The Byzantine Empire In Art
The Byzantine Empire: Preserving Art and Culture
The Byzantine Empire produced a collection of Christian Greek art that has been inherited by various nations and states. While the empire existed from the fall of Rome until 1453, the start of the Byzantine period in art history is not clearly defined. Many Eastern Orthodox states in Eastern Europe and some Islamic states in the eastern Mediterranean have preserved aspects of the empire’s culture and art for many years after its collapse.
While some states were not officially part of the Byzantine Empire, they were still greatly influenced by its culture and art, known as the “Byzantine commonwealth”. Examples include the Rus, as well as some non-Orthodox states like the Republic of Venice and the Kingdom of Sicily which had close ties to the Byzantine Empire and had also been a Byzantine territory until the 10th century with a large Greek-speaking population persisting into the 12th century. Other states like Serbia and Bulgaria, had alternated between being part of the Byzantine Empire and periods of independence throughout the Middle Ages. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, art created by Eastern Orthodox Christians living under Ottoman rule was often referred to as “post-Byzantine.” To this day, certain artistic traditions that originated in the Byzantine Empire, particularly in regards to icon painting and church architecture, are still being maintained in Greece, Cyprus, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Russia and other Eastern Orthodox countries.
Byzantine Art: A Fusion of Christianity and Classics
Byzantine art emerged from the Christianized Greek culture of the Eastern Roman Empire, combining elements of Christianity and classical Greek mythology in a Hellenistic style and iconography. The art of Byzantium was heavily influenced by its classical heritage, as demonstrated by the many classical sculptures in the Byzantine capital of Constantinople, though these sculptures were sometimes seen as strange by its inhabitants.
Byzantine art is marked by a fundamental artistic attitude that is similar to that of the ancient Greeks, who always sought to imbue forms with meaning and life. While there were periods of resurgence in classical aesthetic, Byzantine art is primarily characterized by its striking “abstract” or non-realistic nature. Rather than trying to create representations that closely resembled reality, Byzantine art favored a more symbolic approach.
The nature and reasons behind the transformation of Byzantine art, which primarily occurred during late antiquity, has been a topic of scholarly debate for centuries. Giorgio Vasari believed it to be a result of a decline in artistic skills and standards, which were later revived during the Italian Renaissance. However, modern scholars tend to have a more positive view of the Byzantine aesthetic. Alois Riegl and Josef Strzygowski, writing in the early 20th century, played a significant role in revaluating late antique art. Riegl viewed it as an evolution of pre-existing Roman art, while Strzygowski saw it as a product of “oriental” influences. Recent contributions to the debate include Ernst Kitzinger, who highlighted a “dialectic” between “abstract” and “Hellenistic” tendencies in late antiquity, and John Onians, who saw an “increase in visual response” in late antiquity, where a viewer could find abstract elements to be representational.
The debate over whether Byzantine art is abstract or non-realistic is a modern one, as it is clear that the Byzantine viewers did not consider their art to be so. As Cyril Mango has noted, “our own appreciation of Byzantine art stems largely from the fact that this art is not naturalistic; yet the Byzantines themselves, judging by their extant statements, regarded it as being highly naturalistic and as being directly in the tradition of Phidias, Apelles, and Zeuxis.”
The subject matter of Byzantine monumental art was mainly religious and imperial, often combined as in the portraits of later Byzantine emperors that adorned the interior of the sixth-century church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. These themes reflect both the pious and authoritarian nature of Byzantine society and its economic structure, as the wealth of the empire was concentrated in the hands of the church and the imperial office, which had the greatest resources to undertake monumental artistic projects.
Religious art was not limited to decorating church interiors, but also included the important genre of icons, which are images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, or a saint, used for veneration in Orthodox churches and homes. Icons were more religious than aesthetic, and after the end of iconoclasm, they were considered to have the unique presence of the figure depicted through a similarity maintained through specific guidelines of representation.
