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Reconstructing the Image of an Empress in Middle Byzantine Constantinople: Gender in Byzantium, Psellos’ Empress Zoe and the Chapel of Christ Antiphonites

Reconstructing the Image of an Empress in Middle Byzantine Constantinople: Gender in Byzantium, Psellos’ Empress Zoe and the Chapel of Christ Antiphonites

By Giulia Zulian

Rosetta: Papers of the Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity, Issue 2 (2007)

Abstract: In Byzantium the choice of a specific site for imperial patronage represented a means for the emperor and empress to make visible their own conceptions of rulership and the religious values that they wished to promote. However, in the case of female ruler, the issue is more complex, raising issues of gender with regard to the significance and the visibility itself of a woman’s ‘matronage’. From this perspective, this paper analyses the case of the chapel dedicated to Christ Antiphonetes which the empress Zoe (AD 1028 – ca. 1050), belonging to the last generation of the Macedonian dynasty, chose as her personal burial place. This study considers and discusses the most important sources which allow us to understand the significance of these expressions of imperial display and the meanings they convey.

Introduction: This paper addresses, in brief, an aspect of the public image of the empress Zoe (AD 1028 – ca. 1050), the last representative, together with her younger sister Theodora, of the Macedonian dynasty. In this analysis a series of aspects concerning the meaning of Zoe’s portrait are taken into consideration. Along with the images, metaphors and language used to build this image, provided by the eleventh century historian Michael Psellos in his major work Chronographia, a comparison between Zoe’s literary image and her public standing as imperial patron and woman is addressed within the broader context of Middle Byzantine imperial ideology.

An anonymous eleventh-century poem attributes to Zoe the commission of a precious marble floor at the chapel of the Antiphonetes (which means ‘Guarantor’). It therefore shows that the heiress of the Empire, already at the time of her first marriage with the eparch of Constantinople, Romanos Argyros (AD 1028-1034) patronised the embellishment of the chapel that the empress later chose as her burial place. The chapel belonged to the church complex of the Theotokos in-the-Chalkoprateia, one of the most important churches in the imperial capital, situated in the area of the copper market.

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