Gold and cloisonné enamel
Hungarian National Museum, Budapest
That its seven arched plaques were made to be sewn onto a cloth or leather backing is suggested by the small, irregularly spaced holes drilled into the narrow strips soldered around the backs of the enamels just inside their edges. Because the holes are not set at the same levels on plaques of the same size, they could not have been intended for joining the plaques together by means of hooks or wires. Nor is it likely that the holes at the bottoms of the plaques were designed for attaching pendent pearls and jewels, as they are not noticeably more torn or bent out of shape than the holes at the sides. Arabic sources speak of Byzantine belts of cloth encrusted with gold and enamel plaques. A similar use must be envisaged for these objects, although the arched tops suggest that they were intended for a diadem of some kind rather than for a belt. A parallel is provided by five tenth-century enamel plaques found at Preslav, Bulgaria, which are deco-rated with the Ascension of Alexander and with fabulous beasts; these also have arched tops and are perforated by small holes at their edges for sewing.
The two medallions with Saints Peter and Andrew, which were reportedly found together with the seven arched plaques, were originally attached by a different method and probably came from another object. Each medallion is pierced by four nail holes, which, because they damage the inscriptions, likely represent a subsequent use. In addition, the colors of the medallions are slightly different from those of the plaques, especially in the flesh tints, which are darker.
The tallest plaque shows an emperor dressed in full imperial regalia. The upper part of his body is flanked by an inscription identifying him as "Constantine Monomachos, autokrator of the Romans"; the lower part is framed by vine scrolls in which are perched six colorful birds. Next in order of height are four enamels, two of which portray empresses, and two, dancers. Inscriptions identify the empresses as "Zoe, the most pious augusta" (the wife of Constantine IX), and her sister, "Theodora, the most pious augusta." Standing stiffly in full regalia, they are framed by lush vine scrolls with birds. Vines and birds also surround the two dancers, each of whom kicks one leg behind her and holds a long, billowing scarf over her head. The two smallest plaques depict the virtues of Truth and Humility, each personification flanked by two cypress trees, each with two birds in its branches. The inscriptions contain many faults of orthography, a feature shared with the Byzantine enamel of Irene Komnene on the Pala d’Oro in Venice.
Byzantine parallels can be found for most of the apparent anomalies in the imperial costumes. A parallel for the form of the female crowns, with small "toothed" projections at the top, is provided by the portrait of Constantine IX between Zoe and Theodora that appears in a contemporary manuscript at Mount Sinai. Although it has been claimed that on the enamels Theodora's crown is surmounted by a little cross, whereas those of Constantine and Zoe are not, in fact none of the crowns bears a cross, so there is no breach of protocol. Theodora's crown is topped only by a rounded finial. The form of the pendoulia, or hanging ornaments, of all three crowns, which make a curve following the shape of the hair rather than falling straight down, can be matched in the enamel medallions depicting mounted imperial falconers that are now on the Pala d’Oro. The arrangement of the imperial garments worn by the women also finds parallels in other Byzantine works. The miniatures of the nearly contemporaneous Theodore Psalter, illuminated in Constantinople in 1066, provide parallels for the single long sleeve and the underside of the loros, framed by a clear border as a "shield" enclosing a cross. The same manuscript contains examples of the "shields" with their points arranged on both the left and right sides of the body.
Considerable discussion has been devoted to the directions in which the imperial figures turn their eyes. Because Constantine looks to his left, it has been proposed that originally there must have been a plaque with Christ, the emperor's suzerain, toward whom the emperor would have been turning his glance. Zoe, who also looks to her left, would have been placed at Constantine's right, so that she would be looking at him. And Theodora, who looks to her right, would have been placed at the emperor's left. It would appear, however, that the Byzantines were not always as consistent as modern scholars in following the logic of the gaze. In the miniature at Sinai, Zoe, standing at Constantine's right, looks to her right, away from her husband. Parallels for the virtues can also be found in other works of Byzantine art. Truth appears as an imperial virtue flanking the throne of Nikephoros III Botaneiates in the manuscript of John Chrysostom's homilies in Paris. On the enamel she points to her mouth, indicating the source of veracious speech. Although the appearance of Humility is without parallel in surviving Byzantine imperial art, Byzantine writers frequently associated this virtue with emperors and empresses; in the case of the male rulers, humility implied the emperor's imitation of David and of Christ. Humility's pose on the enamel, with the arms folded across the chest, is matched by an illustration of monastic humility (tapeinophrosyne) in a twelfth-century copy of The Heavenly Ladder of John Klimax, now at Mount Sinai.
The poses of the dancers, with their legs kicked out behind them, have generally been associated with Islamic art, but there are also Byzantine parallels. The women have been given a variety of identities by modem scholars, ranging from the Daughters of Jerusalem, dancing in honor of King David after his victory over Goliath, to Skleraina, the celebrated mistress of Constantine a, performing in the private gardens of the palace in Constantinople. Because the women have halos, however, it is probable that they represent neither Old Testament nor contemporary dancers, but rather carry metaphorical connotations associated with the virtues. They can perhaps be interpreted as the chorus of graces, whose circular dance was described by one Byzantine orator as a "ring of praises" in honor of the emperor. Likewise, we can understand the plants, the trees, and the birds as metaphors for imperial virtues. In Byzantine oratory the emperor either creates a garden (his kingdom) or he is himself a bird-filled garden of the virtues, or the imperial virtues are compared to trees. Because similar imagery was applied to empresses, it is impossible to determine whether these enamels were intended to be worn by a man or by a woman.
ΘE0ΔѠPA H EYCAIBECTATI AYΓOYCTA (Theodora, the most pious augusta)
ZѠE OI EYCAIBAICTATH AYΓOYCTA
(Zoe, the most pious augusta)
POMEON O MONOMAXOC
autokrator of the Romans)