Greek Mythology in Byzantine Art

Greek Mythology in Byzantine Art

by Kurt Weitzmann

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Kurt Weitzmann demonstrates that the postulated miniatures of the handbook that goes under the name of Apollodorus migrated into other texts, of which the commentary of Pseudo-Nonnus—attached to several homilies of Gregory of Nazianzus—and the Cynegetka of Pseudo-Oppian are the most important.

Originally published in 1984.

The Princeton Legacy


Kurt Weitzmann demonstrates that the postulated miniatures of the handbook that goes under the name of Apollodorus migrated into other texts, of which the commentary of Pseudo-Nonnus—attached to several homilies of Gregory of Nazianzus—and the Cynegetka of Pseudo-Oppian are the most important.

Originally published in 1984.

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Greek Mythology in Byzantine Art

By Kurt Weitzmann


Copyright © 1984 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-03574-1




To four of the homilies of Gregory of Nazianzus a commentary was written which has come down to us under the title [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. This piece of writing is quite unique among the patristic commentaries since it does not deal with a theological interpretation of the homilies of Gregory, but takes up only the allusions to subjects of classical antiquity and describes each of them in a short paragraph or [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII].

This collection of "historiae" must have been quite popular since it was often used and parts of it were directly copied by later commentators of Gregory like Cosmas of Jerusalem, Basilius Minimus, Elias of Crete, and Nicetas of Heraclea. All of them refer to the collection merely as "historiae" and none of the writers just mentioned associates them with an author's name, although the attribution of the historiae to a certain abbot Nonnus is found already in a tenth century manuscript. The name Nonnus appears for the first time in the codex London, British Museum add. 18231 from the year 972 where the title reads [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], etc. Patzig, in the first basic study on the Nonnus commentary, and all scholars after him have agreed that this name is later conjecture, and that we actually do not know the real author. In Sinko's instructive article he was called therefore Pseudo-Nonnus, thus distinguished from Nonnus of Panopolis, the author of the Dionysiaca. Patzig assumed that the historiae originated in the beginning of the sixth century, and Sinko added new arguments in support of this date which to our knowledge has not been contradicted. It has been supposed that the anonymous author lived in Syria or Palestine because several geographical descriptions seem to indicate an acquaintance with those regions, although this admittedly is a rather tenuous argument.

Some manuscripts contain the historiae in the margins of the four homilies which are full of allusions to classical mythology, namely the Oratio in Sancta Lumina, the Oratio funebris in laudem Basilii Magni and the two Invectivae adversus Julianum. This seems to have been the original arrangement in conformity with the usual practice, in writing commentaries, of associating the historiae as closely as possible with the text proper. But some time later, we do not know exactly when, they began to be placed at the very end of all the homilies as an independent body of writing. The famous Gregory codex in Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale gr. 510, has on the margins reference numbers to the paragraphs of the Pseudo-Nonnus commentary, but the text of the latter, which supposedly existed at the end of the whole book, is not preserved.

Usually the commentaries follow in the same order as the corresponding homilies, i.e. they begin with the historiae to the Oraho in Sancta Lumina, followed by those to the Oratio funebris, and finally those to the two Invectivae. Occasionally, however, there are deviations in the sequence. In some cases the second part precedes the first and in others the historiae to the two Invectivae are placed between those of the two other homilies. More over, not all manuscripts possess the historiae to all four homilies: some contain those to three, others to two, and there are even manuscripts which have the historiae to one homily only. The number of paragraphs within each commentary is similarly variable.

So far, no critical or even complete text edition of these historiae has been made. Migne gives only a selection,7 particularly in the commentaries to the homilies In Sancta Lumina and Funebris in laudem Basilii, the only ones which, as we shall see later, are preserved with miniatures. Some of the paragraphs missing in Migne may be found in the appendix of Westermann's publication of the mythographical writers, where the paragraphs are arranged not according to the Pseudo-Nonnus text but alphabetically. The text of some more paragraphs is embodied in the writings of Cosmas of Jerusalem, who copied Pseudo-Nonnus.

A fuller text of the commentaries to all four homilies has been available to us in an eleventh century Gregory manuscript which a few years ago was acquired by the Art Museum of Princeton University and numbered codex 2 (fig. 1). Wherever this text has a fuller reading which helps to explain additional features in the miniatures, we have made use of it. From this Princeton manuscript we have also adopted the numbering of the paragraphs, and assuming that originally each paragraph of the two commentaries under consideration had an illustration, we have included in our study also those to which no miniatures exist in the presently known manuscripts. Moreover, some of the seemingly lost miniatures have survived in other texts whose illustrators used either a Pseudo-Nonnus or a similar text as model. In other instances we have had to be content with mere suggestions as to what the lost miniatures may have looked like.

