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Empress Irene

and her son

Constantine VI

Rulers of Byzantium in the Eight Century


On the origins of the

Image of the Madonna and Child.



A Compilation of  Portraits by


Hubert de Vries

Back to Byzantium



Tekstvak: Irene was an orphan from Athens and was and was married off at the age of 17 to Leo IV the Khazar to secure the imperial succession. Leo IV himself was a mental and fysical weakling . He died in 780 after a reign of 29 years of which only five as an emperor. His rule saw the most important struggle of iconoclasm.

During the reign of Constantine V Copronymus (743-775) Irene had already  been depicted with the little Constantine VI on her lap. This combination can also be interpreted as a representation of the Holy Virgin Mary and baby Jesus and she was depicted in this way several times afterwards. Concerning the ‘Virgins and Child’ made during the lifetime of Irene however, we may be quite sure that in fact Irene and Constantine are represented ) Doubtless, these portraits had a propagandistic value because, as they made clear that at last there was a successor to the throne upon Leo IV’s death, no struggle between the pretenders for the succession was to be expected.




There are four versions of the portraits of Irene

In the first version she is represented standing alone in a long, likely blue, dress and a mantle. On her kerchief is a jewel in the shape of a golden square cross and behind her head is a halo which is also present in all other portraits of her.

In the second version she is again dressed in a blue attire with a halo behind her head. On her lap there is the little successor of an age of between the age of two and ten years. He has a halo with a square cross behind his head. This version is doubtlessly the oldest and can date from the last years of the reign of Constantine V. An example is the Lorsch-diptych and the mosaic in the apse of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. All later representations of the “Mother of God” are based on this version.

On a third version, the empress again has a halo behind her head, but is crowned and dressed in purple imperial, official dress. She wears the broad collar of pearls which is a part of it. On her feet, she has the red imperial shoes and she is sitting on a red cushion. This version should date from after the  coronation of Irene and Constantine in 776. Gibbon writes:

 “The association of the young Constantine was urged by the officious zeal of his subjects; and the emperor, conscious of his decay, complied, after a prudent hesitation, with their unanimous wishes. The royal infant, at the age of five years, was crowned with his mother Irene; and the national consent was ratified by every circumstance of pomp and solemnity, that could dazzle the eyes, or bind the conscience, of the Greeks. An oath of fidelity was administered in the palace, the church, and the hippodrome, to the several orders of the state, who adjured the holy names of the son, and mother of God. “Be witness, O Christ! that we will watch over the safety of Constantine the son of Leo, expose our lives in his service, and bear true allegiance to his person and posterity.” [1] Examples of the crowned version are the fresco in the Cimetero di S. Ermete in Rome and the so-called Icon of S. Maria in Trastevere, also in Rome.


In a fourth version Irene is represented again without Constantine. On the example from the Capella Ricci of the S. Marco in Florence she is dressed exactly like on the icon in the S. Maria in Trastevere but she is standing upright with hands blessing. This version was likely made at the time that she ruled alone, that is to say after 797




It is true that the struggle between the iconoclasts and the iconodules was still going on when the portraits were made. But this doesn’t rule out that Empress Irene is represented, because in the West Irene herself contributed much to the ending of the contest in 786 and was a declared supporter of the iconodules who tolerated the veneration of images. Also the Popes took her side in the contest.

Gibbon devotes a section to Irene and Constantine VI (Vol. III pp. 40 ff..). He characterizes Irene as being ambitious and cruel. Constantine was deposed at her command and she orderd his eyes put out. Afterwards he was banned and died unnoticed years later. Irene herself died in exile in Lesbos under distressed circumstances


The imago’s of Irene and Constantine are the beginning of a vast quantity of representations of mother-and-child, symbolizing the Holy Virgin and Jesus. They are however also in a much older tradition of empress/queen mother and successor. In the West, Irene can be considered to be the ‘Mother of all Madonna’s’. The evolution from the imago of the empress to the mother of Jesus is not so very great because the emperor was worshipped as a god and for that reason Irene could be considered to be the mother of God. One can imagine that after the death of Irene there were a lot of imago’s of her for which a new destination should be found, also because the artistic value of the portraits was often very high. This was possible by letting to fade away the belief that the image was of the Empress Irene, and allowing it instead to represent the image of the Mother of God.






753-† 803

Regent 780-790 / 792-797

Empress 797-802






Mary orans.

Northern wall of the San Marco, Venice,.















1. Lorsch Diptych, front cover. Victoria & Albert Museum, London inv. n° 138 -1866.

The Lorsch Bible has to be dated 790 ca., the year that Constantine VI took over the rule from his mother. The front cover represents him as a baby or a toddler, that is to say in about 772.


2. Mosaic in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.

On this mosaic Irene is represented with her little son on her lap. She is dressed in blue attire which indicates that she is not yet an empress. In 776 she was crowned suggesting that this mosaic has to date from the period before that year.


3. Book of Kells, Ms. 58, Trinity College Dublin, fol. 7v.

Representation of mother and child. The woman is seated and dressed in a purple attire with a kerchief of gold brocade. Behind her head a halo with little square crosses. The child in a tunica of gold brocade and green attire but without crown and halo. He is red haired like Constantine VI on a miniature in the Gospels of Ada (Trier, Stadtbibliothek, cod. 22, fol. 14 v°.). In the corners of the representation are four angels with sceptres.

