Mosaics of Hagia Sophia

The four bronze horses of St. Mark's and their gilding


In Constantinople the horses were placed on top of the curved entrance to the Hippodrome, which was called the "Dippion", high above the ground.  From this distance and being below the crowds in the Hippodrome would not have been able to see this.  When the horses were looted from Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204 the horses were removed from the Hippodrome and sent to Venice as booty.  In Venice they were placed in front of balcony on the front facade of Saint Mark's overlooking the square, with small marble columns (more loot) holding up the feet.  If you stood on the balcony looking out on the square you could see the scratches on the behinds of horses.  Due to the ravages of pollution, today the original horses have been placed in a special museum.  Now you can examine them up close and see the abrasion for yourself.

The great statue of Marcus Aurelius in Rome also had it's mercury-gilded surfaces scratched up.

In this picture below you can plainly see the scratches on the most reflective surfaces of the horses.The Horses of Saint Marks in Venice

We aren't sure how old the horses are - some experts believe they date from the reign of Constantine and were made-to-order for Constantinople herself.  One of the features they point out to justify this dating is the shape of the eyes, which does not appear to be classical in style.  Monumental bronze casting on a huge scale was still being done in the 4th Century AD reign of Constantine and there seems to have been no decline in the quality of the casting.  Were they part of a quadriga?  Since the hippodrome was built in the reign of Septimus Severus, were the horses a part of the original project?

Roman bronze casting was amazing and their techniques were not rivaled in the West until the 17th century.  Roman bronzes were very thinly cast and assembled from many pieces fused together.  The cost of bronze was very high and they wanted it to go as far as possible.  By testing the metal content of Greek and Roman bronzes we can tell where they were made. Roman bronze is made of tin, copper and lead.   There were some trace elements but the Romans were remarkably consistent in the formula for bronze casting for hundreds of years.  One can assume that Greek and Roman bronze casting was perfected to produce stuff for the military and navy on an industrial scale.  Even in the Byzantine period we know that hundreds of thousands of bronze arrows, spears, swords, armor and helmets could be produced fast and efficiently.


Constantine's Bronze Statue in His Forum in Constantinople


The Forum of ConstantineAbove is a reconstruction of the Forum of Constantine with his column in the center.  To the left of column is the statue of Athena. This Red Porphyry column in Constantinople was erected by Constantine the Great in his circular forum in 328, where it still stands (minus the forum, which has vanished).  It was not a monolith, it was around 140 feet tall with it's capital and base, the gilded statue on the top added another 20 ft to it. It was made of seven colossal 10 ft tall blocks - 63 tons each - of Red Porphyry fitted together with bands of laurel leaves. They had trouble with the column from the start.  In 416 a large part of the bottom drum split off and was smashed on the floor of the forum.  The gash was never filled in and the entire column was encased in a bronze lattice to keep it together.  One theory about its origin is that the column parts were intended for a monument to the emperor Diocletian that was never completed. It still survives, battered and humiliated in old-Istanbul.  It's interesting that Constantine's column was higher than Trajan's great column in Rome.

Constantine had a colossal - 30+ ft tall - nude and gilded bronze statue of himself placed on a gigantic, brilliant purple, porphyry column at the center of his forum in Constantinople (the column can still be seen today - a complete ruin).  He was crowned like the god Helios with sun rays.  It has been speculated that later generations were embarrassed by Constantine's nudity as the first Christian Emperor and tended to ignore the statue.  The statue would have been a very hard thing to ignore.

Constantine's Forum was filled with beautiful bronze statues from ancient Greece and Rome.  The most famous was the Athena Promachos - "Athena who fights in the front line" by Phidias from the Athenian acropolis was here for 900 years (it was brought to the forum from Athens sometime after 465 AD, at the same time the gold and ivory statue of Athena from the acropolis was brought to Constantinople and placed in the palace of Lassos as a part of a public display of ancient sculpture) - until it was destroyed during the Fourth Crusade.   It was destroyed by a mob of drunken crusaders.

Constantine's statue stood for 800 years - and could be seen from sea as you sailed around the city - until it was knocked down by lightning in the 12th century.  Iron bars had to be added to the column in 416 AD.  In 477 AD the statue lost its orb, and in 541 AD it lost its spear. Both were replaced, The Byzantine princess Anna Comnena in the 12th century said the statue faced east. The Byzantine Emperor Manuel replaced the statue with a huge gilded cross, with the inscription "The entire work which time had damaged was renewed by the pious Emperor Manuel", which were inlaid in lead and can still be seen.  60 people were killed when the statue fell, the forum was crowded with shoppers at the time. 

It is said that the head of the stature survived and could be seen somewhere in the Great Palace.  One can still see the both the original fastenings of Constantine's statue and the 12th century marks and clamps on the top of the column where the cross was attached. Below you can see the three stages in the life of the column.  The center one shows a chapel that was built at the base.

