Home and church were the two major axes in the lives of the Byzantines. The formation of Byzantine religious identity, however, was the result of a centuries-long process that also involved interactions and integration with a rich network of influences from various cultures across a vast geographical area spanning the East and West. From the foundation of Constantinople in 330 to the outbreak of Iconoclasm in 726, roughly late antiquity, daily life was the source of the primary features of Roman life. The central courtyards of mansions, banquets with hosts reclining around a sigma-shaped table, consumption of wine mixed with heated water, attendance at baths, and body care and lavish jewelry as expressions of social status all reflect the Roman way of life. The second floor of shops and workshops that lined the major, colonnaded streets were often modest living quarters, but very little housing in the Byzantine capital has been revealed by archaeology. Material culture, however, offers valuable insight into the major aspects of the domestic lives of the Byzantines.

The Christianization of society was fostered by the model of the pious emperor, builder of churches and religious foundations. Justinian II (r. 685–695 and 705–711) was the first to introduce the bust portrait of Christ to coin imagery, and later Leo VI (r. 886–912) added the Virgin Mary to his gold coins. Leo’s initiative may perhaps be explained as a thanksgiving to the miraculous intervention of the Virgin for the birth of his first son, Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos, borne by Zoe Karbonopsina who suffered from fertility problems. Coin iconography fostered the diffusion of major religious types, especially miracle-working icons, on multiple media starting with the lead seals issued by imperial and church officials that served to authenticate official documents.

The religious discussions raised by the crisis of Iconoclasm in the eighth century served as a foundation for reshaping the religious life of the Byzantines with an outburst of monasticism and private religious foundations in conjunction with intensification of the cult of icons and relics. Religious images were believed to serve as vehicles for the transmission of the grace of God to the faithful. The incarnation of Christ in the womb of the Virgin Mary opened the way for the transmission of the Holy Spirit to humans. The Holy Spirit was believed to have first been bestowed on the saints and then transferred to their images, which functioned as vehicles for the transmission of the miracle-working power of God to worshippers. However, faith was a necessary prerequisite for activating the grace of God.

The changes in private devotional practices favored the development of a crafts industry allowing the diffusion of new iconographic types. Souvenirs from the Holy Land, such as those yielded by the excavations of the Theodosian port at Yenikapı, for a time drove pilgrimage until gradually being replaced by the mass-production of phylacteries of a universal character highlighting the two dogmas of orthodoxy—incarnation and salvation. The devotional patterns from the end of Iconoclasm to the tenth and eleventh centuries were dominated by the cult of relics, while icons became the focus of religious rites from the Comnenian Era to the late Byzantine period. Religiosity moved to the images of saints, who gradually were relieved of their traditional hieratic posture and given more human expressions, symbolized by the motherly embrace between the Virgin and Christ and the grief and sorrow provoked by Christ’s Passion. The abstract gold backgrounds against which the religious figures traditionally stood were replaced by naturalistic landscapes and domestic interiors. Iconography was strongly influenced by the emotion expressed by religious hymns and poetry.

At Church

In the early Byzantine period, emperors enhanced the shaping of the Christian identity of Constantinople through the construction of monumental church buildings to accommodate the transfer of major relics of Christianity. After becoming the New Rome from the perspective of its secular institutions and the topographical link between the palace and the Hippodrome, Constantinople gradually acquired the identity of New Jerusalem. With the inauguration of Hagia Sophia, through which the emperor Justinian proclaimed to have vanquished Solomon and his Temple, the Byzantine church building acquired strong symbolic meaning, which in conjunction with the imperial ceremonial, gave birth to the liturgical Byzantine rite.

The various elements of the church building combined to create an atmosphere perceived as heaven on earth. These included the building itself, covered by a majestic dome that gives the impression of being suspended in the air, the golden tesserae and colorful marbles sheathing the walls, the gold and silver revetments and inlays of precious stones, and the natural light penetrating the windows that pierce the drum of the cupola and contrasting with the artificial lighting provided by the rich network of glass oil lamps in openwork silver disks (polykandela).

The extensive use of glass for lamps is an innovation of the fourth century. The maintenance of these lamps, their cleaning and regular supply with oil, required a substantial financial endowment. The careful staging of artificial illumination integrating with natural light enhanced the symbolism of the church interior and encouraged a mystical fusion between the immediate time of the worshipper and the eternal. The blurring of temporalities was further enhanced by the words and actions of the liturgy.

