Art in the Byzantime Empire - History

Art in the Byzantime Empire - History

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The Collapse of Rome and the Rise of Byzantine Art (c.500-1450)

Between Emperor Constantine I's Edict in 313, recognizing Christianity as the official religion, and the fall of Rome at the hands of the Visigoths in 476, arrangements were made to divide the the Roman Empire into a Western half (ruled from Rome) and an Eastern half (ruled from Byzantium). Thus, while Western Christendom fell into the cultural abyss of the barbarian Dark Ages, its religious, secular and artistic values were maintained by its new Eastern capital in Byzantium (later renamed Constantinople after Constantine). Along with the transfer of Imperial authority to Byzantium went thousands of Roman and Greek painters and craftsmen, who proceeded to create a new set of Eastern Christian images and icons, known as Byzantine Art. Exclusively concerned with Christian art, though derived (in particular) from techniques and forms of Greek and Egyptian art, this style spread to all corners of the Byzantine empire, where Orthodox Christianity flourished. Particular centres of early Christian art included Ravenna in Italy, and Kiev, Novgorod and Moscow in Russia. For more detail, see also: Christian Art, Byzantine Period.

Medieval Byzantine mosaics in
St Mark's Basilica, Venice.

For chronology and dates
see: History of Art Timeline.

General Characteristics

The style that characterized Byzantine art was almost entirely concerned with religious expression specifically with the translation of church theology into artistic terms. Byzantine Architecture and painting (little sculpture was produced during the Byzantine era) remained uniform and anonymous and developed within a rigid tradition. The result was a sophistication of style rarely equalled in Western art.

Byzantine medieval art began with mosaics decorating the walls and domes of churches, as well fresco wall-paintings. So beautiful was the effect of these mosaics that the form was taken up in Italy, especially in Rome and Ravenna. A less public art form in Constantinople, was the icon (from the Greek word 'eikon' meaning 'image') - the holy image panel-paintings which were developed in the monasteries of the eastern church, using encaustic wax paint on portable wooden panels. [See: Icons and Icon Painting.] The greatest collection of this type of early Biblical art is in the monastery of St Catherine in Sinai, founded in the 6th century by the Emperor Justinian. And see also, the Byzantine-influenced Garima Gospels (390-660) - world's most ancient illuminated gospel manuscript - from Ethiopia.

For details of arts under
Charlemagne and the Ottos,
see: Carolingian Art (750-900)
and Ottonian Art (900-1050)

Romanesque Art (1000-1200)
For Italian-Byzantine styles, see:
Romanesque Painting in Italy.
For more abstract, linear styles, see:
Romanesque Painting in France.
For signs of Islamic influence, see:
Romanesque Painting in Spain.

During the period 1050-1200, tensions grew up between the Eastern Roman Empire and the slowly re-emerging city of Rome, whose Popes had managed (by careful diplomatic manoeuvering) to retain their authority as the centre of Western Christendom. At the same time, Italian city states like Venice were becoming rich on international trade. As a result, in 1204, Constantinople fell under the influence of Venetians.

This duly led to a cultural exodus of renowned artists from the city back to Rome - the reverse of what had happened 800 years previously - and the beginnings of the proto-Renaissance period, exemplified by Giotto di Bondone's Scrovegni Chapel frescoes. However, even as it declined, Byzantine influence continued to make itself felt in the 13th and 14th centuries, notably in the Sienese School of painting and the International Gothic style (1375-1450), notably in International Gothic illuminations, like the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, by the Limbourg Brothers. See also Byzantine-inspired panel-paintings and altarpieces including Duccio's Stroganoff Madonna (1300) and Maesta Altarpiece (1311).

NOTE: For other important historical periods similar to the Byzantine era, see Art Movements, Periods, Schools (from about 100 BCE).

Byzantine Mosaics (c.500-843)

Using early Christian adaptations of late Roman styles, the Byzantines developed a new visual language, expressing the ritual and dogma of the united Church and state. Early on variants flourished in Alexandria and Antioch, but increasingly the imperial bureaucracy undertook the major commissions, and artists were sent out to the regions requiring them, from the metropolis. Established in Constantinople, the Byzantine style eventually spread far beyond the capital, round the Mediterranean to southern Italy, up through the Balkans and into Russia.

Rome, occupied by the Visigoths in 410, was sacked again by the Vandals in 455, and by the end of the century Theodoric the Great had imposed the rule of the Ostrogoths on Italy. However, in the sixth century the Emperor Justinian (reigned 527-65) re-established imperial order from Constantinople, taking over the Ostrogothic capital, Ravenna (Italy), as his western administrative centre. Justinian was a superb organizer, and one of the most remarkable patrons in the history of art. He built and re-built on a huge scale throughout the Empire: his greatest work, the church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, employed nearly 10,000 craftsmen and labourers and was decorated with the richest materials the Empire could provide. Though it still stands gloriously, hardly any of its earliest mosaics remain, thus it is at Ravenna that the most spectacular remnants of Byzantine art in the sixth century survive. See: Ravenna Mosaics (c.400-600).

Within the dry brick exterior of S. Vitale in Ravenna, the worshipper is dazzled by a highly controlled explosion of colour blazoned across glittering gold. Mosaic art and beautifully grained marble cover almost all wall surfaces, virtually obliterating the architecture that bears them. The gold, flooding the background, suggests an infinity taken out of mortal time, on which the supernatural images float. In the apse, wrapped in their own remote mystery, Christ and saints preside unimpassioned. Nevertheless, in two flanking panels of mosaic, one showing the Emperor Justinian with his retinue and the other, opposite, his wife Theodora with her ladies, there persists a clear attempt at naturalistic portraiture, especially in the faces of Justinian and Theodora. Even so, their bodies seem to float rather than stand within the tubular folds of their draperies.

In S. Vitale, and in Byzantine art generally, sculpture in the round plays a minimal part. However, the marble capitals (dating from the pre-Justinian's era) are carved with surprising delicacy, with purely oriental, highly stylized vine-scrolls and inscrutable animals. A rare example of Byzantine figurative sculpture is an impressiye head, perhaps that of Theodora, in which the Roman tradition of naturalistic portrait art lingers.

To the East, Justinian's most important surviving work is in the church, (slightly later than S. Vitale), of St Catherine's Monastery on Mount Sinai. There, in the great Transfiguration in the apse, the figures are again substantial presences, suspended weightlessly in a golden empyrean. The contours, however, are freer, less rigid, than at S. Vitale, and the limbs of the figures are strangely articulated - almost an assemblage of component parts. This was to become a characteristic and persistent trait in the Byzantine style.

