Constantine VI


Portraits of the young Emperor in the Lorsch Bible

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Tekstvak: OVF Emperor Constantine VI can be composed a series of portraits ranging from almost the year of his birth in 771 to his appointment as an absolute ruler in 790. The first years of his life he is depicted together with his mother Irene. The double portrait of Irene and Constantine continues some years after the death of Leo IV in 780, when Irene took over  the regency for her son.

Overlapping this series is the portrait series of Constantine VI as a youth is in the Lorsch. Gospels. The front and back covers of these Gospels are preserved in different places as the Lorsch Diptych at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (No. 138-1866)  and in the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana in Rome.[1] On the cover from London,  the Virgin Mary,  according to the common opinion, is standing between two angels In the upper register is is a medallion supported by two angels representing Christ with a cross-nimbus, blessing with his right hand and in his left hand a book,.

On the back cover from Rome Christ is thought to be epresented with a cross-nimbus, standing on a lion and a dragon and between a serpent and a marter on his right and left side. [2] On  the left and right registers are two standing angels. In the upper register a crux quadrata in a medallion supported by two hovering angels.

The Lorsch Gospels itself consist of a number of parts that are stored in different places. It has therefore been difficult to get an overview of the total. This is provided by Das Lorscher Evangeliar, Faksimile Ausgabe, Munich, 1967. hrsg. und Einleitung W. Braunfels. The Gospels of Matthew and Mark can be found in the Biblioteca Naţională. Bucureşti. Alba Julia Bibl. Documenta Batthyaneum. (with pictures of Matthew (p.26) and Marcus (p.148)). The Gospels of Luke and John in Heidelberg Cod. Pal. Lat. 50. (with pictures of Lucas and John).

In addition, there are a number of copies of the manuscript and and there are Gospels  which are illustrated in the same style which obviously continue the tradition of the Lorsch Gospels

Some of the images of Evangelists in the different versions of the Lorsch Gospels certainly represent Constantine VI, but others can not immediately be recognized as such. From the many different images I have chosen a few that, arranged in a row, certainly show the development from a child to a young man. They show a striking resemblance to Empress Irene, reason to assume that they represent her son Constantine VI. The purpose of representing Constantine VI as an Evangelist or Christ himself, was that it was possible now to worship the image as if they were be ecclesiastical saints, while, according to iconoclast doctrine it was only allowed to honour  the image of a worldly prince. By giving the emperor the appearance of an Evangelists or Christ this provision was circumvented and the images of the emperor could still be worshipped.


The program of the Gospels can be derived from the available images.

It is as follows: On the front cover there is in the upper register a medallion with a three-quarter image of a man with a book in his left hand. He raises his right hand in a blessing gesture. The medallion is held by two angels. In the middle is a mother with child under a ciborium. Both are nimbused. There are two bearded men on either side, also under a ciborium, the left with a scroll and the right with a censer and a can. In the lower register is the stable birth scene with Joseph, Mary, the stable with little Jesus and the ox and the donkey. On the right the birth is proclaimed by the angel to the shepherds.

Of the four evangelists depicted in the gospels, the images of Mark and John are available (even though the image of Mark comes from another ms.). It is remarkable that Marcus is depicted as a 10-year-old boy and Johannes as a youth of about 18 years. It can therefore be expected that the two other evangelists also have different ages. According to Ambrosius, the symbols of the four evangelists represent the four phases in the life of Christ: man (Matthew) before his birth because he was born of Mary; the lion (Marcus) for his life because Christ is the power, the calf (Luke) before his death because he was sacrificed and finally the eagle (John) for his resurrection.

On the back, under a ciborium, there is a nimbused male figure with a book, standing on a dragon and a lion that should symbolize the New and the Old Testament. On either side of him are two angels, the usual companions of an imperial image. They both have a staff and a scroll in their hands. In the upper register is a Greek (square) radiating cross in a medallion held by two hovering angels, symbolizing either the Christian Empire or its administrative authority. In the lower register there are three princes standing before the man of the middle section now seated, depicted on the right half offering gifts to a woman with a child on her lap. Such an "epiphany-scene" also occurs in Ravenna.

