A contemporary portrait of Basil I

Jan 2016
1,140
Victoria, Canada
While searching through the depths of a database of Byzantine manuscripts in the french national library, I found one image labeled simply "basil I", with its source being a french book from 1929. Anyone interested in Byzantine history will know how rare any sort of detailed portrait of an emperor is, so I was quite exited, but at the same time it was quite odd that I'd never seen it before. Before I go any further, here's the portrait in question:



The sketch like nature made me think that it was a modern, well, sketch. The first place I checked for a source were "the homilies of Gregory the theologian", which was in a similar style and commissioned by Basil I. There I found this page, which is extremely similar to the above portrait:



The figures on the page are the same as on the possible sketch, with the middle one being named as "basilios augustus", so I thought I had solved the mystery and the upper portrait was simply a modern sketch of the lower one (which I thought may have been damaged later more recently than the book was published), but then I noticed that there were multiple problems with this theory:

1: in the upper portrait the angel is both taller and stands considerably closer to Basil than in the lower portrait, not mistakes a modern artist trying to recreate the portrait would make.

2: in the upper portrait the figure on the left is crowning basil with his right hand, whereas in the lower portrait his right hand is busy holding the labarum.

3: The upper angels stands facing left, but the lower angel stands straight forwards. This is most noticeable in the foot position of the lower angel.

So the theory that the upper portrait is a modern recreation of the lower one is out then. The next logical theory is that the portrait is a from a different byzantine manuscript that I haven't seen before, the problem is that there are multiple issues with this theory as well:

1: the upper portrait has a terrible amount of detail for an imperial commission, especially the jewels. It also has no color, which, again, would be very odd for an imperial commission.

2: It appears to be hidden behind a colored in golden cross, similar to this... wait a minute...

Ok, so after some searching through the rest of the pages of the homilies to find a cross to use as a similar one to that in the foreground of the portrait, I accidentally found its source (but hell if I'm going to delete all of my work so far, so I'll just keep it there for posterity's sake). The portrait is very well hidden (good old light brown on beige) behind a flaking portion of this cross from the homilies:



Assumedly the portrait was actually a practice version done by the artists which was never meant to be seen because it was painted over, hence the lack of detail in some areas. The artist apparently wasn't satisfied by the look of the practice version, and so decided to make some changes in the final product, which explains the differences between the two versions.

Well, that was a wild ride. Despite being a practice version, the man depicted is still basil I, and the portrait was painted by someone who was at least antiquated with him, so it can be assumed to be an accurate depiction of the man. Hopefully if this portrait becomes more well known it can replace that atrocious drawing from the skylitzes chronicle as the go to byzantine depiction of Basil I.
 
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Jan 2017
882
Tampa, FL
Just adding my thanks to this. Currently learning Byzantine history and wish we had a bit more discussion here!
 
Apr 2010
1,046
evergreen state, USA
I have Basil I in my tree; on an outer twig. Hey, don't laugh. If he's in my tree, then he's in a lot of you people's trees. The connection is several generations later when a daughter born in purple married Vladimir "The Great" of the Kievan Rus. From there a few threads lead into the west.
 
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Jan 2016
1,140
Victoria, Canada
Anymore of these portraits for other Byzantine Emperors?
There aren't any more hidden underneath flaking manuscripts as far as I know, but there are a couple other middle Byzantine manuscript portraits (none in the 9th century style though unfortunately):

Basil II (I would recommend opening the image in another tab, since it's very high resolution):



Reconstruction:



Nikephoros Botaneiates:



Also Nikephoros:



Alexios Komnenos:



Manuel: