This painting depicts the Byzantine victory at the Battle of Edessa (1031) in modern-day Turkey. The battle was one of many in the numerous conflicts fought between the Byzantine Empire and the ever-changing Muslim empires of the Middle East. The figures to the far right and the far left depict the Muslim forces leading a counterattack against the Byzantine forces in the center.
We can easily tell the forces apart by their attire. The Muslims are shown wearing traditional turbans while the Byzantines are wearing golden helmets with slightly lighter skin. What’s important is the way the two are positioned and depicted. The artist and historian of the battle, John Skylitzes, chose to show the Muslim forces as almost overwhelming, outnumbering the Byzantines and fighting them on both sides with ranged weaponry ideal for attacking a surrounded enemy. The Byzantines however, have just seven men to defend themselves. This makes the Byzantine's success and victory at Edessa seem all the more incredible. In addition, they have pained expressions on their faces and are depicted as almost the victims of the battle. In this way, Skylitzes is using the central framing and the sympathetic expression of Byzantines to create a sense of pity for them.
As written by John Skylitzes, a Byzantine historian:And in that year the protospatharios George Maniakes, the son of Goudelios Maniakes, the commander of the cities on the Euphrates who resided at Samosata, attempted to take the city of Edessa in Osroene. This city was controlled by Salaman the Turk, having been entrusted to him by the emir of Miepherkeim / Martyropolis but, bribed with gifts, promises and honours, he surrendered it to Maniakes in the middle of the night. Maniakes secured three heavily fortified towers and vigorously repulsed the would-be besiegers, summoning aid from without. When Apomerbanes, the emir of Miepherkeim, heard of their fall, he promptly appeared with a considerable army and laid siege to the towers, but George stoutly withstood him. The emir was thrown back and was at a loss what to do. He razed the finest buildings and pillaged what was of beauty In that city, even in the Great Church itself. He loaded the finest objects onto camels and, putting the rest of the city to the flames, returned to Martyropolis. Now that Maniakes was free to do so, he captured the fortress situated in the centre of the city atop a lofty rock, summoned forces from outside and secured his hold on the city. And finding the autograph letter of the Lord and Master Jesus Christ which was sent to Abgar, he despatched it to the emperor at Byzantium. Historical Significance:
Prior to the fall of Edessa in 638 A.D. to Muslim forces, it was an important Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine city. Because of this, Emperor Romanos III Argyros felt it was important to bring the city back into the fold and ordered Byzantine general Gorge Maniakes to capture it. Through bribes Maniakes sucessfully secured three of the city's defensive towers and the Byzantine defense held strong, repulsing a Muslim counterattack as shown in the painting. Apomerbanes, the Muslim leader who arrived to retake the city decided to destroy and loot as many buildings as possible and set fire to Edessa. So while Maniakes won the battle, he didn’t have much of a city left following his victory.
Modern day Edessa, now known as Sanliurfa or Urfa:
The racial differences depicted in the picture is evident in the wardrobe of the two armies. The Byzantines are shown wearing metal chain armor, holding shields and are depicted as dignified soldiers of the time. The Muslim soilders are shown in a mess dignified light wearing tunics and and rags. They also are shown as not as talented soldiers because many of them have been hit by arrows. This is especially shocking considering they far outnumbered the Byzantines who appear to be unschated on top of their tower, noblely holding off the aggressors. This is reinforced by how the Christians are positioned in the tower and surrounded by the Muslim soldiers trying to attack. This is also a commentary on class because the Muslims are visually shown as lower than the Christians. Buildings are accurately made to look Arabic in design.
The Citadel of Aleppo, Syria (1260) (for reference to semi-period accurate forticifications):
Connections to Class:
There are some surface similarities between this painting, the Song of Roland and The King of Tars. All three deal with Christians fighting Muslims and all three depict the Muslim forces as the antagonists. In the Song of Roland, Roland dies "heroically" at the hands of Muslims and Christian traitors while in reality, the agressors were locals whose villages had been pillaged by the French army lead by Charlemagne. In the King of Tars the Sultan is perhaps not being actively malicious but he’s described as being genetically and religiously wrong through rascist rhetoric combined with ignorance regarding Islam and the Arab world. Additionally, the story ends as the Christian King and Sultan join forces and defeat the other Muslim rulers in one unrealistically gigantic battle, "liberating" Iberia. This painting shows the Byzantines attempting to fight off the Muslims so they can reclaim their holy land like in The King of Tars.
Overall, in these three stories the Muslims ultimately lose. Roland dies, but the Christians win. The Sultan converts and switches sides, leading the Christains to victory. Here, the Byzantines withstand the counter-attack and capture the city against the odds. In all three stories, Christains are either the superior military or moral force or heroes fighting against the odds. In comparison, Muslims forces are given no credit for their ambition, bravery, or heroics, unlike their Christian counterparts. Or at least there was an effort from authors and artists to go out of their way to capture the strength of Chrisitans.
In conclusion, while Skylitzes' account may be incorrect, there is no information to contradict it. Compared to other paintings of the time, The Seizure of Edessa is quite muted in its evaluation of the battle but works in the context as a Byzantine victory and not a defeat, as were it a loss it likely would have been depicted a much different way, assuming a painting of it was made at all.
Battle of Roncevaux (Song of Roland) by Wolf Von Bibra (1862-1922):
“John Skylitzes. A Synopsis of Byzantine History (Trans. by J. Wortley) ( 2010) : Internet Archive, 6 Feb. 2016, accessed 5 April 2022. https://archive.org/details/JohnSkylitzes.ASynopsisOfByzantineHistorytrans.ByJ.Wortley2010/page/n351/mode/2up?q=Maniakes&view=theater.
Song of Roland
King of Tars
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