Another significant form of Byzantine art was the decoration of manuscripts through illumination. The most frequently illustrated texts were religious, including scripture and devotional or theological texts, such as the Ladder of Divine Ascent by John Climacus or the homilies of Gregory of Nazianzus. Non-religious texts were also illuminated, notable examples include the Alexander Romance and the history of John Skylitzes.
The Byzantines inherited the Early Christian aversion to monumental sculpture in religious art, and mostly created reliefs, very few of which are life-size, which is in stark contrast to the medieval art of the West, where monumental sculpture was revived from the Carolingian period onward. Small ivories were also mostly in relief.
The so-called “minor arts” were highly valued in Byzantine art and luxury items, such as ivories carved in relief as formal presentation Consular diptychs or caskets such as the Veroli casket, hardstone carvings, enamels, glass, jewelry, metalwork, and figured silks were produced in large quantities throughout the Byzantine era. Many of these were religious in nature, although a large number of objects with secular or non-representational decoration were also produced, for example, ivories representing themes from classical mythology. Byzantine ceramics were relatively basic, as pottery was not used by the wealthy, who ate off Byzantine silver.
Early Byzantine Art and Architecture
The conventionally accepted four periods of Byzantine art and architecture are: the Early period, beginning with the legalization of Christian worship and the move of the imperial seat to Constantinople and ending in 842 with the end of Iconoclasm; the Middle or high period, starting with the restoration of icons in 843 and ending with the Fall of Constantinople to the Crusaders in 1204; the Late period, characterized by the blending of Western European and traditional Byzantine elements and ending with the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453; and the post-Byzantine period for later years and the Neo-Byzantine period for art and architecture from the 19th century onwards, inspired by the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire.
Two events played a crucial role in shaping the unique Byzantine art. Firstly, the Edict of Milan in 313, issued by emperors Constantine I and Licinius, enabled public Christian worship and led to the creation of monumental Christian art. Secondly, the establishment of Constantinople in 330 as the new artistic center for the Eastern Empire, specifically for Christian art, further developed Byzantine art. While other cities such as Alexandria, Antioch, and Rome also had thriving artistic traditions, it was not until these cities fell to invaders that Constantinople became the premier center for art.
Constantine put significant effort into decorating Constantinople, by decorating public spaces with ancient statues and building a forum with a porphyry column featuring a statue of himself. Important churches built during his reign and that of his son, Constantius II, include the foundations of Hagia Sophia and the Church of the Holy Apostles.
The next significant construction project in Constantinople was carried out under Theodosius I. The most well-preserved monument from this period is the obelisk and base built by Theodosius in the Hippodrome, along with the large silver dish known as the Missorium of Theodosius I, which exemplify the “Theodosian Renaissance.” The oldest surviving church in Constantinople is the Basilica of St. John at the Stoudios Monastery, constructed in the 5th century.
Due to subsequent rebuilding and destruction, very few monuments from this early period in Constantinople survive. However, the progress of monumental early Byzantine art can still be tracked through surviving structures in other cities, such as the early churches found in Rome, including Santa Sabina and Santa Maria Maggiore, and in Thessaloniki, such as the Rotunda and the Acheiropoietos Basilica. Miniatures of the 6th-century Rabula Gospel display the more symbolic and abstract nature of Byzantine art.
Many important illuminated manuscripts from this early period, both religious and secular, have survived. Classical authors such as Virgil (as seen in the Vergilius Vaticanus and Vergilius Romanus) and Homer (represented by the Ambrosian Iliad) were illustrated with narrative paintings. Illuminated biblical manuscripts from this period only survive in fragments; for example, the Quedlinburg Itala fragment is a small part of what would have been a richly illustrated copy of 1 Kings.
Early Byzantine art was also characterized by the development of ivory carving. Elaborately decorated ivory diptychs were often given as gifts by newly appointed consuls. Silver plates were another significant form of luxury art. Some of the most luxurious examples from this period include the Missorium of Theodosius I. Sarcophagi were also produced in large numbers during this time.
