The Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Collection and What to Expect

Posted by Powee Celdran

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Welcome to another special edition article by the Byzantium Blogger! It has been about 2 years since I published an article on places to travel to in the Byzantine world, but now after 2 years of not travelling due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I am back again with another article after writing all the alternate history chapters and Byzantine history in general. However, this article will not be focusing on a travel destination in the Byzantine world like Constantinople, Asia Minor, Greece, or Ravenna which I have done before, instead this one will be focusing on the Byzantine Gallery of the Dumbarton Oaks Museum in Georgetown, Washington DC, USA and what to expect from it. (check out their site here).


Just recently, I got the chance to see the Byzantine collection of the Dumbarton Oaks Museum, and in the 1 hour I was there, I spent the entirety of it at the Byzantine collection alone. Now the collection may just be a single room with a bit more outside, but don’t let the size fool you, especially if you are an enthusiast of Byzantine history. You could get carried away looking at the items and their descriptions that you may never want to leave! As Dumbarton Oaks features specialized collections, the Byzantine collection does indeed have some of the best artifacts from the Byzantine world from the 4th to 15th centuries- basically their entire history. It is not really the quantity of their collection that is impressive, but rather its quality as the Dumbarton collection features premium Byzantine items including pieces that belonged to emperors. For this article, I will first give a little overview of the Dumbarton Oaks museum and its history before moving on to the Byzantine collection, then I will also discuss my favorite finds in the entire collection in which I have a lot of. Before beginning the rest of the article, I would also like to remind you all that I will not list the name of every single item found in the collection as it would just go on forever if I did, rather I will stick to talking about the pieces in the collection I find the most interesting and impressive.   

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Dumbarton Oaks Museum, Georgetown, Washington DC

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Photos of the collections’ items are taken by myself.

When thinking of the capital of the United States of America, Washington DC, the first thing that would come into everyone’s minds would be its world famous landmarks like the White House, US Capitol, and the Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson Memorials, or if not these important landmarks in US history, Washington DC would best be remembered for its museums such as the Smithsonian and National Gallery. However in the western part of the city which is the neighborhood of Georgetown, there is another great museum in the form of a historical mansion worth seeing, and this is Dumbarton Oaks. If you wonder about its name “Dumbarton”, this comes from the name of its location as the location this mansion was built in was known as the “Rock of Dumbarton” as it is in an elevated area, and in 1702- when America was still a British colony- this piece of land was granted by Queen Anne of Great Britain to the British army officer Colonel Ninian Beall. Fast-forward to 1801, many years have passed since the USA became a country declaring independence from Great Britain (1776), and here was when the first house which included an orangery was built on this property by William Hammond Dorsey, and between 1822 and 1829, this house became the Washington residence of the US Senator and later the 7th Vice President John Calhoun. In 1846, this small house was bought by Edward Linthicum who then enlarged it and renamed it “The Oaks”, which is possibly a reference to its environment of being full of oak trees, then in 1891 The Oaks was bought by Henry Blount. In 1920, the couple Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss bought the property including The Oaks and in 1933 they renamed it “Dumbarton Oaks” combining its two historic names, and now owning the house they continued to enlarge and restructure the house itself by adding a music room and a Renaissance style room to display their European furniture, tapestries, and other belongings, which would also be used as a space for music performances and scholarly gatherings.

