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The complete works of Dionysius the Areopagite

Portrait of Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus and his family

  • Title/name : The complete works of Dionysius the Areopagite
  • Production place : Constantinople
  • Date / period : Between 1403 et 1405
  • Materials and techniques : Manuscript on parchment
  • Dimensions : Height: 27.3cm; length: 20cm; 237ff
  • Conservation town : Paris
  • Conservation place : Musée du Louvre, Department of Decorative Arts
  • Inventory number : MR 416

The manuscript of Dionysius the Areopagite contains the portrait of one of the last Byzantine emperors, Manuel II Palaeologus (r. 1391–1425), and his family. Manuel, the second son of John V Palaeologus and Helena Kantakouzene, was co-emperor in 1373 after the failure of the revolt against his father led by his brother Andronicus IV. After another attempt in 1376, Andronicus IV managed to capture the city of Constantinople. However, three years later, in 1379, Manuel II and his father John V recaptured Constantinople from Andronicus.

This success was possible by an alliance with the Turks, who then obliged the Byzantines to pay them a tribute and provide them with military aid. Manuel was then forced to live at the court of Bayezid I as a submissive vassal until his father’s death in 1391, the year he returned to Constantinople. Soon after, Bayezid I attacked the Byzantine Empire, and Manuel II Palaeologus asked for military help from the Latins, but under the leadership of the king of Hungary, Sigismund, they were defeated by the Turks at Nicopolis in 1396.

After the defeat, Manuel II left Constantinople in 1399 on a long journey in western Europe, where he was received in Paris and London. During his journey he appealed for military aid to save the Byzantine Empire, but none was forthcoming.

When he returned in 1403, Manuel II Palaeologus sent this splendid manuscript containing the entire works traditionally attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite to the Abbey of St. Denis, which he had visited during his earlier stay in Paris. According to a Greek inscription in folio 237v, the manuscript was given to the Abbey in 1408 by the Emperor’s ambassador, Manuel Chrysoloras: ‘This book was sent by His Highness the King and Emperor of the Romans Lord Manuel Palaeologus, to the Monastery of St. Dionysius in Paris in France or Galatia from Constantinople with me, Manuel Chrysoloras dispatched as ambassador by the said king. In the year of the Creation of the Universe 6916, of the Incarnation of the Lord 1408. The said king came formerly to Paris four years before.’

The first two folios of this manuscript are decorated with full-page miniatures. The first, on folio 1r, represents Dionysius in Bishop’s robes holding a book. An inscription in gold letters designates him as O AGIOS DIONUSIOS O AEROPAGITHS. In the second folio the imperial family of Manuel II Palaeologus, the Emperor, his wife, Helena Dragaš, and their three sons, John, Theodore, and Andronicus are portrayed. An inscription in gold letters above each person identifies them. In the upper section of the miniature appears the protective image of the Virgin Blacherniotissa, who places her hands on the halos of Manuel and Helena. Manuel II and his son John, the future John VIII, who is associated with the throne, are dressed in imperial sakkos, on which are placed the gemmed golden loros. The Empress Helena Dragaš and the two princes wear a red coat embroidered with gold thread, on which can easily be distinguished the double-headed Palaeologus eagle.

The absence of Constantine, the fourth son of Manuel II, in the family portrait would seem to indicate that the manuscript was executed between 1403, the year Manuel II returned from his voyage to the West and February 1405, the month when his fourth son was born.


Durand, J., (éd.), Byzance. L’art byzantin dans les collections publiques françaises, Paris 1992, p. 463-464.

Spatharakis, I., Corpus of dated illuminated greek Manuscripts to the Year 1453, I-II, Leyden 1981, p. 2 et n°278, fig. 492-494.

Spatharakis, I., The Portrait in byzantine illuminated greek Manuscripts, Leyden 1976, p. 139-144, pl. 93-94.

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