There were other big columns of Red Porphyry both inside and outside of buildings.  The most famous that can still be seen today are the eight in the nave of Hagia Sophia.

There were also big columns of porphyry in the Philadelphion with sculptures of the Tetrarchs on them.  Pieces of them have been mounted on the facade of St. Marks in Venice.  Many porphyry columns were used in the Great Palace and in Blachernae Palace.  Some of these were taken to Venice after 1204 and were placed on either side of the main doors to the church.  They were damaged in transit.  We know porphyry was used in the Blachernae palace because numerous fragments of columns and revetment panels have been found there.

The emperor Theophilus found four large porphyry columns for an addition to the Great Palace he built, a hall with three apses called the Triconchos. The columns were set on either side of the arches of the apses.

Porphyry Tomb of Byzantine EmperorThere are 3 pair of porphyry columns in different sizes that were taken from other sites, including the ruins of the Church of the Holy Apostles and the mausoleum of Constantine; and used in the Süleymani̇ye mosque in the 1550's.  Two huge ones - 19 feet tall, 6 feet shorter than those in Hagia Sophia - are on either side of the main entrance. They are not in great shape and look like they could split, shatter and collapse in the next quake.  They have special collars to reinforce them, but they were obviously put on centuries ago and have done nothing to prevent the huge fissures and flaking that has occurred.  Great chunks have fallen out of at least one the columns.

There are four Imperial sarcophagi in Red Porphyry in front of the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul.  These all came from the mausoleum at the Church of the Holy Apostles.  One of them was used as the tomb for Constantine the Great.


The Colossus of Barletta


Huge statues - including gigantic, gilded equestrian ones - were still being produced into the reign of Theodosis II and may have lasted until the 7th century into the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius.  The huge Colossus of Barletta is possibly a statue of the 5th century AD Byzantine Emperor Marcian (or Leo?)and may have come from his column which still stands in Istanbul.  Bente Kiilerich writes the following about the discovery of the colossus:

'The origin of this enigmatic colossus is totally uncertain. The earliest reference to it is in the Edict of Charles of Anjou from 1309, which notes that it was then lying in Barletta’s harbour as royal property: “ymaginem de metallo existentem in dohana Baroli”. It is further noted in the edict that the legs and arms had been melted down so that the metal could be used for church bells in a neighboring town.  Later the Jesuit father G.P. Grimaldi recorded that it was brought to Italy by Venetian crusaders as part of the booty from the Sack of Constantinople in 1204. The ship sunk before reaching Venice and the colossus remained destitute in Barletta’s harbour, until it was re-erected on 19 May 1491, with the missing limbs restored."

In present day Istanbul the Column of Marcian has marks on the top of the column where a great bronze monolith was attached. Unfortunately, since the original lower legs are replaced we can't line up anything to prove it.  The statue was most likely looted after 1204 as well.  It washed ashore off the coast of Italy missing it's lower legs, arms and the crown of the head.  It could have been damaged during it's removal from its column.  The arms and cross were replaced in the last 200 years, but must be very close to the original ones. Below you can see a picture of the Colossus with people - the huge scale is obvious.The Colossus of Barletta


The Equestrian Statue of Justinian in the Augusteon


The largest and most prominent statue in Constantinople was a gigantic statue of the Emperor Theodosis.  Later it was appropriated by the Emperor Justinian I and moved to an enormous brick and stone column that was sheathed in brass plaques on a marble base.  It was dedicated in 543AD and stood outside his church of Hagia Sophia in the central colonnaded square of the city, the Augusteion.  You can see a reconstruction of the column on the right above.  It was 230 ft tall.  On the left is a lost column of Leo, won the top the artist has placed the Colossus of Barletta.

The column and statue became one of the symbols of the city, that survived until the very end in 1453.  People remarked on its fierce armor and the liveliness of the figure.

On the right is another recreation of the column with bands of figures moving up the column.  This is not accurate.  We know the sides were plated in either bronze or brass that was stripped and converted into coin by the crusaders after 1204.  This left exposed the bands of brick and stone that the column had been built of. You can see this in the reconstruction above.

The column of Justinian was taller than the dome of the Hagia Sophia (182ft) and could be seen at a great distance from the city.  The column completely dominated the square of the Augusteion.  The broad stairs beneath the column filled a large part of it.

It is thought the column was placed off-center and closer to Hagia Sophia.  The statue would have been seen with the great dome of the church immediately behind it, tying Justinian to his other great creation in the city Hagia Sophia. As the tallest monument in the city, if you looked to the left you would have also seen the great gilded statue of Constantine towering above his forum and the colonnades of the shopping porticos of the Mese.  Like their statues outside the two emperors are shown together in the mosaic of the Southern Vestibule and would have been seen as you entered the church from the Augusteion.