Elsewhere (notably at Thessaloniki) there were other vocal variations of style in mosaic. Relatively little remains in the cheaper form of fresco, and still less in manuscript illumination. A very few 6th century illuminated manuscripts, on a purple-tinted vellum, show a comparable development from classical conventions towards an austere formality, though pen and ink tend to produce greater freedom in structure and gesture. In the famous Rabula Gospel of 586 from Syria, the glowing intensity of the dense imagery may even bring to mind the work of Rouault in the twentieth century. Ivory panels carved in relief have also survived, usually covers for consular diptychs. This type of diptych consisted of two ivory plaques, tied together, with records of the departing consul's office listed on their inner surfaces. The carvings on the outside, representing religious or imperial themes, have the clarity and detachment characteristic of the finest mosaics, and are splendidly assured.

In the 8th and 9th centuries the development of the Byzantine style was catastrophically interrupted in all media. Art was not merely stopped in its tracks: there was a thorough, wide-ranging destruction of existing images throughout the Byzantine regions. Figurative art had long been attacked on the grounds that the Bible condemned the worship of images in about 725 the iconoclasts (those who would have religious images destroyed) won the day against the iconodules (those who believed they were justified) with the promulgation of the first of a number of imperial edicts against images. Complicated arguments raged over the issue, but iconoclasm was also an assertion of imperial authority over a Church thought to have grown too rich and too powerful. It was surely owing to the Church that some tradition of art did persist, to flower again when the ban was lifted in 843.

Byzantine Art: Revival and Development (843-1450)

The halt to iconoclasm - the destructive campaign against images and those who believed in them - came in 843. The revival of religious art that followed was based on clearly formulated principles: images were accepted as valuable not for worship, but as channels through which the faithful could direct their prayer and somehow anchor the presence of divinity within their daily lives. Unlike in the later western Gothic revival, Byzantine art rarely had a didactic or narrative function, but was essentially impersonal, ceremonial and symbolic: it was an element in the performance of religious ritual. The disposition of images in churches was codified, rather as the liturgy was, and generally adhered to a set iconography: the great mosaic cycles were deployed about the Pantocrator (Christ in his role as ruler and judge) central in the main dome, and the Virgin and Child in the apse. Below, the main events of the Christian year - from Annunciation to Crucifixion and Resurrection - had their appointed places. Below again, hieratic figures of saints, martyrs and bishops were ranked in order.

The end of iconoclasm opened an era of great activity, the so-called Macedonian Renaissance. It lasted from 867, when Basil I, founder of the Macedonian dynasty, became absolute ruler of what was now a purely Greek monarchy, almost until 1204, when Constantinople was disastrously sacked. Churches were redecorated throughout the Empire, and especially its capital: in Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, mosaics enormous in scale took up the old themes and stances, sometimes with great delicacy and refinement.

Despite the steady erosion of its territory, Byzantium was seen by Europe as the light of civilization, an almost legendary city of gold. Literature, scholarship and an elaborate etiquette surrounded the Macedonian court the 10th century Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitos sculpted and himself illuminated the manuscripts he wrote. Though his power continued to diminish, the Emperor had enormous prestige, and the Byzantine style proved irresistible to the rest of Europe. Even in regimes politically and militarily hostile to Constantinople, Byzantine art was adopted and its medieval artists welcomed.

In Greece, the Church of the Dormition at Daphni, near Athens, of about 1100, presents some of the finest mosaics of this period: there is a grave, classic sense of great delicacy in its Crucifixion, while the dome mosaic of The Pantocrator is one of the most formidable in any Byzantine church. In Venice, the huge expanses of S. Marco (begun 1063) were decorated by artists imported from the East, but their work was largely destroyed by fire in 1106, and later work by Venetian craftsmen is in a less pure style. In the cathedral on the nearby island of Torcello, however, The Virgin and Child, tall, lonely, and solitary as a spire against the vast gold space of the apse, is a 12th century survival. In Sicily, the first Norman king, Roger II (ruled 1130-54), was actively hostile to the Byzantine Empire yet he imported Greek artists, who created one of the finest mosaic cycles ever, in the apse and presbytery at Cefalu. The permeation of Byzantine art into Russia was initiated in 989 by the marriage of Vladimir of Kiev with the Byzantine princess Anna and his conversion to Eastern Christianity. Byzantine mosaicists were working in the Hagia Sophia at Kiev by the 1040s, and the Byzantine impact on Russian medieval painting remained crucial long after the fall of Constantinople.

NOTE: Goldsmithing and precious metalwork were another Byzantine speciality, notably in Kiev (c.950-1237), where both cloisonné and niello styles of enamelling were taken to new heights by Eastern Orthodox goldsmiths.

The secular paintings and mosaics of the Macedonian revival have rarely survived - their most spectacular manifestation was lost in the burning of the legendary Great Palace in Constantinople during the Sack of 1204. Such works retained much more clearly classical features - the ivory panels of the Veroli casket are an example - but such features are to be found, too, in religious manuscripts and in some ivory reliefs (sculpture in the round was forbidden as a concession to the iconoclasts). The Joshua Roll, though it celebrates the military prowess of an Old Testament hero, reflects the pattern of Roman narrative columns of relief sculpture such as Trajan's Column in Rome the famous Paris Psalter of about 950 is remarkably Roman both in feeling and iconography: in one illustration the young David as a musical shepherd is virtually indistinguishable from a pagan Orpheus, and is even attended by an allegorical nymph called Melody.

Note: The importance of Byzantine murals on the development of Western medieval painting should also not be under-estimated. See, for instance, the highly realistic wall paintings in the Byzantine monastery Church of St. Panteleimon in Gorno Nerezi, Republic of Macedonia.

In 1204, the city of Constantinople was sacked by Latin Crusaders, and Latins ruled the city until 1261, when the Byzantine emperors returned. In the interim, craftsmen migrated elsewhere. In Macedonia and Serbia, fresco painting was already established, and the tradition continued steadily. Some 15 major fresco cycles survive, mostly by Greek artists. The fresco medium doubtless encouraged a fluency of expression and an emotional feeling not often apparent in mosaic.

The final two centuries of Byzantium in its decay were troubled and torn with war, but surprisingly produced a third great artistic flowering. The fragmentary but still imposing Deesis in Hagia Sophia in Constantinople may have been constructed after the Latin domination, rather than during the 12th century. It has a new tenderness and humanity which was continued - for instance in the superb early 14th century cycle of the monastic church of Christ in Chora. In Russia, a distinctive style developed, reflected not only in masterpieces such as the icons of Rublev, but also in the individual interpretations of traditional themes by Theophanes the Greek, a Byzantine emigrant, working in a dashing, almost Impressionistic style in the 1370s in Novgorod. Though the central source of the Byzantine style was extinguished with the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453, its influence continued in Russia and the Balkans, while in Italy the Byzantine strain (mingling with Gothic) persisted in the era of Pre-Renaissance Painting (c.1300-1400) ushered in by the works of Duccio di Buoninsegna (c.1255-1319) and Giotto (1270-1337).

