Byzantine art refers to the body of Christian Greek artistic products of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, as well as the nations and states that inherited culturally from the empire. Though the empire itself emerged from the decline of Rome and lasted until the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, the start date of the Byzantine period is rather clearer in art history than in political history, if still imprecise. Many Eastern Orthodox states in Eastern Europe, as well as to some degree the Muslim states of the eastern Mediterranean, pr
eserved many aspects of the empire’s culture and art for centuries afterward.
A number of states contemporary with the Byzantine Empire were culturally influenced by it, without actually being part of it (the “Byzantine commonwealth”). These included the Rus, as well as some non-Orthodox states like the Republic of Venice, which separated from the Byzantine empire in the 10th century, and the Kingdom of Sicily, which had close ties to the Byzantine Empire and had also been a Byzantine possession until the 10th century with a large Greek-speaking population persisting into the 12th century. Other states having a Byzantine artistic tradition had oscillated throughout the Middle Ages between being part of the Byzantine empire and having periods of independence, such as Serbia and Bulgaria. After the fall of the Byzantine capital of Constantinople in 1453, art produced by Eastern Orthodox Christians living in the Ottoman Empire was often called “post-Byzantine.” Certain artistic traditions that originated in the Byzantine Empire, particularly in regard to icon painting and church architecture, are maintained in Greece, Cyprus, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Russia and other Eastern Orthodox countries to the present day.
Byzantine art originated and evolved from the Christianized Greek culture of the Eastern Roman Empire; content from both Christianity and classical Greek mythology were artistically expressed through Hellenistic modes of style and iconography. The art of Byzantium never lost sight of its classical heritage; the Byzantine capital, Constantinople, was adorned with a large number of classical sculptures, although they eventually became an object of some puzzlement for its inhabitants(however, Byzantine beholders showed no signs of puzzlement towards other forms of classical media such as wall paintings). The basis of Byzantine art is a fundamental artistic attitude held by the Byzantine Greeks who, like their ancient Greek predecessors, “were never satisfied with a play of forms alone, but stimulated by an innate rationalism, endowed forms with life by associating them with a meaningful content.” Although the art produced in the Byzantine Empire was marked by periodic revivals of a classical aesthetic, it was above all marked by the development of a new aesthetic defined by its salient “abstract”, or anti-naturalistic character. If classical art was marked by the attempt to create representations that mimicked reality as closely as possible, Byzantine art seems to have abandoned this attempt in favor of a more symbolic approach.
In any case, the debate is purely modern: it is clear that most Byzantine viewers did not consider their art to be abstract or unnaturalistic. As Cyril Mango has observed, “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 monumental Byzantine art was primarily religious and imperial: the two themes are often combined, as in the portraits of later Byzantine emperors that decorated the interior of the sixth-century church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. These preoccupations are partly a result of the pious and autocratic nature of Byzantine society, and partly a result of its economic structure: the wealth of the empire was concentrated in the hands of the church and the imperial office, which had the greatest opportunity to undertake monumental artistic commissions.
Religious art was not, however, limited to the monumental decoration of church interiors. One of the most important genres of Byzantine art was the icon, an image of Christ, the Virgin, or a saint, used as an object of veneration in Orthodox churches and private homes alike. Icons were more religious than aesthetic in nature: especially after the end of iconoclasm, they were understood to manifest the unique “presence” of the figure depicted by means of a “likeness” to that figure maintained through carefully maintained canons of representation.
The illumination of manuscripts was another major genre of Byzantine art. The most commonly illustrated texts were religious, both scripture itself (particularly the Psalms) and devotional or theological texts (such as the Ladder of Divine Ascent of John Climacus or the homilies of Gregory of Nazianzus). Secular texts were also illuminated: important examples include the Alexander Romance and the history of John Skylitzes.
The Byzantines inherited the Early Christian distrust of monumental sculpture in religious art, and produced only reliefs, of which very few survivals are anything like life-size, in sharp contrast to the medieval art of the West, where monumental sculpture revived from Carolingian art onwards. Small ivories were also mostly in relief.