The program can, possibly not without intent, be interpreted in two ways,. The first is the common one that on one side Mary is depicted with the little Jesus; and on the other side Christ. In this view the medallion on the front represents Christ Pantocrator. The two men on the front cover may mean the Old and the New Law. Against this view it can be argued that Christ was depicted with a beard at the time of the creation of the diptych, even though the gesture, book and garment correspond to the usual iconography. In this view, the "evangelists" simply represent Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Another view is that the early years of Constantine VI have been depicted here. Leo IV (775-780) can be suggested for the image in the medallion on the front. According to Gibbon, Leo IV married in 770 with the then 17-year-old Irene, an orphan from Athens and a beauty according to the norm at the time. The next year she gave birth to a son, Constantine. This solved the problem of succession. Mother and child are then shown on the front cover.


Empress Irene and her son Constantine VI at about the same age.


Constantine V died in 775 and was succeeded by his son Leo IV who had already been appointed as a co-minister in 751. A year later, the then 5-year-old Constantine VI was appointed the new co-regent. In 780 he succeeded his father under the regency of his mother Irene and in 790 he became the absolute sovereign. The portraits then represent him during his youth and apprenticeship, in which he must have been especially acquainted with the Bible, from the gospel of Marcus at about 12 years of age and from John a few years later. On the backplate he is then depicted as a young man, ready to take on the emperorship. It can therefore be concluded that the gospel was made on the occasion of his accession with which his youth and years of education depicted in the gospel were closed. This would imply that the work must have been completed in 790, a date that does not differ much from the accepted date.




Constantine VI





*771-† 797

co-regent 776-780

emperor780 -797

co-regent 780-790/792-797









1. Constantine VI as St. Mark evangelist.

Miniature from  the Ada Gospels. Trier, Stadtbibliothek, cod. 22, fol. 14v°


In this manuscript is a note, apparently of a later date, saying that it was copied for a lady called Ada, of whom some suppose that she was a sister of Charlemagne. The miniature matches with the Lorsch diptych because here a member of the imperial family is represented as an evangelist with which the objections of the iconoclasts could be circumvented. The iconoclast question was ended in 787 at the Synod of Nicæa. The miniature therefore represents Constantine VI at the age of about twelve and dates from the beginning of the eighties of the 9th cenury.


2. Constantine VI as St. John evangelist

Lorsch Gospels  from the palace school of Charlemagne.

St John Evangelist Bibl. A. Vaticana, Cod. Pal. Lat. 50, Fol. 67 v. [3]]

St. Luke evangelist is depicted on fol. 1v on the second part of the same ms.. [4]]


3. Constantine VI as St. Mark evangelist.

Gospels of Soissons. Bibl. Nationale, Paris Ms. lat. 8850.


4. Constantine VI as Christ.

Gero Gospels. Hessische Landesbibliothek, Cod. 1948, Darmstadt.


5. Constantine VI as Christ.

Lorsch Diptych, Bibl. Apostolica Vaticana.


6. On the Triclinio Leoniniano, Rome (betw. 795 &797)

With crown and moustache. About a  year before being imrprisoned and blinded (ca. 796).



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© Hubert de Vries 2009-12-29. Updated 2018-01-26; 2018-02-05




[1] http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O113554/front-cover-of-the-lorsch-gospel-cover-unknown/

[2] http://www.hubert-herald.nl/ByzaConstantine6.jpg

[3]  Afb. uit: Biblioteca Palatina. Katalog zur Ausstellung vom 8. Juni bis 2. November 1986. Heiliggeistkirche Heidelberg.  N° C 4.3/2. Daar ook uitgebreide literatuuropgave. Over fol 67 v wordt opgemerkt: …fol 67 v zeigt den Evangelisten Johannes. Von allen Evangelistendarstellungen spiegelt die am reinsten die Spätantike Vorlage. Sie muß ähnlich gewesen sein dem Bild des Prinzen Constantius II. auf dem – nur in Nachzeichnungen des 16. und 17. Jahrhunderts einer karolingischen Kopie erhaltenen – sogenannten Filokalus-Kalender vom Jahre 354 (H. Stern, Le Calendrier de 354, Paris 1953, Pl. XIV). Denn wie dort der Prinz, thront hier Johannes, prächtig gewandet, in würdiger Frontalität unter einer Arkade..

[4]  Daarvoor: Das Lorscher Evangeliar, Faksimile Ausgabe, München, 1967. hrsg. und Einleitung  W. Braunfels.