Justinian I and the Impact on Byzantine Art
The reign of Justinian I (527-565) saw significant changes in Byzantine art. Justinian focused much of his rule on re-conquering Italy, North Africa, and Spain, and also established the absolute power of the Byzantine state, codifying its laws and enforcing his religious beliefs on all citizens.
A major aspect of Justinian’s efforts to renovate the empire was a large-scale building program, which was documented in a book called “Buildings” written by his court historian Procopius. Justinian renovated, rebuilt, or constructed many churches in Constantinople, including the famous Hagia Sophia, which had been destroyed in the Nika riots, the Church of the Holy Apostles, and the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus. He also constructed several churches and fortifications outside the capital, such as Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai in Egypt, the Basilica of Saint Sofia in Sofia and the Basilica of St. John in Ephesus.
Many major churches of this period were constructed in the provinces by local bishops, imitating the new foundations in Constantinople. An example is the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, built by Bishop Maximianus, which features important mosaics of Justinian and his empress, Theodora, even though neither of them ever visited the church. Another noteworthy example is the Euphrasian Basilica in Poreč.
Recent archaeological discoveries in the 19th and 20th centuries have uncovered a large group of early Byzantine mosaics in the Middle East. The eastern provinces of the Eastern Roman and later Byzantine empires inherited a strong artistic tradition from Late Antiquity, and Christian mosaic art thrived in this area from the 4th century onwards. The tradition of making mosaics continued in the Umayyad era until the 8th century. The most significant surviving examples include the Madaba Map, the mosaics of Mount Nebo, Saint Catherine’s Monastery, and the Church of St Stephen in ancient Kastron Mefaa (now Umm ar-Rasas).
The earliest fully preserved illuminated biblical manuscripts date back to the first half of the 6th century, and include notable examples such as the Vienna Genesis, the Rossano Gospels, and the Sinope Gospels. The Vienna Dioscurides is an ornately illustrated botanical treatise, which was given as a gift to the Byzantine aristocrat Julia Anicia.
During this period, important ivory sculptures were created, such as the Barberini ivory, which is believed to depict Justinian himself, and the Archangel ivory in the British Museum. Silver plates were also decorated with scenes from classical mythology, such as a plate in the Cabinet des Médailles, Paris, depicting Hercules wrestling the Nemean lion.
Post-Justinian Byzantine Art and Architecture
The period following Justinian’s reign saw a decline in politics, as most of his conquests were lost and the Empire faced severe challenges with invasions by the Avars, Slavs, Persians, and Arabs in the 7th century. Constantinople also experienced religious and political conflicts.
The most significant surviving monumental projects of this period were carried out outside the capital. The church of Hagios Demetrios in Thessaloniki was rebuilt after a fire in the mid-seventh century, and the new sections feature mosaics in a highly abstract style. The church of the Koimesis in Nicaea (now Iznik), which was destroyed in the early 20th century but documented through photographs, demonstrates the continued use of a more classical style of church decoration. The churches in Rome, still a Byzantine territory during this time, also have important surviving decorative programs, particularly Santa Maria Antiqua, Sant’Agnese fuori le mura, and the Chapel of San Venanzio in San Giovanni in Laterano. Byzantine mosaicists may also have contributed to the decoration of early Umayyad monuments such as the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Great Mosque of Damascus.
Important luxury art pieces from this period include the silver David Plates, created during Emperor Heraclius’ reign and depicting scenes from the life of King David. The most notable surviving manuscripts are Syriac gospel books, such as the Syriac Bible of Paris. However, the London canon Tables indicate that lavish gospel books in Greek were still being produced.
The period between Justinian and Iconoclasm saw significant changes in the social and religious roles of art within Byzantium. The veneration of acheiropoieta, or holy images “not made by human hands,” became a prominent practice, and in some cases, these images were believed to have protected cities from military attacks. By the end of the 7th century, some images of saints were considered as “windows” through which one could communicate with the depicted figure. Proskynesis before images is also attested in texts from the late 7th century. These developments mark the beginning of a theology of icons.