Robert and Mildred Bliss, founders of Dumbarton Oaks

To give a background of the couple, they were both enthusiastic collectors and patrons of scholarships and the arts whereas Robert who was a graduate of the Harvard University pursued a distinguished career as an officer and diplomat in foreign service, while his wife Mildred had the funds to acquire this property after inheriting a fortune from her family’s investment in the patent medicine Fletcher’s Castoria. Part of the items the couple enthusiastically collected were Byzantine artifacts which included entire mosaic floors taken from Syria, and from 1936 to 1940, they invested heavily on collecting Byzantine art and artifacts as in 1940 they opened the house’s Byzantine gallery to the public envisioning it to be one of the world’s greatest collections of Byzantine art. Aside from their interest in Byzantine history and its artifacts, the couple too had an interest in Pre-Columbian America and its art and artifacts, thus in 1963, 2 decades after opening their Byzantine collection, they added another wing to the house to be used as a gallery showcasing their collection of Pre-Columbian American art and artifacts from different parts of the American continent. Though in 1962, just a year before the Pre-Columbian gallery opened to the public, Robert Woods Bliss had died, and in 1969 it was his wife Mildred’s turn to die. However, long before the death of Robert and Mildred, the Dumbarton Oaks collection as well as its research library was already transferred legally to Harvard University, while in 1987 the courtyard gallery of the museum was constructed. Today, the Dumbarton Oaks Museum may best be remembered for its gardens, but if you are a Byzantine, Pre-Columbian American, Medieval European, or Ancient Roman history enthusiast, this place would be a lot more than just the gardens.

August 14th, 1999
Dumbarton Oaks House in the early 20th century
Floor plan of the Dumbarton Oaks museum


When getting into the museum’s room containing the Byzantine collection, the first thing you may notice is a massive display of a map of the Byzantine Empire at its height of territorial extent in 565- marked in purple- the year its most influential emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565) had died, wherein the empire stretched west to east from Southern Spain to Syria and north to south from the Crimea (Ukraine) to Egypt. If you look more carefully, this map also shows the greatest extent of the Byzantine Empire in 1180 at the death of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos (r. 1143-1180)- marked in dotted lines- wherein the empire occupied almost all of the Balkans and east to Central Asia Minor (Turkey). This map however is not just a map to make viewers see how large the Byzantine Empire was in size, but rather it is a display of coins of different Byzantine rulers from different eras of Byzantine history found all across lands once under the Byzantine Empire. These coins are displayed on the specific area on the map that they were found in. In the tour of this wall map of the Byzantine world, we would start at their westernmost province which was Southern Spain, and this map displays a Tremissis or a small gold coin of Emperor Heraclius (r. 610-641) that was found there as it was during his reign when Byzantine control of Southern Spain in which they gained in the 550s under Justinian I was lost. The map then shows 2 coins of Emperor Justinian I with one found at Carthage in North Africa which is the Byzantine standard gold Solidus coin and the other being a copper coin or Follis of Justinian I found in Ravenna, Italy.

Map of Byzantine Italy with coins found there

As you look below Ravenna on the map, you will then see a Solidus gold coin of Emperor Constantine V of the Isaurian Dynasty (r. 741-775) found in Rome and a half-follis coin of Emperor Constans II of the Heraclian Dynasty (r. 641-668) found in Naples, as in both their reigns the Byzantines were still in control of most of Italy despite their authority over it already greatly challenged by the Germanic Lombards. In the portion of the southern tip of mainland Italy and Sicily on the map, you will then see a Follis of Emperor Basil II of the Macedonian Dynasty (r. 976-1025) found there as in his reign Byzantium still had Southern Italy, then over in Sicily you will see two coins of Emperor Maurice of the Justinian Dynasty (r. 582-602) found there both being Dekanoummion coins, which are a variety of copper coins, then also in the Sicily part of the map you would see a gold Nomisma coin of Emperor Theophilos of the Amorian Dynasty (r. 829-842) found in Syracuse, as it was during his reign when Byzantine rule over Sicily began falling to the Arabs of North Africa. Now heading east in the map, we proceed to Thessaloniki, Greece where the map shows a 13th century Hyperpyron coin found there of Theodore Komnenos Doukas Angelos (r. 1215-1230), who was both Despot of Epirus and Emperor of Thessaloniki since 1224 in years when Constantinople had fallen to the 4th Crusade (1204-1261), and Theodore Doukas here was one of the many claimants to the lost Byzantine throne, though he never got his chance to take back Constantinople as he was defeated and blinded by the Bulgarians in 1230.

