Echos of an Empire


As our knowledge of Byzantine musical instruments is mostly derived from visual sources, we often need to observe and study the iconography of these images.

The majority of the surviving examples of depictions of musicians, musical instruments, and musical ensembles, come from illuminated manuscripts. One of the greatest examples of a miniature showing the variety of Byzantine musical instruments comes from the famous Madrid Skylitzes manuscript, dating from the first half of the 12th century. The scene depicting ‘The Triumphant entrance of Nikephoros Phokas to Constantinople’, shows five musicians who are playing, from left to right, a trumpet, a membranophone and a triangular psaltery.

One of the earliest representations of Byzantine musical instruments is found on a mosaic that decorated the floor of a residence from the 3rd - 4th century. This mosaic shows a typical depiction of Orpheus, the mythical musician and poet, surrounded by wild and domestic animals that are mesmerized by the sound of his lyre. Orpheus remained a powerful symbol of music throughout the ages.

There are also numerous vessels bearing musical representations. One of the best-preserved examples is a silver dish from the early Byzantine period (4th-7th century) depicting ‘The Marriage of David’. The relief decoration shows two musicians playing auloi (ancient wind instruments) at the festive occasion.