At the same time, the debate over the appropriate role of art in church decoration intensified. Three canons of the Quinisext Council of 692 addressed controversies in this area: prohibition of the representation of the cross on church pavements (Canon 73), prohibition of the representation of Christ as a lamb (Canon 82), and a general injunction against “pictures, whether they are in paintings or in what way so ever, which attract the eye and corrupt the mind, and incite it to the enkindling of base pleasures” (Canon 100).
Byzantine Iconoclasm and its Impact on Religious Art
Intense disagreements over the role of art in worship led to the period of “Byzantine iconoclasm.” Local bishops in Asia Minor had sporadic outbursts of iconoclasm in the 720s. In 726, an underwater earthquake between the islands of Thera and Therasia was interpreted by Emperor Leo III as a sign of God’s anger, which may have prompted him to remove a famous icon of Christ from the Chalke Gate outside the imperial palace. However, iconoclasm probably did not become official policy until the reign of Leo’s son, Constantine V. The Council of Hieria, held under Constantine in 754, banned the creation of icons of Christ, which began the Iconoclastic period, which lasted, with interruptions, until 843.
Though iconoclasm greatly limited the role of religious art and led to the removal of some earlier apse mosaics and possibly the destruction of some portable icons, it never resulted in a complete ban on the production of figurative art. Literary sources show that secular art such as hunting scenes and depictions of games in the hippodrome continued to be produced, and the few monuments that can be securely dated to this period, like the manuscript of Ptolemy’s “Handy Tables” held by the Vatican, demonstrate that metropolitan artists maintained a high level of quality.
Notable churches from this period include Hagia Eirene in Constantinople, which was rebuilt in the 760s following its destruction in the 740 Constantinople earthquake. The interior of Hagia Eirene, featuring a large mosaic cross in the apse, is one of the best-preserved examples of iconoclastic church decoration. The Church of Hagia Sophia in Thessaloniki was also rebuilt in the late 8th century.
Certain churches built outside of the empire during this period, but decorated in a figurative, “Byzantine” style, may also be evidence of the ongoing activities of Byzantine artists. Examples of such churches include the original mosaics of the Palatine Chapel in Aachen (since either destroyed or heavily restored) and the frescoes in the Church of Maria foris portas in Castelseprio.
Byzantine Art and Architecture in the Middle and Late Periods
The decisions of the Council of Hieria were overturned by a new council in 843, which is still celebrated by the Eastern Orthodox Church as the “Triumph of Orthodoxy.” In 867, the installation of a new apse mosaic in Hagia Sophia depicting the Virgin and Child was celebrated by Patriarch Photios in a famous homily as a victory over the evils of iconoclasm. The same year, Emperor Basil I, known as “the Macedonian,” came to power, leading to a period in Byzantine art sometimes referred to as the “Macedonian Renaissance,” though the term is problematic as it was neither truly “Macedonian” nor a “Renaissance.”
During the 9th and 10th centuries, the Empire’s military situation improved, leading to an increase in patronage for art and architecture. New churches were built and the standard architectural form and decorative scheme of Middle Byzantine churches were standardized. Notable surviving examples include Hosios Loukas in Boeotia, the Daphni Monastery near Athens, and Nea Moni on Chios.
There was a renewed interest in depicting subjects from classical Greek mythology and in using classical Hellenistic styles to depict religious and Old Testament subjects, such as the Paris Psalter and the Joshua Roll. The Macedonian period also saw a resurgence of the late antique technique of ivory carving, with many ornate ivory triptychs and diptychs surviving, such as the Harbaville Triptych and a triptych at Luton Hoo, dating from the reign of Nicephorus Phocas.