Map of the Byzantine Balkans, Asia Minor, and the Crimea with coins found there

When looking at the Byzantine capital Constantinople at the map there, you would then see two coins found there with one of them being a copper Follis of Justinian I and the other one being a gold Solidus of his nephew and successor Emperor Justin II (r. 565-578), then while heading across the Marmara Sea from Constantinople on the map you will see two other coins of Justin II found there in which both are copper Follis coins with one found at the city of Nicomedia just across the water from Constantinople and the other one at Kyzikos. The map then also shows a coin found in Nicaea and Magnesia in Asia Minor, the one found at Nicaea being a Hyperpyron of the first emperor and founder of the exiled Byzantine Empire of Nicaea (1204-1261) Theodore I Laskaris (r. 1205-1221), and the found at Magnesia being also a Hyperpyron, except this is one of Theodore I’s grandson Emperor Theodore II Laskaris (r. 1254-1258). Now moving north up the map to the Byzantine colony of Cherson in the Crimea in Ukraine north of the Black Sea, you would then see a copper Follis of Maurice that was found there, and directly south from there at the city of Trebizond at the northeastern corner of Asia Minor along the Black Sea you will then see a Hyperpyron found there of Manuel I Megas Komnenos (r. 1237-1263) who was an emperor of the Empire of Trebizond, the breakaway Byzantine Empire based there since Constantinople fell to the 4th Crusade in 1204. When looking at the regions of Seleukeia and Isauria in Asia Minor on the map you will then see copper Follis coins of Heraclius with one found in Seleukeia and the other in Isauria, then when looking at Cyprus you will also see another copper Follis of the same Heraclius found there as well. Now lastly when proceeding to the eastern provinces of the Byzantine Empire on the map, when looking at Antioch you will then see a copper Follis coin of Emperor Justin I (r. 518-527) who was the uncle and predecessor of Justinian I found there, then in Jerusalem you will see another copper Follis of Heraclius found there, and lastly at Alexandria in Egypt you will see a copper coin of Justinian I found there.          

Complete map of the Byzantine Empire at its greatest extent in 565 (purple), and in 1180 (dotted lines) with coins found in certain locations

Aside from the massive map displaying coins found all over the Byzantine world, the collection also displays another portion focusing on the evolution of the images of Byzantine emperors shown on their coins, mainly about the Byzantine imperial uniform known as the Loros which was a 16ft long heavy jewelled scarf wrapped in a cross shape over the emperor’s body and draped over the left arm, which was then introduced as an imperial uniform by the late 7th century. This imperial garment was then something that evolved from the Ancient Roman togas, and in the Late Roman era, the consuls in the Roman/ Byzantine Senate began wearing a robe wrapped around the body like a scarf instead of a large sheet being the toga worn before, and in the 7th century with the office of consul being abolished, the Byzantine emperor who now had the powers of the consul began wearing the consul’s robe, which then became the standard uniform of Byzantine emperors in official ceremonies until the fall of the empire in 1453, although over the centuries the style of the imperial Loros kept evolving. Now the coins at this part of the collection first shows images of Late Roman emperors minted in their respective coins dressed in the consular robe known as the Trabea Triumphalis which was an elaborate toga with a decorative border and sometimes even encrusted with jewels.

Top to bottom: coins of Roman/ Byzantine emperors Numerian, Constantius II, Julian, and Arcadius

The 4 coins here showing the emperors in the Trabea Triumphalis include a copper one of the Roman emperor Numerian (r. 283-284) found in Rome, a double gold Solidus of the second Byzantine emperor Constantius II (r. 337-361) found in Trier in Germany, a gold Solidus of Emperor Julian (r. 361-363) found in Antioch, and a Gold Solidus of Emperor Arcadius (r. 395-408) found in Constantinople. The next set of two coins to the right of these 4 then show the first ones depicting emperors in the early version of the Loros now holding an imperial scepter using the symbol of the Christian cross now replacing the old Roman symbol of the eagle, and these coins include a gold Solidus of Emperor Theodosius II (r. 408-450) found in Constantinople and the other one being a copper Follis of Emperor Tiberius II Constantine of the Justinian Dynasty (r. 578-582) also found in Constantinople.