Icons (or ikons), generally small and so easily transportable, are the best-known form of Byzantine art. A tradition persists that the first icon was painted by St Luke the Evangelist, showing the Virgin pointing to the Child on her left arm. However, no examples that date from before the 6th century are known. Icons became increasingly popular in Byzantium in the 6th and 7th centuries, to some degree precipitating the reaction of iconoclasm. Although the iconoclasts asserted that icons were being worshipped, their proper function was as an aid to meditation through the visible image the believer could apprehend the invisible spirituality. Condensed into a small compass, they fulfilled and fulfil the same function in the home as the mosaic decorations of the churches - signalling the presence of divinity. The production of icons for the Orthodox Churches has never ceased.

The dating of icons is thus fairly speculative. The discovery at St Catherine's monastery on Mt Sinai of a number of icons that could be ordered chronologically with some certainty is recent. Many different styles are represented. An early St Peter has the frontal simplicity, the direct gaze from large wide-open eyes, that is found again and again in single-figure icons. It also has an almost suave elegance and dignity, allied with a painterly vigour that imparts a distinct tension to the figure. There is a similar emotional quality in a well-preserved Madonna and Saints, despite its unblinking symmetry and rather coarser modelling. Both surely came from Constantinople.

Immediately after the iconoclastic period, devotional images in richer materials, in ivory, mosaic or even precious metals, may have been more popular than painted ones. From the twelfth century painted icons became more frequent, and one great masterpiece can be dated to 1131 or shortly before. Known as "The Virgin of Vladimir", it was sent to Russia soon after it had been painted in Constantinople. The Virgin still indicates the Child, as the embodiment of the divine in human form, but the tenderness of the pose, cheek against cheek, is illustrative of the new humanism.

From the 12th century the subject matter of icons expanded considerably, though the long-established themes and formulae, important for the comfort of the faithful, were maintained. Heads of Christ, Virgins and patron saints continued, but scenes of action appeared - notably Annunciations and Crucifixions later, for iconostases, or choir-screens, composite panels containing many narrative scenes were painted. Long after it had ceased in Constantinople with the Turkish conquest, production continued and developed in Greece and (with clearly discernible regional styles) in Russia, and in Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria. In Russia, individual masters emerged even before the fall of Constantinople, along with important centres such as the Novgorod school of icon painting. The most famous Russian iconographer was the monk Andrei Rublev (c.1370-1430), whose renowned masterpiece, The Holy Trinity Icon (1411-25), is the finest of all Russian icons. He transcended the Byzantine formulae, and the mannerisms of the Novgorod school founded by the Byzantine refugee Theophanes the Greek. Rublev's icons are unique for their cool colours, soft shapes and quiet radiance. The last of the great Russian icon painters of the Novgorod school, was Dionysius (c.1440-1502), noted for his icons for the Volokolamsky monastery, and his Deesis for the Cathedral of the Dormition in Moscow. He was in fact the first celebrated figure in the Moscow school of painting (c.1500-1700), whose Byzantine-inspired icons were produced by the likes of Nicephorus Savin, Procopius Chirin and the great Simon Ushakov (1626-1686).

Source: We gratefully acknowledge the use of material in the above article from David Piper's outstanding book "The Illustrated History of Art".

• For more about Eastern Orthodox decorative arts from Constantinople, see: Homepage.

Ancient Byzantine Art

The arts of the Byzantine era correspond to the dates of the Byzantine Empire, an empire that thrived from 330 A.D. after the fall of Rome to 1453 when Constantinople fell to the Ottomans. The art of the Byzantine Empire is essentially the artistic works produced by Eastern Orthodox states like Greece, Bulgaria, Russia, Serbia, etc…under the auspice of the empire’s capital at Constantinople. Despite the vast area covered by the empire, the art of the Byzantines remained true to certain characteristics for centuries.

Generally speaking, the main characteristics of Byzantine art include a departure from classical art forms that were highly realistic in nature. Byzantine artists were less concerned with mimicking reality and more in tune with symbolism, religious symbolism in particular. That is not to say Byzantine artists abandoned classical influences indeed, Byzantine art reflects many ancient influences such as the widespread use of mosaic art, but, by and large, a more abstract view of reality was preferred.

Religious subject matter is certainly a main characteristic of Byzantine art. Ornate church decoration was certainly apparent especially in the sixth-century Hagia Sophia in the capital, but the painting of icons is a main hallmark of Byzantine art. Images of Christ and the saints were painted as religious icons. Frequently, backgrounds were painted gold so that subjects in the foreground appeared to be floating. In such cases, aesthetic value was less important than religious significance. The painting of icons was denounced as idolatry during the iconoclasm period of the eighth and ninth centuries, but in time tradition won over and Byzantine art would invariably be associated with its religious icon paintings such as the famous Georgian work Icon of the Savior. Many icons reflect the use of formula as well Christ was often depicted with a raised hand in blessing and holding scriptures in the other.

Although the period of art during the reign of Justinian (pre-iconoclasm) witnessed a flowering of Byzantine art, the period following iconoclasm, particularly in Macedonia, saw a great revival of ancient arts and even a return to classical subjects. Increased architecture resulted in many new churches that were painted with frescoes. Ivory carving, such as the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste, reached new levels of greatness during this period which is often referred to as a Byzantine renaissance.

Byzantine art was also concerned with the illumination of texts. Religious texts, both scriptures and devotional materials, were illuminated, or accented with painted scenes and artistic designs. The illumination of secular texts was also permitted. Other arts also thrived during the Byzantine period such as jewelry-making, ceramics, and metalwork. The use of unfaceted gems and enameling was also a hallmark of the Byzantine style, and indeed, many icons were enhanced with rubies, pearls, and other precious stones.

Overall, Byzantine art enjoyed eight hundred years of devotion to its characteristic style. Although Byzantium fell in 1453, the orthodox religion and its particular aesthetic continued to thrive especially in Russia. Icon painting would continue to be popular in Orthodox lands and the Byzantine influence would be felt for centuries beyond the fall of Constantinople.


One of the most notable areas where Byzantium's legacy remained was its influence on architecture.

Following the capture of the Byzantine Empire, the Ottomans incorporated its architectural elements and style into their structures, including the conversion of a traditional basilica, or Christian church, into their own distinguished mosque.

Most widely known for its heavy European stylistic influences is the Dome of the Rock, an Islamic shrine built with similar measurements to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre located in Jerusalem.

Dome of the Rock. Image by Chris Flook.

It's embellished with rich, gold mosaics that glitter with scenes of Islamic iconography. The beloved shrine also incorporates an octagonal structure often apparent in Byzantine architecture.

Impressed by the intricate details found in Christian mosaics, the reigning Muslim invaders were fully content with allowing their Christian counterparts to take a more hands-on approach to art at this time. This meant that some of the unique structures erected during this period were actually built by Christians using traditional Byzantine styles.

The Suleiman Mosque, modeled after Byzantine architecture.