Byzantine liturgy was divided into two parts, highlighted by two solemn entries of the clergy. The first part, the Liturgy of the Word, opened with the Little Entrance, during which the clergy carried the Gospel Book from the altar to the nave by crossing the templon—a screen or wall separating the sanctuary from the nave and the clergy from the laity, with the exception of the Byzantine emperor in the ceremonial in Hagia Sophia—and then returned to the altar. The second part of the liturgy, the Eucharist, opened with the Great Entrance, or Entrance of the Mysteries, during which the clergy carried the bread and wine from the annex or the side chapel, where they are prepared, to the altar. The Eucharistic bread was placed on a paten, and the wine poured into a chalice. The altar and the liturgical vessels were covered with richly embroidered veils. To protect the Eucharistic bread from contact with the special veil covering the paten (aer), the veil was placed on top of a star-shaped metal object (asteriskos) made of two hemispherical rods.

1- The depiction of Jesus’s healing a blind and a dumb (Kariye)

The rich treasures of ecclesiastical silver illustrate the early Byzantine practice of decorating Eucharistic vessels with donors’ prayers for salvation, while from the middle Byzantine period one finds Gospel quotations pronounced by priests at the moment of the transformation of the bread and wine. The procession of the Great Entrance also includes deacons waving incense burners and others carrying rhipidia, liturgical fans also called hexapteryga, or six-winged creatures. The ascending smoke of the incense symbolizes the worshippers’ prayers rising to God, while the hexapteryga evoke the seraphs guarding the throne of God in the prophecy of Isaiah (Isaiah 6:3).

The liturgical celebration reenacts the main stages of the history of salvation. The paroxysm of the Eucharistic liturgy is reached at the moment when the Eucharistic mystery is held: the priest invokes the Descent of the Holy Spirit for activating the transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. At the end of the liturgy, there is also a distribution of antidoron, “the gift in place of the gift, or blessed bread, which is not consecrated as with the Eucharist. These small breads were stamped with a cross motif or with the letters forming the IC XC NIKA, “Jesus Christ conquers!” acclamation.

2- The baby Jesus and Mary (on the right) and the depiction of Jesus (Kariye)

Through prayers and hymns and the help of religious imagery, the liturgy allows the worshipper to bring the eternal time of the Godhead into the present and to communicate with God as if he were actually present. The development of church architecture in the period following Iconoclasm was based on the building serving as a shrine for the liturgical celebration. The cross-in-square type of churches of smaller scale provided fitting accommodation for the ritual entrances. The congregation gathered in the lateral corridors was able to watch the two processions taking place in the central bay. The sanctuary, where most of the ritual took place was visible from almost everywhere in the nave. In the middle and especially the late Byzantine era, churches of ambulatory type with funerary purpose were joined to existing structures.

The templon screen is the focal point of the prayers and the attention of the worshippers. In the early Byzantine period, it was a low wall usually made of marble slabs. The columns inserted between the slabs were topped by a long entablature, or epistyle. At the moment when the Eucharistic mystery was held, the templon would be closed with curtains. At Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, silver revetments enhanced the marble templon. The series of sixth-century sculpted panels at the church of St. Polyeuktos (Saraçhane), showing the busts of Christ, the Virgin and Child, and the apostles, were probably originally on the epistyle of the templon1. Each panel bears a dowel-hole at the bottom that was probably used for the suspension of a lamp for veneration. With the evolution of the cult of icons following the iconoclastic crisis, the templon became an actual wall of icons, entirely covered with them. A standard cycle from the Life of Christ (dodekaorton, or Twelve Feasts)—from the Annunciation to the Dormition of the Virgin, arranged in a chronological sequence—was a common depiction on the frieze of icons on the epistyle on either side of a central Deisis, formed by Christ in the center flanked by the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist. Meanwhile, large icons, often painted on both sides, were hung between the columns of the templon.

The church ritual included the lighting of lamps in front of the principal icons to enhance their sacredness. As expressions of honor and veneration, the lighting of lamps involved the addition of sweet-smelling perfume, believed to please God, to the oil poured into the glass goblets. Nard was the most precious perfume used. The scents wafting from the oil lamps were enhanced by the burning of incense that was also part of the ritual of veneration of saints and their icons. Oil burning in front of the most sacred icons of a church was believed to have therapeutic and exorcistic properties. Oil was also poured into little flasks to be distributed to the worshippers for anointment.

