Yesterday, while I was enjoying my nerd time with the old art chronicles in my persistent smoky and wooden-emitting study room, I found something amusing. Something that never fails to capture my attention; if you have never read my writings before, it is art. And you may mirror my behaviour when something as old as The Oldest comes in front. Surprisingly, these drawings derived the paintings of Christ, for which we now use advanced reproductions. And why am I stretching the string; you read the heading. Today, we are going to explore the beautiful style of Byzantine art.
Every time we read about art or architectural movement, finding references to Medieval or Later periods is common; however, the foundation is Byzanticism and reading about it is only necessary.
Byzanticism is known to preserve the legacy of Christianity for about ten centuries. The architecture, manuscripts, sculpture and art during this period were terrifically astonishing. But, what makes it strenuous to grasp, is the incredible history that scattered it into numerous fragments. To write upon the same and present detailed information in one piece, I dig up facts and studies from resources as relevant as one can find. For this reason, the information defers widely, but I promise to support its accuracy by linking to legitimate resources in the end.
Geography of the Byzantine Empire.
Byzantium geography is a subject that defers widely from Byzantine art; however, to learn about the latter, it is crucial to hold on to the information on the former and understand the foundation and boundaries.
At the moment, there are none to rare resources that contain data more than the start of the Byzantine period and the fall of Constantinople in 1453, and we will act like one of the rare resources to find out more.
The origin goes back to the Iconoclasts (762-843) until the fall of the East Christian Empire and the final capture of Constantinople by Turks in 1453. Essentially, between 726 and 1453, Byzantine art varied.
From the foundation of Constantinople in the Iconoplast period to under Justinian in the sixth century, though there were regional differences, the basis of art was the Byzantine style. We are talking about the sixth century, where it began. By this time (6th century), it covered the entire Eastern half of the Roman empire, Euphrates and upper Mesopotamia, along with the Nubain desert in Egypt.
Furthermore, in the 7th century, there was the accession of Arabs, which reduced the Byzantine Empire by half, removing Egypt, Syria, and a part of Asia Minor. You must understand that this was the period when the cultural predominance of Greek was at its peak and the detriment of the Latin element by the Romans.
Moving forward, while Arabs seized the Byzantine-rich provinces from her, the Lombards reduced her Italian possessions, and the Bulgars settled in the northeastern Balkans. As a result of these emperors, the Byzantine empire was at risk, and the Christianity and medieval period of Byzantine art would never have existed had the ninth-century rulers not seized their areas.
The Macedonian dynasty from 867 to 1056 gave political stability to the Byzantine Empire, which she was about to lose. It also remarked on the economic strength and great international prestige.
The empire of Constantinople was crucial behind the glory of the Byzantine empire, so when it rose again, it became the most climacteric power in the Mediterranean world.
In the tenth century, there were again brilliant conquests in the direction of Armenia, Syria and Palestine under permanent and temporary leaders, and other reconquests in the eleventh century beginning towards Bulgaria, Dalmatia and even southern Italy. There was a terrible defeat of the Byzantine empire by the Turks in 1071 and the development of Slav kingdoms in the Balkans in the twelfth century. It tells us why the Byzantine empire remained essentially the same during this period.
During the twelfth century, there were territorial problems in the Byzantine state due to the conquest attack of several Norman and Serbian kings, bringing instability. Further, the Turks attacked the capital, and there was the fall of Constantinople. There are a lot more incidents in the twelfth century, which we will learn about in our later sections.
During the accession and fall of the empire in byzantine empire, territorial and political fluctuations existed, but Byzantine art remained static. However, the artists kept on changing (never the art).
From the point of artistic geography, Byzantium enjoyed dominance in art and culture. You have to remember that even though art remained the same, artistic expansion changed continuously. The chief agents of this territorial change were the Greek Christians. There were Byzantine conversions in Syria, Armenia and southern Italy. There is one more point to note the end of the ninth and tenth centuries remarkably showed an extraordinary expansion of the Byzantine empire and art. Also, the crucial developments to study are in Middle age Byzantium, which we will cover in the following sections.
Now that we know a brief account of the great Byzantine Empire, it is time to discuss art and culture.
What Is Byzantine Art?
