The Empress's New Clothes

I’ve never been to Ravenna, Italy, but I’d like to go there and see the Byzantine mosaics.  When I’ve seen other glittering, Byzantine-style mosaics, such as those in the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere, a little shiver runs down my spine.  There is something awe-inspiring about the uneven sparkle of those many miniscule multi-colored glass and gold pieces put together. 

 Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere

Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere

The city of Ravenna was on my mind recently because I was reading about one particular mosaic in the Basilica di San Vitale in Ravenna: The Empress Theodora with her Retinue.  The book I was reading is called Masterpieces in Detail by Rose-Marie and Rainer Hagen; it shows full-page images of small details of famous works of art and explains the significance of those details.  Unlike most art history books, which only show a small postcard-sized image of each work of art, this book allows the reader to look at the minute details of every piece – the strokes of paint, the crevices between the pieces of mosaic, and the stitches in the tapestry. 

  The Empress Theodora with her Retinue,  mosaic, ca. 547

The Empress Theodora with her Retinue, mosaic, ca. 547

In this mosaic we see Theodora ensconced in the middle of her entourage, wearing her resplendent purple robes and leading a procession to carry the communion chalice to church. She is the only person over whom no other figure overlaps, and she wears a crown encrusted with large jewels.  She is also the only person whose robes are purple.  These purple robes are one of the significant details the book illuminates so well.  The book explains that Tyrian purple, the shade made from snails in Tyre, was reserved for royalty.  Wearing it without permission was punishable by death.  Her robes were probably also made of silk, interesting since silk fabrics were a state monopoly, and she controlled others’ access to them.  Even the ladies in her court received their silken clothing directly from her.  The detail on the hem of her robe is significant too.  It shows the three wise men carrying their gifts to Christ; having such a decoration on her robes elevated her status and suggested that she too belonged in the company of those wise men. 

 One of the Details inside  Masterpieces in Detail  by Rose-Marie and Rainer Hagen

One of the Details inside Masterpieces in Detail by Rose-Marie and Rainer Hagen

Looking at her here, it would be difficult to guess Theodora’s background.  Imperially slim, confident, with a golden nimbus around her head, she appears to be a cross between a saint and a queen – holy and regal in equal measures.  As the book tells us, however, the reality of Theodora’s early life was not that of a princess.  When the emperor Justinian met her she was a young girl from a lower class family.  She worked doing a Leda-and-the-Swan-themed striptease number with a goose who picked grains of corn out from between her thighs while she made sounds of ecstatic delight.  The bishop of Ephesus put it bluntly and said, “Theodora was from a brothel.”

The idiom “the emperor’s new clothes”, familiar to anyone who has read the Hans Christian Anderson story by the same name, refers to situations in which people believe (or pretend to believe) something in spite of clear evidence to the contrary.  In the case of Theodora, however, the new clothing she wore as empress was no hoax, and her days of performing nearly naked for the pleasure of others were truly over.  The book makes it clear that Theodora’s personal evolution was as genuine as the Tyrian purple silks she wore, and her fitness for the office of empress was apparent once she began to rule.  When her husband Justinian fell ill with the plague, Theodora took on the majority of his responsibilities.  Though it was unusual for women at the time to hold power, during the period of his illness she was the highest authority in the empire, and she proved herself competent and wise.  She also remembered her difficult past, and, in an edict that must have felt personally significant, she outlawed prostitution.

Backing up from the details of Theodora’s personal story and looking at the entire mosaic, with all the rows of glittering geometric patterns surrounding it, it is tempting to forget the gritty reality of her life – to see only the purple queen and forget the tough-minded woman who had grown up among performers at the hippodrome, ruled the empire while her husband was ill, and outlawed the very way of life that had once been her own.  This, I suppose, is the danger of these sparkling mosaics: they obscure the harshness of the stories they tell.  And yet it isn’t hidden altogether – a close look at Theodora’s face shows age and exhaustion.  The circles under her eyes are deeper than those of her attendants, and for all her delicate finery she herself seems to be made of something considerably less fragile. 

Living in Constantinople where she ruled, Theodora never actually visited Ravenna herself, so it's terribly unlikely that the artisans who laid the tiny mosaic pieces together to make her face had ever seen her.  More likely, they had simply heard stories about this unusual woman, and they somehow sensed that hers was a slightly weary but utterly unyielding visage.  In that sense, they got it absolutely right.