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Modeled on ancient portraits of philosophers, this image of Saint Matthew reflects Byzantium’s role as heir to the artistic traditions of classical antiquity. The furniture and writing implements, however, are those of Byzantine scribes. This Gospel book has been attributed to a scriptorium that also produced books by classical authors. Its style reflects the heightened interest in the art and literature of antiquity that occurred during the reign of the Macedonian dynasty (867 – 1056).

The Four Gospels with Portrait of the Evangelist Matthew, mid-10th century, tempera, gold, and ink on parchment, Athens, National Library of Greece, cod. 56

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This lively image of the Athenian statesman Alcibiades (c. 450–404 BC) comes from a luxurious villa where it once formed part of a floor mosaic depicting the nine muses and four ancient Greek lyric poets. Like Alcibiades, the poets all lived centuries before this mosaic was made, attesting to its owner’s keen interest in ancient Greek literature and history.


Alcibiades was a famed apprentice to the philosopher Socrates. The artist imagined him as a restless spirit, conveyed through his questioning, perhaps skeptical gaze and the long hair that Alcibiades was reported to have kept even in old age. The mosaic of the personification of the sun in the first room of the exhibition comes from the same floor.


Portrait of Alcibiades, late 3rd–early 4th century, marble, stone, and glass tesserae, Sparta, Archaeological Museum

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Longer than 17 feet when unrolled, this scroll contains the secret prayers composed in the fourth century by the church father Basil of Caesarea. They are read in a low voice by the priest or bishop on special occasions such as Christmas and Lent. The frontispiece depicts a five-domed church, with the facade cut away to reveal an altar flanked by Basil and by John Chrysostom, who composed the liturgy used in regular church services. Images of Saints Peter and Paul appear above, set into a wall painted to imitate marble and surmounted by an image of the Virgin Mary in the apse.

The Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil, 12th century, tempera, gold, and ink on parchment, Athens, National Library of Greece, cod. 2759

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Homer’s Iliad, late 15th century, ink on paper, Athens, National Library of Greece, cod. 1055

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