Top to bottom: Coins of Byzantine emperors Theodosius II and Tiberius II

To the right of these 2 coins, the next 4 coins you will see show how the coins beginning in the 7th century have evolved into ones having more Christian symbols such as crosses and these include a gold Solidus found in Constantinople of Justinian II during his first reign (685-695) who is said to be the emperor credited for introducing the Loros as the standard uniform for Byzantine emperors, then below his coin is a gold Solidus of Constantine V found in Constantinople. Below the coin of Constantine V is a copper Follis of Emperor Basil I (r. 867-886) who was the peasant turned imperial bodyguard that founded the famous and long reigning Macedonian Dynasty (867-1056) found in Constantinople, and below the coin of Basil I is a very important and rare Byzantine lead seal which is that of Emperor Romanos I Lekapenos (r. 920-944) who was the Armenian admiral that took over the throne at that time, in which there are not that many coins that depict him, and this one here shows not only Romanos I but him with his two sons and co-emperors Stephen and Constantine Lekapenos.

1st column, top to bottom: Coins of emperors Constantine VII, Theodora (2&3), and Theodore I; 2nd column, top to bottom: Coins of emperors Andronikos II and Michael IX, Basil II, and Nikephoros III

The next 7 coins on display to the right of the last 4 ones I mentioned then show coins from the 10th century onward showing how the imperial Loros evolved into becoming more simplified, whereas the design of the coins too have been simplified to the point where the emperor’s image became more and more unrecognizable, whereas as some depict the full body of the emperor and the others just the emperor’s bust. The first of the 7 shown here is a gold Solidus of the same Romanos I mentioned earlier except this one with his co-emperor and son-in-law Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos of the Macedonian Dynasty as a child (r. 913-959) beside him, found in Constantinople. Below this is a gold Solidus of Empress Theodora (r. 1055-1056) who was a sole woman ruler of the empire and the last of the Macedonian Dynasty, while below her gold Solidus is another coin of her, except this one being a gold Histamenon Nomisma which is slightly lighter than the standard gold Solidus, and both these coins of Theodora were found in Constantinople.

Top to bottom: Coins of emperors Justinian II, Constantine V, Basil I, and Romanos I

The coin seen below the ones of Theodora is a Byzantine Hyperpyron coin which in the reign of Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118) replaced the standard gold Solidus that had been devalued in the mid-11th century, and the Hyperpyron seen here is of the first Emperor Nicaea Theodore I Laskaris who had been mentioned earlier, and just like the coin of Theodore I on the map mentioned earlier, the one here was also found in Nicaea which he chose as the base for his exiled Byzantine Empire. The next 3 coins to the right include a Basilikon which was a variation of a silver coin in the late Byzantine Empire in which this one here is of Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos (r. 1282-1328) wherein it shows a rather crude full-body image of him next to his son and co-emperor Michael IX Palaiologos (r. 1294-1320) found in Constantinople, then below this is a lead seal with the bust of Emperor Basil II of the Macedonian Dynasty, and below this is a full-body lead seal of Emperor Nikephoros III Botaneiates (r. 1078-1081).

Ivory triptych panel with Emperor St. Constantine I the Great

Next to all these coins to the right is a precious Byzantine artifact, which here is a piece of a 10th century ivory triptych, and this piece shows the Roman emperor and first Byzantine emperor Constantine I the Great (r. 306-330) dressed in the 10th century Byzantine imperial Loros. Above this part of the collection containing the coins is a large marble roundel from the 12th century depicting the Byzantine emperor John II Komnenos (r. 1118-1143) dressed again in the imperial Loros, however based on certain studies the identity of the emperor on the marble roundel is not clear, meaning that it could not exactly be John II but could possibly be any other 12th century Byzantine emperor, but whoever the emperor on the roundel is, this roundel is something I would like to recreate as part of my artworks recreating Byzantine era images.                  

