Artworks and Artists of Byzantine Art and Architecture
Progression of Art
The Hagia Sophia
In Istanbul, the Hagia Sophia's most prominent and celebrated feature is its large dome, soaring above the city, while its square brick edifice and two massive towers, create an impression of fortress-like solidity. The interior is equally renowned for its light-filled space that creates a heavenly atmosphere. As the Emperor Justinian's biographer Procopius wrote at the time, "Yet [the dome] seems not to rest upon solid masonry, but to cover the space with its golden dome suspended from Heaven." The dome is the largest in the world, made possible by the architects' pioneering use of pendentives; the corners of the dome's square base curve up into the dome and redistribute its weight. The architects also inserted forty windows around the base of the dome, lightening the weight of it and illuminating the interior. They gilded the frames of the windows so that the stone refracts and reflects the light, making it appear that the dome is floating. When the church was completed, Justinian supposedly exclaimed, "Solomon, I have outdone thee!"
In 532 Justinian I appointed Isidorus of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles to rebuild the church. The previous church had been destroyed in rioting against Justinian's government, and its consecration was meant to mark the restoration of his central authority. At the same time, as the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, the church also symbolized the spiritual authority of the Orthodox church. The structure of the interior also communicated social hierarchies, as the ground floor and upper gallery were segregated according to gender and social class with the gallery reserved for the emperor and other notables. Similarly, the entrance to the nave of the church contained nine doorways with the Imperial Door, reserved for the emperor, in the center. In effect, the church was a concrete schemata of the religious, political, and social organization of the empire - an earthly but heavenly city.
In 1453 following the Turkish conquest, the building became a mosque, and the four minarets, each over 200 feet tall, were added. Interior mosaics were painted over in gold and replaced with large medallions inscribed with calligraphy. Nonetheless the building's original design was much admired, as shown by the Ottoman historian Tursun Beg who wrote in the 15th century, "What a dome, that vies in rank with the nine spheres of heaven! In this work a perfect master has displayed the whole of the architectural science." The church became a model for Ottoman architecture, as seen in the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (1609-1616), popularly known as the Blue Mosque. Today the Hagia Sophia is a national museum, in order to remove it from the religious controversies that are still associated with the site today.
Brick, mortar, stone, marble - Istanbul, Turkey
This ivory relief was originally a diptych, hinged to another panel that was subsequently lost. Two smaller panels - the right one also lost - frame the central depiction of an energetic emperor, likely Justinian, on horseback. As the muscular and dynamic horse rears on its hind legs, the emperor looks forward as he grasps the shaft of a lance in his right hand and with his left grasps the horse's reins. Around him, three smaller figures symbolize his power and dominance. The winged figure of Victory on the upper right stands on a globe inscribed with a cross, holding a palm branch, another symbol of victory, in her left hand while her right hand crowns the emperor. A defeated barbarian stands on the left behind the horse, and a partially nude woman, who holds a cornucopia in her lap and reaches out to grasp the emperor's foot with her right hand, symbolizes the earth.
In the upper panel, two heraldic angels hold a central medallion depicting Christ holding a cross and flanked by symbols of the sun, moon, and stars. In the left panel, a soldier, holding a statuette of Victory, turns toward the emperor. The lower panel depicts two Western barbarians on the left and two Eastern barbarians on the right, all bringing tribute, including ivory tusks, lions, tigers and elephants, to another winged Victory figure at the center who gestures toward the emperor above. Every element reiterates imperial authority and is innovatively depicted with energetic compression; the figures seem to surge within the frame. The model for this small portable work was the famous equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, but rather than the stoic strength of that work, this depiction makes the emperor "brim with the same energy as his charging stead," as the Jansons wrote.
The Early Byzantine era pioneered ivory reliefs, which had a long-lasting influence upon Western art. They were much prized by the European elite, and this particular piece is now named after Cardinal Barberini, a noted 17th-century art patron and collector. Created during the reign of the Emperor Justinian, the work also exemplified the Early Byzantine style, which still drew upon classical influences, as the figure of the emperor and his horse, the lance, and the winged victory are carved in such high relief that they seem fully three dimensional. The surrounding panels are carved in shallower relief, visually emphasizing the emperor as the source of energy and power. The message of the work was also innovative as it combined the military victory of the emperor with the victory of Christianity, employing two angels carrying an image of Christ rather than the Roman era's use of a pair of winged Victories. As art historian Ernst Kitzinger wrote, "Christ makes his appearance in heaven at the moment in which the emperor stages his triumphal adventus on earth. It is a graphic depiction of the harmony between heavenly and earthly rule."