The Princeton manuscript can be dated in the beginning of the eleventh century on the basis of its palaeography and the style of its decorative headpieces, which show an early form of the typical mid-Byzantine flower-petal style (fig. 1), and, to judge from the brilliant technique of this ornament, Constantinople is the most likely place of origin. The title in the Princeton manuscript, which bears no author's name, is the usual one: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. It heads the Commentary to the Oratio in Sancta Lumina, which consists of twenty-five paragraphs. Then follow the commentaries to the I. Invectiva contra Julianum (fol. 194r) with ninety-eight paragraphs, those to the II. Invectiva (fol. 214r) with thirty-seven paragraphs, and finally to the Funebris in laudem Basilii (fol. 223r) with twenty paragraphs.

We possess two manuscripts with illustrations to Pseudo-Nonnus, and in both of them the text is, as in the Princeton manuscript, at the very end of the codex, following a selection of sixteen homilies. This selection from the full series of forty-five homilies was much in favor from the eleventh century on and existed perhaps already in the tenth. After this time the number of homilies in all illustrated Gregory manuscripts is, to our knowledge, thus restricted. They are always the same, though the sequence varies considerably. In this abbreviated edition are included the Oratio funebris in laudem Basilii and the Oratio in Sancta Lumina, but not the two Invectivae contra Julianum. Accordingly the Pseudo-Nonnus text was often, though not always, abbreviated too, containing only those collections of historiae that are related to the homilies in the shortened edition.

One may, therefore, be tempted to conclude from the fact that we have pictures only to the commentaries of the Oratio funebris and the Oratio in Sancta Lumina that their illustrations were invented after the shortened edition of Gregory's homilies which excluded the Invectivae was established. Yet, there is at least some indication that the commentaries to the two Invectivae may also have existed with illustrations. In a miniature of the Birth of Athena which is attached to a paragraph in the commentary to the homily In Sancta Lumina (p. 50 and fig. 59) there are elements which can only be explained by the fuller text in the commentary to the Invectivae. This suggests that also the latter once existed with a cycle of illustrations and that the miniature with the Birth of Athena was part of it.

The first of the two manuscripts with illustrations to the Pseudo-Nonnus is the codex [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] 14 in the Patriarchal Library in Jerusalem, which on the basis of the style of its miniatures can be dated in about the second half of the eleventh century. This manuscript consists of three different parts: (1) the abbreviated edition of the homilies of Gregory; (2) a homily of the Birth of Christ ascribed in some manuscripts to John of Damascus, but by most scholars now given to John of Euboea, and inserted between the eighth and ninth homily of Gregory; and (3) the commentary to Pseudo-Nonnus. All three parts are richly illustrated. Following the full-page author portrait of Gregory of Nazianzus, each homily is preceded by a miniature extending over both writing columns, and a few homilies have additional pictures in the margins. Especially copious is the illustration of the homily of the Birth of Christ, which alone has about fifty miniatures, and also that of the Pseudo-Nonnus commentary, the miniatures of which extend over the whole width of the text, which in this part of the book is written in a single column.

The second manuscript is in the Vatican, cod. gr. 1947. It likewise contains the sixteen homilies of the shortened edition, though in a slightly different sequence, and once more the Pseudo-Nonnus commentary at the very end. The decoration of Gregory's homilies is much simpler than in the Jerusalem manuscript, consisting of small headpieces which extend only over the width of one of the two narrow writing columns. Comparatively richer is the illustration of the Pseudo-Nonnus text, which is written in one wide column, thus permitting the miniaturist to make use of the full width of the page. There are several lacunae where space is provided for miniatures which were never executed. In two such cases, on folio 150r, the empty space was filled at a later time with crude drawings of horses which have nothing to do with the text. The miniatures are in a most deplorable condition since most of the color is flaked off, and sometimes to such an extent that it is difficult to make out the details or even the composition as a whole. Often only the comparison with the better-preserved manuscript in Jerusalem permits an identification of the faint traces visible today, while in other cases, where the analogous miniatures in the latter are lacking, certain features of the Vatican miniatures remain inexplicable. Nevertheless, in one point the Vatican manuscript is more valuable than the Jerusalem one: it has a fuller text and each paragraph has its own title and a system of numbering which agrees with that of the Princeton manuscript. The Vatican text starts with the historiae to the Oratio funebris, followed by those to the Oratio in Sancta Lumina. The text of the Jerusalem manuscript does not have this clear distinction : here titles and numbers are lacking and some of the paragraphs are misplaced so that, e.g., the story of Mausolus, which belongs to the commentary of the Oratio funebris, is now placed among the paragraphs of the Oratio in Sancta Lumina. The style of the Vatican miniatures, as far as it can be judged at all, points to the eleventh or may be already to the twelfth century.

The Pseudo-Nonnus of Jerusalem has today ten illustrated paragraphs to the Oratio funebris and seven to the Oratio in Sancta Lumina, others being lost by the cutting-out of a few pages, whereas the Vatican manuscript has now eight miniatures to the former and fourteen to the latter, not counting the empty spaces reserved for miniatures which must have existed in the model but, for unknown reasons, were not executed. Yet, even the miniature cycles of both manuscripts combined do not constitute the full cycle since on occasion the same pictures are missing in both manuscripts. However, for several of the missing miniatures not only can the subject matter be determined on the basis of the text, but even their compositional schemes can be suggested on the basis of parallels in other manuscripts.

