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    Plate with Eros riding a sea monster, Egypt, 6th–7th century, silver with gilding, Athens, Benaki Museum

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    Lamp and lampstand, 6th–7th century, brass, Athens, Benaki Museum


    This popular type of lamp derives from Roman prototypes. The reflector in the shape of an eagle increased the lamp’s illumination.

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    Perfume flask, Southeast Mediterranean, probably Syria; possibly decorated in Byzantium, 13th – 14th century, glass, Thessaloniki, Museum of Byzantine Culture

    Glass vessels were imported from Syria and Egypt, former provinces of the Byzantine Empire that had been conquered by Arabs in the seventh century. Flasks were probably used to contain perfumes or medicines and to sprinkle holy water in churches. Although part of daily life, the extant examples come from tombs where they presumably were gifts to the deceased. This flask is unusual for its decoration consisting of an off-white (possibly originally gold) and black geometric design applied to a thick coat of red color.

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    Perfume flask, late 14th–early 15th century, glass, Patras Archaeological Museum

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    Necklace or ornament for a dress, 4th century, gold and precious stones; opus interrasile, Provenance: Cyprus, Polis Chrysochous (ancient Marion), Athens, Museum of Cycladic Art

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    Earring or ornament for a diadem, Crete, first half of 10th century, gold, garnets, pearls, sapphires, emeralds, and glass, Athens, National Archaeological Museum, Stathatos Collection

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    Crescent-shaped Earring, 10th century, gold, pearls, and cloisonné enamel, Provenance: Heraklion, Crete, Heraklion, Historical Museum of Crete

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    Romance of Alexander the Great, Trebizond (?), 14th century, tempera, gold, and ink on paper, Manuscript Collection of the Hellenic Institute of, Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Studies in Venice, cod. 5

    A fanciful interpretation of the life and adventures of Alexander the Great, the Romance was hugely popular in the Middle Ages. The original Greek version, written possibly as early as the third century BC, was translated into several languages, including Latin, French, German, and English. This lavishly illustrated copy was probably made for Alexios III Komnenos, emperor of a Byzantine state on the Black Sea from 1349 to 1390. After its capital, Trebizond, fell to the Ottomans in 1461, the manuscript came into Turkish hands and Arabic captions were added to the miniatures.

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    Plaque with the ascension of Alexander the Great, 12th century, marble, Chalkis, Karababa Fortress Sculpture Display

    Alexander the Great (356 – 323 BC) truly became a legend in his own time. Having conquered much of the known world, he was said to have explored realms beneath the sea and in the sky. According to the Romance of Alexander, he ascended to the heavens in a basket attached to two starving griffins, mythical winged beasts. To make them leap ever higher into the sky, Alexander held two sticks with meat at the ends just above their heads. This plaque was found in the Byzantine fortifications of Chalkis on the island of Euboea, but its original use is unknown.

The Pleasures of Life


Photo by Rob Shelley 

Daily life in Byzantium was enhanced by secular works of art for the home. Nymphs, goddesses, and other pagan subjects became decorative motifs, appearing on domestic objects such as dinnerware. The wealthy dined from silver plates in rooms lit with oil lamps made of bronze. Most people used ceramic tableware, often enlivened with imagery related to favorite pastimes such as hunting, music making, and dancing. Unlike the ancients, elite Byzantines used forks, which struck Western Europeans as strange. A Byzantine princess married to the son of a Venetian doge in 1004 probably prompted the Italian monk Peter Damian to write, "Such was the luxury of her habits . . . that she did not deign to touch her food with her fingers, but would have it cut up into small pieces which she would impale on a certain golden instrument with two prongs and thus carry to her mouth."

The elite adorned themselves with jewelry and silk garments studded with gems and pearls, largely ignoring church moralists’ condemnation of excessive luxury. Perfume bottles attest to the popularity of fragrances. The 11th-century empress Zoe and her sister converted part of the imperial palace into a workshop where herbs were boiled to make perfume. The pleasures of life also included popular literature such as the Romance of Alexander, a highly fictionalized account of the military campaigns and adventures of Alexander the Great. The manuscript shown in the slideshow above is the most lavishly illustrated copy known.


Banner photo by Rob Shelley