Celebrating women art patrons: Theodora, Empress of Byzantium

Theodora (497–548)
Empress of Byzantium

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In a classic rags-to-riches story, Theodora rose from working as an actress—a low-class profession associated with prostitution—to shaping the nascent Byzantine empire, which spanned present-day Turkey, North Africa, and the Middle East. Theodora met Justinian, the emperor’s nephew, in Constantinople when she was 21.

Despite her social status, the emperor was so enamored with her that he changed a law that would have prohibited their marriage. After ascending to the throne, Theodora used her authority to support sex workers’ rights and established anti-rape legislation. During her tenure, the empress also supported significant building projects that projected the couple and the empire’s dominance. One was the original Hagia Sophia, consecrated in 537.

The mosaic portraits of Justinian and Theodora that face opposite one another in the apse of the Basilica di San Vitale (ca. 547) in Ravenna, Italy, however, have cemented the couple’s image in history. The empress, flanked by attendants, wears dangling gems and a long, royal purple gown. In her hand, she holds a chalice that indicates her as the building’s patron. The portrait confirms Theodora’s influence, glamour, and patronage, and flies in the face of her detractors.

Writing not long after her death in 548, the historian Procopius described her as “Theodora-from-the-brothel,” a wanton temptress who once said she regretted only having three orifices for pleasure. More recently, scholar Nadine Elizabeth Korte has suggested that Procopius probably disapproved of the substantive power Theodora wielded over Justinian and the empire.

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