Marble roundel with the image of John II Komnenos in the imperial Loros (disputed)

The other most noticeable items in the collection include a number of intricately carved marble pillars, arches, niches, and sarcophagi. The one you cannot miss is the marble “Seasons Sarcophagus” which was found in Rome dating back to around 330, the same year Constantinople was founded by Emperor Constantine I, and this piece being from the 4th century still shows some Pagan elements considering that by this time Roman Paganism was still strong despite Christianity already rising to becoming a dominant faith, although it was only by the 380s when Christianity became the empire’s official religion under Emperor Theodosius I (r. 379-395).

Byzantine marble chancel barrier

Another piece similar to this sarcophagus that you will find in the collection is a 6th-7th century fragment of a marble Byzantine chancel barrier showing that this piece could have been much larger than how you see back in its day. Something similar to the chancel barrier that you will also find is a 5th-6th century marble reliquary box designed to look like a miniature sarcophagus which was found in Syria. Another of the more notable large sized sculptures from the collection that you will see is an 11th century marble slab known as the Hagiosoritissa depicting the Mother of God and suggesting that it could have been part of a larger relief part of a pillar from a church with an identical one opposite it, except with a sculpture depicting St. John the Baptist, however its twin slab is missing, though this piece is definitely a rare one that shows some evidence of Byzantine sculpture art from the 11th century.

Byzantine marble slab with the Hagiosoritissa

In another of the smaller vertical display cases is a set of 3 items in which I consider it to be some of my finest pieces in the whole collection and this includes a 10th century ivory slab with a cross, and at the center of it a bust of a Byzantine emperor, while the borders of this ivory slab show some sockets suggesting that they were once used for placing jewels to border it. Next to this slab is a fragment of another ivory slab which just like this has an arched top, except this one has a sculpture of St. Gabriel the Archangel dressed in the Byzantine imperial Loros, and below it is a small but very intricately carved ivory round box known as a pyxis.

Consular diptych of Philoxenus, 6th century

Now one of the larger pieces in the entire collection I find very interesting is the 6th century consular diptych of the consul Philoxenus as it shows inscriptions in both Latin as seen at the center showing the name of the consul, and in Greek as seen in the 4 circles surrounding it, thus showing the transition of Latin to Greek in language which already began taking place in the 6th century where Greek had already slowly been becoming used as an official language in the government, rather than just the everyday language. Additionally, 3 other impressive ivory pieces include a late 10th century triptych of the Virgin Mary and the child Christ at the center with 3 saints on each of the 2 sides flanking it making it have a total of 6 saints, another one being a late 10th century ivory sculpture of the Virgin Hodegetria (mother and child icon), and one made from between the 7th-8th centuries depicting the Nativity. When it comes to the famous Byzantine boxes and caskets, Dumbarton Oaks too features some of the finest examples of it such as the very intricate and symmetrical rosette casket with carvings of warriors and animals which is made of wood and clad with bone plaques, it dates back to either the 10th or 11th centuries and is a lockable piece intended to store valuables such as spices, perfumes, and coins. Another intricate rosette casket you will find in the collection is a long rectangular one made also of wood with bone plaques dating back to the late 10th century, and this one here has religious images carved into it.                   

Ivory panel with an emperor, fragment of the panel with Archangel St. Gabriel, and the pyxis box
Seasons Sarcophagus, 4th century
Rosette casket with warriors and animals
Rosette casket with religious figures

Now when it comes to Byzantine jewellery, the collection features a wide variety of it spanning across the different centuries of Byzantine history, thus you can see the evolution in the designs Byzantine jewellery had over the centuries. In the jewellery collection, one of the most noticeable is something known as the “Marriage Belt” dating back to either the 5th or 6th centuries featuring 23 golden medallions forming a circle which features both Christian and Pagan symbols minted on the golden medallions showing that the ancient Pagan faith and its traces were not yet totally wiped out by then.

