Alexander Mosaic in Hagia SophiaIn contrast to the other imperial portraits in Hagia Sophia in which emperor and empress are depicted at each side of Christ or the Virgin, the Emperor Alexander stands alone within the narrow confines of the panel, a fact which accounts for the complete frontality of the figure. He is attired in ceremonial vestments and bears attributes in his hands that correspond rather closely to the trappings with which, according to the Book of Ceremonies, the emperors of the tenth century were equipped when they went in procession on Easter Sunday to Hagia Sophia for the services. It is said that on this occasion the emperors wore the sagion, a kind of tunic, which was bordered with golden embroideries, and the dark red skaramangion, which seems to have been put on over the sagion, for the tzizakion, which they wore up to that moment, was removed when the skaramangion was put on. The loros, a long and richly ornamented scarf, which was wound about the body, was then put on and either a white or a red crown, according to their preference, was placed on their head. Finally, a golden scepter adorned with gems and pearls was placed in their left hand and the akakia, or anexikakia, in their right.

In the mosaic all these elements of the costume with the exception of the scepter appear to be represented; instead of the scepter, Alexander holds the orb in his extended left hand, but in his right, as specified, he holds the akakia.

The undergarment (sagion) is visible only at the cuffs and hem which are, as the text described, richly embroidered and decorated with pearls. Over this is a loose-sleeved garment (skaramangion) of purple (dark red, according to the text) which is visible in the right sleeve and at the sides, from the knees downward; it is otherwise covered by the loros which is heavily decorated with gems and pearls. On his head he wears a red crown which is adorned with pearls and a golden circlet studded with gems. From the crown are suspended the perpendulia of pearls. On his feet he wears the imperial red boots, also decorated with pearls.

Mosaic of the Emperor Alexander in Hagia SophiaIn the upper part of the panel, flanking the figure of the Emperor, are four inscribed discs, two on each side. The disc at the upper right presents the name of the Emperor in three lines. The other three contain cruciform monograms. The other extant portraits, if we exclude the coins on only portrait Alexander, which he appears, is in one of the miniatures of the manuscript of the Homilies of Gregory of Nazianzus in Paris (Bibl. Nat., gr. 510, fol. B) which depicts the Empress Eudocia Ingerina standing between the youthful figures of Leo VI on her right and Alexander, at about the age of ten, on her left.

Another miniature of the same manuscript represents Basil I between the Prophet Elijah and the Archangel Gabriel (fol. Cv). These portraits of the family of Basil I, though somewhat earlier, have very marked similarity to the mosaic in matters of costume and imperial attributes. The crowns are of the same type (low and tightly fitting, to conform to the shape of the head) with similar narrow circlets and similar perpendulia. Both Leo and Alexander hold the orb in their left hands and Leo, at least, also holds the akakia in his right hand. The only major difference between the vestments of the miniature portraits and the mosaic is in the loros. In the former the loros is always narrower, with three instead of four parallel rows of ornaments. There is, however, the same excessive use of pearls; the shoulders are outlined in pearls and from the edges of the loros pearl fringes are arranged in the same manner.


Alexander, the third son of Basil I, was born in A.D. 870 or 871. He was crowned as co-Emperor, at about the age of nine, before November of 879 and probably before August of that year, thus sharing the throne with his father and his elder brother Leo VI. He remained co-Emperor during Leo's life despite the hostility that existed between the brothers, and after Leo's death he ruled as sole Emperor for a period of thirteen months, from II May 912 until his death on 6 June 913, at which time, therefore, he must have been about forty-two or forty-three years of age. The mosaic portrait shows Alexander as a man of mature years and must, therefore, be ascribed to the late years of his life. It seems most probable, however, that it represents him in his capacity as sole Emperor and should be dated in the brief period of his reign. We incline to this conclusion by analogy to the other imperial panels in Hagia Sophia in which Constantine IX Monomachus, John II Comnenus, and his son and co-Emperor Alexius were depicted after their coronations. If this analogy applies also to the Alexander portrait, it would have been executed, in all probability, in 912.

It might be objected that in the portrait Alexander is called by the title of despot rather than basileus, the title used in the inscriptions of the later emperors portrayed in Hagia Sophia, and that he was, therefore, not the ruling emperor. The latter title, however, was conferred upon a co-emperor as well as upon a senior emperor just as the term despot, as we have seen, was used for both.


The Background

The lower part of the background, which forms a ground zone in which the figure stands, is composed of three horizontal bands of green glass, each of a different value and character, the darkest at the top and the lightest at the bottom. The uppermost band consists primarily of emerald green tesserae, the middle band of pea green, and the lower one mainly of yellow-greens.

Above the ground zone, the background is laid in horizontal rows of gold and silver tesserae which are set normal to the plane of the panel; the rows are far from straight and are rather widely separated. The proportion of silver to gold is about 2 to 5, or about 30 per cent silver. Only in the ground of the nimbus and a few other areas is gold used without an admixture of silver. The plaster setting bed in which the metallic cubes are laid had been painted yellow ochre before the tesserae were inserted.

