The mosaic Empress Theodora and Her Attendants depicts empress Theodora surrounded by a host of her court ladies and attendants. This solemn scene is performed in clear and simple lines that allow to focus the viewer’s attention on other visual means. Color and light work together in the composition so that they help to emphasize the subject matter of the artwork. The focal point of the composition is the figure of the empress, highlighted by means of color and light. In the procession that moves from the right to the left of the mosaic, Theodora occupies the central position, as if guarded from both sides by her retinue.
Her clothes attract the onlooker’s eye by their deep colors that are most contrasting with the background and the garments of the others. Theodora is the tallest figure in the mosaic, which emphasizes her superiority over the rest of the people. In addition, a heavy crown embellished with precious gems adds height and grandeur to the empress’ image. Strings of pearls run from her crown to her shoulders and cover the upper part of her heavy robe. The texture of the latter is a work of art in itself, with intricate golden designs embroidered on the sleek dark brown silk of the robe hem. In her hands, the empress holds a precious goblet of gold and gems, which she hands over to the man on her left. The depiction of the empress as an almost divine being is rounded off with a halo of glory and a green shell-shaped hemisphere over her head.
However important the figure of empress Theodora is for the whole composition, it would not have produced such an impressive impact but for the retinue accompanying her. Theodora’s suite includes both men and women. The former proceed in front of the empress, as if paving the way to her: the first man opens the curtain, and the second man takes the heavy goblet from Theodora. The manliness of their faces is emphasized by thick dark eyebrows and lines of wrinkles. The female part of the empress’ retinue includes six women, obviously arranged according to their welfare: the less luxurious the garment of the woman is, the farther she is placed from Theodora. Although multicolored, the court ladies’ dresses seem to be cut according to the same mould and made from the same type of material since the pattern on them is similar.
This unification of garment creates the impression of a rather impersonal crowd and helps to maintain the optical balance of the mosaic. While the host of women on the right quantitatively exceeds the two men on the left, the parity is maintained by placing more expressive objects on the left, where the men stand. The green and red tints of the court ladies’ dresses merge with the same colors of the mosaic background and frame, and thus make the ladies a part of the setting rather than significant individuals. In contrast, the two men to Theodora’s left are dressed in bright golden, white, and brown robes that match the empress’ garment and stand out against the general background. The mosaic Empress Theodora and Her Attendants provides a bright example of how formal elements of design work together to emphasize the subject matter of the artwork.
Color and light devices are arranged so that the composition appears perfectly balanced, although it is formally asymmetrical.
Empress Theodora and Her Attendants. Ca 547 CE. [Mosaic]. San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy. Janson’s History of Art: Western Tradition. 7th ed.
By Penelope J.E. Davies, Walter B. Denny, Frima Fox Hofrichter, Joseph F. Jacobs, Ann M. Roberts, and David Simon. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2007. 255.