Antique Byzantine Art: Textiles

The Byzantine Empire, or Byzantium, consisted of the remnants of the Roman Empire after the fall in the 5th Century AD. The Byzantine Empire continued to exist for another thousand years until it would later fall to the Ottoman Turkish Empire in 1453. Throughout its history, the Byzantine Empire achieved a high level of art and culture that would have an impact on the civilizations that followed. Traces of Byzantine art can still be found in the artwork of the Ottoman Empire and others. Among these works of art, their skill and advancement of the Byzantine textile arts is one of their most notable contributions to global culture.

The Church and Byzantine Art

Many of the surviving examples of Byzantine art is of religious nature, particularly those displaying iconography. The images of saints and important people were carefully controlled and standardized by the Christian Church. Byzantine artwork spread throughout the world and included art and architecture in Italy, Egypt, Arabia, Russia, Romania, and many places in between. Few pieces of Byzantine textiles have survived through the years, but we can understand their high level of development by examining miniatures and paintings of the time.

Antique Artistic Byzantine Textiles

It is easy to see from these paintings that Byzantine art textiles were in vibrant colors, with a preference for reds and blues. They also used bright oranges and purples. This shows a highly developed control of the dye processes and procedures. At that time, all of these brilliant colors would have been created using only plant dyes.

Currently, one of the largest collections of Byzantine art textiles in the world is housed in the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens, Greece. This museum has about 1,000 antique textile pieces dating from the 5th to the 12th centuries. From this collection, we can learn quite a bit about Byzantine textiles. One of the things that stands out the most about this collection is the level of fine detail and advanced textile weaving techniques that were used, particularly in objects intended to be used for religious purposes.

A fragment of a textile probably cut from the sleeve of a tunic, from the 4th-6th century.

Antique Textiles in Byzantine Constantinople

Constantinople, in Anatolia, was seated at the crossroads of the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. As such, it was home to one of the most extensive trade networks in the world. The Byzantines of Constantinople became extremely wealthy, and they dressed to show off their success. Visitors often commented about the finery of the clothing worn by the populous. They were made from the finest silks, in purple, and laden with gold threads. These were typically reserved for royalty elsewhere, but it seems that in Constantinople, this was more common street attire.

The textile arts were one of the most respected crafts to the Byzantines. They were considered high art, just as much as painting, sculpture, and architecture. Many of the textiles followed the standards set forth to control the other arts by the Byzantine Church, which would later become the Greek Orthodox Church. For the most part, the body of existing textiles are those used by the Church for special occasions, rather than those worn for everyday purposes.

A colorful silk textile fragment.

Byzantine Silk

In the early part of the Empire, China had strict control over silk production. The Byzantines had to purchase silk from the Chinese. However, in the 6th century AD, the Byzantines acquired the secret of silk production. The story goes that a group of monks was sent to smuggle silkworm eggs out of China. By the 7th century, they had mastered the production techniques to the point where they no longer had to import silk from the Chinese. Many of the finest silk textile examples that have survived, were woven in intricate patterns and then embroidered with gold thread.

The silk industry in Constantinople was divided into five highly specialized guilds.

The weavers held a place of high status in Byzantine society. It is thought that cheaper Syrian silks were intended for the populace and that true Byzantine silk was reserved for royalty. It had been mentioned that there were 2,500 Jewish dyers in Byzantine Pera, to give you an idea of the size of the industry.

“The Hero and the Lion” silk textile, circa 7th-9th century.

Byzantine Rugs

Much of the attention of academic scholars has been placed on textiles used for clothing. However, equally spectacular rugs were produced, too. The rugs that adorned palaces and the homes of the people were used to show status and wealth.

Byzantine rugs show similar border designs and colors as Islamic rugs of the time. Bright reds and blues were the dominant colors, much as they are today. Border designs of Byzantine rugs included florals, plant motifs, vines, and leaves. The centers often represented people and events. Sometimes, these rugs were hung on walls and used as tapestries to provide decoration and insulation.

These beautiful works of Byzantine art show the expert knowledge and craftsmanship of the weavers. Often, they combined wool, cotton, silk, and gold threads into a single piece. Textile art helped to define the wealth and power of the Byzantine Empire. You can find the roots of Islamic and Persian design in the borders and patterns of the rugs. The Byzantine textiles and rugs that still exist are a world treasure from one of the greatest Empires in history.

Here are some beautiful, rare and collectible antique textiles from the Nazmiyal Collection:

Antique Azerbaijan Silk Embroidery Textile

Antique Kaitag Embroidery

Antique 19th Century Dagestan Kaitag Embroidery

Antique Persian Silk Embroidery Textile

Antique Dagestan 18th Century Kaitag Embroidery Textile

Rare 18th Century Antique Persian Quilted Embroidery

Round 17th Century Turkish Ottoman Embroidery Textile

Antique 17th Century Persian Suzani Embroidery

Antique Persian Tree of Life Rashti Embroidery

Antique Silk Uzbek Suzani Embroidery Textile

Caucasian Antique Kaitag Embroidery Textile

Antique Persian Silk Rashti Embroidery

Antique Persian Embroidery

Rare Antique Ottoman Embroidery Textile

This rug blog about Byzantine art and textiles was published by Nazmiyal Antique Rugs.

Art and Faith

Photo by Nicolaos Tzafouris. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Looking at the figures in Byzantine art, one notices that they tend to simply exist in space, almost hovering. This is no accident Byzantine artists wanted to show these saints and deities not belonging to a time and place, but existing in a higher realm. Byzantine art, as mentioned above, did not seek to depict a physical perfection (like Greek or Roman art) but to evoke the spirit of holy figures. “Their luminous paintings captured the spirit of the Bible and helped to popularize Christianity.”

Christian symbols are a staple of Byzantine art. Prominently featured are symbols such as the Cross, keys, wheat, keys, chalices, animals, etc., each having a special meaning to faith. A man holding a key[s], for example, would be depicting St. Peter holding the key[s] to heaven. Wheat represents not only harvest and fertility, but the bread of the sacrament at the Last Supper.

Color was also an important symbol in Byzantine art. Gold, which was commonly used as a background in mosaics, represents the divine light and glory of God. It is also “[…] associated with wealth, royalty and heavenly rewards and riches.” Purple represents royalty but is also used in the robes of important religious figures (these robes are commonly outlined in red).

There was a brief time, though, when this religious influence was nearly erased. During the Period of Iconoclasm (726-843) the beautiful early Byzantine mosaics were painted over and sculptures destroyed. Iconoclasts were against depictions of religious figures and believed that the grandiose art itself was worshiped instead of the figure it depicted.

Byzantine Empire Furniture

Early Christian and Byzantine furniture was of two distinct types. The common people had very little furniture. The few items they had were lightly built and usually designed so that they could be easily folded and put away, leaving additional space in cramped environments. Church and palace furniture, however, was built of solid, heavy timber, designed to last, and designed for the space it was to occupy.