10th century Byzantine earrings

One of the impressive pieces of jewellery also includes an early 10th century golden ring surrounded by a circle of pearls, which still looks very much intact even up to this day. Aside from this ring, the same case as the ring and marriage belt also features an early 10th century pair of earrings made of gold with pearls as well, two golden marriage rings from the early 7th century, and a series of golden necklaces and earrings with gemstones dating all the way back to the early 5th century too. However, the item from this case that I find the most interesting is the early 7th century golden necklace with the image of the Ancient Greek goddess Aphrodite at its pendant, thus showing that even up until the 7th century when Orthodox Christianity was not only already the official faith of the empire but one that already dominated over society, their Pagan Greek roots were still not yet forgotten.

7th century gold and lapis lazuli Aphrodite necklace

Additionally, this necklace’s pendant does in fact stay true to how art was like in Ancient Greece showing the golden sculpture Ancient Greek goddess in her full beauty exposing most of her body’s physique with only her lower part covered, while the blue lapis lazuli background is meant to represent the sea, while the necklace itself features an alternating pattern of gold and lapis lazuli pieces. As part of the golden necklaces, one of them that I really found interesting was a large one with the bust of Emperor Anastasius I (r. 491-518) at its pendant while the two clasps of this necklace feature two coins with one of Anastasius I and the other one of his predecessor Emperor Zeno the Isaurian (r. 474-491), and next to this necklace are two golden coins with the image of Emperor Justinian I used as a clasp for either a belt or necklace. One thing that you will notice here that has a very interesting appearance is a set of 2 golden medallion bracelets dating back to the 6th century but still looking very intact except for the top-left corner of the left medallion chipped off while the rest of it still looks very much of good quality after all these centuries.

4th century gold and jewelled bracelet

Next to these 2 golden medallions would then be another interesting piece being another golden bracelet as well, except this one still has 4 out of 9 jewels still in place, and the more impressive part is that this bracelet being from the 4th century is 2 centuries older than the previous one I mentioned yet looks even more intact than the former. Another interesting and very intact piece you would also see in this part of the collection is a pair of 2 early 7th century bracelets worn by certain Byzantine governor generals in which this one contains not only the image of one emperor but 3, which include emperors Maurice, Heraclius, and the emperor between them which was Phocas (r. 602-610) who was the emperor that overthrew Maurice and was overthrown by Heraclius.

Cameo of Caesars Galerius and Constantius I

In this part of the collection, you will also see one of the oldest pieces in the Byzantine collection, which is in fact something that even predates the founding of the Byzantine Empire (330), and this is an Ancient Roman pendant known as a cameo dating back to the year 300 made of chalcedony and gold depicting the busts of the emperors Galerius (r. 293-311) and Constantius I (r. 293-306) when they were Caesars or junior emperors of the Roman Tetrarchy- when the Roman Empire was divided into 4 parts- with the latter one (Constantius I) being the father of Byzantium’s founder Constantine I.

Circular and hexagonal pendants with medallions of Constantine I, 4th century

Other than this cameo, the collection does in fact feature even earlier pieces such as gold pendants with the coins of Roman emperors Caracalla (r. 211-217) and Elagabalus (r. 218-222) of the Severan Dynasty and a coin of Emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305). Something else here that would be of great interest is a pair of 2 pendants of Constantine I from the 4th century, with one being circular and its pair a hexagonal one, and here Constantine I is depicted as the Roman god Apollo as he true enough went back-and-forth in his images from Christian to Pagan.              

