The Forty Martyrs of Sebasteia
Late Byzantine, c. 1300
Mosaic on wax on wood, 22 x 16cm
“Forty Roman soldiers, having converted to Christianity, refused to worship Emperor Licinius (308-24) or any pagan gods. As punishment, they were placed on a frozen lake at Sebasteia in Asia Minor and given the option to face certain death or recant and have the refuge of a warm bath building, which they could see from the lake. This building may have been represented in the mosaic, as it is in many other representations, but damage in the upper right corner makes its presence uncertain. One soldier did give up and crawled into the warm building, but he was immediately replaced by a Roman bath attendant who converted on the spot, impressed by the Christian faith of the condemned soldiers. Signifying the soldiers' spiritual rewards, forty golden crowns descend from Heaven, symbolized by the hand of God. The Martyrdom of the Forty Christian Soldiers remained an exemplary expression of steadfast faith throughout the Byzantine period and beyond.
The figures, showing deep, psychological interaction balanced by a restrained emotionalism, are hallmarks of the narrative Palaiologan style that developed after 1261, when the Byzantine Empire was reestablished after having been dominated by Latins from 1204 to 1261. The creativity and religious dynamism that flourished during the period following the recovery of Constantinople was expressed on a large scale in church frescoes and mosaic decoration and in a series of miniature icons such as this one made with minute tesserae handled with a painter's skill. Though these diminutive icons reflect artistic trends on a larger scale, their size and use of wax on a wood support indicate their use for private veneration. In contrast to the monumental frescoes and mosaics in Constantinople, Thessaloniki, and Serbia, this expressive mosaic focuses on the personal experience of martyrdom: the challenge to every Christian to bear witness to holiness through empathy and to transcend terrestrial trials through faith.”