Palace Furniture

Byzantine palace furniture can still be seen in museums today. The throne of Queen Marie, for example, is skillfully turned and richly carved. The back is inlaid with silver embossed in an intricate design. Palace furniture included heavy, carved and pillared chairs, tables with inlaid worktops, cabinets and storage chests.

Chests, Stools, Tables & Beds

Chests were also used by the common people, and were often fitted with locks and keys. Folding stools were popular. These could be build entirely of wood, a combination of wood and fabric or, occasionally, from metal. Folding tables were also much used as they were portable and easily moved out of the way when not in use. Beds could be folding stretchers, simple sleeping platforms, frames strung with cords - or just a mattress on the ground.

Byzantine Christian Art (c.400-1200)

NOTE: Byzantine art is almost entirely devoted to Christian art, and revolves around the church. It is dominated by mosaics and icons, for which it is world famous. In addition to icons - typically small panel paintings done in encaustic paint - Byzantine-era artists excelled at fresco mural painting, as well as the illustration of gospel texts and other devotional manuscripts.

Mosaics in San Vitale, Ravenna.

Art During the Decline of Rome

The break-up of the Western Roman Empire was accompanied by wars, invasions, and immense dislocations of the social stability of Europe. Under such conditions it was inevitable that the sense of security without which craftsmanship and skill cannot flourish, should be undermined, and with it the traditions on which the cultural languages of mankind are built. At such times not only the arts of painting and sculpture and architecture become chaotic but also language and literature. Men must have worked, eaten, built houses, written books, sung songs, carved statues, and painted images during those few centuries we call the Dark Ages (c.400-800), but it is difficult to picture them at it. There seems to be no centre of focus, no peg on which to hang our thoughts about those queer, flavourless centuries. Rome was dead as a cultural centre of gravity, and early Christian art was surviving only on the fringes of Europe - in Constantinople and Ireland.

The Forty Martyrs of Sebaste
10th century ivory relief panel.
Bode Museum, Berlin. Ivory was the
most common early Christian sculpture
in Constantinople.

For details of the best painters:
Old Masters (Painters to 1830)
Famous Painters (1830-2010)

Rise of Christian Art

The earliest examples of Christian art in the Roman catacombs are crude and timid, but for that very reason they, are not hampered by the weight of a strong stylistic tradition. Before Christianity could evolve an articulate artistic language of its own it was necessary that the pagan language of art, so carefully perfected by the Greeks, should disintegrate. And it was fortunate that at the very moment when the earliest Christian artists were groping for a means of expression, that disintegration was already in an advanced stage. The symbolic language (iconography) for which the Christian was searching would have been strangled by the descriptive language of pre-Christian art. (See also: Christian Roman Art [313 onwards].)

As long as Christianity had no official status it could produce no art of any permanence. In the Roman catacombs a few tentative experiments in evolving the new symbolism were made, but they are of little aesthetic interest. There was, however, one exception to the confusion that reigned over most of Europe. There was a patch that was comparatively peaceful and comparatively civilized round the eastern end of the Mediterranean. Syria, Asia Minor, and Egypt formed an area within which, given favourable circumstances, new types of art could develop. It needed the stimulus of a state-protected religion, and the consequent appearance of a set of state-approved churches to give such art a dwelling-place. It was at this moment that the pendulum that had swung steadily from Egypt to Crete, from Crete to Athens, and from Athens to Rome, stopped swinging and hung in the balance, waiting for the advent of a fresh impulse to reverse its movement.

Church Art in Constantine's Eastern Empire

If the impulse can be attributed to a single man, that man is the Emperor Constantine, who had the good sense to choose this moment (330 CE) to move eastwards into the area that still showed signs of civilization, and to transfer the seat of the Empire to Constantinople (Byzantium), and at the same time to adopt a protective and tolerant attitude towards Christianity. At last it was possible for Christian religious art to attach itself to something permanent - to the church wall. There it could find a home for itself more fitting than the art of Egypt had ever found in the tomb, or the art of Greece in the temple. The art of Egypt belonged to the tomb only in the sense that a bundle of share certificates belongs to a fire-proof safe and Greek statues had belonged to the temple only in the sense that easel-pictures belong to a room. But early Christian art belongs to the church as the text of a book belongs to the paper on which it is printed. The Christian artist had an opportunity given to no other artist before him, the opportunity of creating a complete iconography of the visual side of religion, and not merely of illustrating it. It was an opportunity almost too big for any man to grasp, and at first it was done fumblingly. See, for instance, the Byzantine-influenced Garima Gospels (390-660) from Ethiopia's Abba Garima Monastery, the world's most ancient illuminated Christian manuscripts.

If it had been left to Rome to do it, it would have been badly done. All Rome could do was to apply worn-out pagan symbols to the new religion, to depict an Apollo or an Orpheus and label him Jesus, or to make Christ and his disciples look (as they do in the early mosaic of S. Pudenziana in Rome), rather like an informal meeting of the Roman Senate. (See also: Roman Art.) Fortunately the Oriental section of the Empire was much better fitted for the task. Even, before Christianity had been recognized, a mysticized version of paganism (known as Mithraism) had been developing in Egypt, Syria, and Asia Minor, and it was easy enough to adapt this mystical frame of mind to Christianity.

Mausoleum of Galla Placidia at Ravenna

It is difficult to fix a precise date at which the pendulum can be said to have begun to swing back. One of the earliest major works of Christian art is the mausoleum of Galla Placidia at Ravenna of the fourth century. Here, in a tiny brick building no bigger than a country cottage, the Roman idioms are used with a purely Oriental effect. The Saints look like Roman philosophers, the beardless Christ is nothing but a rustic shepherd sitting in rather vapid bucolic contentment among his sheep, and yet to enter the brick shell and to find oneself in an unearthly gloom encrusted with blue and silver and gold mosaics is to be taken at a leap right across the Greek peninsula into an atmosphere that only a semi-oriental vision could have conceived. This is the earliest successful attempt to serve up the old pagan wine in the new Christian bottle.

Church of St Sophia (Constantinople) Church of San Vitale (Ravenna)

The pendulum has begun to swing, but only just. A more spectacular impulse was given to it by the building of the great church of St Sophia in Constantinople by the Emperor Justinian and his pious wife Theodora. We are not here concerned with the church as a landmark in architectural construction, and the mosaics which cover its interior have only relatively recently been freed from the coat of whitewash with which Islam insisted on covering them after the Turkish occupation of Constantinople. But Justinian erected an equally significant though smaller example of sixth-century Byzantine art in the church of San Vitale in Ravenna. Here the new symbolism is beginning to gain the upper hand. The Roman idioms are still there but they have ceased to count for much. They are supplanted by a new orchestral use of colour. Colour, treated by the Egyptians and Greeks merely as a useful descriptive or decorative addition, is here used for full-blooded emotional ends.

