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Representation of Irene and John II Comnenus on a mosaic in Hagia Sophia, Constantinople

  • Title/name : Representation of Irene and John II Comnenus on a mosaic in Hagia Sophia, Constantinople
  • Date / period : 1122-1134
  • Materials and techniques : Mosaic with glass-paste tesserae; opus tessellatum
  • Conservation town : Istanbul, Turkey
  • Conservation place : Hagia Sophia

The marriages between East and West are often the reflection of alliances between two powers. In the Byzantine Empire, emperors often married Western princesses and Byzantine noblewoman often married Western monarchs.

Here we have the example of John II Comnenus (1118–43) and his wife Irene, a Hungarian princess whose first name was Piroska, represented on a mosaic in Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. This mosaic, executed between 1122 and 1134, is located in the church’s south gallery. There is a Virgin and Child between the imperial couple. To the left, John II Comnenus is dressed in a richly decorated purple tunic. He wears a loros – a long, wide scarf – and a crown in the shape of a hemispherical bowl topped by a cross, known as a kamelaukion. He holds a purse, which he presents to the Mother of God, the Theotokos. To the right, Irene wears a luxuriously decorated red garment with wide sleeves and a loros. She is decked out with magnificent jewels, including a crown adorned with precious stones. Her red hair and plaits evoke her Hungarian roots. She holds a roll, a chrysobull, an official decree sealed with a golden seal, which she presents to the Virgin. The contrast between the representation of this imperial couple and that of the much more sober couple formed by Constantine IX (1042–55) and Zoe is worthy of note. These panels, located beside each other, show an identical iconography for the emperor and the empress, both lavishing generous gifts and privileges on the Church. But the marked contrast in style between these two representations is the sign of the different tastes of the Macedonian dynasty and the Comneni dynasty. The mosaic depicting John II and Irene is characterised by its luxuriant, nearly calligraphic, ornamentation, in which polychrome gems and enamels abound – greatly appreciated at the Comneni court. Not to mention the Islamic influence: this decoration seems to have been inspired by the traditions of the East rather then the West.

Piroska was the daughter of Ladislas I, king of Hungary (1077–95) and Croatia (1091–95). After the death of her parents, the orphan was put in the care of her father’s successor and nephew, Coloman of Hungary (1095–1116). With a view to improving his relations with the Byzantine Empire, he negotiated the marriage between Piroska and John II Comnenus, the eldest son of Emperor Alexis I Comnenus (1081–1118). John II and Piroska were married in 1104. After converting to the Eastern Orthodox Church, Piroska took the name Irene. They had eight children, including Manuel I Comnenus (1143–80), who like his father married a Western princess, Bertha of Sulzbach, in 1146.

Under the Comneni dynasty, all the marriages arranged between Byzantines and foreigners represented political and diplomatic alliances. Such marriages between East and West took place before the twelfth century: in 972 Holy Roman Emperor Otto II married Theophano Skleraina, niece of John I Tzimisces (969–76), the Byzantine emperor; in 944 Romanus II (959–63) married Eudoxia, the illegitimate daughter of Hugh of Arles, who was king of Italy between 926 and 945.


Magdalino, P., The Empire of Manuel I Komnenos, 1143–1180, Cambridge, 1993, Cambridge University Press.

Whittemore, T., The Mosaics of St. Sophia at Istanbul: The Mosaics of the Southern Vestibule, Paris, 1936, Oxford University Press for the Byzantine Institute.

Whittemore, T., The Mosaics of St. Sophia at Istanbul: The Imperial Portraits of the Southern Vestibule, Paris, 1942, Oxford University Press for the Byzantine Institute.

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