Synaxarion of Basil II

Date: 976–1025
Location or Findspot (Modern-Day Country): Turkey
Medium: Gold, Parchment, Tempera
Dimensions: 37.5 × 31.2 cm
Description: This deluxe manuscript praises a Byzantine emperor named Basil, almost certainly Basil II (r. 976–1025), and enjoins "all those whom he has portrayed in colors"—that is, the sacred figures depicted in the book—to help him defend the empire, keep him healthy, and intercede for him at the Last Judgment. The book is mistakenly called a menologion (an Orthodox liturgical book that contains long accounts of a saint's life), but it is actually a synaxarion, with only a short paragraph about each saint. In theory the book was used for daily liturgy, but its opulence suggests that it was just for show.

Only the volume for the first half of the year survives, from September to February. Exceptionally, images and text each get precisely half a page, with sixteen lines of text per page and lesser-known saints getting the same real estate as major Christian figures. There are 430 illuminations, executed by eight artists. Each artist received a parchment bifolium and was responsible for painting two scenes on each side. When the pages were bound, each folio had a recto and verso painted by the same artist, whose name, in the possessive case, appears in the margin.

Most images show a saint's martyrdom—usually a beheading—but all the figures remain unemotional and impervious to their gruesome fates, underscoring that the saint's sacrifice is both willing and inevitable. The book also depicts other episodes from saints' lives, standing saints who were not martyred, Old Testament prophets, Christological and Marian scenes, as well as relic translations and commemorations of natural disasters as they were performed in Constantinople in the early years of the eleventh century. The miniatures were widely copied in later eleventh-century hagiographic manuscripts.

Six pages shown here depict events from saints' lives, martyrdoms, and other liturgical commemorations.. Symeon the Stylite (p. 2) is the principal saint commemorated on 1 September, the first day of the Byzantine liturgical and tax year. The complex centered on his column at Qal'at Sem'an was an important early Byzantine pilgrimage site. For 11 October (p. 107), the apostle Philip is shown in a chariot with a black-skinned Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26–40); the aged Philip prays at the right. The men are en route to Jerusalem when Philip baptizes his companion, evidence for the successful conversion of the Ethiopians. In most Byzantine works that depict this scene, the Ethiopian is shown with white skin.

The apostle Thomas is martyred in India (p. 93), an event commemorated in the Orthodox church on 6 October. The two Indian men have dark skin, but the tones differ. Catherine of Alexandria is beheaded on 14 November (p. 207) after she debated the wisest pagan philosophers, proved the superiority of Christianity, and refused to marry the Roman emperor. In this scene, a group of soldiers moved by her steadfastness also suffers martyrdom. Catherine's relics were supposedly brought by angels to the sixth-century Orthodox monastery on Mount Sinai, which was rededicated to her by the time the synaxarion was made.

The Exaltation of the Cross (p. 35) takes place on an elevated ambo (pulpit) made of book-matched marble before a semicircular apse. This ceremony, held on 14 September, commemorated the return of the True Cross to Jerusalem by Emperor Herakleios in 630, an event depicted soon after that date on the north lintel at Mren. In 438, the relics of Archbishop John Chrysostom were translated from the Armenian village where he died in exile (in 407) to the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople (p. 353). First built by Emperor Constantine to house his own tomb, which was to be encircled by apostolic relics, the church was rebuilt by Justinian in the five-dome form seen here. The relics translation was celebrated on 27 January.
Relevant Textbook Chapter(s): 6
Image Credits: Vatican Library, Digivatlib

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Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, Vat. gr. 1613, p. 107 Martyrdom of the apostle Thomas in India, Vat. gr. 1613, p. 93 Martyrdom of Catherine of Alexandria, Vat. gr. 1613, p. 207 Translation of the relics of John Chrysostom, Vat. gr. 1613, p. 353 Exaltation of the Cross, Vat. gr. 1613, p, ,35