What is significant about this building and its successors is that it was regarded, architecturally, as a set of interior wall-spaces. It was built from the inside outwards. It had no significance whatever until one entered it. If the typical Greek temple was an object of deliberate self-contained beauty, to be looked at from the outside - a building of self-conscious perfection which a little added sculpture would certainly improve, but which could easily survive the absence of it - then the church of San Vitale is a blank brick book whose pages are meaningless until they have been lined with mosaic.

Use of Mosaics as a Form of Christian Architectural Art

The Christian artist was being given his opportunity with a vengeance. The new attitude to mosaic is of the utmost significance. Mosaic art was not an unknown medium before the Byzantine era, but it had been thought of by the Greeks and Romans as a means of decorating a surface unsuitable for paint - a floor where paint would have been worn away, or the inside of a fountain, where paint would have been washed off. But now it became not only a structural part of the wall, but the raison d'etre for the wall. Conceived, in a sense, as a new form of Biblical art, the wall was built for the sole purpose of holding the mosaic, and windows were pierced in the wall for the sole purpose of illuminating it. See in particular: Ravenna Mosaics (c.400-600).

Mosaic, unlike paint, is a rigid, inflexible medium it imposes a fierce discipline on the artist who uses it. The Romans, who used it in places where paint was unsuitable, tried to make it express painterly ideas, and the early Christian artists of the West (see the upper panels of Sant' Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna and in St Maria Maggiore in Rome) continued so to use it. Even in San Vitale, where the general effect is remote and unearthly, the two famous groups of Justinian and his ecclesiastical attendants and soldiers on one side and of Theodora with her handmaidens on the other, are relics of a Roman view of life in which the Emperor's image could find an appropriate home on the walls of the church, and the earth was as worthy of the artist's attention as the heavens. But as the Byzantine pendulum continued to swing, and as the influence of the Eastern group of artists spread, mosaic began to be used as it should be used, as the perfect vehicle for visual symbolism on a large scale.
William Morris once said mosaic was like beer in that it was no good unless you had a lot of it. In the churches of Parenzo on the Adriatic opposite to Ravenna (sixth century), of Sant' Agnese in Rome (seventh century), Santa Prassede in Rome (ninth century), at Daphni, near Athens (eleventh century), at Cefalu, in the Capella Palatina and in the Cathedral of Monreale in Sicily (twelfth century), in St Mark's, Venice (mainly thirteenth and fourteenth centuries), to pick out a handful of typical examples from a host of others, what counts for as much as the quality of the design and the richness of the colour is the sheer profusion of the mosaic. It is overpowering through its cumulative effect. Some of it is not particularly interesting in detail, but almost always it is impressive in its general planning, in the placing of its climaxes and in its genius for being glowing and remote at the same time.

Development of Mosaic Iconography

In the Byzantine case the necessary schematization was imposed on the artist from above, so that he became the illustrator of a series of incidents for the benefit of an illiterate people. His iconography evolved in stages, exemplified by the following works: (1) the upper portions of the sides of the apse of San Vitale (6th century), where a beardless Moses standing on an impossibly symbolic mountain watches the hand of God emerge from impossibly romantic clouds (2) the wall above the apse of Santa Prassede, Rome (9th century), where the twenty-four elders stand in a pattern as formal, and as violently distorted, from the point of view of visual truth, as anything Picasso has ever dared to attempt with the human figure (3) the mosaics in the domes of the Narthex of St Mark's, Venice (13th century), in which the story of Genesis is told in concentric circles, each divided into square compartments like a modern comic strip. The first is a half-hearted attempt to depict an actual scene by a man who is not interested in actuality, but cannot think how to dispense with it the second is pure symbolism without a thought for actuality the third is an attempt to use symbolism for the purposes of narrative by a man who has been out of touch with actuality for seven centuries, but whose employers are beginning to demand it once more.

During the whole of this period no name emerges, no mosaicist of genius to whom one can point as having produced the perfect flower of Byzantine art. It is an anonymous art. Even more than in Egypt is the artist submerged in his task and even more than in Egypt is he compelled to work within a set of established formulas. He is serving a cause, not exploiting his personality. For this very reason it is not easy to write the history of Byzantine art. To do so is like trying to make a map of a wide landscape with a distinctive character of its own but without milestones or landmarks. Its course is marked by none of those discoveries that the typical European artist always tries to make and which the art historian delights to record. It is as little capable of being translated into words as a melody and, worse still, it almost refuses to be translated into reproduction. A photograph of an Egyptian statue gives one a fairly accurate sense of the original, a photograph of a fresco by Giotto or a painting by Velazquez supplies more information about the originals, than pages of laboured description. But a photograph of the interior of the church at Cefalu bears as little relation to the church itself as a Walt Disney drawing of Donald Duck does to a Donald Duck cartoon. Similarly, a photograph of a Byzantine mosaic may illustrate the boldness of Byzantine formalism, but it fails to convey Byzantine impressiveness. Add to this the unfortunate fact that Byzantine mosaics are not portable, and it becomes plain that to write an adequate account of this - by far the most important - aspect of Byzantine art is almost impossible. And yet, the whole corpus of Byzantine mosaic from the sixth to the twelfth century is one of the most deeply moving of all manifestations of the human spirit.

Effects of Christian Byzantine Mosaics

Replicas of portions of the Ravenna mosaics have been exhibited throughout Europe. They are as faithful in detail as a replica needs to be, and even detached from their architectural context their effect is remarkable. As samples they leave nothing to be desired, yet a considerable imaginative effort is needed if they are to have the same emotional effect as their originals. The Oriental colour orchestration and the encrusted surfaces that catch and reflect the light like jewels, survive: but the cumulative power, the great visual crescendos that depend for their effect on sudden changes of scale and the relationship of flat wall to curved semi-dome, are inevitably lost.

What they illustrate quite clearly, even to those who have never seen them in situ, is that here is the only instance of a style in which Eastern and Western elements meet and are fused. Art historians have been at considerable pains to analyse the various ingredients - Greek, Roman, Syrian, Semitic, even Mesopotamian - which have been fused together in different proportions in the best of Byzantine art. But, as always, analysis of this kind is only valuable historically. What makes Byzantine medieval art unique is that it achieved the full expression of a mystical Christianity in terms of oriental opulence. In theory, the asceticism of the former should have been contradicted and nullified by the sensuousness of the latter. In practice the two opposing elements reinforce and intensify each other. The perfection of formal physical beauty that had been the Greek achievement has been abandoned in favour of the formless, timeless, Christian conception of a religion in which perfection was, by definition, unattainable. The artist, tethered for so long to the material world, finds himself free to exploit an entirely different world of form. Yet because that very freedom from the old mimetic duties might create confusion and chaos, the mimetic discipline is replaced by an equally strict iconographical discipline.

Perhaps the nearest counterpart today to this strange mingling of the spiritual and the sensuous is to be found in Christian Catholic ritual, where both mystery and miracle are expressed in terms that could hardly be more formal, so rigid and prescribed is their pattern, and yet the symbolic ingredients - the vessels of gold, silver, and the embroidered vestments - could hardly be more materially precious or gorgeous.

