Echos of an Empire


The majority of contexts where musical instruments are shown falls in the category of religion (Christianity, 56%), which is followed by mythological depictions (16%), daily life scenes (13%), and war scenes (5%). There are also various individual musicians (10%), found mostly on plates, bowls and manuscripts, serving as decorative figures, without referring to any specific context.

The most frequently observed iconographic themes in religious scenes are the depictions of King / Prophet David composing the psalms and the Nativity of Christ. In the illustrations of David composing the psalms, he is frequently shown as a seated figure, holding a lyre, kithara, psaltery or a bowed instrument.

In the Nativity scenes, Mary and the Child are shown inside a cave, the Cave of Bethlehem, with a small mountain rising over it. Outside the cave is a rural landscape with several figures. In these scenes, the instruments usually refer to a mundane practice, that is a shepherd playing his aulos, horn or transverse flute, included to emphasize the rural setting. On a 15th century wooden icon, a young shepherd is shown at the right of the cradle as playing an aulos.

In the mythological scenes, Orpheus, Zeus, centaurs and the followers of the god Dionysus constitute the main figures. These were popular themes, especially in the decoration of Roman villas, and they are frequently seen in mosaics and luxury objects between the 2nd and 7th centuries. Created during the transition period of Late Roman-Early Byzantine Empire, from ancient paganism to Christianity, these scenes inform us about the instruments used in different occasions.

A characteristic example of mythological scenes can be observed on a diptych (two panels attached to each other with hinges), from the 6th century. One wing of the artefact bears depictions of Apollo (Greek god of oracles, music, poetry, healing and archery) with his usual retinue of the muses, the goddesses of inspiration. Muses shown on the panel are Euterpe, the muse of lyric poetry and music who is shown with a flute; Erato, the muse of love poetry shown with a kithara and Terpsichore muse of the dance and chorus, whose lyre is not visible here. Dionysus the god of wine, vegetation, and pleasure is only fragmentarily visible on the third row and is only identified through his thyrsus. The image is completed by the presence of a satyr playing a double aulos, a dancing maenad, a figure wearing a mask and Silenus, designating usual attendants of Dionysiac rituals.

An interesting everyday object with a mundane scene is the ball game below, depicting events of a chariot race on three sides. Dating from the early 6th century, this object shows musicians at the beginning and at the end of the race. On one side of the artefact there are two musicians, positioned at the end of the race, holding an aulos and a double aulos.

In the case of individual figures that are seen on various types of artifacts, the musical instruments and the musicians serve as decoration patterns. On an ivory pyxis, dated to the 15th century, there are various musicians visible, who are playing, from left to right, nakers, a trapezoidal psaltery, two trumpets, a short-necked lute and a syrinx. The pyxis is ornamented Imperial Families and Ceremonial Scenes as well.

In the war scenes the most frequently observed instruments are the trumpet and the horn, which were used as Byzantine military instruments. Trumpets declared the attack or the beginning of daily chores, such as the watering of the horses before the battle. In contrast to the trumpets, the horns announced the retreat of the army or the return to the barracks.

Musical instruments played an important part in the public ceremonies of the Byzantine Empire. Thus, regardless of the themes of certain scenes, the illustrations of instruments can be evaluated as informative on the types of instruments that were in use. To our knowledge, based on written and visual sources, the instruments can be studied under four categories: Aerophones, Chordophones, Idiophones and Membranophones.