The Face

The areas of flesh in the face and neck are set in three colors of the usual (Tunisian?) marble: white, warm off-white, and pink. Pale green glasses are used for the shading of the face and neck. Across the brow, the edge of the lining or padding of the crown is indicated by short diagonal strokes of pale yellow-green glass alternating with black-violet glass and the purple cartoon paint on small patches of unset plaster. The shadow is then drawn by the black-violet line that forms part of the outlining of the face.

The eyebrows are drawn in black and violet glass tesserae and the shadow lines beneath are of pale green-umber glass. The upper eyelids are in off-white marble, the eyelashes and pupils in black. The whites of the eyes are of white marble at the left sides of the eyeballs and of bluish gray Proconnesian marble at the right. The irises were left unset in the cartoon paint of light brown. The lower eyelids are in pale violet glass and the shadow lines below in pale yellow-green glass.

Alexander Mosaic in Hagia SophiaThe ridge and tip of the nose are white marble with a line of off-white marble at the left side. At the right side of the nose are three lines: the inner line, beside the ridge, in pink marble; the middle line, which continues the line of the eyebrow, in pale violet glass; and the outer line in light green glass. The shading of the nose at the left, is done in two lines of yellow-green and one of light green glass adjoining the ridge. The tip of the nose is highlighted by a large polygonal stone of white. The shadows beneath the nostrils are violet glass and a rather large square violet tessera marks the shadow below the point of the nose above the lips. The surrounding shadows are in pale green and yellow-green glasses. Each of the lips is drawn by a single row of pink marble with the shadow between them in pale violet glass.

The beard is of violet and black glasses lighted with yellow-green glass. Here and there the unset cartoon paint of purple and green is to be seen.

The Nimbus

The nimbus is outlined with two rows of emerald green glass tesserae; the field is of gold tesserae set in concentric circles except for the two innermost rows which follow the contour of the crown. This manner of setting and the fact that no silver tesserae are used serve to differentiate the nimbus from its surroundings and give it a warm brownish tone that is markedly different from the paler color of the background.

The Right Hand and the Akakia

The right hand, which clasps the akakia, is outlined with a row of red glass and filled with marbles: pink on the lower sides of the fingers and back of the hand, and off-white on the upper sides. The tip of the thumb protruding from behind the right side of the akakia, above the clenched fingers, was set with only a single tessera which is of silver and is laid in reverse. The outline of the tip of the thumb is the cartoon drawing in purple paint.

The akakia, which was probably a small pouch of silk filled with dust and wrapped in a purple kerchief, is represented as being cylindrical in form, with rounded ends. It is outlined in violet-black glass, its rounded top and bottom are of gold tesserae, and the kerchief is represented in red glass. Two horizontal rows of violet-black glass, separated by a row of red glass, border the edges of the kerchief.

The Left Hand and the Orb

The left hand, held out to one side, balances the orb. The outline of the orb is a single row of the same dark blue glass that is used to fill the field of the lower half; the upper half is filled with emerald green glass. The division between the two halves is not a straight line but a double curve that dips downward in the center.

Uncovering the Alexander MosaicOnly the four fingers and the back of the hand that were exposed to view in front of the orb are set in mosaic tesserae. The thumb and palm of the hand, as though seen through the orb, which is indicated, therefore, as being trans- parent, are left in the unset plaster of the setting bed, painted here in terra verte and purple which are blended in places. Six red glass tesserae indicate the left edge of the little finger; two widely spaced red glass tesserae are set at the right edge of the index finger; and three are placed along the under side of the thumb. Six tesserae of pink marble continue the line below the thumb and another six describe the ball of the thumb against the palm. The under side of the hand and fingers are sparsely set with pink and white marble. Otherwise the outline of the hand is left mostly in the purple cartoon paint and the thumb and ball of the thumb are in terra verte.

The Imperial Vestments

The crown is basically red but is heavily encrusted with pearls and a golden circlet studded with jewels. It is divided horizontally into three zones. At the top and bottom are two rows of tesserae of alternating red glass and the dense mat-white rock with which pearls are represented. Between these two zones is a circlet of gold in which five square jewels are set. That at the center is of red glass shadowed by the pale amber of gold tesserae which have been set on one side or in reverse. The others are of emerald green glass shadowed by dark blue. A row of black-violet glass tesserae defines the top of the crown on which stands a cross of emerald green glass tesserae with a pearl at the center and three at the base. The perpendulia, which are attached to each side of the crown, fall in straight lines down each side of the face to the shoulders. Each is composed of two strands of alternate red glass and mat-white representing pearls. The outermost strand on each side appears to be attached to the upper band of pearls set in the crown, while the innermost attach to the lower band.

The long undergarment (sagion?), visible only at the richly decorated cuffs and hem, was worn beneath an outer garment, and like the outer garment, it appears to have been of purple, as is indicated by the background on which the embroidered and encrusted ornaments are worked. The purple is rendered in tesserae that are chips of a light purple local stone.31At the hem, the under- garment is decorated with two vertical bands of gold, above the feet, in which four rectangular jewels, rendered in green and red glass, are set. The bands are bordered at the sides by double rows of pearls and below by a single row. The jeweled band at the right has lost the tesserae with which it was set. Between the two bands, and again at the far right, are three vertical double rows of pale greens and ambers, in indication of folds, which are in reality metallic cubes set on one side or in reverse. The cuff of the garment's right sleeve is of gold with two rectangular jewels, one of green glass and the other of large red tesserae of terracotta. Along the very end of the cuff, next to the hand, is a single row of pearls. The tesserae of the left cuff, at the far right, have fallen, except for a border of pearls at the wrist similar to that of the right cuff. In all probability the two cuffs were originally alike.

