] Nike Koutrakou, ‘Use and Abuse of the ‘Image’ of the Theotokos in the Political Life of Byzantium (with special reference to iconoclast period)’, in Maria Vassilaki (ed.), Images of the Mother of God: Perceptions of the Theotokos in Byzantium (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2005), 78-79.
[42] Kotsis, 33.
[43] Barbara Hill, ‘Imperial Women and the Ideology of Womanhood in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries’, in Liz James (ed.), Women, Men and Eunuchs: Gender in Byzantium (London: Routledge, 1997), 83.
[44] Hill, 84.
[45] Herrin, 23.
[46] Ivana Komatina, ‘Ana Dandolo – Prva Srpska Kraljica?’, Matica Srpska Journal of History, 89 (2014), 18.
[47] Leslie Brubaker, Inventing Byzantine Iconoclasm, (London: Bristol Classical Press, 2012), 51.
[48] Brubaker, 61.
[49] Ioli Kalaverzou, ‘The Maternal Side of the Virgin’, in Maria Vassilaki (ed.), Mother of God: Representations of the Virgin in Byzantine Art (Milan: Skira, 2000), 41.
[50] Kalaverzou, 41-42.
[51] Kalaverzou, 43.
[52] Kotsis, 16.
[53] Michael Psellus, Fourteen Byzantine Rulers: The Chronographia of Michael Psellus, transl. by E. R. A. Sewter (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1966), 104-105.
[54] Brigitte Pitarakis, ‘Female Piety in Context: Understanding Developments in Private Devotional Practices’, in Maria Vassilaki (ed.), Images of the Mother of God: Perceptions of the Theotokos in Byzantium (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2005), 158.
[55] Vasso Penna, ‘Zoe’s Lead Seal: Female Invocation to the Annunciation of the Virgin’, in Maria Vassilaki (ed.), Images of the Mother of God: Perceptions of the Theotokos in Byzantium (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2005), 176-177.
[56] Penna, 178.
[57] Kotsis, 37.
[58] Ioli Kalavrezou, ‘Helping Hands for the Empire: Imperial Ceremonies and the Cult of Relics at the Byzantine Court’, in Henry Maguire (ed.), Byzantine Court Culture from 829 to 1204 (Washington: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1997), 67-75.
[59] Maguire (1989), 228.
[60] Komatina, 17.
[61] Marija Mihajlovic Shipley, Queen Jelena Between Two Worlds: The Icon of St. Peter and St. Paul (MA Dissertation, The Courtauld Institute of Art, 2017).
[62] Pentcheva, 191.
[63] John Lowden, The Making of the Bibles Moralisées, I. The Manuscripts (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000), 127-132.
[64] Eastmond (1998), 200-202.

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