After Constantinople, Byzantine art which originated in the eastern Roman world, comprised flat figures to represent Greek Christianity, a departure from naturalism. The statement you read earlier is the basic definition, which does not intend to provide thorough knowledge. As you are already familiar with the different areas of the Byzantine empire, we will study it under divergent dominions.
Under Latin dominions, you will see, there is a lack of Latin activity in the field of art in Greek countries. The reason behind this is; there was an absence of powerful rulers and opponents. It caused the building of fortified castles and military works unnecessary, and there were no more foundings of churches. It finally led to the loss of Greek sovereignty but not with the new artistic orientation.
Under the Orthodox countries, the Byzantine style of art was able to perpetuate itself more conveniently. The small or independent states who were even at war with the byzantine period embraced the kind of artistic activities. You can see these states as Morea, Epirus and Macedonia, where the population was orthodox; still, Byzantine art flourished. At the end of the 13th century in Serbia and Bulgaria, the princes at war with the Turks highlighted the Byzantine traditions and showed it necessary to display them.
You can also think of it in a way that Byzantine art flourished in all the territories irrespective of race, language or creed during its last state. Furthermore, you will see a lot of Christian icons and symbols throughout the period.
In the late period of the thirteenth to the fifteenth century, it moulded into a secular fashion style which spread beyond the Byzantine Empire. However, in the west, it was technical and religious and had aesthetic qualities compared to the past.
You see, geographically, the Byzantine territory had limitations, but the art was widespread. Even in Europe, medieval art of Latin origination existed from the Carolingian to the Gothic age. It tells us how Byzantium itself was relevant and had an established system. However, the point you must not neglect is that the Orthodox East and Catholic West art and traditions have contrasts and differences between them. Furthermore, do not forget that it was only after the Turkish rule the Byzantine era was devoid of artistic production.
At last, the essential fact about Byzantine art is that it was created in service of the Church or Christianity. Note that the Church was the primary patron of Byzantine art, so there were crucial changes only in the context of ritual or faith.
Having acquired a deeper understanding of Byzantine art, let us look at different periods of Byzantine.
Byzantine Art | Fast Knowledge
Brief Introduction to the Different Byzantine Periods and Byzantine Art Style.
As you are already aware, the Byzantine empire had stable historical and geographical backgrounds. To make things easier for you and learn about the Byzantine empire art, we will distinguish this work between four traditional periods. Let us move to our very section.
The Early Byzantine Art Period.
The Early Byzantine period started with the foundation of new capital in the 700s. It was the same period when Christianity became the empire’s official religion. Know that the practice of Christian monasticism developed in the fourth century, becoming a quintessential tradition in the Byzantine period.
Greek and Roman culture and law collectively formed a highly-organised government in the early Byzantine period. However, the invasions by germanic tribes in the fifth century led to devastations. Then in the 600s, Persian and Arab invasions led to further disruptions in the Byzantine empire.
In addition to the southernmost provinces of Egypt and North Africa, which remained under Byzantine control until the Arab conquest of the region in the seventh century, the affluent state had extensive artistic traditions. Only a few early Byzantine manuscripts survived from the fourth to sixth centuries. Furthermore, the silver vessels, furnishings, and ivory objects played a dramatic role in secular use and survived in significant numbers.
Talking about the secular architecture of this period, the Great Place in Constantinople represented the daily and lavish life of the empire. Some ancient cities of the byzantine empire include Antioch and Ephesos, preserving the secular building tradition.
One example of early Byzantine architecture is the Church of Hagia Sophia. Briefly, the period attempted to form art with figurative images where Christianity was essential to work.
In the Middle Byzantine period, Greek became the official language of the state and the Church. During the same era, Christianity spread from Constantinople, and there were continuous efforts to recover the lost areas and territories to the Arab armies from the seventh century. The Byzantine system now has a powerful military governorship and administration to expand territorial length.
Coming to the period of art and architecture, it flourished greatly with wealth and affluent patrons. There were manuscript production, stone and ivory carvings, classical art form revival and Byzantine architecture.
There were mid-sized and domed planned churches from the ninth to twelfth centuries. The mosaic and frescos emerged popular. If you do not understand the terms mosaic and frescos, I will let you know everything in upcoming sections. The monumental decoration through horizontal and vertical spaces was also tragically formed. As a crucial centre of the Byzantine University, Mount Athos was home to the first great monastery.