The church calendar was punctuated by movable and immovable feasts involving relevant ceremonials. On the feast days of saints, the icon of the saint being celebrated was placed on a special stand and ornamented with flowers. Among the major rituals associated with feasts, one may note the Great Blessing of the Waters at the Feast of Theophany, on January 6 (corresponding to the Western Epiphany), which commemorates the Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist and the manifestation of the Holy Spirit. During the ritual, the priest approaches a phiale, or a large basin, preceded by deacons carrying candles and incense. With a cross equipped with a handle, he blesses the waters as a symbolic reenactment of the baptism of Christ in the Jordan, after which the congregation is blessed by the sprinkling of water. In addition to the Eucharistic liturgy and the celebrations surrounding the various feasts of the church calendar, church ritual included a range of sacraments, such as baptism, and ceremonials, for example, marriage and funerals, that punctuated the lives of believers. In the early Byzantine period, when adult baptism by immersion was customary, baptisteries were separate buildings equipped with a monumental font. With the expansion of Christianity, baptism came to be associated with babies, and the baptism ceremony was moved to inside the church. It was usually performed in a movable, small baptismal font positioned in the narthex, the transversal vestibule of the church. In the sacrament of baptism, the priest makes the sign of the cross on the forehead of the baptized with consecrated ointment (myron).

Funerals were also conducted in the narthex, which also often served as a place of burial. As the body was about to be interred, the priest anointed it with oil, which he poured on the body in the sign of the cross. As symbols of eternity of God, lights were an essential element of the funerary ceremonial and were supposed to guide the deceased in their journey to their last abode. The multiplication of private religious foundations in the middle and late Byzantine periods favored the construction of funerary chapels, such as the one at the Kariye Camii dominated by the monumental, painted Anastasis, or Harrowing of Hell, in the conch of its apse.

Marriage was considered a major sacrament marking the formation of the family unit. At least from the tenth century, the Byzantine marriage rite involved a nuptial blessing and crowning that took place inside the church. Crowning had also been a traditional element of Roman weddings, but through the writings of the church fathers, it acquired a Christian symbolism of victory against concupiscence. In another continuation of Roman custom, among rich households wedding jewelry included a gold marriage belt and rings. The large medallion-shaped clasps of marriage belts and ring bezels commonly bore the representation of the dextrarum junctio, the joining of hands, or the crowning of the bride and groom by Christ.

During the marriage ceremony, as the priest held the marriage crowns above the heads of the bride and groom, he intoned a verse from Psalm 21:3 (Septuagint 20:3): “Thou hast set upon his head a crown of precious stone.” One sometimes finds on the bezel of marriage rings the Roman pattern of facing busts of the couple with a cross motif in the middle. The cross, the generic symbol of Christian faith, is the major instrument signifying the religiosity of the Byzantines. Before the widespread use of the cross as an object, the church fathers exalted the power of the sign of the cross as a protective device, a universal weapon against all kinds of evil.

At Home

Daily life in the Byzantine home was strongly influenced by the threat of demons. This was of such concern that it led the Byzantines to take a series of measures intended to avert evil and attract the benevolence of God. As disease and all types of physical injury were attributed to demonic assault, prayers and rituals often involved the conjuring of demons. Demons were expelled in the name of Christ, with additional help from angels and archangels. Protective words, signs, and images, and wishes of health intended to attract heavenly blessings were placed on objects of domestic life involving the consumption of food and drink and hygiene, such as bathing buckets or ewer and basin sets, ear cleaners, and toothpicks.

Next to the cross, the most common formulae include the acclamations “There is one God” or “Jesus-Christ conquers” or acrostics such as the XMΓ, usually read as Χ(ριστὸν) Μ(αρία) γ(εννᾷ) (Mary bore Christ) or Χ(ριστὸς) Μ(ιχαὴλ) Γ(αβριὴλ) (Christ, Michael, Gabriel). On tableware, one finds the introduction of Christian features, along with the traditional Roman repertoire of animal and vegetal motifs extracted from larger hunting compositions. For instance, decorative inscriptions attested on sets of twelve sixth- or seventh-century silver spoons, the tableware of the early Byzantine era, include the names of the twelve apostles while other contemporaneous examples reflecting a classical taste bear Latin verses from Virgil or the Sayings of the Seven Sages. The management of the household was assigned to wives who carried a seal ring for putting valuables and foodstuffs under protection. In some instances, the family seal would also allow her to carry out official duties on behalf of her husband in his absence. These seal rings usually bear representations of the Virgin, or a Christological scene involving the motherly role of the Virgin, such as the Annunciation.

3- A sarcophagus in the Church of Apostles which believed to belong to emperors’ cemetery (Istanbul Archeology Museum)

The burning of incense was a customary practice in domestic settings. The smoke and its fragrance served to cleanse and purify the air, create a pleasant atmosphere, and force demons to flee. Foul odors were commonly associated with death, disease, and demons, while the fragrance of incense could hinder the spread of illnesses and cure them. Also, as noted, incense was believed to carry prayers to God. The origin of the use of incense in Byzantine churches appears to derive from its domestic use going back to Roman antiquity.

