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Sketches of the Emperor John VIII Palaeologus, a Monk, and a Scabbard

A work made of pen and brown ink on ivory laid paper.
CC0 Public Domain Designation

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  • A work made of pen and brown ink on ivory laid paper.




Italian, by 1395-c. 1455

About this artwork

Drawings of diversity and importance adorn both sides of this sheet, universally recognized as the work of Pisanello. The verso depicts a carefully drawn Turkish-style quiver with arrows and a bowcase with a bow and arrow. The recto contains two distinctly different subjects and styles: at the top, in the verso’s precise pen style, is an ornamented scabbard; below it, more hastily sketched in pen and brown ink, are a mounted rider in hunting attire and three standing men wearing unusual hats.

Adolfo Venturi (1939) first linked this sheet (then in a private collection, Rome) with a similar sketchbook page in the Louvre (M.I. 1062; Fossi Todorow 1966, pls. 68, 70). The Louvre sheet bears an inscription describing the quiver, bow and scabbard drawn on the Chicago sheet, suggesting they were contiguous pages in a sketchbook (Fasanelli 1965). Both sheets document the visit of the Byzantine emperor John VIII Palaeologus and Joseph II, patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church, to Ferrara, where a Council of Churches was convened in early 1438. The Council moved in 1439 to Florence and drew together the leaders of the Christian world, both East and West. It focused not only on dogmatic differences between the Orthodox and Roman churches, but also on their mutual concern with repelling the Moslem forces threatening the Eastern empire.

The Louvre drawing’s inscriptions refer to the costume of John VIII Palaeologus and mention Sultan El Moaid-Abuk-El Nasr (1422-38); it contains sketchy standing figures like those in Chicago and bust-length portraits, primarily with extravagant headgear. The mounted figure on the Louvre sheet is recognizable as a preliminary sketch for Pisanello’s commemorative portrait medallion of the emperor (Vickers 1978, figs. 1-2), probably finished in 1439.

The figures on the Chicago sheet, however, have been the subject of controversy. Originally, the horseman was thought to be the aged patriarch (Venturi 1939), but James Fasanelli (1965) suggested that the figures are only members of the Greek retinue observed in procession (including a mounted squire-dwarf) and not the principals of the Council. Michael Vickers (1978) convincingly argued that both the Chicago and Louvre sheets are almost exclusively devoted to studies of the emperor and that neither sheet bears a portrait of the patriarch. Pisanello’s medallion supports this view: while one side bears the profile portrait of the emperor, the other shows him on horseback in a landscape, equipped with the very quiver, bow, and scabbard found on the Chicago sheet.

Based on his study of the short, “stoop-shouldered” emperor and his habits, Vickers identified not only the figure on horseback, but also the two figures at the right of the Chicago sheet, as sketches of the emperor, wearing the ceremonial robes he had received from the Sultan of Egypt. In addition, the frontal study shows him with the same short, forked beard found in Piero della Francesca’s portrayal of him as Constantine the Great in the Arezzo frescoes, including the Victory of Constantine over Maxentius (Hendy 1968, pp. 85, 91, pl. 34). Pisanello’s experimentation with postures and garb led him ultimately to opt for a mounted image in hunting attire, as the emperor seems to have spent most of his time hunting in late 1438 while staying as a guest in a convent near Ferrara. Vladimir Juren (1973, pp. 222-25) noted that John VIII Palaeologus and his brother, the despot Demetrios, bought horses for hunting from the Russian delegation when they arrived in late August of that year.

Indeed, the only figure not certainly the emperor is the central one, seen from the back and singled out by the inscription above it, variously read as “chalone” (cardinal’s hat, as Harold Joachim believed) or as “chaloire,” a phonetic interpretation of the vocative of the Greek work “kalogeros,” or “monk” (suggested by Ulrich Middeldorf, among others). The validity of this latter interpretation was questioned by Robert Munman (in Dunbar/Olszewski 1996), who indicated that the label was likely meant to identify a particular person, probably an ecclesiastic.

Both the Louvre and Chicago sheets, thus dated to Pisanello’s later years, simultaneously document his old-fashioned, model-book delineation of ornamental motifs and his pioneering exploration of the effects of on-the spot reportage in studies from life, drawn in what Enio Sidona (1961, p. 73) called “small, comma-like strokes…with greater vitality.” Maria Fossi Todorow (1966, p. 31) rightly stressed that these drawings represent a pivotal moment in Pisanello’s stylistic development away from the International Gothic tradition of Gentile da Fabriano and toward an increasing concern with the expression of light, modeling, and movement, aspects more closely related to his activity as a medalist. Dominique Cordellier (in Paris 1996a, p. 197) observed that the Louvre and Chicago sheets must have been made on one of the rare public appearances of the emperor and the patriarch Joseph II, such as the first dogmatic session of the council in Ferrara on October 8, 1438.

— Entry, Italian drawings before 1600 in the Art Institute of Chicago, 1997, p.192.


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Prints and Drawings




Sketches of the Emperor John VIII Palaeologus, a Monk, and a Scabbard


Italy (Artist's nationality:)

Date  Dates are not always precisely known, but the Art Institute strives to present this information as consistently and legibly as possible. Dates may be represented as a range that spans decades, centuries, dynasties, or periods and may include qualifiers such as c. (circa) or BCE.



Pen and brown ink on ivory laid paper


18.9 × 26.5 cm (7 1/2 × 10 7/16 in.)

Credit Line

Margaret Day Blake Collection

Reference Number


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