BMCR 2010.04.37

Images of Children in Byzantium

, Images of Children in Byzantium. Farnham/Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008. xviii, 263; 8 p. of plates. ISBN 9780754656319. £60.00.

This book, the first extensive and systematic treatment of the visual images of children in Byzantium, draws upon various sources—from monumental frescoes and mosaics to manuscript illumination and coins—dating from the fourth to the fifteenth centuries. Cecily Hennessy’s purpose is to determine “the place and significance of children in visual representations and, by extension, in Byzantine society at various points in the past” (2). The author’s statement that images of childhood prove that the Byzantines found representations of youth and the actions associated with it appealing is too humble a summary of the ambitious aims and the multifaceted conclusions she reaches in the course of her investigations.

Byzantine children have not been previously the subject of a monograph mainly because Byzantium is frequently perceived as an adult world, its art solemn and serious. Yet, as Hennessy points out, children were not only subjects but also recipients and even makers of visual imagery. She further observes that like most pre-modern societies, at least half of the Byzantine population was under twenty years of age at any given point, which she deems especially important for the production and reception of visual images.

In the first chapter on “Setting” the author provides a useful survey of the literature that pertains to children from antiquity to the present day, and any student of the topic could mine the chapter for references and thoughtful summaries. She also supplies information about the legal and cultural status of Byzantine children, briefly discusses various forms of available education, and examines the role of the church in defining various aspects of childhood. She notes that despite the pervasive role of Christianity in Byzantine society, there was not a uniform understanding of youth, and that children could be easily perceived as innocent or deeply flawed. Hennessy goes on to outline the importance of imperial children as heirs to the throne and as recipients of special attention on the part of educational institutions and the church. The author generalizes that children in medieval Byzantium had their own distinct identity to which pertained certain laws and culture-specific expectations.

The second chapter entitled “Childhood” considers how and for what reasons children “were differentiated in Byzantium” (41), and looks into the ways in which their images reveal certain societal perceptions of childhood. Hennessy initiates the discussion with the fourth-century floor mosaics in the Sicilian villa at Piazza Armerina which contain a significant number of representations pertaining to children and their activities. She describes and clarifies some of the iconographic peculiarities of the images, indicating that activities of girls and boys are differentiated. She further suggests that children might have been looking at these images, equating in this case the subject matter with the intended audience. Hennessy provides for the possibility that adults would have taken pleasure in looking at the representations of children in the villa and concludes, perhaps too generally, that children were central to the lives of Roman aristocracy.

The Great Palace mosaics in Constantinople provide a natural transition to the medieval Byzantine perceptions of childhood, but the discussion does not offer much insight beyond a few key observations about the lack of female children, the predominantly rural setting of the images and the recreation of games in the hippodrome. Hennessy moves on to consular diptychs which occasionally contain images of children and uses them to note the difficulties associated with the proper identification of child imagery and the iconographic idiosyncrasies that pertain to it.

Depictions of children in two ninth-century manuscripts—the Khludov Psalter and the Sacra Parallela —as well as in several copies of Gregory of Nazianzos’s liturgical homilies provide, according to Hennessy, a window into Byzantine perceptions of childhood and youth. The author emphasizes that the large number of children and adolescents found in these manuscripts may be a realistic reflection of the actual overall youthfulness of Byzantine society, where the average life expectancy was less than thirty years. Especially interesting are the images of children in several middle Byzantine codices with Gregory’s sermons (Paris 550, Turin C.I.6, Sinai 339, Vatican 463 and Dionysiou 61), for most of them are associated with monastic production and use. These images either appear in the margins or form elaborate historiated initials. According to the author, they are mostly decorative and do not have overt didactic significance. She tentatively suggests that the images might have been appealing both to the young people who were involved in the production of the manuscripts or to those educated in the monastic environment where these books were read.

Hennessy goes on to explore the images of children in three crowd scenes from the Old and the New Testament—the Crossing of the Red Sea, the Entry into Jerusalem and the Feeding of the Multitude. She emphasizes that in most cases the figures of children are generic and repetitive but notes the special theological significance of the youthful spinario figure incorporated in the post-iconoclastic representations of the Entry. The author briefly introduces an interesting and mostly unexplored iconographic elaboration in the Late Byzantine images of Christ’s Baptism—the inclusion of children at play. The chapter concludes with a discussion of images of erotes and the ways in which they could elucidate the medieval perceptions of childhood.

The following chapter entitled “Family” explores the images of children with parents and siblings. Hennessy relies on a wide range of visual sources—from Roman and late antique golden glass medallions to fourteenth-century manuscript illumination. She uses the representations of families in the sixth-century Vienna Genesis in order to re-evaluate the perception of the relationship among various family members as loving and affectionate rather than as distant and formal. Hennessy goes on to consider the seventh-century mosaic images of children in St. Demetrios in Thessaloniki and concludes that their prominence within the church’s decoration indicates an aspect of the patron saint Demetrios as protector of children and alerts us to their spiritual independence and special relationship to the sacred. But there is more to these representations—as the living progeny of the adult donors who are also represented in the church, these children are in a sense an advertisement for the latter’s generosity; they are the ultimate gift granted to the pious gift-givers. The chapter further discusses the frescoed images of the Maccabees and the donor portraits in the Theodotus chapel in Santa Maria Antiqua in Rome and concludes with the familial portraits in the so-called Lincoln typikon, the monastic foundation document of the nunnery dedicated to the Virgin of Certain Hope in Constantinople. Hennessy notes that the Maccabees were meant to symbolize the power of the family in difficult times, while the portraits of the children in the Theodotus chapel she views not as commemorative but as indicative of their status as benefactors and thus as equal recipients of grace. The author points out that in the Lincoln typikon the young Euphrosyne, while represented as a member of a large extended family, is more closely aligned with her spiritual rather than secular relatives.