Ivory - Musée du Louvre Museum, Paris, France
Emperor Justinian Mosaic
This famous mosaic depicts the Emperor Justinian I, haloed, wearing a crown and an imperial purple robe and holding a large golden bowl for the bread of the Eucharist. Carrying a gold cross, Bishop Maximianus of Ravenna, whose name is inscribed above, stands on the emperor's left along with three other clergy, one holding a incense censor and the other a gilded Gospel. On the emperor's right stand two men in white robes with a purple stripe, identifying them as members of the imperial administration, as well as a group of soldiers, gathered behind a single shield decorated with a cross. Placed in the center, the Emperor is thus depicted as the central authority between the power of the church and the power of the government and military.
The distinctive style of this mosaic defined Early Byzantine art. The naturalistic treatments of classical Greek and Roman art were abandoned in favor of a hierarchal style that, rather than drawing the viewer's eye into a convincing image of reality, presented figures with direct gazes that were meant to spiritually engage the viewer. This was one of two mosaics flanking the altar; the second depicts the Empress Theodora, similarly accompanied, and in both scenes the figures are shown as if they were bringing the gifts of the Eucharist to the altar that occupies the physical space between the mosaics. All of the figures are posed frontally in a distinctive figurative style, with tall thin bodies, tiny feet pointed forward, oval faces and huge eyes, and without any suggestion of movement. As the art historians H.W. Janson and Anthony F. Janson wrote, "The dimensions of time and earthly space have given way to an eternal present in the golden setting of Heaven. Hence the solemn, frontal images seem to belong to a celestial rather than a secular court. This union of political and spiritual authority reflects the 'divine kingship' of the Byzantine emperor."
Mosaic - San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy
This wooden panel, painted in encaustic, or colored wax, depicts Christ in a frontal view, his head framed by a halo which contains the shape of the cross. He raises his right hand in a gesture of blessing and holds a Gospel book, gilded with a jewel-inlay cross, in his left. The folds of his purple tunic and himation, a Greek garment, are modeled with darker and lighter shades of color. His figure, nearly life-size and filling the pictorial frame, combined with his calm and direct gaze, give the work a sense of immediacy that seems to impel him toward the viewer. The dark lines of his hairline, eyebrows, and eyes draw attention to his luminous face, while subtle white highlights, contrasting with deeper shadows, enliven his expression. Behind him, spatial depth is conveyed by the architectural framework and a low horizon line.
This image is the earliest surviving depiction of the Christ Pantocrator, meaning the "all-powerful," and set the precedent for the popular iconographic type that spread through Byzantium and eventually into Europe. It was painted in Constantinople and sent by Justinian I as a gift to honor the founding of the monastery located near Mount Sinai, the sacred site associated with the prophet Moses and the Ten Commandments. Due to its isolation and its distance from Constantinople, the monastery evaded the widespread destruction of art during the Iconoclastic Controversy and, therefore, is noted for its exceptional Early Byzantine artworks.
Encaustic on wood - Saint Catherine's Monastery, Sinai, Egypt
Virgin (Theotokos) and Child between Saints Theodore and George
This image depicts the Virgin seated in a golden throne, holding the Christ Child on her lap as if presenting him to the viewer. Dressed in white and holding a gold cross in his right hand, the haloed Saint Theodore, revered as a warrior saint and a martyr in the Orthodox church, stands to the Virgin's right, while Saint George in red, also haloed and holding a cross, flanks her left. All four figures are depicted in colorful, fine robes and face forward, stern and motionless, with prominent eyes confronting the viewer. The hierarchical composition elevates the Virgin slightly, and the gold edging of her chair sets her distinctly apart. With right knees bent as if to step forward, the saints reflect the influence of classical Roman art and convey the presence of a more human and material world in contrast to the Virgin's heavenly throne. Behind the figures, two haloed angels turn their heads in profile to gaze toward the hand of God, from which a triangular beam of light streams down, illuminating the Virgin's halo. The composition presents a complex interplay between the physical materiality of the saints and Mary and the near transparency of the angels and the divine, thus directing the viewer's meditation and prayer to the incarnation of God in Christ through Mary.
This icon is one of the earliest surviving examples of the Theotokos, or Mother of God, image that dominated Byzantine art and influenced Western art, particularly in the Gothic era's cult of the Virgin. It is also one of the earliest depictions of Saint Theodore and Saint George, who became revered saints not only in the Byzantine Empire but also in the West. The 4th century Theodore became the patron saint of Venice until the 9th century, and Saint George, believed to be a Roman soldier who was martyred for refusing to recant his faith, became the legendary dragon slayer of the medieval period, the patron saint of England, and the inspiration for countless art works.
Encaustic on wood - St. Catherine's Monastery, Sinai, Egypt
David Composing the Psalms
This illuminated page from the Paris Psalter depicts the Biblical King David, seated on a boulder in the center, as he plays a harp in a pastoral landscape. Portrayed as a young shepherd, he is surrounded by his flock that appears charmed by his music. A woman, wearing classical Greco-Roman robes and symbolizing Melody, sits beside David, while in the upper right, another female figure represents the Greek goddess Echo. In the lower right, a man representing the city of Bethlehem rests on the ground. While seemingly a biblical scene, the work evokes classical images of the story of Orpheus, a poet whose song had the power to charm both the forces of nature and the Greek gods. Its overall effect of a idyllic pastoral and its more realistic figurative treatment was a radical revival of classical aesthetics for the era.