The so-called “minor arts” were very important in Byzantine art and luxury items, including 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 produced: for example, ivories representing themes from classical mythology. Byzantine ceramics were relatively crude, as pottery was never used at the tables of the rich, who ate off Byzantine silver.
Byzantine art and architecture is divided into four periods by convention: the Early period, commencing with the Edict of Milan (when Christian worship was legitimized) and the transfer of the imperial seat to Constantinople, extends to AD 842, with the conclusion of Iconoclasm; the Middle, or high period, begins with the restoration of the icons in 843 and culminates in the Fall of Constantinople to the Crusaders in 1204; the Late period includes the eclectic osmosis between Western European and traditional Byzantine elements in art and architecture, and ends with the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. The term post-Byzantine is then used for later years, whereas “Neo-Byzantine” is used for art and architecture from the 19th century onwards, when the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire prompted a renewed appreciation of Byzantium by artists and historians alike.
Two events were of fundamental importance to the development of a unique, Byzantine art. First, the Edict of Milan, issued by the emperors Constantine I and Licinius in 313, allowed for public Christian worship, and led to the development of a monumental, Christian art. Second, the dedication of Constantinople in 330 created a great new artistic centre for the eastern half of the Empire, and a specifically Christian one. Other artistic traditions flourished in rival cities such as Alexandria, Antioch, and Rome, but it was not until all of these cities had fallen – the first two to the Arabs and Rome to the Goths – that Constantinople established its supremacy.
Constantine devoted great effort to the decoration of Constantinople, adorning its public spaces with ancient statuary, and building a forum dominated by a porphyry column that carried a statue of himself. Major Constantinopolitan churches built under Constantine and his son, Constantius II, included the original foundations of Hagia Sophia and the Church of the Holy Apostles.
The next major building campaign in Constantinople was sponsored by Theodosius I. The most important surviving monument of this period is the obelisk and base erected by Theodosius in the Hippodrome which, with the large silver dish called the Missorium of Theodosius I, represents the classic examples of what is sometimes called the “Theodosian Renaissance”. The earliest surviving church in Constantinople is the Basilica of St. John at the Stoudios Monastery, built in the fifth century.
Due to subsequent rebuilding and destruction, relatively few Constantinopolitan monuments of this early period survive. However, the development of monumental early Byzantine art can still be traced through surviving structures in other cities. For example, important early churches are found in Rome (including Santa Sabina and Santa Maria Maggiore), and in Thessaloniki (the Rotunda and the Acheiropoietos Basilica).
A number of important illuminated manuscripts, both sacred and secular, survive from this early period. Classical authors, including Virgil (represented b
y the Vergilius Vaticanus and the Vergilius Romanus) and Homer (represented by the Ambrosian Iliad), were illustrated with narrative paintings. Illuminated biblical manuscripts of this period survive only in fragments: for example, the Quedlinburg Itala fragment is a small portion of what must have been a lavishly illustrated copy of 1 Kings.
Early Byzantine art was also marked by the cultivation of ivory carving. Ivory diptychs, often elaborately decorated, were issued as gifts by newly appointed consuls. Silver plates were another important form of luxury art: among the most lavish from this period is the Missor ium of Theodosius I . Sarcophagi continued to be produced in great numbers.
1.) Age oj Justinian I
Significant changes in Byzantine art coincided with the reign of Justinian I (527–565). Justinian devoted much of his reign to reconquering Italy, North Africa and Spain. He also laid the foundations of the imperial absolutism of the Byzantine state, codifying its laws and imposing his religious views on all his subjects by law.
A significant component of Justinian’s project of imperial renovation was a massive building program, which was described in a book, the Buildings, written by Justinian’s court historian, Procopius. Justinian renovated, rebuilt, or founded anew countless churches within Constantinople, including Hagia Sophia, which had been destroyed during the Nika riots, the Church of the Holy Apostles, and the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus. Justinian also built a number of churches and fortifications outside of the imperial capital, including Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai in Egypt, Basilica of Saint Sofia in Sofia and the Basilica of St. John in Ephesus.
