Large (Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes)

The two most famous 6th-century rulers of the Byzantine Empire, Emperor Justinian I and his wife, Empress Theodora—while fascinating historical figures—are not hugely popular subjects in art.

The 19th-century Orientalist painter Benjamin Constant, however, painted both of them a number of times.

And they make for fabulously striking paintings.

In 1887, Constant—according to the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes—painted the empress very much as she’s described in the Secret History: “a small, graceful woman with vivid and dazzling eyes.”

Furthermore, her clothing comes almost directly out of the famous mosaic that depicts her in the Basilica of San Vitale—and the circular back of her marble throne even evokes her halo.

External image

The translation of her frontal pose and clear, even gaze into Constant’s verisimilar style gives the empress an astonishingly powerful presence, in spite of her diminutive size.

A mosaic of the Byzantine empress Theodora wearing an elaborate crown and pieces of jewelry. Her halo, averted gaze, and unusually large eyes are all motifs in Early Byzantine imperial portraiture that are meant to symbolize her rule by divine authority. 

Pieced together out of tesserae (glass crystal, rock, gold, etc).

Made in 546 in the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy.


→ Church of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy

The Church of San Vitale is a church in Ravenna, Italy and one of the most important examples of early Christian Byzantine art and architecture in western Europe. The building is styled an “ecclesiastical basilica” in the Roman Catholic Church, though it is not of architectural basilica form. It is one of eight Ravenna structures inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The church was begun by Bishop Ecclesius in 527, when Ravenna was under the rule of the Ostrogoths and completed by the 27th Bishop of Ravenna, Maximian in 546 during the Byzantine Exarchate of Ravenna. [x]