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Photo Credit: © Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C.

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The Forty Martyrs of Sebasteia

Late Byzantine
ca. 1300
22 cm x 16 cm (8 11/16 in. x 6 5/16 in.)
mosaic on wax on wood

On view


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Additional Image Detail, Hand of God
Detail, Hand of God
Additional Image Detail, heads of Martyrs
Detail, heads of Martyrs
Additional Image Detail, heads of Martyrs
Detail, heads of Martyrs
Additional Image Detail, legs of Martyrs
Detail, legs of Martyrs
Additional Image Detail, lower left: Martyrs
Detail, lower left: Martyrs
Additional Image Detail, lower right: Martyrs
Detail, lower right: Martyrs
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Detail, martyrs
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Forty Roman soldiers, having converted to Christianity, refused to worship Emperor Licinius (308–24) or any pagan gods. As punishment, they were placed on a frozen lake at Sebasteia in Asia Minor and given the option to face certain death or recant and have the refuge of a warm bath building, which they could see from the lake. This building may have been represented in the mosaic, as it is in many other representations, but damage in the upper right corner makes its presence uncertain. One soldier did give up and crawled into the warm building, but he was immediately replaced by a Roman bath attendant who converted on the spot, impressed by the Christian faith of the condemned soldiers. Signifying the soldiers’ spiritual rewards, forty golden crowns descend from Heaven, symbolized by the hand of God. The Martyrdom of the Forty Christian Soldiers remained an exemplary expression of steadfast faith throughout the Byzantine period and beyond.

The figures, showing deep, psychological interaction balanced by a restrained emotionalism, are hallmarks of the narrative Palaiologan style that developed after 1261, when the Byzantine Empire was reestablished after having been dominated by Latins from 1204 to 1261. The creativity and religious dynamism that flourished during the period following the recovery of Constantinople was expressed on a large scale in church frescoes and mosaic decoration and in a series of miniature icons such as this one made with minute tesserae handled with a painter’s skill. Though these diminutive icons reflect artistic trends on a larger scale, their size and use of wax on a wood support indicate their use for private veneration. In contrast to the monumental frescoes and mosaics in Constantinople, Thessaloniki, and Serbia, this expressive mosaic focuses on the personal experience of martyrdom: the challenge to every Christian to bear witness to holiness through empathy and to transcend terrestrial trials through faith.

- S. Zwirn

O. Demus, "An Unknown Mosaic Icon of the Palaeologan Epoch," Byzantina-Metabyzantina 1.1 (1946): 107-18, pl. following p. 112.

The Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Harvard University (Washington, D.C., 1955), 147, 151, no. 290.

O. Demus, "Two Palaeologan Mosaic Icons in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection," Dumbarton Oaks Papers 14 (1960): 87-119.

M. C. Ross, Metalwork, Ceramics, Glass, Glyptics, Painting, Catalogue of the Byzantine and Early Mediaeval Antiquities in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection 1 (Washington, D.C., 1962), 103, no. 124, pl. 60.

Handbook of the Byzantine Collection (Washington, D.C., 1967), 104, no. 352.

I. Hutter, Early Christian and Byzantine Art, The Herbert History of Art and Architecture (London, 1971), 154, 156, fig. 164.

I. Furlan, Le icone bizantine a mosaico (Milano, 1979), 67-68, pl. 19.

A.-A. Krickelberg-Pütz, "Die Mosaikikone des Hl. Nikolaus in Aachen-Burtscheid," Aachener Kunstblätter 50 (1982): 9-141, esp. Chap. 6, "Byzantinische Mosaikikonen", Part 7. Die paläologenzeitliche Hauptgruppe," 91, fig. 57.

L. Rodley, Byzantine Art and Architecture: An Introduction (Cambridge [England] ;New York, N.Y., 1994), 319-21, fig. 268.

J. Durand, L'art byzantin (Paris, 1999), 193, 197.

H. C. Evans, Byzantium : Faith and Power (1261-1557), exhibition catalogue, Metropolitan Museum of Art, March 23-July 4, 2004, (New York and New Haven [Conn.], 2004), 224-225, no. 133.

A. Kirin, J. N. Carder, and R. S. Nelson, Sacred Art, Secular Context : Objects of Art from the Byzantine Collection of Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C., Accompanied by American Paintings from the Collection of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, ed. A. Kirin, exhibition catalogue, Georgia Museum of Art, (Athens, Ga., 2005), 47.

G. Bühl, ed., Dumbarton Oaks: The Collections (Washington, D.C., 2008), 178, pl. p. 179.

T. Velmans, L'art de l'icône, Les Phares (Paris, 2013), 288.

Exhibition History
Washington, D.C., Dumbarton Oaks, "Masterpieces of Byzantine Icon Painting," April 27 - June 26, 1983.

New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, "Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557)," March 23 - July 4, 2004.

Acquisition History
Segredakis Collection, Paris.

Danos Collection, Paris.

Purchased from Danos by Hayford Peirce (1883–1946), 1931;

Collection of Hayford Peirce, Paris, 1931-1946;

By descent to Mrs. Hayford (Pauline "Polly" Frances Brown) Peirce (1911-1994), Los Angeles, CA;

Gift of Mrs. Hayford Peirce to Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., in memory of Hayford Peirce, October, 1947;

Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Byzantine Collection, Washington, DC.