Justinian's  column was one of the chief attractions of the city - you could see as you rounded the tip of the city and entered the Golden Horn by sea. It was much commented on by travelers and was published in early maps and engravings.  It even appears in manuscripts.  It flashed in the sunlight and had been hit by lightning at least once.   The statue faced east with his hand extended toward the enemies of Byzantium.  His helmet was decorated with huge feathered plumes. Some of the feathers in the helmet fell out.  The historian Pachymeres describes how a windstorm had damaged the statue, and the reverent treatment the broken regalia received: “This object [the statue] had lasted intact to my own times; once, however, there blew a wind of extraordinary violence so that two of the feathers fell down and these appeared to be very much larger than they are seen [from the ground] adorning [the statue’s] head. These [two feathers] are preserved to this very day in the treasury of the Church.” Later they were replaced.

The Byzantine historian Nikephoros Gregorian tells us that the statue was restored by the Emperor Andronikos II in 1317. Andronikos II, who reigned from 1282-1328, was the son of the Michael VIII who had retaken Constantinople from the Latins.  After Michael had possession of the city he went about renovating it.  Andronikos followed in his father's building and reconstruction program, but his increasing financial difficulties limited what he could do.  The restoration of the statue was something he felt he had to do because of the alarm in the city when the cross fell from the orb in the hand of Justinian. The people of Constantinople were very superstitious about their statues. They felt that the orb was magical and symbolized the power of Christianity over Islam. The feathers were replaced by an acrobat who hung from a rope stretching from the dome of Hagia Sophia.

Later, in 1427, the ball - the famous orb of power - in Justinian's hand fell out and smashed on the pavement in the square. The Byzantines saw this as a last omen that the city would soon fall.  Below is a German woodcut from 1493 showing the column and statue, I assume that is a tempest or lightning hitting it.

We cannot be sure if the statue was gilded or not.  The later drawing shows the orb and cross gilded, but not the body.

After the Ottoman conquest.  Sultan Mehmet II ordered it destroyed, probably in 1456 before his Belgrade campaign.  It seems Mehmet II had ambivalent feelings about the statue and considered having it repaired.  Mehmet must have ordered the parts of the statute preserved. For a number of years fragments of it including the head - could be seen in a shed near Topkapi where they awaited melting down to make cannons.  Travelers saw these remains and remarked on their huge scale.Hagia Sophia and the Column of Justinian

Bob Atchison

Meet Bob Atchison - the Creator of this Website

I am an icon painter, Russian Historian and Austin Web Designer formerly of Seattle, Washington and now living in Austin, Texas. My interest in Byzantium and icons began when I was 8 years old and read my first book on Byzantium called "The Fall of Constantinople".

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The Colossus of Barletta - Who is It?

The Colossus of BarlettaBente Kiilerich has written an extensive monograph on the colossus - the following is the abstract and her conclusion, which I downloaded from academia.edu:

"The Barletta colossus is the sole large-scale statue in bronze preserved of a late antique emperor; the only comparable image is the even larger, but fragmentary, Constantinian emperor in Rome. According to local tradition, the Barletta colossus depicts the Byzantine emperor Heraclius (610-641). Modern researchers tend to regard this attribution as mere folklore and fiction. But while there is general consensus that the statue does not portray Heraclius, there is no agreement as to whom it may have been intended to portray. About a dozen different emperors have been proposed, suggested dates ranging from the fourth to the eighth century. "

at the end of her article she states:

"Many scholars tend towards a date in the second half of the fifth century, that is, in the reigns of Marcian, Leo and Zeno. Believing that the colossus originated in Constantinople, some have endeavored to associate it with a specific Constantinopolitan monument. Following the reasoning of Delbrueck, the most popular identification is probably that it is the statue of Marcian (450- 457), which was mounted on his still standing column in Constantinople. To bolster the claim, the drapery style of the paludamentum is said to match that of the Victories on Marcian's base, a stylistic impression that may be open to discussion. In a variant interpretation, Urs Peschlow reconstructs the statue as Leo I (457-474) atop a much higher, no-longer-standing column in the Pittakia. This identification has been followed by other German scholars. While the Leo and the Marcian proposals are both attractive, the assignment to one of these monuments ignores the fact that it was quite common for Byzantine emperors to have their images raised on columns, for example, Theodosius II, Valentinian III and Anastasius all had columnar monuments in the capital city."

The Colossus of Barletta

Colossus of BarlettaColossus of BarlettaBelow is a photo-montage of the Colossus placed on the Column of Marcian

Below is a picture of a portrait bust of Leo I - I have to admit he looks like our Colossus

Leo I from the Louvre

Below is a drawing of the Statue of Justinian that stood on his column near Hagia Sophia. You can see that the name of Theodosis is engraved on the body of the horse, which has lead to speculation the the statue was originally of one of two Byzantine Emperors with that name.Below is a portrait of Justinian in mosaic from San Vitale in Ravenna.