The Imperial Seals Online Exhibit

Lain Wilson, July 26th, 2012

After a whirlwind of a summer, my seals internship has come to an end. I was very happy to have assisted in the first phase of uploading commentaries and transliterations to the online catalogue. In addition, I was lucky to have had the opportunity to work with a new part of the Dumbarton Oaks website, the “online exhibits” feature. Complementing the completion of DO Seals volume 6, Jonathan Shea and I created an online exhibit for the imperial seals, which is presented here as the final project of the internship, although the process of cataloguing will no doubt stretch on for some years.

The exhibit is in five parts. Largest and most important is the chronological section, which includes a representative seal, typically one whose imperial portrait is the best preserved, and an accompanying short biography and commentary on the seals for each emperor included in the Dumbarton Oaks collection. I picked out the examples, wrote the biographies for emperors up to 1204, and selected the appropriate quotations from the sources; Jonathan did the same for the post-Fourth Crusade emperors, as well as the design and layout for the website. An example, of Herakleios and his son and associate Herakleios Constantine, can be found here.

The other four sections cover specific seals or elements: a selection of usurpers whose seals demonstrate some interest in their iconography or design, the development of religious imagery, the evolution of imperial titles, and the design programs employed by rulers to convey an ideology of imperial dynasty. These sections attempt to demonstrate the ways in which Byzantine lead seals function as works of art, on the one hand, as well as, on the other, works of propaganda.

Lead seals, like coins, were a form of circulating portraiture, not only promulgating the emperor’s image, but also a sense of his relationship to the divine, to his family, and, not least importantly, to the past. Byzantine society was not static, but it made great efforts to portray itself as consistently and, oftentimes, as conservatively as possible.

But change it did: Greek titles replace Latin ones, family names appear, saints’s cults expand and elaborate. Lead seals, employed by Byzantines over a thousand years of the empire’s existence, are chipped from its cultural fabric. In many ways provide a faithful guide to the ways in which an outward form might appear consistent while its elements undergo fundamental transformations.

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