Can you help? The relevance of the monogram embroidered on Byzantine over-cloaks

Given that we have a pretty wide readership, and many of you are academics, I wonder if anyone can answer a question posed by blog correspondent Dave about monograms that appear in mosaics, particularly at Ravenna. If you can help please add a comment to this post or email me. Thank you in anticipation!

From Dave:

“I have one question which you may be able to answer (I’ve never seen reference to it in any of my readings): in many 5th and 6th century mosaics – notably at Ravenna – martyrs, saints, angels, even Christ himself, often have a monogram embroidered on their over-cloak (himation) which sometimes looks like a Greek letter (gamma or zeta), sometimes an ivy-leaf, or sometimes like nothing identifiable at all – do these have any significance? The monogram between the knees of Christ in the apse at San Vitale is so prominent and conspicuous that I thought it must have been put there for a reason. (or perhaps it’s one of those things that will always be a mystery?).”

Can you help?

This offers a great excuse to post some pictures from our 2009 Mosaic hunting trip to Ravenna which show these monograms!

A youthful, beardless Christ attended by archangels - San Vitale apse

The baptism of Christ - Arian Baptistry, Ravenna

The 26 martyrs adore Christ - Sant Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna

Related article:

Mosaic Hunting Pictures from Aquileia, Venice and Torcello

Related Category:

Mosaic Hunting Italy 2009

About proverbs6to10

Interested in Byzantium and Patrick Leigh Fermor
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3 Responses to Can you help? The relevance of the monogram embroidered on Byzantine over-cloaks

  1. This is interesting because someone in my Art History class asked the same question about a painting of Paul I believe and the professor didn’t have answer. However it wasn’t until he showed us the mosaics in Ravenna, specifically the one in San Vitale in which the saints/martyrs, archangels, and even Christ himself get Greek letters on them.

    My best guess is that perhaps it is something that enters into late Roman decorations on clothing perhaps to mark social status as togas themselves were status symbols. I say this with almost virtually no experience in Art History, I’m just an undergrad, but what we have seen is that is mosaics and paintings like this, Jesus is depicted with the adornments of a Roman Emperor. He has a gold nimbus, a purple and gold robe, enormous eyes directed towards heaven, etc. So perhaps this is something related to hierarchical Roman society.

  2. I was in Ravenna a few weeks ago and had the same question. I happened to come across your site in researching this question. I suspected they were toga clips, and then I came across the word Fibulae, which are toga-clips, and this resource that can perhaps help us decode what the meaning of those letters are:

    Apparently, each letter represented a certain characteristic. Like P is for military, I think.

    Wikipedia describe generally about fibulae, but there are no pictures of the specific kinds we see on the togas in Ravenna. I thought when I saw them they were indicative of their names, but it looks like it might be related to their job, class, or perhaps the region from which they originated. Christ and the angels have Gamma. I’m glad I came across this site!

  3. proverbs6to10 says:

    Thank you Darlene. I wish I had been able to return to Ravenna. I will do so soon!

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