One noteworthy survive from the prosperous history of the Middle Byzantine period is the restoration of the Great place in Constantinople, showing the influence and aspects of Islamic court culture on the Byzantine secular buildings. One such example of this tradition is the Mouchroutas palace structure of the Great Palace.
The Period of Latin Occupation.
With the Fourth Crusade, the Crusader armies conquered the ancient Byzantine imperial capital of Constantinople in 1204, along with other imperial territories. As the head of the Latin Church of Western Europe, the pope was spiritual authority over the Crusader state in Constantinople during the thirteenth century. It lasted until 1261 when the Byzantine ruled again in Constantinople and accessed all the former territories. You must know that the Latin occupation was the reason for the dislocation of the Byzantine population, especially the ruling class.
It was the period of surviving impressive Byzantine architectural projects and monuments, as we know from the previous information. There was rarely demolition or fortified building during the Latin conquest.
The designs and artistic styles used in these works are partly inspired by those used under the Komnenoi, the last ruling dynasty before the Latin conquest. Sometimes, a monument combines Byzantine and western European elements.
Finally, folks, we are at the last Byzantine period. We still have a long way to go and a lot to learn about, so it does not mean we have reached the end. The political boundaries of the Late Byzantine period under the Palaiologan emperors were comparatively lesser than the expansive lands of the Early and Middle Byzantine periods. However, the territorial boundaries did not stop the spread of religious influence, art and culture. Constantinople served as the centre of Byzantine power, which extended westward to northern, including Greece in the centre and southward to the Peloponnese.
Trebizond, the Byzantine Empire, flourished during the Latin Occupation and continued to exist as an independently ruled Byzantine territory. The last Byzantine period showcases Constantinople, taken in 1453, and Mistra and Trebizond in 1460 by the Ottoman Turks in the mid-fifteenth century.
In the late byzantine centuries, art and architecture flourished despite the military and political circumstances. Patrons, even without funds, redecorated the older buildings and founded new buildings. Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia was one of the churches that the Palaiologan emperors repaired and embellished.
The Iconoclasm of Byzantine Art.
While I referred to the word Iconoclasm, you might suppose what it is. Before you go to any conclusions or use Google search for it, let me assure you that I will do its complete breakdown so that you know the best.
The First word we discuss is going to be Icons. The Greek word eikones exhibits the term Icon, which means sacred images representing the saints or religious elements. It also includes the narrative scenes from Christ, The Virgin and Baptism of Christ and Crucifixion. Today when we use icons, it’s meaning is somehow changed. Presently, it associates itself with the wooden panel painting in Byzantium, including marble, ivory, ceramic, gemstone, enamel or mosaic.
Icons range in size from miniature to monumental. These were generally mounted on a pole or frame for the Saint Demetrios icon. Sometimes they play the role of permanent characters by getting included in Frescos and Mosaic images. You might be amazed to know that they played a crucial role in requesting miraculous healing. The Byzantium theology suggested that through the icons, the individual directly communicates with the saint or holy figure through prayers.
Coming on Iconoclasm, it means image breaking. It simply means the destruction of images due to religious or political reasons.
In Byzantium, it refers to the theological debate between the Byzantium people and the Churches, whose controversy lasted for a century. The Iconoclasm period of the Byzantine empire roughly dates from 726-87 & 815-43. During these years, the legislation banned the production and use of figure images, whereas the cross was the most acceptable decorative form of Byzantine churches. In all these years, the existing icons were demolished, making only a few last over these years. Notable exceptions include icons preserved at the Monastery of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai.
Let me tell you the complete backstory of the Iconoclasm during the Byzantine empire. It began in the reign of Leo in 717, but it was not officially recognised. It was only after his son Constantine V banned the production of icons in 754. There is a noteworthy point that all these religious images, replaced by a cross or geometric design, are known to us as the Mosaics in Church.
Many officials questioned the legitimacy of Christ, Mary and saints appearing in the sixth and seventh centuries, fearing idolatry. In addition, it spotlights the impossibility of divinity in Christ, portraying him in human form. One fascinating thing about the era was that when Islam and Arab conquests occurred, the people of Byzantium thought that God was on the side of the destroyers of these icons. Hence many supporters repudiated the incarnation of Christ and even his presence. It was only after 843 that the production of icons narrated the story of Christ’s sufferings and his life on earth.
