• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Did Byzantine Heraldry Exist?



Was there an equivalent use of distinctive motifs employed as ornament by the Byzantine nobility (to convey the same messages of authority and individuality) as used by their Frankish contemporaries?


There was certainly a visual language of power in Byzantium. Alexios I wears a purple robe decorated with golden stars, hearts and palm trees in the manuscript illuminations of the Dogmatic Panoply.[1] A military saint from the Kosmoteira at Pherrai dons the same pattern. And it appears again as an altar cloth in early twelfth-century mosaics at S. Marco.[2] Was such imagery a general evocation of luxury as power, however, or was it meant to convey a specific heraldic message?



The answer appears to have been the former. At least until the fourth crusade when Latins began intermarrying into the ranks of the imperial family and appropriating Byzantine symbols. One of the most obvious opportunities to display these newly-acquired images were funerary chapels. Roundels with rampant lions topped the revetment at the Tarchaniotes family chapel at the Pammakaristos monastery, for instance – almost identical to the roundels that dominated Latin tombs in Pera.[3]


Other churches, however, betray signs that a fondness for heraldry may have had earlier roots. Already in the twelfth century, for example, the rampant lion appears on St Theodore’s shield in St Panteleimon at Nerezi – a particularly odd usage given that its most obvious contemporary association was the Lusignan coat of arms in Cyprus or Richard the Lionheart of England.[4] Moreover, as late as fourteenth-century there were Byzantines strolling around with lion rampant signet-rings.[5] These oddities can perhaps be explained by reining the lion in from its big heraldic reputation and highlighting that the beast was also a general symbol of power.



What to make, then, of the insignia often associated with either the Byzantine state or ruling family, namely, the (single or double-headed) eagle and the cantoned cross with four betas. The latter appears on coinage as early as Theodore II’s reign, on the walls of Constantinople itself, at Tekfur Saray Palace, as well as on maps and banners.[6] Ps-Kodinos even refers to the device as the “usual imperial flamoulon, that is the cross with the flint-strikers.”[7] A fascinating turn of phrase that implies the betas were not letters but symbols. Yet it is never – to my knowledge – seen on items of personal adornment (which would indicate its familial role). Instead, western sources consistently associate it with the empire, emperor or city of Constantinople.


The double-headed eagle never appears on Byzantine coinage, while a number of other symbols do. However, it was common throughout the Palaiologan period, for example at the Metropolis of Mistra [8] and is displayed on the ceremonial costumes of those closely associated with the emperor (or his sons/heirs), though never imperial garments themselves (which differentiated themselves on their purple colour rather than any specific heraldic devices). The only time it reached the emperor’s person was when an item came below the knees. The souppedion (cushion) for his feet, for instance, had a double-headed eagle, as did the footwear of most emperors.[9]



There were other symbols too, which don’t get mentioned much in the literature. For example, the gaming square pattern that appeared on the thirteenth century coinages of John Doukas Vatatzes and the Palaiologan dynasty.[10] Where or why it was used remains a mystery but it was associated with at least three different imperial families.


Yet, as with the Alexios’ robes, the main impression is that these were general emblems of power rather than codified familial symbols. Nevertheless, the West continued to (wilfully or ignorantly) misinterpret these devices as heraldry. Indeed, the daughters of Baldwin I adopted it as such and, with the marriage of his daughter Jeanne to Thomas II of Savoy in 1237, the double-headed eagle was included in that family’s arms.[11] In 1306, too, a similar adoption occurred when the March of Montferrat shifted from the Aleramici to the Palaiologoi (when the former’s line became extinct) allowing Irene of Montferrat’s children to inherit (offspring she’d had with Andronikos II). From Theodore I onwards, therefore, the arms of the marquises contained the double-headed eagle, until the last legitimate male heir of the Palaiologos family (Giovanni Giorgio) died in 1533 and the city was inherited by Federico II Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua (who cheekily added the double-headed eagle to his own).



It was in its deployment of the monogram that Byzantines most closely resembled the Franks and their heraldic habits. Monograms appear prominently on coinage, seals, architecture, art and dress. Familial associations were often spelt out quite literally – on tombs, for instance, when a princess decorated her garments with a combination of Asan, Raoul and Palaiologos monograms.[12] Unlike the West, then, where pictorial images counted for so much, Byzantine emblems of prestige centred on the written word.


As an interesting postscript it’s worth noting that these developments rarely occurred in a vacuum. Instead, they operated in the chaotic buzz of cross-fertilisation. A symbol known as the cintamani (or three balls in a triangular arrangement), for instance, figured prominently in early Ottoman costume and was associated with rulership throughout the Islamic world (as confirmed by De Clavijo c.1404 when he noted that it was the special armorial bearing of Tamurlane in Samarkand).[13] Yet it was also on a variety of royal garments in the late Byzantine Balkans, as well as a Lascarid coin.


[1] A. Cutler & J-M. Spieser, Byzance Medievale (1996), figs. 279-80.

[2] For Pherrai, see R. Ousterhout & Ch. Bakirtzis, The Byzantine Monuments of the Evros (2007), 71-72; for S. Marco, see O. Demus, The Mosaic Decoration of S. Marco, Venice, ed. H. Kessler (1988), pl. 13.

[3] C. Mango, H. Belting, and D. Mouriki, The Mosaics and Frescoes of S. Mary Pammakaristos at Istanbul (1978), pls. 94-5.

[4] I. Sinkevic, The Church of St. Panteleimon at Nerezi (2000), fig. 62; other powers with the lion rampant included the kingdoms of Norway (1217), Scotland (1222) and the (comital) arms of Flanders (1163).

[5] E. Katsara, The City of Mystras: Byzantine Hours, Works and Days in Byzantium (2001), 162-63.

[6] Van Millingen, Byzantine Constantinople, Illus. 112.

[7] Pseudo-Kodinos, De officiis, ed. J. Verpeaux (1866), 167.17-23.

[8] S. Runciman, Mistra: Byzantine Capital of the Peloponnese (1980), frontispiece.

[9] Stricevic, “Double-Headed Eagle,” attempts to associate the suppedion with the shield used in the ritual elevation of the emperor.

[10] Michael Hendy, Catalogue of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection and in the Whittemore Collection, 3: Alexius I to Michael VIII, 1081-1261 (1999), pl. XXXIV, AE 56:1; P. Grierson, Byzantine Coins (1982), nos. 1175, 1449, 1451.

[11] Cernovodeanu, “Contributions a l’etude de l’heraldique byzantine,” 413; G. Gerola, “l’aquila bizantina e l’aquila imperiale a due test,” Felix Ravenna 43 (1934): 7-36, at 24.

[12] P. A. Underwood, The Kariye Djami, 3 vols (1966-75), 1: 284-86; 3: pl. 541.

[13] Redford, “Byzantium and the Islamic World,” in Byzantium: Faith and Power: 1261-1557 (2004), 393-95.

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