Komnenian Dynasty and Byzantine Art
The Komnenian dynasty succeeded the Macedonian emperors, starting with Alexios I Komnenos in 1081. The Byzantine Empire had recently experienced a period of turmoil following the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 and the subsequent loss of Asia Minor to the Turks. However, the Komnenoi brought stability to the empire (1081–1185) and during the 12th century their active campaigning helped to restore the empire’s fortunes. The Komnenoi were great patrons of the arts, and with their support, Byzantine artists continued to move towards greater humanism and emotion, as seen in the Theotokos of Vladimir, the cycle of mosaics at Daphni, and the murals at Nerezi. Ivory sculpture and other expensive art forms gradually gave way to frescoes and icons, which for the first time became popular throughout the Empire. In addition to painted icons, there were other types, such as mosaic and ceramic ones.
Some of the finest Byzantine art from this period can be found outside the Empire, such as the mosaics of Gelati, Kiev, Torcello, Venice, Monreale, Cefalù, and Palermo. For example, Venice’s Basilica of St Mark, which was begun in 1063, was modeled after the great Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople, which is now destroyed, making it an echo of the age of Justinian. Venice’s acquisitive habits mean that the basilica also serves as a great museum of Byzantine artworks of all kinds, such as the Pala d’Oro.
The Impact of the Fourth Crusade on Byzantine Art and Civilization
The Byzantine Empire, which had a long history of Roman political tradition and Hellenistic civilization, faced a major crisis in 1204 with the sacking of Constantinople by the Venetian and French knights of the Fourth Crusade, a disaster that caused significant damage and weakened the Empire. This event, along with subsequent neglect, has left us with an incomplete understanding of Byzantine art.
Although Constantinople was regained by the Byzantines in 1261, the Empire was reduced to a small and weak state limited to the Greek peninsula and the Aegean islands. However, during their 50-year exile, a new era of Anatolian Hellenism emerged, as Nicaea became the center of opposition under the Laskaris emperors and attracted scholars, poets, and artists from across the Byzantine world. A new court emerged, as the displaced intelligentsia found pride and identity in their Hellenic traditions, separate from the hated Latin enemy. With the recapture of the capital under the new Palaeologan Dynasty, Byzantine artists developed a new interest in landscapes and pastoral scenes, traditional mosaic work was replaced by detailed cycles of narrative frescoes, and icons became a favored medium for artistic expression, characterized by a less austere attitude, new appreciation for purely decorative qualities of painting, and meticulous attention to details, earning the name of Paleologan Mannerism for the period in general.
Venice came to control Byzantine Crete by 1212 and Byzantine artistic traditions continued even after the Ottoman conquest of the last Byzantine successor state in 1461. The Cretan school, as it is known today, gradually introduced Western elements into its style, and exported large numbers of icons to the West. The school’s most famous artist was El Greco.
Byzantine Manuscript Gallery
Monastery in Dafni (on the outskirts of Athens). Transfiguration – one of the mosaics of the dome base. Photo from January 2011, thanks to the scaffoldings of the protective works not yet removed, after the earthquake in 1999. The mosaics have just returned from the conservation workshop.
Daphni or Dafni is an eleventh-century Byzantine monastery located about 11 kilometers (6.8 miles) northwest of Athens, in the suburb of Chaidari. The monastery is situated near a forest of the same name, on the Sacred Way that led to Eleusis. The forest, which covers approximately 18 km2 (7 sq mi), surrounds a laurel grove. “Daphni” is the modern Greek name for the area, meaning “laurel grove,” and is derived from Daphneion (Lauretum).
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Miles, H. (2015, September 17). Byzantine mosaics of Daphni Monastery. Helen Miles Mosaics. https://helenmilesmosaics.org/mosaic-sites/byzantine-mosaics-of-daphni-monastery/
Nelson, R. (2023). Byzantine Art vs Western Medieval Art. Openedition.org. https://doi.org/https://books.openedition.org/psorbonne/1872?lang=en
Wikipedia Contributors. (2022, July 19). Byzantine illuminated manuscripts. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Byzantine_illuminated_manuscripts
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