Several major churches of this period were built in the provinces by local bishops in imitation of the new Constantinopolitan foundations. The Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, was built by Bishop Maximianus. The decoration of San Vitale includes important mosaics of Justinian and his empress, Theodora, although neither ever visited the church. Also of note is the Euphrasian Basilica in Poreč.
Archeological discoveries in the 19th and 20th centuries unearthed a large group of Early Byzantine mosaics in the Middle East. The eastern provinces of the Eastern Roman and later the Byzantine Empires inherited a strong artistic tradition from the Late Antiquity. Christian mosaic art flourished in this area from the 4th century onwards. The tradition of making mosaics was carried on in the Umayyad era until the end of the 8th century. The most important surviving examples are 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 first fully preserved illuminated biblical manuscripts date to the first half of the sixth century, most notably the Vienna Genesis, the Rossano Gospels, and the Sinope Gospels. The Vienna Dioscurides is a lavishly illustrated botanical treatise, presented as a gift to the Byzantine aristocrat Julia Anicia.
Important ivory sculptures of this period include the Barberini ivory, which probably depicts Justinian himself, and the Archangel ivory in the British Museum. Silver plate continued to be decorated with scenes drawn from classical mythology; for example, a plate preserved in the Cabinet des Médailles, Paris, depicts Hercules wrestling the Nemean lion.
2.) 7th Century crisis
he Age of Justinian was followed by a political decline, since most of Justinian’s conquests were lost and the Empire faced acute crisis with the invasions of the Avars, Slavs, Persians and Arabs in the 7th century. Constantinople was also wracked by religious and political conflict.
The most significant surviving monumental projects of this period were undertaken outside of the imperial capital. The church of Hagios Demetrios in Thessaloniki was rebuilt after a fire in the mid-seventh century. The new sections include mosaics executed in a remarkably abstract style. The church of the Koimesis in Nicaea (present-day Iznik), destroyed in the early 20th century but documented through photographs, demonstrates the simultaneous survival of a more classical style of church decoration. The churches of Rome, still a Byzantine territory in this period, also include important surviving decorative programs, especially Santa Maria Antiqua, Sant’Agnese fuori le mura, and the Chapel of San Venanzio in San Giovanni in Laterano. Byzantine mosaicists probably also contributed to the decoration of the early Umayyad monuments, including the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Great Mosque of Damascus.
Important works of luxury art from this period include the silver David Plates, produced during the reign of Emperor Heraclius, and depicting scenes from the life of the Hebrew king David. The most notable surviving manuscripts are Syriac gospel books, such as the so-called Syriac Bible of Paris. However, the London Canon Tables bear witness to the continuing production of lavish gospel books in Greek.
The period between Justinian and iconoclasm saw major changes in the social and religious roles of images within Byzantium. The veneration of acheiropoieta, or holy images “not made by human hands,” became a significant phenomenon, and in some instances these images were credited with saving cities from military assault. By the end of the seventh century, certain images of saints had come to be viewed as “windows” through which one could communicate with the figure depicted. Proskynesis before images is also attested in texts from the late seventh century. These developments mark the beginnings of a theology of icons.
At the same time, the debate over the proper role of art in the decoration of churches intensified. Three canons of the Quinisext Council of 692 addressed controversies in this area: prohibition of the representation of the cross on church pavements , prohibition of the representation of Christ as a lamb , 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”
3,) Crisis of iconoclasm
Intense debate over the role of art in worship led eventually to the period of “Byzantine iconoclasm.” Sporadic outbreaks of iconoclasm on the part of local bishops are attested in Asia Minor during 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, and may have led Leo to remove a famous icon of Christ from the Chalke Gate outside the imperial palace. However, iconoclasm probably did not become imperial policy until the reign of Leo’s son, Constantine V. The Council of Hieria, convened under Constantine in 754, proscribed the manufacture of icons of Christ. This inaugurated the Iconoclastic period, which lasted, with interruptions, until 843.
