August 09: a glorious rule

2012/08/09 § Leave a comment

On this day in 527 Justinian commenced his reign as Byzantine emperor.

Born into an undistinguished family in the provinces, Justinian (ca. 482-565) might have lived his days as a farmer had it not been for the wisp of a tie to extended family serving the palace in Constantinople.  Through a distant relative in the imperial guard, the boy was transferred to the capital where he distinguished himself academically, ingratiated himself socially, imposed himself into the rule of the kingdom and ended up being elevated to the position of Emperor.  From low origins, he married the medieval world’s most prominent (and successful) model-actresses (to state her profession[s] delicately), Theodora.  The two pursued the concept of renovatio imperii and (apparently jointly) reigned over a period of great territorial expansion, legislative achievement and cultural development.

Some surmise that it was their non-aristocratic heritage that led the two to ignore traditional social circles and surround themselves with big talent rather than fusty aristocrats.  Their court became as glorious as the glittering works of art and architecture that they patronized, including such decorative arts as icon painting, ivory carving and silk weaving.  In architecture, they ordered new construction or rebuilding/refurbishment of the Church of the Holy Apostles, Hagia Eirene, the Basilica of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus, work on the imperial palace, the cathedral (more on that later).  All of these buildings in Constantinople have been altered or knocked down, but their church of San Vitale survives almost perfectly.  It stands in the administrative outpost and former capital of the western empire of Ravenna, where Byzantine art remains much more intact than it does in Justinian’s capital, where later residents were keen to destroy, disfigure or conceal representational artwork.  San Vitale is a particularly wonderful building, a central monument of Byzantine architecture.  From the exterior it is typically plain, even a bit dumpy, but its complex interior is shaped by vaults and screens of columns and swathed in colorful marble revetments in the few places not frosted with mosaics.  Key among them are the huge portraits of Justinian and Theodora with their attendants, positioned in the apse and illustrating their key roles in the life of the Church and as patrons of this particular spectacular church, maybe the finest memorial of their reign.

Image: interior of San Vitale, Ravenna (Clio’s)

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