Locating the ancient of days: appropriation and syncretism in the development of a Byzantine christological motif
Jacobson, Kearstin Alexandra
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Constantinople, capital city of the Byzantine Empire established by Constantine in the fourth century, carried the economic, military, and multicultural advantages of a city that had already existed as a desirable settlement location for nearly a millennium under numerous polities and names. Strategically located on the Bosporus Strait linking the Sea of Marmara and Black Sea, thus the major Euro-Asiatic trade routes, Constantinople benefitted from its position of power as a metaphorical hinge between East and West to gather various stable iconographies and mythologies whose meanings were mutable and could be reconceptualized to fit the Empire's Christian contexts. As didactic devices for translating complicated Christian dogma to the masses became increasingly accepted and necessary in the Byzantine Empire by the second half of the sixth century, Constantinople's transcultural environment facilitated a continuous supply of simplified motifs, like the Ancient of Days used to illustrate Christological preexistence, originating from Greco-Roman, European, Near Eastern, Semite, and Asiatic cultural sources. Depicting neither God the Father nor Christ the Son, the Ancient of Days motif -- an aged man with long hair and beard -- stood for the eternal, immaterial essence of the Christian god. As the Christian god had not been witnessed in a human existence on earth, the Ancient of Days motif can be understood as the syncretic outcome of various divine, eternal, prophetic, and philosophical types familiar throughout the Mediterranean and Near Eastern world. While no single definitive visual model exists for the Ancient of Days, numerous pagan, philosophical, and monotheistic textual sources mentioning either an aged male figure with white hair and beard who imparts wisdom, an entity called the Ancient of Days, or conceptual notions of eternity, exist as further testament to a syncretic contextual basis for the Byzantine motif. Understandably few examples of the pre-Iconoclasm Ancient of Days motif are known. However, the range of format, media, and geography displayed by the Italian diptych, Constantinopolitan mosaics and icon, and Cappadocian frescoes considered here are suggestive of a much larger tradition where the simplicity of the Ancient of Days motif allowed for adaptability into socio-cultural variants across the Byzantine provinces.