In the fourth chapter (“Sanctity”), Hennessy considers the portrayal of sanctity in children. She initiates her discussion with the mosaics of a young haloed girl named Maria in the church of St. Demetrios in Thessaloniki. She notes that Maria’s parents may have dedicated her to the city’s patron saint in gratitude for delivering them from childlessness. Although the church decoration makes it apparent that Demetrios fostered a special connection with children, it would have been useful for the sake of the argument to know if he was at any particular time supplicated by families in general or women in particular to relieve infertility. The author considers Maria a spiritual exemplar for other children and applies this same idea to the images of the boy David on the famous seventh-century David plates.1 She proposes that the latter were made for the young son of the emperor Herakleios to provide him with a model for princely behavior. She goes on to consider representations from the life of St. Nicholas in which he is depicted as a well-behaved child, although nothing less can be expected from a saint. Hennessy further discusses the youthful appearance of military saints as a reflection of the fact that Byzantines men would go into the army at a relatively young age, and also as a way to visualize the common association of youth and beauty. The chapter concludes with observations of the common pairing of youthful and elderly saints in the Cappadocian Karanlik Kilise, which Hennessy anomalously identifies as non-monastic in contrast to the usual identification (208). She observes that in the context of this church the emphasis on youth may have something to do with its importance in local devotional practices, and especially with the fact that at least four youthful male figures were involved in the building’s construction and decoration.

Hennessy tackles the representations of imperial children in the next chapter entitled “Power.” She initiates her discussion with dynastic portraits, and indicates that the presence of children in them was more about the continuation of the dynasty than of the family. Hennessy presents several case studies beginning with the images of Basil’s sons in the ninth century and concluding with the early fifteenth-century manuscript portrait of Manuel II’s family. The bulk of the chapter is dedicated to middle Byzantine works of art and the ways they provide evidence of the personalized relationship the ruling emperor had with his children, and especially with his sons. At least two books—the famous copy of Gregory of Nazianzos’s homilies today in Paris (Bibliothèque nationale, gr. 510) and the so-called Barberini Psalter (Vatican, Barb. gr. 372)—she identifies as being intended for the eyes of imperial children. The author notes that female children rarely are included in dynastic portraits, and when they are they play a significant role in securing a line of succession or in establishing diplomatic relationships. Especially important in this context is the imagery in the Vatican epithalamion (gr. 1851) which was made for a French princess who married the Byzantine heir to the throne. Here the young members of the court are represented in a process of initiating the foreigner into the intricacies of the Byzantine court. Hennessy considers the thorny question regarding the date of the manuscript—twelfth or fourteenth century—and presents arguments for the latter. The chapter concludes with important observations about the nature of the images of imperial children—they are never alone but are usually depicted with their parents and dressed like their parents to emphasize the prosperity and longevity of the ruling family.

In the sixth chapter entitled “Jesus and Mary,” Hennessy argues that representations of Christ and his mother can be used to ascertain contemporary Byzantine attitudes to childhood. She considers several programs that contain extensive narratives from the life of Christ and Mary beginning with the fifth-century mosaics in Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome and ending with the fourteenth-century program of the nartheces of the Chora church in Constantinople. . The author notes that the young Christ and Mary were intended to be perceived as exemplary, and their relationship with their families and with God as paradigmatic.

What follows is a discussion of representations of Christ with his mother which Hennessy identifies as non-narrative or iconic. She notes how after the iconoclasm the relationship between mother and child changes to reflect shifting theological realities of Christ’s incarnation and death.

The chapter concludes with a discussion of the multi-dimensional representations of the youthful Christ Emmanuel in manuscript illumination and monumental painting. Hennessy interprets their proliferation in the course of the twelfth century not only as a reflection of complex theological issues but also of society’s general interest in portraying the sanctity of youth.

The seventh and last chapter of the book recapitulates some of the conclusions reached before. The presence of children in Byzantine art could be taken, the author argues, as a further indication that art was made by and for young people. Hennessy also cautions us that when studying Byzantine art, we should consider not only an adult’s but also a child’s point of view.

Hennessy should be praised for taking up the sizable and underexplored subject of childhood imagery, yet her arguments would have been much more convincing had the book been better organized. Thus the connection between the case studies she presents is somewhat strained and subheadings would have been very useful in identifying individual themes within each chapter. For example, in the second chapter on “Childhood” the connection between manuscript marginalia with children and scenes of crowds is far from apparent. Similarly, it would have been much easier for the reader to follow the author’s argument had there been a subheading in the chapter on “Family” to mark the abrupt switch from the eight-century portraits in the Theodotus chapel in Rome to the fourteenth-century imagery in the Lincoln typikon of the Constantinopolitan nunnery of the Virgin of Certain Hope. In spite of this the book is an important step forward in expanding our knowledge of the Byzantines and the multiple visual interpretations of childhood they left behind.


1. See A. Kazhdan, ed., Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1991), 1:590-91.