Golden necklace with Anastasius I, coins with Justinian I below
Marriage Belt with 23 golden medallions
Golden medallion bracelets, 6th century
Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine jewellery collection
Golden bracelets with emperors Maurice, Phocas, and Heraclius

Another impressive collection at Dumbarton Oaks are the crosses from the Byzantine era which were used as reliquaries or cases to store holy relics, and apparently these containers used to store pieces of the True Cross came in the form of crosses, and considering the importance of the relic of True Cross, the containers holding them too had to be of high quality with very impressive and intricate art on them. The case containing the collection of reliquary crosses then shows a large number of them coming in different forms and designs together with 2 other reliquary items and 4 different rings.

Cloissone enamel reliquary cross with golden box, 12th-13th century

In this collection of reliquary crosses, the one that I find the most impressive is the gold and Coisonne enamel one made from the late 12th to early 13th centuries that is still fully intact as it not only has its cross but the gold box in the shape of a cross underneath it, and to display both items still intact, this piece is seen with the golden box turned over beneath the painted cross above it. Another piece here that is very impressive is although now seen in 3 fragments coming from the 11th century made of silver, niello, and gilding showing that they once belonged to one piece, although these surviving fragments are pieces coming exactly from 3 edges of this cross- except for the bottom one- wherein the fragment of the upper edge shows the emperor Constantine I the Great in the Byzantine imperial Loros with Pope St. Sylvester, the one on the left edge shows the archangel St. Michael at the location of Chonae in Asia Minor, and the one on the right showing the Old Testament figure Joshua- although only half of him is seen- prostrating himself before an Archangel.

11th century reliquary cross fragments

One of the other crosses you will easily notice is the bronze one from either the 11th or 12th centuries which is still highly intact that it even still has its base hanging from it, and not to mention you will also see crosses from as early as the 6th and 7th centuries here still mostly intact with one being a necklace with a cross pendant from the 7th century and another one being a series of 4 small pendant crosses made as early as the 6th century. Aside from the reliquary crosses and cross pendant necklaces, this same case that contains them also contains 3 small, but very intricate Byzantine rings and the most impressive of these 3 rings happens not be the most detailed and colorful one but the simplest of the 3 from the 11th century as this ring is a rare one of great value belonging to an important historical figure of that time which was the historian Michael Attaleiates (1021-1080).

Byzantine rings, Michael Attaleiates’ ring (leftmost)
Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine reliquary crosses collection


Now as icons have played such a major role in the history of Byzantium, the Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine collection does in fact feature a few valuable and very stunning icons, and the one here that I find the most impressive is the one of the late 4th and early 5th century Patriarch of Constantinople St. John Chrysostom made in around 1325, and this piece is not just a hand-painted icon but a miniature mosaic made of several tiny tesserae or painted tiles assembled to form the image of the saint in a very realistic way as if it were a hand-painted icon.

Miniature mosaic of St. John Chrysostom, 1325

Other than the miniature mosaic icon of St. John Chrysostom, this collection also features another impressive miniature mosaic in which the other one here also made in the 14th century depicts not one character but 40! The 40 figures in this miniature mosaic are the 40 Martyrs of Sebasteia, which were Christian Roman soldiers from the 4th century who were sentenced to death by the Roman authorities during the early 4th century Christian persecutions by being forced to march to death in the dead of winter with their clothes stripped off. The collection too features another icon of the same subject being the 40 Martyrs of Sebasteia, although the second one with the same subject is a post-Byzantine era piece made in the 17th century using tempera and gilding on wood, and this one here is a triptych icon with the central panel showing the same 40 martyrs except this one with one of them finding a warm bathhouse as the legend about them says, while the panels left and right of the central one show different saints painted on them.

Golden frame with 8 Cloissone medallions, 11th century

Another thing you will find here is a golden icon frame from the mid-11th century containing 8 Cloisonne medallions around it depicting religious images. The largest one and perhaps the most noticeable of the icons in the collection happens to be the 14th century icon of St. Peter made of tempera and gilding on a large wooden slab which shows him with such strong emotion and depth, in which became the style of icons in the late Byzantine era, compared to the more emotionless way saints were depicted in earlier Byzantine eras. Other than icons, you will also find Byzantine era illuminated manuscripts made on sheets of vellum, and here you will see one displayed on a page of an opened book and 2 others as hanging sheets.