Byzantine Art Characteristics.
Now that you have an in-depth understanding of Byzantine art, it is time to discover how it looks and what it contains. We will cover the characteristics of Byzantine art so that we know what kinds of artistry dominated in the era. Let us get started.
Till now, you studied that the pillars of Byzantine art were on the images of the religious elements and Christianity. Understanding religious icons are somewhat the same as what we learnt previously. We know that art has a purpose, and so does Byzantine art. Its chief purpose was not only to spread Christianity but also to beautify the buildings and instruct the illiterate in welfare through the paintings. Therefore, Byzantine churches had mosaics and artworks on the inside that fetch stories.
If you ask the subject of these icons, they depict the key events and happenings from the Bible.
While on your next visit to Hagia Sophia, you can easily relate everything within this article.
One of the crucial sources for Byzantine art is the Illustrated manuscripts which show the history of the substantial loss of monumental paintings from Constantinople, surviving in all these years. We know the history and geography of the Byzantine empire. Presently, we have a few illustrated books from the first period. Not many manuscripts survived; a few reasons are- less production, not better quality so that it outlasted for years, and maybe, Iconoclasm destroyed a few of them.
It is crucial to understand that during the late 9th and 10th centuries, manuscripts with gold ornaments illustrations began to reappear whereas, in the 11th and 12th centuries, there was an increase in these illustrated manuscripts.
There are also Palaiologan illustrations, which reflect the depth of cultural demolitions after the conquest of Latins. They had monumental painters, dramatic and emotional affecting works with little naturalism in their manuscripts.
The renowned Eastern orthodox Monastery of St. CATHERINE, constructed by the sixth-century Byzantine ruler Justinian I, consists of the oldest and legendary manuscripts from bibles to patriot works and legal opinions.
So far, you have encountered the term Mosaics in the article several times, but I was waiting for this section to describe and define it. It simply means an arrangement of colourful tiles in a pattern to form images. Byzantine mosaic art was the most elaborate and expensive form of decoration and art during the Byzantine period. The floor, ceilings and walls of Churches deemed to depict biblical events.
In addition to the multicoloured stone and marble, which are typical materials of floor mosaics, artists used brick or terra cotta, semi-precious gems, opaque coloured glass, and semi-precious gems for tesserae. Using mosaics as a medium for mural decoration made it possible to use more fragile materials.
Byzantine mosaic art chiefly flourished from the sixth to the fifteenth century. In Antiquity, the walls had less-expensive paintings, but the economic prosperity of the Byzantine empire allowed it to use the glittering effect of mosaic decoration. Some places you can see them are in the Middle East and the Italian city of Ravenna.
Its technique was expensive, but the effects were so astonishing that it was worth the cost. Furthermore, technical advancements like the use of lighter-weight tesserae and cement recipes made the wall mosaics easier. It involved fitting small pieces of glass and stone together to create a paint-like effect in different colours with a sense of depth and shadows. Additionally, Byzantine artists placed gold backing behind the lucid glass tesserae to give them the appearance of emitting their light. Symbolism and magic were infused into the Byzantine religious ceremony through the play of light.
The Byzantines preferred stylized images over naturalistic ones. Their goal was to inspire wonder and admiration for the church through this art. Their use of graceful, floating figures, as well as golden tesserae, highlighted the otherworldliness of their subjects.
Types of Artistic Activity in the Byzantine Empire.
Throughout the article, we tried to understand the basics of the Byzantine empire and Byzantine art and culture by revisiting its history. The most awaited section is the kind of art, culture and worship in this period. Something is winning about limiting artistic activity to the reign. In Byzantium, the Middle ages were crucial, but even before the Iconoclast period (the time of Justinian and his successors) to the end of the Byzantine period by the Turks, a rich traditional art aspect that we can never neglect. In this section, we will learn the complete Byzantine art through different periods so that you do not miss anything.
The Iconoclast Period Paintings and Architecture.