Moreover, with the manuscripts in Jerusalem and in the Vatican our knowledge of Pseudo-Nonnus miniatures is not exhausted. There are two manuscripts, again of the shortened edition of the homilies of Gregory, which have Pseudo-Nonnus pictures in the Gregory text proper, though only to the homily In Sancta Lumina. These miniatures are placed right in the text of the homilies, close to the passages to which they are related. But since they can not fully be explained on the basis of Gregory's brief mythological allusions and on the other hand agree iconographically with those of the two Pseudo-Nonnus manuscripts, there can be no doubt that originally they belonged to the Pseudo-Nonnus text and migrated from there into the Gregory text. Compared with the miniatures in the Pseudo-Nonnus texts which in most cases occupy the whole width of the page, most of them are very abbreviated because only limited space was allotted to them by the scribe.

One of the two Gregory manuscripts is the codex 6 of the Panteleimon monastery on Mount Athos. The text is written in one column and each of the usual sixteen homilies is headed by a large miniature with a decorative frame in typical flower-petal style. Besides these title miniatures there are many small ones, interspersed in the text, two groups of which are especially noteworthy artistically and iconographically: the pastoral scenes which accompany the homily In Novam Dominicam (no. 11 in the Panteleimon ms.) and the Pseudo-Nonnus scenes alongside the homily In Sancta Lumina (no. x in the Panteleimon ms.). These latter miniatures are all framed, and wherever two are superimposed, they fill the height of the whole page. The Panteleimon manuscript is of remarkable quality and was in all likelihood executed in Constantinople itself in the eleventh century.

The second Gregory manuscript is the codex Paris Coislin 239, which stylistically may be a little later than Panteleimon 6 but probably belongs still in the end of the eleventh century. The illustration of the sixteen homilies is somewhat similar to that in Panteleimon 6, but with the difference that the introductory miniatures to each homily are smaller and extend only over one of the two columns. Many of the figures or smaller scenes are placed either in the margin or between the columns, while others, like those taken over from the Pseudo-Nonnus, are framed and intercalated in the writing columns.

As a cycle the set of Pseudo-Nonnus pictures in the Panteleimon and Paris manuscripts is once more fragmentary: the former possess eleven mythological scenes and the latter ten, though these are partly not the same. The special value of these two Gregory codices lies in the fact that each of them has a few scenes which are unparalleled either in the Jerusalem or the Vatican codex, thus increasing the total number of illustrated paragraphs. All four manuscripts together still do not give us a complete set of miniatures : we know what the illustrations were for only thirty of the forty-five paragraphs of the commentary to the two homilies under consideration. Yet, since the homilies of Gregory are one of the most frequently illustrated texts of the Middle Byzantine period, and since no comprehensive study of their miniatures has been made so far, there is a good chance that one or the other of the preserved manuscripts may possess mythological illustrations either to the added Pseudo-Nonnus commentary or the homilies themselves.


The description of the mythological miniatures follows the order of the paragraphs of the Pseudo-Nonnus text, which on its part maintains the same sequence as the various allusions to mythological subjects in Gregory's homily. The numbering of the paragraphs differs slightly in the various manuscripts, since some of them either drop an item on occasion or conflate two or even more separate paragraphs of related subjects into one. Our numeration follows that of the Princeton and the Vatican manuscripts.

I. The Pelopidae, Cecropidae, Alcmaeonidae, Aeacidae, and Heraclidae

Gregory castigates the Pelopidae, Cecropidae, Alcmaeonidae, Aeacidae, and Heraclidae because they have no knowledge of the sublime and take refuge in obscurity and demons. To each of these five families Pseudo-Nonnus devotes a passage, but only for the first is a miniature preserved, representing the chariot race between Pelops and Oenomaus. Pseudo-Nonnus tells the story very simply: "... Pelops came to Greece into a country called Apia. In this country Apia ruled King Oenomaus who had a daughter by the name of Hippodamia. Pelops, after having contended with Oenomaus in a chariot race, from which he emerged as victor, took the daughter Hippodamia as his wife and gained possession of the country; instead of Apia he called it Peloponnese, i.e. the island of Pelops...." It will be noticed that no details are given about the chariot race proper.

It is typical that in both the Jerusalem and the Vatican manuscripts the pictures do not precede but follow the text. In the former the text starts on folio 3071" with the paragraph on the Pelopidae, being followed by the miniature on the top of the following page (fig. 2). It represents Pelops standing on a chariot the horses of which are dashing off, while the horses of Oenomaus' quadriga are breaking down, thus signifying that the king is the loser of the contest. The miniature in the Vatican manuscript (fig. 3) is similarly composed and, no doubt, goes back to the same archetype. In addition, it is framed on either side by a meta, a feature which does not make much sense in view of the literary tradition that the race took place between Pisa in Elis and the Isthmus. Yet, this contest had already been represented in classical antiquity as a circus race on a child's sarcophagus in the Vatican (fig. 4). This is a clear indication that the miniature has pictorially a classical ancestry going back at least as early as the Roman period.


Excerpted from Greek Mythology in Byzantine Art by Kurt Weitzmann. Copyright © 1984 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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