Off the Beaten Trail: The Byzantine Masterpieces of Russia’s Armoury

The Cap of Monomachus (Monomahk)

The Armoury museum, a Unesco World Heritage Site, has masterpieces of Byzantine civilization that are unknown to mainstream western civilization.  We went to the Armoury on a rainy late September day. Lines were forming to see the famous Diamond Reserve. We were not allowed to take photographs. Our photo experience was from the souvenir shop and outside. The Armory is a massive, formal, imposing, building whose appearance makes the tourist know this is important.

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Through our visit, we were amazed by Byzantine civilization that is more a part of the modern Russian’s identity. They have saved their artifacts so that tourists can marvel at their beauty. “The Armoury has a small, but extremely valuable collection of byzantine art covering a period of almost one thousand years from the 5th to the 15th century. The artistic culture of Byzantium, after absorbing the heritage of the antique world and the ancient orient, developed a style of its own.

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13th century Byzantine helmet with Deisis.

Trading and diplomatic relations between Old Russia and Byzantium developed as early as the 10th century. The items displayed in this case were most likely brought to Russia by merchants and diplomats. The Armoury’s collection of Byzantine art includes items of gold, silver cloisonné enamel, stone carving, textiles and embroidery of the 14th and 15th centuries. The silver-gilt jug from the Sudzha trove in the vicinity of Kursk dates back to the 4th and 5th centuries…. The jug is decorated with figures of the nine muses. The Armoury possesses  one of the finest collections of cameos by Byzantine masters of the 11th and 12th centuries. They are small icons with fine carving…The 11th century icon of the holy warrior St. Demetrius of Salonica on horseback is carved in steatite. Legend has it that this icon was sent to Prince Dimitry Donskoy by the Byzantine emperor.1

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Jug from Sudzha trove, Constantinople, 400 A.D.

“The 11th and 12th centuries witnessed the flowering of Byzantine art…It was in Constantinople that the fine art of cloisonné enamel first saw the light of day. Byzantine cloisonne enamel was famed for its high quality, fine workmanship and harmonic color  combinations. It was used to decorate clothing, goblets, dishes and church plate. It had a great influence on the development of enamelwork in many countries, including Kievan Russia.

Byzantine silversmiths are represented by a 12th century staurotechos or cross-holder…from Patriarch Philotheos in 1354. The cross-holder was greatly prized by the princes of Moscow who used it to bless their eldest son.”2 The conical helmet known as a “Yerikhon-ka” has religious figures of  Christ, the Virgin Mary, archangels Michael and Gabriel and two seraphim (seen in Deisis tier).  It was brought from Byzantium by merchants. 3

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Cloisonne enamel Icon-reliquary of the Descent into Hell, Byzantium, 12th century

                In the Round Hall is an iron gate known as the “Heraldic Trellis”. “Under Ivan III,  the double headed eagle appears. Its appearance appeared because of Moscow’s link with a member of the the Byzantine emperor Constantine Paleologos .Ivan III considered himself to be the legitimate successor to the Byzantine Imperial house which fell to the Turks in 1453. He took over the Byzantine state emblem bearing a double-headed eagle, a symbol of the Eastern and western parts Roman empire.  It symbolized a unified, centralized state.4

Silver Staurotechos, 12th century Byzantium.

The “Monomahk cap” is displayed in the Armoury. “The Cap of Monomachus (Monomahk) was used to crown all the Russian Tsars up to Peter the Great. The Medieval Tale of the Princes of Vladimir says that Emperor Constantine Monomachus of Byzantium presented his grandson, Prince Vladimir of Kiev, with the crown from his head. This crown is said to have been worn and handed by the princes first of Kiev, then of Vladimir and finally of Moscow. Thus, the Cap of Monomachus symbolizes the continuity of power of the Moscow Tsars from the emperors of Byzantium…in the will of Tsar Ivan the Terrible, the idea of Moscow as the ‘Third Rome’ was popular. There was a rule that the Cap of Monomachus should be worn once in a lifetime, during the coronation. 5

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Icon of St. Demetrius of Salonica, Byzantium, 11th-14th centuries.

The Armoury preserves ancient,  Tsarist and Russian Orthodox Church history. I was interested in the collection from Constantinople. This whole trip to Russia was overwhelming in destroying preconceived notions of Russia. Seeing our heritage in Russia helped us realize we came from a global civilization that united diverse people in the Byzantine culture.


  1. S. Goncharenko and V.I. Narozhnaya, “THE ARMORY: A guide” (Red Square Publishers: Moscow, 2012), pp.16-17.
  2. “THE ARMORY: A guide”, p.18.
  3. “THE ARMORY: A guide”, p.19.
  4. “THE ARMORY: A guide”, p.114.
  5. “THE ARMORY: A guide”, pp.152-253.
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Armoury in distance


Link: photo album


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