The Iconoclast period demonstrates secular paintings in all aspects of decorative art rather than religious figures. There is no reason to think that artistic productions were less during this reign because secular art replaced iconography. You must know that the various conquests led to demolition of many texts and artworks. And what we see today are the falsified particulars written by the enemies of the Iconoclasts. Hence, we do not have enough details in this regard.
Orthodox Victory Period Paintings and Architecture.
Byzantine art after the orthodox victory of 843 changed everything. There was intense artistic activity during this reign. Several religious buildings were built in the capital by the members of affluent families and state dignitaries during the period. One of the crucial aspects of the art was the restoration of old buildings from the Justinians’ sanctuaries, showing a guardian of tradition to be maintained.
Another tradition in architecture they wished to commit to was to keep the illustrated works of the Justinian and the expensive interior decoration of all Churches. There is still the existence of these buildings and art. For example, in St. Mark’s in Venice, the gifts of the byzantine sovereigns to the Churches are still here, including the lamps, reliquaries, gold and silver gilt, pearls and enamels. Each Church in this area had a chapel with religious figures, regularly panelled with Byzantine mosaic art and mural paintings.
You can briefly think that if there is one field where Byzantium demanded art, it is the religious field. So every aspect of worship had an artistic technique and level, from the mastermind artists to the village artisan. There was a use of semi-precious stones like marble, malachite, onyx and serpentine. You will see the cloissance enamel work with figures at the beginning of this period, which later formed the decoration of ecclesiastical objects.
Secular Art and Architecture.
When you compare secular art with religious art, it is comparatively poor, and there are fewer works of art, less technical variety, and a noticeable recession. However, you must know that secular art was more dominant than any middle age.
There is only one Byzantine secular architecture dwelling which exists today in Constantinople. The ruined place is Tekfurserai from the fourteenth century. All the other crucial imperial buildings were destroyed. We know from the texts that there were mosaics and mural paintings on secular subjects, which were preserved.
Decorative Minor Art.
Presently, there exist only a few fragments of beautiful silk material manuscripts, vases and moulded glass, precious stones and small ivories. You must also know that female adornment also existed in the Middle ages. In the beginning, the art devotes to the emperor and his glory. There are few portraits of the basileus and basilissa, their coronation and other scenes where the margins are of religious texts and ornamental decoration, representing the above-stated fact.
It also includes illustrations in medical books, hunting works and re-copied a small number of artworks. Somehow Byzantine secular art during the Middle ages was restricted to religious art.
In the tenth and eleventh centuries, artistic activities flourished. Art and crafts during this period had luxury techniques like the weaving of silk on decorations, ivory and precious metals used, glazed potteries and Noelle and cloisonne enamelware.
Sculptures in Middle Ages.
The monumental sculpture played a crucial role in Byzantium in the Middle ages. As far back as the 800s, there were sculpted effigies of emperors. The iconoclast period gave rise to symbolic images, and the only form of art was plastic art with small-scale figures and purely decorative sculpture.
The Middle age sculptures have a connection with the origins of Romanesque.
Artistic Techniques of the Byzantium Empire.
I must say that you have gone so far with me in learning about byzantine art. I am so proud that you took your time and gave it to the knowledge. Returning to the article, we have the crafting, which the Byzantines employed.
Before we learn about it, know that they were the same as those used in the Mediterranean era.
From the history of the Byzantine empire, you know that the eastern empire managed to survive the invasions. Due to this, Constantinople had normal activities going without any interruptions, which resulted in the perseverance of the art techniques and luxury trades. Their prestige can be measured by the imitation of Byzantine miniatures in Germany and England. Furthermore, the acquisition of Byzantine works in gold, silver and enamel adoption by all the Christian countries over the world is also noteworthy. There is an eleventh-century book Theodore published in Rhineland by a monk, which says about the recipes of luxury glass, gold and silverware attributed to the Greeks. It does have high technical quality work.
As soon as, we approach the field of byzantine paintings, we see incomparably superior mural artworks. We have learnt about Byzantine empire mosaic art and illuminated manuscripts in our previous sections.
That is it, folks, for this section, and we are moving on to our next part.
Finest Surviving Art From the Byzantine Empire.
Now that we understand the Byzantine style of art, let us virtually visit the best examples of the Byzantium period that can literally shake us from the inside due to their excellency and beauty.