While iconoclasm severely restricted the role of religious art, and led to the removal of some earlier apse mosaics and (possibly) the sporadic destruction of portable icons, it never constituted a total ban on the production of figural art. Ample literary sources indicate that secular art (i.e. hunting scenes and depictions of the games in the hippodrome) continued to be produced, and the few monuments that can be securely dated to the period (most notably the manuscript of Ptolemy’s “Handy Tables” today held by the Vatican) demonstrate that metropolitan artists maintained a high quality of production.
Major churches dating to this period include Hagia Eirene in Constantinople, which was rebuilt in the 760s following its destruction by the 740 Constantinople earthquake. The interior of Hagia Eirene, which is dominated by 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 figural, “Byzantine,” style, may also bear witness to the continuing activities of Byzantine artists. Particularly important in this regard are 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.
The splendour of Byzantine art was always in the mind of early medieval Western artists and patrons, and many of the most important movements in the period were conscious attempts to produce art fit to stand next to both classical Roman and contemporary Byzantine art. This was especially the case for the imperial Carolingian art and Ottonian art. Luxury products from the Empire were highly valued, and reached for example the royal Anglo-Saxon Sutton Hoo burial in Suffolk of the 620s, which contains several pieces of silver. Byzantine silks were especially valued and large quantities were distributed as diplomatic gifts from Constantinople. There are records of Byzantine artists working in the West, especially during the period of iconoclasm, and some works, like the frescos at Castelseprio and miniatures in the Vienna Coronation Gospels, seem to have been produced by such figures.
In particular, teams of mosaic artists were dispatched as diplomatic gestures by emperors to Italy, where they often trained locals to continue their work in a style heavily influenced by Byzantium. Venice and Norman Sicily were particular centres of Byzantine influence. The earliest surviving panel paintings in the West were in a style heavily influenced by contemporary Byzantine icons, until a distinctive Western style began to develop in Italy in the Trecento; the traditional and still influential narrative of Vasari and others has the story of Western painting begin as a breakaway by Cimabue and then Giotto from the shackles of the Byzantine tradition. In general, Byzantine artistic influence on Europe was in steep decline by the 14th century if not earlier, despite the continued importance of migrated Byzantine scholars in the Renaissance in other areas.
Islamic art began with artists and craftsmen mostly trained in Byzantine styles, and though figurative content was greatly reduced, Byzantine decorative styles remained a
great influence on Islamic art, and Byzantine artists continued to be imported for important works for some time, especially for mosaics.
The Byzantine era properly defined came to an end with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, but by this time the Byzantine cultural heritage had been widely diffused, carried by the spread of Orthodox Christianity, to Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania and, most importantly, to Russia, which became the centre of the Orthodox world following the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans. Even under Ottoman rule, Byzantine traditions in icon-painting and other small-scale arts survived, especially in the Venetian-ruled Crete and Rhodes, where a “post-Byzantine” style under increasing Western influence survived for a further two centuries, producing artists including El Greco whose training was in the Cretan School which was the most vigorous post-Byzantine school, exporting great numbers of icons to Europe. The willingness of the Cretan School to accept Western influence was atypical; in most of the post-Byzantine world “as an instrument of ethnic cohesiveness, art became assertively conservative during the Turcocratia” (period of Ottoman rule).
Russian icon painting began by entirely adopting and imitating Byzantine art, as did the art of other Orthodox nations, and has remained extremely conservative in iconography, although its painting style has developed distinct characteristics, including influences from post-Renaissance Western art. All the Eastern Orthodox churches have remained highly protective of their traditions in terms of the form and content of images and, for example, modern Orthodox depictions of the Nativity of Christ vary little in content from those developed in the 6th century.