Students can study elsewhere the strict iconographical rules laid down for the creation of Byzantine mosaic art and fresco painting, and the purely technical processes involved in the manufacture and the handling of the medium - how tesserae of glass and marble were fixed into their bed of mastic, and how gold-leaf was fused between an upper and a lower layer of transparent glass. The whole of the later Byzantine era was characterized by a respect for tradition in both iconography and craftsmanship. The level of craftsmanship in ivory carving (see, for instance, the Throne of Maximianus, bishop of Ravenna, 556), or low relief sculpture, metal-work and jewellery, as well as miniature painting, frescoes and icons, was remarkably high.

The influence of Byzantine mannerisms was widespread in the East. All over the Balkans, especially in the area that was once Serbia, provincial schools of fresco wall painting took root, but the form of medieval painting that specially concerns us here is icon painting which developed so surprisingly late and continued for so long in Russia. When Constantinople passed into Mohammedan keeping it was Russia which became heir to the Byzantine view of life, and the forms which for centuries had ceased to mean anything in Europe became the central Russian tradition. Again, it is an anonymous art, and though provincial schools of icon painters developed slightly different ways of treating the given themes, almost the only famous names among the painters of icons are those of Andrei Rublev (c.1365-1430), a monk of the Spas Andronievski Monastery in Moscow - noted for the Holy Trinity Icon (1411-25) - and Dionysius (c.1440-1502). The famous Madonna of Don Icon (c.1380, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow) by Theophanes the Greek (c.1340-1410) shows how simple and intense in feeling the icon could be at its best, and though as far as design is concerned the whole school seems to have developed out of itself (it is the only example of art based on art that did not immediately perish for lack of outside stimulus), the harmonization and distribution of colour in the best of the icons are among the most adventurous and subtle experiments in the history of painting.

Christian Romanesque Art in Western Europe

So much for the eastern half of Europe. Meanwhile the continued social and political chaos in the western half made it impossible for a parallel set of traditions to evolve until much later. Again, the development of a western European art was dependent on the building of churches. In the East there was no break in output between the final collapse of Rome and the rise of Constantinople, but in the West there occurred a real hiatus filled only by the carving of a few stone crosses in Northumberland and on the Scottish border, or by a few gospel manuscripts from Ireland or from Central Europe. One has to wait for the advent of Romanesque architecture before the representational arts can find a new point d'appui.

NOTE: Goldsmithing and precious metalwork were a Russian Byzantine speciality, as practiced in Kiev (c.950-1237), where both cloisonné and niello enamelling were highly developed by Byzantine craftsmen.

Christmas Day, 800, when Charlemagne attended Mass in St Peter's at Rome and was crowned by the Pope as head of the Holy Roman Empire, was a significant day. Not that anything resembling unity in Western Europe was accomplished by the symbolic event, but after the year 800 there was at least a potential rallying force for Western European culture as soon as it was ready to emerge. Charlemagne himself was an unashamed eclectic who could think of nothing better to do for art than to produce a stone church in Aix-la-Chapelle based on San Vitale in Ravenna, to hire Byzantine mosaicists to fill it with decorations which have long since disappeared, and to base his ornamental motifs on Irish illuminated manuscripts. It was not till the beginning of the eleventh century, two hundred years after the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire, that Romanesque architecture had evolved its own language.

It was a language of stone - a three-dimensional language, whereas Byzantine was on the whole a language of brick, coated with two-dimensional decoration. Like Byzantine art, the main body of it is applied art. It belongs to the building and cannot be divorced from it. But being conceived of stone it consists largely of stone sculpture. Generally speaking, the nearer it approaches to the East the more apt it is to emphasize surface and take the form of low relief the further West it penetrates, the solider and more fully rounded it becomes. But whether it is in low relief and consequently conceived as line, or statues in the round and therefore conceived as mass, it is essentially an art in which form counts rather than colour. This, of course, is roughly true of all European as opposed to Oriental art, but the history of Romanesque art and its development into Gothic art (there seems to be no real reason to separate the two: they are phases of the same movement) is essentially the history of an art whose main concern was with shape.

What is more noteworthy still is that it is an art with no centre of radiation, no main stream traceable to a definite source such as Nineveh or Knossus or Athens had been. In medieval Europe national boundaries were so fluid and national consciousness was so weak that cultural movements found no difficulty in flowing freely across them. (see also: Medieval Christian Artworks and Medieval Artists.) Consequently one can find fully-developed expressions of the Romanesque and Gothic spirit in almost any corner of Western Europe at any moment. The facades of the Church of St Trophime at Arles in Provence, of the Cathedral of Chartres in north-western France, of the Cathedral of Santiago in Spain, of the Church of San Zeno in Verona are all variations on the same theme. Romanesque and Gothic art are dependent on the vast organization of the Catholic Church and not on the inspiration of a geographical centre as Florence was to be later and as Paris was until the spring of 1940.

As in Byzantine art, the output is enormous but anonymous. And, as in Byzantine art, what we have to examine is a slowly changing mood rather than a succession of independent masterpieces. What characterizes the whole Romanesque movement is a perfect coordination between the carving and its architectural setting. The spacing of the statues on the facade of St Trophime, the richness of their surface contrasted with the smooth stone wall above them, the manner in which they alternate rhythmically with the supporting columns of the overhanging porch, the distribution of the shadows, the controlled freedom of line give the eye a thrill of satisfaction. There is nothing profound in this medieval sculpture, but it invented a set of rhythms and textures which make archaic Greek sculpture look pedestrian by comparison. In no other period can one find such masses of carving, affectionate, and meticulous in detail, yet held together by a breadth of design that includes the whole carved area and enables the eye to take it in at a single glance.

Works reflecting the style of Christian art (Byzantine era) can be seen in some of the most beautiful Eastern European churches and best art museums in the world.

The impact of the Byzantine style on later developments in European art was profound. See for instance the Nerezi fresco murals at the small Byzantine monastery Church of St. Panteleimon in Gorno Nerezi, Republic of Macedonia (1164), a beautifully sensitive and realistic series of wall paintings in the style of Comnenian Age Byzantine art. For more, see: Pre-Renaissance Painting (c.1300-1400), which was founded largely by (on the one hand) Giotto and the Florentine tradition, and (on the other) by Duccio di Buoninsegna (1255-1319) of the Sienese School of painting.

• For the meaning of important oils, frescoes and tempera pictures, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.
• For information about painting and sculpture, see: Homepage.