Psalters were popular reproductions of the Bible's Book of Psalms, many of which were believed to be authored by King David. This particular work was unique for its large size, its high quality, and full-page illustrations, suggesting that it was made for an aristocratic patron. Containing 449 folios, or pages, and fourteen full-page illuminations, including eight scenes from King David's life, this work exemplified the Macedonian Renaissance with its realistic representations, depictions of landscape with plants and animals, and classical allusions.
Illuminated manuscript - Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, France
Anastasis (Harrowing of Hell)
This fresco depicts the Anastasis, or harrowing of Hell, an image frequently depicted in the Late Byzantine era that drew upon the Christian tradition that on Holy Saturday, between his crucifixion and his resurrection, Christ rescued Adam and Eve from hell. Here, Christ, dressed in white and surrounded by a luminous mandorla, or full body halo, energetically grasps Adam's and Eve's wrists as he pulls them from their tombs on either side of him. The dynamic and dramatic image was located in the funerary chapel of the monastery church in Chora, where a cycle of other paintings portrayed religious scenes of Christ's redemption of human sin and mortality.
Their vividly colored robes flowing about them, the three central figures move with a dynamic and swift smoothness that is further emphasized by the contrast with the stillness of King David and John the Baptist depicted on the left and various martyrs and saints on the right. The dark background above and below, where Satan, along with the locks and keys of Hell, is depicted as trampled beneath Christ's feet, further emphasizes Christ's dynamic movement and heavenly brilliance. The landscape, with its planes of gold and lack of detail, conveys that the figures inhabitate a spiritual space, an unchanging eternity that only Christ can alter.
The work is, as art historians H.W. Janson and Anthony F. Janson wrote, "a magnificently expressive image of divine triumph. Such dynamism had been unknown in the earlier Byzantine tradition. This style, which was related to slightly earlier developments in manuscript painting, was indeed revolutionary." The change in style was the outcome of humanism's influence (manifested later and powerfully in Rennaissance Humanism) that had begun in the Middle Byzantine period. Theodore Metochites, a poet and scholar who was Emperor Andronicus II's prime minster, restored the church and commissioned the paintings to reflect religious narrative and "the growing Byzantine fascination with storytelling."
Fresco - Church of the Holy Savior of Chora/Kariye Museum, Istanbul, Turkey
Holy Trinity Icon
This, the most famous of all Russian icons, depicts three angels seated around a table upon which sits a chalice containing the head of a sacrificed calf. The arrangement of the winged figures, the graceful lines, and the clothing they wear create a visual circle, symbolizing their unity. Both the angel in the middle and the one on the right lift their hands in gestures of blessing over the cup as they look toward the angel on the left. With this circular composition, Rublev conveys a sense of still contemplation.
The work ostensibly depicts the Biblical account of the visitation of three angels to the prophet Abraham, who sacrificed a calf to feed and honor his visitors, but more than an illustration of the story, the icon is a visual expression of the concept of the Trinity, the belief that God is one but in three persons - the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In the background, above the central angel, a single tree alludes to the Oak of Mamre where the visitation took place, but it also refers to the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden and the cross upon which Christ was crucified, thus connecting the central angel with Christ. The relationship is further emphasized by the angel's red robe, the color that symbolizes Christ's Passion. The angel on the right wears the green associated with the feast of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended upon Christ's followers, while God the Father sits on the left, his importance indicated by the gaze of the others turned toward him. The unity of the godhead is symbolized by the fact that all three of the angels wear blue garments, and they seem to be engaged in sacred conversation, conveyed by gaze and gesture, around the chalice that represents Christ's sacrifice. In the background, a house alludes to both Abraham's house and the home of eternal salvation, while the mountain suggests Mount Tabor, the Biblical site where the Holy Spirit descended. To convey the complex symbolic meaning, Rublev left out many of the traditional elements of the story that are usually depicted.
Though not a great deal is known about him, most scholars believe Andrei Rublev was a monk in the Holy Trinity Monastery. The monastery was and still is considered to be the spiritual heart of the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1551 the Russian Orthodox Church Council of the Hundred Chapters met to consider the iconographical canon and declared this icon was the model for all Orthodox icons. In an era of great discord and violence, Rublev's image also emphasized spiritual unity, mutual love, humility and peace. Rublev's reputation has only grown in the contemporary world. The noted filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev (1966) was based upon the artist's life, and in 1988 the artist was canonized as a saint.
Tempera on wood - Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia