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A note on the portrait illumination of Basil II in his psalter

Paul Stephenson, University of Wisconsin - Madison and Dumbarton Oaks


The psalter of Basil II, to be found in the Marcian Library in Venice (Cod. Marc. gr. 17), contains on its frontispiece (fol. 3r) a very well known illumination of the emperor standing in the battle dress of a Roman general holding in his right hand a lance and in his left a sheathed sword (fig. A). The emperor is shown wearing the crimson imperial boots, and being crowned with a stemma set with a red stone and a double row of pearls. The coronation is performed by Gabriel, one of two archangels above his left and right shoulders, below each of whom are the busts of three military saints. Basil is standing, like a statue, on a small raised plinth (suppedion), behind and over eight prostrate figures performing proskynesis. Quite exceptionally, the four central figures have their palms placed downwards (not upwards, as was expected in proskynesis), supporting themselves as they kneel and bow low to the ground. The character to the fore in the bottom right corner has his hands clenched to form a loose grip, and his counterpart to the left, whose hands have mostly flaked away, may be similar. The hands of the two figures behind these are obscured. At the top centre of the picture, immediately above Basil, a nimbate bust of Christ suspends a second crown over the emperorís head. The portrait may usefully be compared to that of Basil I (Cod. Par. gr. 510, fol. Cv), crowned with the stemma by Archangel Gabriel and handed the labarum (not sword or lance) by his patron Saint Elijah. Here, all three stand on a low, rectangular suppedion. A verse inscription around the border states that St. Elijah guarantees Basil victory, and Gabriel crowns him protector of the world.

Basil IIís psalter portrait has, since A. Grabarís definitive intervention in 1936, been regarded as portraying a triumphal ceremony to mark Basilís final victory over the Bulgarians. That is, he is receiving the crown of victory and the submission of his defeated enemies, the Bulgarian chieftains, who are performing proskynesis. So much, it has been argued, is also suggested by the poem which accompanies the illumination:

A strange wonder is to be seen here: from Heaven, Christ with his life-bringing right [hand] extends the crown (stemma), the symbol of rulership to the faithful and mighty ruler Basil. Below are the first of the incorporeal beings, one of whom, taking [the crown] has brought it down and is joyfully crowning [the emperor]. The other, adding victories to rulership is placing the spear (romfaian), a weapon that scares the enemies away, in the rulerís hand. The martyrs are his allies, for he is their friend. They cast down those lying at his feet.


The scene and poem have found many commentators, including A. Cutler (ďThe psalter of Basil II [part 2],Ē Arte Veneta 31 (1977), 9-15), who observed that art historians familiar with the illumination have dated the psalter to the first part of Basilís reign, considering it a close contemporary of Basilís menologion, to which it is stylistically very similar. However, others, who had not seen the manuscript itself, were misled by a monochrome reproduction of the psalter illumination published by Labarte in 1864, where the flaking portrait of the emperor gives the impression that he has a long white beard. Arguing for the realism of the portrait, these scholars have viewed Basil as an elderly man, and dated the image to the last years of his reign. Those now able to view the crisp, colour reproductions of the illumination in any number of recent publications could no longer subscribe to such a view. Thus, if realism is an issue in dating the portrait, and Cutler insisted it is not, we need not opt for a late date.

More significant for dating the psalter may be the content of the illumination, the scene portrayed. Scholars have sought an historically-attested episode, and have opted, quite naturally in view of Basilís enduring reputation as the Bulgar-slayer, for the ceremony marking his victory over the Bulgarians: the emperor appears in battle dress, weapons in hand, surrounded by military saints, receiving the crown of victory and the proskynesis of his defeated enemies, the Bulgarians. However, as Cutler has demonstrated, this is not the case. The scene portrayed is not a particular episode, but a general image of Basil as Christian emperor and Roman general. This is clear when one considers that the scene does not match accounts of Basilís victory celebrations of 1019 provided in extant sources. First, the principal captives led in the victory procession were Bulgarian women; the prostrate figures in the illumination are men, and probably not Bulgarians. Second, Basil is shown wearing the stemma, the crown which represents imperial rulership. This was not the crown worn during his triumphal entry into Constantinople. Several objects associated with imperial victory celebrations show emperors wearing or receiving a crested crown, which we know Basil also wore during his triumphal entry into Constantinople.
According to our principal source, John Skylitzes, Basilís triumphal entry into Constantinople involved his leading Maria, the wife of the Bulgarian ruler John Vladislav, and the daughters of Samuel, all of whom had previously submitted to him. This much is confirmed by a contemporary, albeit geographically distant writer, Yahya of Antioch, and in a later twelfth-century synoptic account by John Zonaras. Therefore, while a number of Bulgarian male captives were without doubt paraded for the cheering crowd in Constantinople, the principal captives were the Tsarina Maria and the daughters of Samuel. We would expect any representation of this victory celebration to include these women. However, those eight figures performing proskynesis before Basil in the psalter illumination are all men. Who are these eight men?

The prevailing identification has been Bulgarian chieftains, following a suggestion by J. Ivanov, and this would not contradict the texts here cited. However, it does not match them very closely. Ivanov maintained that the figures are wearing specifically Bulgarian ethnic costume, and drew a comparison with miniatures in the fourteenth-century illustrated Chronicle of Manasses. However, as Cutler notes, this comparison is not valid. The prostrate figures do not wear the same ďdistinctive pointed fur hats and frogged jackets.Ē Nor, more significantly, do they resemble the Bulgarians in ethnic dress portrayed in Basilís menologion. Arguments about their wearing ear-rings are also inconclusive since Bulgarians were not the only ethnic group to wear such jewellery. We know that ear-rings were popular with the Rus, and Leo the Deacon provides a fine description of Sviatoslav, a prince of the Kievan Rus, sporting one. He is shown wearing one in subsequent miniatures. However, the prostrate figures are probably not Rus either (nor members of Basilís famous ďVarangianĒ Guard). As Cutler has argued, following Schramm, it is possible that these figures are, Byzantine citizens. More particularly, the scene ďcould conceivably represent the gratitude of Byzantine citizens liberated in the exchange of prisoners that accompanied the ten-year truceĒ with the Fatimid Caliphate in 1000-1. This would not contradict the poem which does not call these figures enemies. However, the poem does imply quite clearly that these figures have been thrown down before Basil as a result of his divinely-inspired victories, and that would lead one to believe that the prostrate figures represent a range of those brought to heel in the first decades of Basilís reign. This included his own subjects, since Basil had fought and won a war against the Anatolian magnate families led by the Phokades and Skleroi. We should also remember that proskynesis was not an act performed only by defeated enemies -- although it certainly was performed by them -- but was also the formal act of adoration performed by the Roman emperorís own subjects since the age of the Severi. It is a commonplace in Byzantine art, and therefore its representation here cannot be considered as evidence for Basilís triumph over the Bulgarians.

Paul Stephenson, February 2004. source

A larger image of The Portrait Illumination of Basil II, Psalter, 11th century, Marcian Library in Venice (Cod. Marc. gr. 17. f3r)
Other 11th century Illustrations of Costume & Soldiers