Miniature mosaic of the 40 Martyrs of Sebasteia, 14th century
Triptych of the 40 Martyrs of Sebasteia, 17th century
Icon of St. Peter painted on a large wooden slab, 14th century
Byzantine illuminated manuscripts on vellum

Of course, the collection not only features larger than life treasures from the Byzantine world belonging to larger-than-life figures like emperors or items that depict them, but rather the collection also features several objects of everyday life in Byzantium including plates, utensils, chalices, and a lot more.

5th century silver plate with a hunting scene

Although no matter how ordinary these items may seem, a lot of them are of great historical value with some even having a story to tell, and this could be said about the silver plate from the 5th century depicting a hunting scene here which shows that hunting had a major role in Byzantine society especially among the elites, while the same too can be said with a large silver chalice you will see which actually belonged to the important Ardaburius family of 5th century Constantinople.

Byzantine spoons and a fork

Now one thing you cannot miss in the collection is the display of Byzantine era utensils as here among the several serving spoons, you will see an actual Byzantine era fork, and when looking at it, it may at first seem very ordinary to see a simple silver fork, but if you know the history of Byzantium you will know it is a very important object as the fork was in fact an item the Byzantines had developed as a utensil for eating in which they have introduced to the Western world, and at this day we have the Byzantines to thank for introducing it to us. Among the other silver housewares in the collection, you will find a series of silver plates, chalices, incense burners, candlesticks, ewers, intricate bronze lampstands, small oil lamps in the form of animals, and even trading instruments such a weight for a scale in the form of the bust of a 5th century Byzantine empress.

Weight in the form of a 5th century Byzantine empress’ bust

Outside the room of the collection, you will then find a large pot made of the purple stone porphyry, in which the Byzantines used in order to make the room the imperial heirs were born in purple to legitimize their claim to the throne. Other than that, you will also find a series of tiled mosaics found in floors from different parts of the Byzantine era like Asia Minor and Syria wherein one shows an interesting green one with red and white lines and another one looking like a maze of different patterns made of green and red porphyry stones laid into marble, this piece is thus an amazing geometric mix of a tiled mosaic and a checkerboard which was found in a church in Southern Italy.

Byzantine lamps in animal designs and lampstands
Porphyry jar
Floor mosaic pattern with red and green porphyry stones laid into the marble

That’s about it for my article on the Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine collection. To sum it up, the collection does feature very valuable treasures, though not very large, its size does not really matter as you would in fact spend endless minutes staring at these valuable items. Prepare to be immersed in the fascinating history and culture of Byzantium. The Dumbarton Oaks collection has some of the rarest and most well-preserved Byzantine treasures as well as the most important ones that are not only treasures found all over the Byzantine world but those that belonged to important people in the Byzantine era. This is what makes this collection very special, and it was such a great pleasure for me to see this collection. Of course, the entire Dumbarton Oaks museum has a lot more to show than its Byzantine collection, but since my site only features the history of Byzantium, I only chose to cover it. Also, if you all noticed I did not mention every item you would see since if I did, then I would go forever with this article, so for the sake of making this post short and simple, I chose to just stick with my best finds in the collection. Anyway, this is all for now on this special edition article on the Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine collection, this is Powee Celdran the Byzantine Time Traveler… thank you all for reading!       

Published by The Byzantium Blogger

Powee Celdran, currently majors in Entrepreneurial Management, a Byzantine scholar and enthusiast, historical military sketch and bathroom mural artist, aspiring historical art restorer, Lego filmmaker creating Byzantine era films and videos, and a possible Renaissance man living in modern times but Byzantine at heart. Currently manages the Instagram account byzantine_time_traveller posting Byzantine history related content.

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