Without any doubt  Empress Irene is represented with Constantine VI on her lap. The picture dates the manuscript during the reign of Irene and king Offa of Mercia (757-796) and in particular about 775 when Irene nor Constantine were crowned.  (Seealso: Three pages of the Book of Kells )


This representation is enigmatic insofar as Irene is already dressed in purple and Constantine has no halo yet behind his head. Also different is that the mantle is strewn with groups of three stars where we would typically expect little crosses. The halo is a-typical and anticipates the crowns worn later by the Western kings. Probably the miniaturist worked from a description instead of a drawing?




4. Fresco in the Catacomb of S. Ermete in Rome

A woman in Byzantine imperial dress is represented with a child on her lap. She wears a crown with pendilia of strings of pearls. By her side are two angels. To her right a warrior and a woman and to her left a prelate in monk’s habit. [2]

According to Matthiae the fresco dates from the last years of the pontificate of Hadrian I (772-795) who also restored the catacomb. [3]. He ruled in the time that Empress Irene was a regent for her son Constantine VI. The fresco most probably dates from the period around the coronation of mother and son in 776, taking into account that the boy is still on his mother’s lap. The warrior on her right may be Charlemagne, king of the Franks (768-814).

In this period, it is said of  Charlemagne:

 “Charlemagne and his uncle Bernard crossed the Alps in 773 and chased the Lombards back to Pavia, which they then besieged. Charlemagne temporarily left the siege to deal with Adelchis, son of Desiderius, who was raising an army at Verona. The young prince was chased to the Adriatic littoral and he fled to Constantinople to plead for assistance from Constantine V Copronymus, who was waging war with the Bulgars.

The siege lasted until the spring of 774, when Charlemagne visited the pope in Rome. There he confirmed his father's grants of land, with some later chronicles claiming - falsely - that he also expanded them, granting Tuscany, Emilia, Venice, and Corsica. The pope granted him the title patrician. He then returned to Pavia, where the Lombards were on the verge of surrendering.”

The correct dating is after 774 in any case, the year that Charlemagne visited Rome during his siege of Pavia. The persons represented in that case are Irene (between angels), Constantine, then at the age of three, seated on her lap, Charlemagne, his wife Hildegard and pope Hadrian. Charlemagne, born between 742 and 747, is is then between 27 and 32 years old here.

On the other hand the missing of a cross on the crown indicates that the empress was crowned but still had no executive power. This dates the fresco between 776-780.




5. Icon from S. Maria in Trastevere.

The legend in the book of Maria Andaloro reads:

Die in kaiserlich-byzantinische Gewänder gekleidete Muttergottes ist hier als Theotokos abgebildet. Sie sitzt auf dem Thron zwischen zwei Engeln, die gewissermaßen ihre leibwache darstellen. Rechts unten ist der Stifterpabst mit quadratischen Nimbus zu sehen. Das großformatige Bildnis, dem in Byzanz nichts vergleichbares gegenübersteht, weist dieses Werk als römische Produktion aus, denn in dieser Stadt erfüllen die Ikonen eine rein öffentliche Funktion. Das in der Cappella Altemps (S. Maria in Trastevere) aufbewahrte Bild wurde vor kurzem wieder über dem Altar, wo es sich ursprünglich befand, aufgestellt. [4]

The person represented wears a plate-crown decorated with pearls and big preciuous stones. On the side-plates groups of three pearls and on the central plate a square cross. Long pendilia of strings of pearls hang from the crown. Around her neck is a broad collar of pearls. The child on her lap is certainly Constantine VI (*771). The regency which she took for her son after the death of Leo V in 780 can be symbolized by the cross on the crown, missing on the fresco in the Catacomb of Ermete. The pope represented should then be Hadrian I (772-795). [5] The angels are the usual companions of the imperial imago since the 4th century.

The combination of the cross on the crown and the child on her lap dates the icon at the beginning of the period of 780-790




Photo H.d.V. 9.8.2006



6. Mosaic in the Cappella Ricci of the S. Marco in Florence.

From the Oratory of Pope John VII (705-707) beside the Old St. Peter in Rome. In the 17th century it was taken off during the reconstruction by Carlo Maderno and was transported to Florence. The empress is standing upright with her hand in a blessing attitude (orans). Her dress and crown are identical to those on the icon from the S. Maria in Trastevere, her traits somewhat aged. This mosaic, for that reason, could date from her term of office in the West (797-800).

In 800 Charlemagne instead of Irene was crowned in the West by Pope Leo (795-816). By this coronation a renewed separation of East and West was a fact. In 802 Irene was also deposed in the East.




Æ Emperor Constantine VI



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© Hubert de Vries 16.11.2006. Updated 2008.07.17; 2015.07.18; 2015.10.03



[1]  Gibbon Chap. xlviii. (III, p. 38-39)

[2]  Picture:  Andrea Jemolo

[3] Matthiae, Guglielmo: Pittura Romana del Medioevo. Vol. I (Secoli IV-X). Roma, 1965. Fig. 130, p. 195. The  catacomb of  S. Ermete  was restored by pope Hadrian I.  After the removal of the relics of S. Ermete by Pope Gregoriy IV (827-844)  the catacomb became an oratory with the  fresco in the apse.

[4]  Andaloro, Maria: Römisches Mittelalter. Regensburg, 2002. P. 43 Photo from the book cited.

[5]  Compare the representation of  Hadrian I on the wall of the apse of the S. Giovanni in Laterano.

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