For over 1,100 years, Byzantines from every walk of life used seals to guard and authenticate valuables and as a means of identifying themselves and presenting their credentials to the world. “Lasting Impressions”, on view at the Dumbarton Oaks Museum from November 23, 2021, through November 2022 (and online on the museum’s website), explores individual stories and family histories, the concept of status, developments in popular piety, and the inner workings of the state as shown through the intricate impressions on seals.
This exhibition, curated by Jonathan Shea, Associate Curator of Coins and Seals, demonstrates that each seal is more than just a record of now-lost communications, documents, or actions – it is the record of a person, and one usually not known from any other source. Seals are decorated with a great variety of religious and secular imagery and intricate inscriptions. Together text and image acted as personal statements of status, position, family, education, and piety. Whether to make their owner stand out, fit in, or both, the images used on seals were an important part of projecting self-identity. Each seal is a testament to someone living in the Byzantine Empire and no other single source provides so much information about such a broad range of individual Byzantines.
“In the small space available on a seal – a single image and half a tweet – the Byzantines had to communicate everything that they felt mattered about themselves. They are wonderful expressions of how Byzantines from all parts of society interacted with one another and viewed themselves and their world. Because seals were used by such a broad swathe of Byzantines from across the entire span of the empire’s history, they offer a unique insight into Byzantium, its people, culture, art, and faith.”
From the gold seals that were attached only to the most prestigious imperial documents and communications to the lead seals of merchants, craftsmen, and bathhouse attendants, Dumbarton Oaks is home to 17,000 Byzantine seals, the largest collection in the world. Since the arrival of the first seals at Dumbarton Oaks in 1947, five generations of scholars have worked to understand and catalogue these objects and apply the data gained to enhance our understanding of the Byzantine Empire. Seal designs were not static over Byzantium’s long history. Lasting Impressions leads audiences through the evolving iconography and inscriptions on seals, highlighting changing devotional practices, cultural shifts, and revealing the mechanics of the imperial state.
For those who cannot make it to see “Lasting Impressions” in person, they can traverse Byzantine history through the seals in our online catalogue.
On their website you can learn more about the Dumbarton Oaks Museum.
This is the website of the exhibition “Lasting Impressions”.
And here you come to the online catalogue of Byzantine Seals.