5 - Art and liturgy in the later Byzantine Empire

It is generally assumed that by the eleventh century the text of the Byzantine liturgy was well established and was performed in a consistent manner throughout much of the Greek-speaking world. For the Eucharist, this assumption is essentially true, though some evolution was still to take place with the widespread adoption of the Eucharistic liturgy of John Chrysostom in preference to that of St Basil and with the expansion of the prothesis rite, that is, the prefatory rite before the beginning of the Eucharist. For the feasts of the church year, however, this is less true, as new poetic pieces were still being composed for, and saints being added to, the basic calendar of commemorations even after the end of the empire. Of most importance for the history of the liturgy in this period was the merging of the liturgy of the Great Church of Constantinople with Palestinian monastic rites: a process which started in the ninth century and was only completed in the twelfth. The pomp and circumstance of the former was enriched by the poetic hymnody of the latter. However, even as late as the fifteenth century, the church of Thessalonike continued to preserve elements of the Asmatike akolouthia , as the liturgy of the Great Church was known. Its elaborate ceremonies had some influence on the art of the Balkans in the fourteenth century.

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Byzantine Art

While Western Europe was going through the Dark Ages, the Roman Capital at Byzantium (which was later to be called Constantinople and is now modern-day Istanbul) flourished in the East and became a glorious gem of art and architecture.

Byzantine art-focused heavily on religious themes, particularly applied in mosaics, Icon paintings (paintings of the saints on wood panel), and fresco wall paintings. This art movement’s influence on later periods is seen in the Illuminations of Anglo Saxon monastic illustrations. The domed structures of Byzantine architecture still influence architects today.

Art History: Byzantine Art Origins and Historical Importance

The Byzantine age began when Constantine, the first king to adopt Christianity as his (and the state’s) religion, moved the capital of the Roman Empire to the city of Byzantion on the far eastern edge of Europe. This situated the seat of the empire on the best trade routes. He named the city Constantinople to congratulate and exalt himself.

Hagia Sophia – Byzantine Art

The move from Rome to Constantinople saw indigenous religions of Eastern Europe fade as Christianity took hold. Because of its Roman origins and influence, however, much of the classical style was still present in Byzantine art.

The art of this period left behind the naturalistic and realistic themes and productions of Rome, however, in favor of more symbolic imagery. The skills and standards held by earlier artists went into decline as the nature and purpose of art changed.

“People expect Byzantine, Machiavellian logic from politicians. But the truth is simple. Trial lawyers learn a good rule: ‘Don’t decide what you don’t have to decide.’ That’s not evasion, it’s wisdom.” – Mario Cuomo

The statues and figures of prior cultures fell by the wayside as the early Christians had a distrust of such sculpture.

Interestingly, they did approve of Icons and reliefs. The icons, as mentioned above, were painted figures of Christ and the Saints on board. They were displayed in both churches and private homes and were meant not only as representations of the figures pictured, but as the very essence and presence of the person depicted. In the seventh century, people began to believe that the icons were windows through which the supplicant could communicate with the saint.

Chludov Psalter – Byzantine Art

Sculpture survived only minimally, and then mostly in reliquaries and small, carved items. However, graceful silver vessels, carved ivory, and beautiful glass works of art were created during this time. Artisans created a painted image on glass and then covered and sealed it with another clear piece of glass on top for use as adornment.

“Since we cannot change reality, let us change the eyes which see reality.” – Nikos Kazantzakisy

Similar in colors and style to the icons were the illuminated monastic manuscripts. The monastic tradition began during this era as did the replacement of the scroll with the codex. Illuminated manuscripts were carefully decorated and illustrated copies of the Christian Bible and religious texts.

Other religious art forms were present early in the period in the form of elaborate mosaics and frescoes upon the walls of churches. The images formed a scene in which it started at the top of the dome with The Creator, The Coronation of the Virgin Mary possibly in one of the half domes, and the angels surrounding the circumference above the congregation below.

Pectoral Cross – Byzantine Art

Because realism had taken the backseat of importance to symbolism and religious priority, the paintings and mosaics had a standard set of features on figures, a two-dimensional look, and many details were brought down to a level of mere lines, curves, and swirls.

Two periods of iconoclasm, which is the destruction and forbiddance of icons for religious and political reasons, took place in the eighth and ninth centuries. These periods came about when rulers became wary of the people giving what they thought was too much credence to the divine power of an image and in particular the rise of acheiropoieta, icons that were created “without human hands”. These icons were believed to have magically appeared, created by the supernatural.

Baberini Diptych – Byzantine Art

In 1053, the Church splintered between Eastern Greek and Western Latin, during the Great Schism. Church leaders from both sides disagreed on the source of the Holy Spirit, which city was the seat of Christianity, and whether or not the Pope had universal jurisdiction. Artists in Constantinople escaping the tension moved to Rome and began the Proto-Renaissance period.

The Age of Byzantium ended when the city was taken by the Turks in 1453, but its style and characteristics survived into the 18th century in Eastern Europe and especially in the governmental and religious architecture of Russia.

[quote_colored name=”” icon_quote=”no”]”The Byzantines hammered away at their hard and orthodox symbols because they could not be in a mood to believe that men could take a hint. The moderns drag out into lengths and reels of extravagance their new orthodoxy of being unorthodox because they also cannot give a hint — or take a hint. Yet all perfect and well-poised art is really a hint.” – Gilbert K. Chesterton[/quote_colored]

Byzantine Art Key Highlights

  • The Age of Justinian saw the restoration and new building of a number of Byzantine churches. This architectural movement was recorded by Procopius in a book titled Buildings.
  • The Macedonian Renaissance that came into being during the reign of Emperor Basil I and after the victory over iconoclasm, saw a new interest in creating images from classical mythology and from the Old Testament.
  • The Comnenian Age that marked the reign of the dynasty of the Komnenos, saw a return to humanism and emotion after a period of war and strife.

Byzantine Art Top Works

  • Pectoral Cross
  • Hagia Sophia
  • Murals at Nerezi
  • Chludov Psalter
  • Skylitzis Chronicle
  • Baberini Diptych
  • Medallion with Portrait of Gennadios

Art History Movements (Order by the period of origin)

Dawn of Man – BC 10

Paleolithic Art (Dawn of Man – 10,000 BC), Neolithic Art (8000 BC – 500 AD), Egyptian Art (3000 BC - 100 AD), Ancient Near Eastern Art (Neolithic era – 651 BC), Bronze and Iron Age Art (3000 BC – Debated), Aegean Art (2800-100 BC), Archaic Greek Art (660-480 BC), Classical Greek Art (480-323 BC ), Hellenistic Art (323 BC – 27 BC), Etruscan Art (700 - 90 BC)

1st Century to 10th Century

Roman Art (500 BC – 500 AD), Celtic Art. Parthian and Sassanian Art (247 BC – 600 AD), Steppe Art (9000BC – 100 AD), Indian Art (3000 BC - current), Southeast Asian Art (2200 BC - Present), Chinese and Korean Art, Japanese Art (11000 BC – Present), Early Christian Art (260-525 AD, Byzantine Art (330 – 1453 AD), Irish Art (3300 BC - Present), Anglo Saxon Art (450 – 1066 AD), Viking Art (780 AD-1100AD), Islamic Art (600 AD-Present)

Watch the video: TICE Art 1010: Medieval and Byzantine