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Roundel with Emperor John II Komnenos
Roundel with Emperor John II

Byzantine, c. 1110-1118

Marble, d. 90 cm


A half life-sized Byzantine emperor stands on a decorated suppedion before a background of radiating quatrefoils and directly faces the viewer. The vividly decorated ground echoes the gemstones that spangle the several layers of the imperial costume: a sagion (cape), bound at the right shoulder with a simple fibula, over a divitesion (tunic) and a loros (the gemmed scarf wrapped around the emperor's torso. Imperial attributes symbolize the emperor's power and leadership: in his right hand the emperor holds a labarum, a staff with a square finial; in his left hand he holds an ornate globus cruciger with, in this instance, a leaved patriarchal cross. His head is crowned with a wide, jeweled band decorated with a large central plaque.

Large-scale figurative relief sculpture in Byzantium is rare. Compared to the ubiquitous presence of statues of emperors in classical antiquity, the production of imperial statues came to a standstill in the Byzantine medieval period. The marble for this relief is a horizontal slab  that was cut from the top of a column shaft of unusually large diameter. The roundel therefore is a reused architectural element of an ancient monument of considerable size.

The emperor roundel has a counterpart in Venice, set into a wall above and between doors of a small court known as Campiello de Ca' Angaran. Since the Dumbarton Oaks roundel was in the Veneto until the mid-nineteenth century, it has been assumed that the two almost identical representations of middle Byzantine emperors were once part of the same ensemble.

Who are the two emperors? Imperial regalia - especially the shape and style of the crown and the loros - are well documented for emperors in the late eleventh and twelfth centuries. It has been suggested that these two emperors are Alexios I and John II, father and son, who reigned jointly between 1092 and 1118. Though it is tempting to assume that the two roundels were taken by the Latins from Constantinople to Venice in 1204, the possibility that only one of the two originated in the imperial capital and was copied by a Venetian craftsman--to create a decorative pair--has not been entirely ruled out.

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