Burning perfumed oil in lighting devices is yet another element common to church ritual and the domestic context. The major types of lamps used in churches are also found in domestic contexts, but are not surprisingly of smaller scale. Thus individual glass lamps and polykandela were not restricted to church use. The most common type of lamp found in houses is the oil lamp of closed-shape with a spout for the wick (nozzle) standing on a tripod stand. Such lamps, typically made of clay or bronze, were often equipped with a cross-shaped handle. Their production appears to have been disrupted after the seventh century with the development of the use of candles. The Greek inscriptions ΦΩΣ ΖΩΗ (Light Life) or ΦΩΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΥ ΦΑΙΝΕΙ ΠΑΣΙ (The light of Christ illuminates all), in abbreviated form and reflecting the symbolism of light as the splendor of God, were often used as decoration on the body of the lamps. These protective formulae are also attested on jewelry. The cross is the most common support for such inscriptions.

Hanging textiles were often used for the partitioning of space and for hindering the circulation of smoke and air. Such textiles, bedcovers, and clothing were commonly decorated with religious and apotropaic motifs to attract bounty and good luck. The textiles of the early Byzantine period that have been preserved in Egypt reveal the popularity of the image of the holy rider spearing a serpent or a dragon, as well as the omnipresent cross. This is the most popular motif found on amulets and offers the prototype of the iconography of warrior saints, such as St. Theodore and St. George.

Religiosity, morality, and performance of religious rituals involved the acquisition of a religious education that was commonly given at home by mothers and grandmothers. In the writings of the church fathers, one often finds a reference to the strong influence of mother or grandmother in shaping one’s piety and moral virtue. The Psalter and the Bible were the principal sources used in teaching the letters to youths. This is why the letters of the alphabet are often called the “holy letters.” At an early age, children were also told stories about the saints. The Gospel book and the Psalter were therefore valuable assets in a household.

4- Depiction of an Angel (Hagia Sophia)

The veneration of icons and painted images of saints on walls in domestic settings are attested during the early Byzantine era, but the cult of icons in the daily lives of the Byzantines essentially developed after Iconoclasm. One often-cited story drawn from the sixth- or seventh-century miracles of the physician saints Cosmas and Damian refers to a woman suffering of colic who was cured by scraping plaster from the images of the saints on the wall of her bedroom and drinking the resulting powder after mixing it with water2. During the Iconoclast Era, Theoktiste, the mother of empress Theodora and wife of Theophilos, secretly taught her grandchildren the veneration of icons, which she kept in a wooden chest and presented to them for kissing. The episode is illustrated in the twelfth-century manuscript of the Chronicle of Ioannes Skylitzes in Madrid (fol. 44v)3. Kissing, genuflection, and lighting of lamps were also practiced with the veneration of icons in domestic contexts. Church ritual was thus perpetuated at home.

The domestic space of the Byzantines was also rich in a vast array of religious images on multiple materials. Jewelry became a privileged medium for private devotional practices. Metal crosses and encolpia, pendants of various shapes worn around the neck, were ornamented with representations of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and powerful intercessors, such as saints John (the Evangelist and the Baptist), the warrior saints George and Theodore, the wonderworker saint Nicholas and the archangel Michael. The period following Iconoclasm was characterized by tremendous growth in the popularity of relics. As a counterpart to the rich caskets preserved in churches, private individuals could obtain a pectoral reliquary cross made of two hollow sides in which were inserted bones of saints, pebbles, and earth collected from a holy place.

The ritual of veneration of relics practiced at church was reproduced in the domestic domain with these private reliquaries that contained the embalmed or incensed relics. The therapeutic properties of the relics were thus transmitted to this balm, which could then serve as an ointment in cases of sickness. Perfumed oil thickened by the addition of wax was an essential ingredient used in medicine, and during the early Byzantine period wax salves were also widely distributed to the faithful in the healing sanctuaries of the capital, such as the Kosmidion, sanctuary of the physician saints Cosmas and Damian. The array of religious objects that could be kept in a Byzantine home was therefore quite rich and made in a great range of materials, reflecting the richness of the crafts industry in the capital.


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1 Richard M. Harrison, Excavations at Saraçhane in Istanbul, vol. 1: The Excavations, Structures, Architectural Decoration, Small Finds, Coins, Bones, and Molluscs, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986.

2 Cyril Mango, The Art of the Byzantine Empire 312–1453: Sources and Documents, Toronto: Published by University of Toronto Press in association with the Medieval Academy of America, 1986, p. 139 (miracle 15).

3 Vassiliki Tsamakda, The Illustrated Chronicle of Ioannes Skylitzes in Madrid, Leiden: Alexandros, 2002, p. 87, Fig. 100.

This article was originally written in English for History of Istanbul and its Turkish translation was published in 2015.