Christ Pantocrator, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul.
Here the mosaic, which exists in the monumental Deesis, depicts the portrait of Christ with the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist on the left and right sides approximately. You will find the looming stature of these three figures with calmness and tranquillity on their faces.
In the mosaic, you see Jesus is sitted on a throne-like an emperor. Although we do not see the lower part as it no longer exists. The Virgin and John turn inwards to Christ and have pleading hands gesture. The type of image is generally referred to as a deesis, which means entreaty, but scholars believed that it showed the hierarchical order of the Byzantine empire on earth mirrored heaven.
Mosaic of Emperor Justinian I, Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna.
One of the most salient and the bulk beautifully preserved early Byzantine Christian art is the Mosaic of Emperor Justinian I found in Ravena, Italy, dating back to 527. It shows the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565) standing in the centre, holding a golden paten. With his golden halo surrounding his head, he appears almost divine, dressed in Tyrian or imperial purple. Court officials and soldiers flank Justinian’s right, and church officials flank his left, confirming his role as Emperor and church leader.
Enthroned Madonna With Child, the Saints Theodore and George, and Two Angels, Saint Catherine’s Monastery.
In the Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Mount Sinai, Egypt, there is an icon depicting the Enthroned Madonna with Child, Saints Theodore and George, and Two Angels, probably created in Constantinople. In this icon, Virgin Mary sits on a throne flanked by Saints Theodore and George, holding Christ, the Child. A pair of angels watch God’s hand above the Virgin in the background. In addition to reflecting ancient Roman influence, the icon shows many resemblances to Byzantine icons.
Byzantine Art: The Aftermath and Legacy.
As a metaphor for decadence, complex bureaucracy, and repression, the terms “Byzantine” and “Byzantinism” have often been associated with absolutism, orthodox spirituality, and Orientalist exoticism. Western and eastern European authors often viewed Byzantium as a system of religion, politics, and philosophy that was contrary to western ideas. In 19th-century Greece, the classical past was dominant, while Byzantine tradition was stigmatized.
While we learn about the positive aspects of Byzantium, we have to understand that it helped and evolved society in many ways. Shaping Orthodoxy is the first and foremost benefit that people learnt. Through the preservation and copying of classical manuscript skills of Byzantines, they transmitted classical knowledge to the world. In Renaissance humanism and European civilization too, it helped to shape ideas. Further, the technical and artistic skills, from creating the glass to ornamentation by silver and gold, gave immense benefit to the world.
That is it folks, and my fingers already asked me to stop, but as I pledged, I told you a lot about Byzantine art. For further reading, I will add a book of the series of Byzantium art below. Meanwhile, tell me, did I really miss anything?
I will see you in our next article! Bidding you goodbyes with love, my nerds.
1. The Art of the Byzantine Empire by André Grabar.
2. NGA Government.
3. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Frequently Asked Questions.
In simplest terms, Byzantine art are flat figures representing Greek Christianity and a period that departed from naturalism.
Byzantine art existed between 762 to the capture of Constantinople by Turks in 1453. In between this period, the art underwent several destructions and rebirths to survive the Christian legacy.
The four periods of Byzantine art are:
The Early Byzantine art period,
The period of Latin occupation, and
The Last Byzantium.
Byzantine art started to dissolve once the Turks captured Constantinople in 1453, and one of the art forms that successfully replaced it was Renaissance art. However, there are references to Post Byzantine as well between this time frame.
Some of the well-noted characteristics of Byzantine art are religious icons like happenings from Bible, Illuminated manuscripts with gold ornaments illustrations, mosaics and stylized imagery to admire churches through art.
Byzantine art is important for its religious values that helped to carve Christianity across the region as well as influence the later Renaissance art.
Mosaics are an arrangement of colourful tiles to depict imagery. It is the most elaborated and expensive form of art that Byzantines used for the decoration of the walls, ceilings and flooring of Churches. The art form flourished between the 6th and 15th centuries and chiefly displayed Biblical events.
Though the multiple invasions of the Byzantine empire destroyed a majority of the artworks and their traces, some of the famous artists that are still remembered are Theodore Apsevdis, Nikolaos Philanthropinos and Nikolaos Lampoudis.