The Book Cover with Byzantine Icon of the Crucifixion: Byzantine Art Analysis

The Book Cover with Byzantine Icon of the Crucifixion was completed in the 11th century which depicts the scene of Christ’s crucifixion, with an outer layer of gilded silver inlaid with precious stones. Made in Constantinople, this work was most likely the book cover of a larger illuminated manuscript dedicated as a gift to the Nunnery of Santa Cruz de la Serós. In this work, the artist applied sumptuous materials, delicate handling of carved figures, and continuous floral patterns onto the surface plate to emphasize the wealth of the patron, underscore the sacredness of this book, and glorify the crucifixion of Christ.

The artist employed several expensive materials on the surface and carefully arranged them in a sumptuous manner to reveal the wealth of the patron and enrich the colorfulness of the plate. To start with, the layer of gilded silver that surrounds the ivory icon was encrusted with gemstones, such as sapphire cabochons and crystals. These gemstones were arranged in eight groups, each group with four gemstones in each corner and one gemstone in the middle, resembling the shape of a cross. Extending from each stone is the elaborate carving of floral contours, the repetition of these floral/vegetal shapes forms an intertwining pattern that connects each gemstone. These repetitive curvilinear lines not only served a decorative function but also accentuated the vibrancy and colorfulness of the plate. As a result, the intricate disposition of the inlaid stones connected by curvilinear contours reinforced the wealth of the patron and emphasized the complexity of background that surrounds the icon in the middle.

The icon made of ivory inserted in the middle of the plate captured the sacred moment of Christ’s crucifixion. Here Jesus was placed on a cross, flanked by two angels above his arms and two saints below. Although the positioning of these figures does not follow the naturalistic stance of humans, the artist handled the facial expression of each figure delicately and emphasized the drapery. Since the crucifixion is a symbolic moment for the Christians, the artist indicated the sacredness of Christ’s crucifixion by placing each figure’s heads casting downwards, creating meditative and introspective stares for each figure. Additionally, the four figures that flanked Jesus were both holding their hands in a manner that seemed to be offering prayers, presenting humbleness and piety in the face of Jesus’ suffering. The holiness of this moment was further reinforced by the halos that surround each figure’s head (except for the two angels). The artist paid great attention to the details of the drapery on each figure, which might invoke a sense of liveliness from these figures and intensifies the religious experiences of the readers. While the layer that surrounds the icons was made out of gilded silver, the icon part of this book cover was made of ivory: the artist might intentionally differentiate the ivory icon from the outer layer to invoke a sense of purity to the iconography, reminding the readers that earthly wealth does not reflect one’s piety. With the carefully carved facial expressions and drapery of each figure, the artist is managed to display a sacred moment of Christianity, encouraging the readers to glorify the scriptures that followed this book cover.

The iconography and the decorative elements worked together to enhance the religious experience to the readers. The complex interlacing floral patterns carved onto the surface with the inlaid sapphire cabochons and crystals created a flowing experience to the audience, creating a sense of movement. As a result, the readers’ eyes might be drawn into the middle of this book cover, where the icon of Jesus’ crucifixion is placed, highlighting this holy moment. In the end, imagine this book cover along with the scriptures were read by the Byzantine audience, during a period people would read in dark with candles on, the holiness of this moment can be easily perceived by observing what lighting effect has on the gilded silver surface with colorful gemstones and the pure white ivory icon the middle, inviting the readers to glorify the holiness of the sacred scriptures.

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