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Byzantine Art: Detailed Exploration Of One Of The Early Arts

Updated: Feb 17

Byzantine Art, A collage of two byzantine period paintings

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.

Woodcut of the Constantinopel from the Nuremberg chronicle, 1493
Woodcut of the Constantinopel from the Nuremberg chronicle, 1493 | Source: Michel Wolgemut, Wilhelm Pleydenwurff (Text: Hartmann Schedel), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

The map of Byzantine Empire in Middle ages
The map of Byzantine Empire in Middle ages | Source: Encyclopedia Britannica . Inc.

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 those 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 was different.

Council of the Byzantine Church at Constantinople in 1351. Detail from a miniature.
Council of the Byzantine Church at Constantinople in 1351. Detail from a miniature.

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.

Interior of the Monastery of Hosios Loukas, Greece
Interior of the Monastery of Hosios Loukas, Greece | Source: Berthold Werner, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

11th Century byzantine empire art of Theophano Martiniake (wife of Leo VI the Wise)
11th Century byzantine empire art of Theophano Martiniake (wife of Leo VI the Wise) | Source: AnonymousUnknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Maria Heimgang Byzantine mosaic in the Lower Monastery Courtyard of the Kykkos Monastery
Maria Heimgang Byzantine mosaic in the Lower Monastery Courtyard of the Kykkos Monastery | Source: F.Higer, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Descent into Limbo, xith-century mural painting in the rock-cut chapel of St. Barbaraof Soganli, Cappadocia.
Descent into Limbo, xith-century mural painting in the rock-cut chapel of St. Barbaraof Soganli, Cappadocia.

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.

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.

An early Byzantine icon of the saint martyrs Sergius and Bacchus, the 7th century AD, in the collection of the Khanenko Museum, Kyiv, Ukraine
An early Byzantine icon of the saint martyrs Sergius and Bacchus, the 7th century AD, in the collection of the Khanenko Museum, Kyiv, Ukraine | Source: An anonymous Byzantine master, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

An image of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople
An image of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople | Source: Adams, George Burton, 1851-1925, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Middle Byzantine.

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.

Byzantine version of the Iliad, found in manuscript BNN
Byzantine version of the Iliad, found in manuscript BNN | Source: Unknown authorUnknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Great Place Of Constantinople
Great Place Of Constantinople | Unknown Author

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.

Late Byzantium.

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.

The back side of a double-sided icon depicting the Crucifixion from Thessaloniki, church of Saint Nicholas, 14th century
The back side of a double-sided icon depicting the Crucifixion from Thessaloniki, church of Saint Nicholas, 14th century | Source: George E. Koronaios, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora (the Chora Museum) surviving example of a Byzantine church in Istanbul, Iconoclasm Byzantine art
Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora (the Chora Museum) surviving example of a Byzantine church in Istanbul, Iconoclasm Byzantine art | Source: brewbooks from near Seattle, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Saint Peter icon in Saint Catherine's Monastery
Saint Peter icon in Saint Catherine's Monastery | Source: Saint Catherine Monastery, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Plan of La Cattolica church, Stilo, Italy
Plan of La Cattolica church, Stilo, Italy | Source: Internet Archive Book Images, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Religious Icons.

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.

Christ Icon Sinai 6th century, Byzantine art
Christ Icon Sinai 6th century, Byzantine art | Source: Saint Catherine Monastery, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Illuminated Manuscripts.

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.