Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Zoe Porphyrogenita and Constantine IX Monomachos Giving Donations to Christ
  • Creator:
  • Description: This double-portrait mosaic in the south gallery of the church of Hagia Sophia shows the Byzantine empress Zoe Porphyrogenita (c. 978 – 1050) and her third husband, emperor Constantine IX Monomachos (c. 1000 – 1055), donating money and ongoing imperial revenue to Christ as Pantokrator (“Judge of All”). The mosaic is unusual on account of numerous alterations made to the faces of all three figures and to any inscriptions that bear Constantine’s name. Scholars agree that Constantine’s name and face replaced the name and face of one of Zoe’s previous husbands, most likely her first husband, the emperor Romanos III Argyros (c. 968 – 1034). Both Romanos and Constantine made substantial donations to Hagia Sophia at the beginning of their reigns, while Zoe’s second husband, Michael IV the Paphlagonian (c. 1010-1041), did not. Constantine holds a bag of money, called an apokombion, which signifies an imperial donation to the church on high feast days or Holy Saturday. Zoe herself holds a scroll inscribed in red with a cross and Constantine’s official title, the standard Byzantine formula for a donation of estate or tax revenue. Zoe’s face and Christ’s face may have come from an earlier mosaic constructed prior to Zoe’s ascension to the Byzantine throne in 1028. Zoe appears on the mosaic as a youthful and attractive young woman with rosy cheeks, yet she became empress and married Romanos when she was already fifty years old. By the time of her marriage to Constantine, Zoe was sixty-four.

    Zoe was the second daughter of Constantine VIII, who died without a son. The Byzantine succession thus relied on the marriage of one of Constantine’s daughters. Zoe’s younger sister Theodora refused to marry Romanos Argyros, whom their father had designated as his chosen heir, whereas Zoe agreed. According to the authors John Skylitzes and Michael Psellos, Zoe and Theodora shared a lifelong rivalry. Shortly after her marriage Zoe forced Theodora into a monastery. Zoe and Romanos never conceived a child, and their unsuccessful attempts created animosity between the imperial couple. Zoe engaged in multiple affairs and her adultery was public knowledge. Her popularity among the common people and Romanos’ indifference to her infidelity resulted in few consequences for her liaisons. In 1034, assassins drowned Romanos in his bath. Both Skylitzes and Psellos assert that Zoe was complicit in his death.

    After five tumultuous years of marriage to her second husband, Michael the Paphlagonian, Michael’s son attempted to force Zoe into a monastery and set her aside. A popular uprising forced him to flee and the rioters reinstated Zoe and Theodora as co-empresses. When Theodora proved to be a far more competent ruler, Zoe married her on-again, off-again lover Constantine Monomachos in an attempt to undermine her sister’s control. Constantine brought with him his mistress, Maria Skleraina, member of a prominent military family. Zoe and Theodora both appear to have tolerated Maria and even granted her the high-ranking title of despoina, an epithet ranked just below their own titles of augusta and basilissa. Maria became so prominent in Zoe and Theodora’s court that the two sisters made a public appearance to quell popular worries that Constantine’s mistress plotted to overthrow them.

    Historians characterize Zoe as beautiful even in her old age and preoccupied with maintaining an appearance of youth. Psellos claims that her palace chambers became cosmetic laboratories where the empress concocted ointments and tinctures to preserve her beauty. Zoe’s reputation as calculating and obsessed with beauty led to early scholarly speculation that when artists replaced Romanos with Constantine in the Hagia Sophia mosaic, that the empress arranged to also replace her face with a more youthful representation. However, more recent studies suggest that even in the Hagia Sophia mosaic’s first phase, Zoe’s face and the face of Christ were both repurposed from a pre-existing mosaic executed in her youth, in order to present an idealized image of her for posterity. The constant modifications to the mosaic overall testify to Zoe’s turbulent reign.

  • Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Public Domain
  • Subject (See Also): Christ, as Pantokrator Constantine IX Monomachos, Emperor of the Byzantine Empire Empresses Donations Marriage Portraits Remarriage Zoe Porphyrogenita, Empress of the Byzantine Empire
  • Geographic Area: Eastern Mediterranean
  • Century: 11
  • Date: c. 1028-1042; alterations c. 1042-1050
  • Related Work: Multiple views and detailed views of the mosaic may be found here; Zoe, Theodora, and Constantine featured prominently in visual culture of the Middle Byzantine period, including: The so-called Monomachos Crown, with Constantine IX Monomachos flanked by Zoe and Theodora; Gold histamenon of Zoe and her sister Theodora; Zoe has Theodora forcefully tonsured, from the Madrid Skylitzes; The Marriage of Zoe and Michael IV the Paphlagonian, from the Madrid Skylitzes; Zoe orders her eunuch Sgouritzes to poison John the Orphanotrophos, brother of Michael IV, from the Madrid Skylitzes.
  • Current Location: Istanbul, Hagia Sophia Museum, east wall of the south gallery
  • Original Location: Turkey, E. Constantinople.
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Mosaics
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Glass; Gold; Pigment
  • Donor: Laywoman; Zoe Porphyrogenita, Empress of the Byzantine Empire; Layman; Constantine IX Monomachos, Emperor of the Byzantine Empire; Layman; possibly Romanos III Argyros, Emperor of the Byzantine Empire; Male Religious; possibly Michael Keroularios, Patriarch of Constantinople
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 2.40 m./2.44 m./
  • Inscription:

    Left: + Kωνσταντ(î)νο(ς) ἐν X(ριστ)ῷ τῷ Θ(ε)ῷ / αὐτοκράτωρ πιστὸς / βασιλεὺς Ῥωμαίων. / ὁ Mονομάχ(ος).

    Right: + Zωὴ ἡ εὐσε- / βεστάτη / αὐγούστα⫶·

    On Zoe's scroll: + Kωνσταντ(î)νο(ς) ἐν X(ριστ)ῷ τῷ Θ(ε)ῷ πιστὸς βασιλεὺς Ῥω- / μαίων.

    Translations: Left: Constantine Monomachos, pious Autocrat in Christ the God, Emperor of the Romans. Right: Zoe, most pious Augusta. On Zoe's scroll: Constantine, pious in Christ the God, Emperor of the Romans.

  • Related Resources: Cormack, Robin. "Interpreting the Mosaics of Saint Sophia at Istanbul," Art History 4 (1981), pp. 131-49;
    Hatzaki, Myrto. "Experiencing Physical Beauty in Byzantium: The Body and the Ideal," in Experiencing Byzantium. ed. Claire Nesbitt and Mark Jackson. Ashgate, 2013, pp. 233-250;
    Kalavrezou, Ioli. "Irregular Marriages in the Eleventh Century and the Zoe and Constantine Mosaic in Hagia Sophia," in Law and Society in Byzantium, 9th-12th Centuries. ed. Angeliki E. Laiou and Dieter Simon. Dumbarton Oaks, 1994, pp. 241-60;
    Oikonomides, Nicolas. "The Mosaic Panel of Constantine IX and Zoe in Saint Sophia," Revue des études byzantines 36 (1978), pp. 219-32;
    Pollick, Brian A. "Sex, Lies, and Mosaics: The Zoe Panel as a Reflection of Change in Eleventh-Century Byzantium," ARTiculate 1:1 (2012), pp. 22-38;
    Teteriatnikov, Natalia. "Hagia Sophia: The Two Portraits of the Emperors with Moneybags as a Functional Setting," Arte Medievale (1996): 47-67;