The outer garment (skaramangion?), covered in very large part by the loros, is visible in the wide sleeve, at the left, and over the lower legs at both sides of the lower end of the loros which is suspended down the center of the figure. In these areas it is not decorated and is indicated as a purple garment by the use of the same pale purple local stone, mentioned above, that was the basic material of the undergarment. The outline drawing and the folds of the outer garment are indicated by single, double, or triple rows of metallic tesserae set in reverse or on one side to produce a brown amber color. In a small V-shaped area at the neck, the garment was bordered at the neck line by a row of alternating pearls and red glass tesserae, like the strands of the perpendulia; this is separated by a single row of gold from another row of pearls which alternate with metallic cubes set on one side or in reverse. This border has suffered losses.

Wrapped about the body of the Emperor is the unusually broad and heavy loros. This long scarf, with one end hanging at the same level as the bottom of the outer garment, extends vertically up the front of the figure and seems to have been passed over the right shoulder whence it presumably continues down the back of that shoulder to emerge under the right arm and then pass upward over the left shoulder. It then seems to have been drawn diagonally across the back and brought forward around the right hip to fall diagonally across the front where it is folded to reveal the back, or lining, of the scarf as it is draped upward over the extended right arm. Finally, the end of the loros falls over the left wrist and hangs in a vertical fold with its ornamented face exposed to view. The edges of the loros are bordered, and the field divided into squares, by double rows of pearls. The rows of pearls, as also the individual pearls in each row, are separated by metallic tesserae set in reverse or on one side. The tesserae of these borders are rather widely spaced, and it can be seen that the setting bed is painted a light purple color. Within each of the squares into which it is thus divided is a large square jewel surrounded by one, two, or three rows of metallic tesserae; in the upper parts of the figure these are entirely of gold, but in the lower part a few silver tesserae are here and there inserted. The jewels are alternately red and green glass outlined by a single row of blue glass, with the exception of the vertical row of three jewels at the far left under the sleeve and the jewel under the cuff at the left, which are composed of terracotta. These exceptions are, however, also outlined with blue glass. The jewels in the loros are so arranged that the red and green colors alternate in both the longitudinal and transverse directions on the scarf. Along each side of the loros is a kind of fringe
consisting of widely separated sprays of three pearls that are attached at intervals to the edges. Some of these, along the lower, vertical, part of the loros, have large pear shaped pearls, of from nine to eleven tesserae, which are placed at the centers of the sprays.

The boots are outlined by one, two, and in some places three, rows of red glass with a few interspersed tesserae of amber or green color which are metallic cubes set in reverse or on one side. The lighter areas of the boots are of terracotta. Intermingled with these materials, as decoration, are a number of round mat-white stones representing pearls.

The Inscribed Discs

The backgrounds of the four inscribed discs which flank the upper parts of the figure are set in dark blue glass; in the inscribed disc at the lower right the rows are horizontal, in the others, concentric. The inscriptions are made of the same dense mat-white rock with which pearls are indicated. The individual letters are fairly consistently outlined by single rows of the dark blue of the background.


As margins at the two sides of the panel, the setting bed was left exposed in two narrow strips averaging about 5 cm. in width. While much of this plaster along the left side of the panel was lost and had to be replaced, that along the right side was in great part preserved and is a dark gray. In conformity with almost invariable practice, the contours of all parts of the figure were bordered with one or, more usually, two rows of the materials with which the surrounding background was to be set.  Throughout most of the contours that were to be relieved against the gold and silver background, it is evident that the rows of the metallic tesserae that follow the contours were set along with the figure itself, before the plaster setting bed for the metallic background had been applied. This is most clearly evident along the left edge of the figure from the top of the green ground zone to the projecting sleeve of the figure. In the area of lost background tesserae at the level of the knee on this side, and again at the hip, the line of juncture between the two applications of plaster setting bed is clearly visible, and in some other places where the mosaic is intact the juncture of the two has opened up slightly and can be traced on close examination. In the contours that occur in the green zone at the bottom of the panel, however, slightly open joints occur here and there between the very edge of the figure itself and the surrounding row, or rows, of green glass which parallel the contours, thus indicating that none of the background material was set here along with the figure. This is clearly observable along the right side of the hem of the garment and the right side of the foot at the right. These phenomena indicate the limits of various stages of the work in the construction of the mosaic.

From The Mosaics of Hagia Sophia at Istanbul: The Portrait of the Emperor Alexander: A Report on Work Done by the Byzantine Institute in 1959 and 1960  Paul A. Underwood and Ernest J. W. Hawkins.  The photograph of the Alexander panel being uncovered is from the Robert Van Nice blog page.

Bob Atchison