Beginnings of Byzantine Art and Architecture
To Start: Defining the Byzantine Period
The term Byzantine is derived from the Byzantine Empire, which developed from the Roman Empire. In 330 the Roman Emperor Constantine established the city of Byzantion in modern day Turkey as the new capital of the Roman empire and renamed it Constantinople. Byzantion was originally an ancient Greek colony, and the derivation of the name remains unknown, but under the Romans the name was Latinized to Byzantium.
In 1555 the German historian Hieronymus Wolf first used the term Byzantine Empire in Corpus Historiæ Byzantinæ, his collection of the era's historical documents. The term became popularized among French scholars in the 17th century with the publication of the Byzantine du Louvre (1648) and Historia Byzantina (1680), but was not widely adopted by art historians until the 19th century, as the distinctive style of Byzantine architecture and art in mosaics, icon painting, frescos, illuminated manuscripts, small scale sculptures and enamel work, was defined.
The Byzantine Empire lasted until 1453 when Constantinople was conquered by the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Byzantine art and architecture is usually divided into three historical periods: the Early Byzantine from c. 330-730, the Middle Byzantine from c. 843-1204, and Late Byzantine from c. 1261-1453. The political, social, and artistic continuity of the Empire was disrupted by the Iconoclastic Controversy from 730-843 and then, again, by the Period of the Latin Occupation from 1204-1261.
The Roman Empire
In the era leading up to the founding of the Byzantine Empire, the Roman Empire was the most powerful economic, political, and cultural force in the world. A polytheistic society, Roman religion was deeply informed by Greek mythology, as Greek gods were adopted into the Roman mos maiorum, or "way of the ancestors," viewing their own founding fathers as the source of their identity and worldly power. At the same time, as the empire absorbed the deities of the peoples they conquered as a way of supporting civic stability, the monotheism of Christianity, which first appeared in Roman-held Judea in the 1st century, was seen as a political and civil threat. The Emperor Nero instituted the first persecution of Christians, as he blamed the sect for the Great Fire of Rome in 65, and subsequent emperors followed suit.
In 303 the Roman Emperor Diocletian instituted the Great Prosecution, during an era when political leaders, including Constantine, were engaged in a war, driven by competing claims to be Diocletian's successor. Facing a battle with his rival Maxentius, legend has it that Constantine converted to Christianity because of a vision. Described by the historian Eusebius, "he saw with his own eyes in the heavens a trophy of the cross arising from the light of the sun, carrying the message, In Hoc Signo Vinces (In this sign, you shall conquer)." Marking his soldier's shields with the Chi Rho, a symbol of Christ, Constantine was victorious and, subsequently, became emperor. His 313 Edict of Milan legalized the practice of Christianity, and in 324, he moved to create a new capital in the East, Constantinople, in order to integrate those provinces into the empire while simultaneously creating a new center of art, culture, and learning.
Early Christian Art
Creating frescoes, mosaics, and panel paintings, Early Christian art drew upon the styles and motifs of Roman art while repurposing them to Christian subjects. Works of art were created primarily in the Christian catacombs of Rome, where early depictions of Christ portrayed him as the classical "Good Shepherd," a young man in classical dress in a pastoral setting. At the same time, meaning was often conveyed by symbols, and an early iconography began to develop. As the Edict of Milan was followed by the Emperor Theophilus I's 380 edict establishing Christianity as the official religion of the empire, Christian churches were built and decorated with frescoes and mosaics. The classical sculptural tradition was abandoned, as it was feared that figures in the round were too reminiscent of pagan idols. In the first two centuries of the Byzantine Empire, as the historians Horst Woldemar Janson and Anthony F. Janson wrote, there was, "No clear-cut line between Early Christian and Byzantine art. East Roman and West Roman - or, as some scholars prefer to call them, Eastern and Western Christian - traits are difficult to separate before the sixth century."
Early Byzantine Art and Emperor Justinian I
The flowering of Byzantine architecture and art occurred in the reign of the Emperor Justinian from 527-565, as he embarked on a building campaign in Constantinople and, subsequently, Ravenna, Italy. His most notable monument was the Hagia Sophia (537), its name meaning "holy wisdom," an immense church with a massive dome and light filled interior. The Hagia Sophia's many windows, colored marble, bright mosaics, and gold highlights became the standard models for subsequent Byzantine architecture.
To design the Hagia Sophia, burnt down in a previous riot, Justinian I employed two well-known mathematicians, Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles. Isidore taught stereometry, or solid geometry, and physics and was known for compiling the first collection of the works of Archimedes, a classical Greek engineer and scientist. A mathematician, Anthemius wrote a pioneering study on solid geometric forms and their relationships while arranging surfaces to focus light on a single point. The two men drew upon their knowledge of geometrical principles to engineer the Hagia Sophia's large dome as they pioneered the use of pendentives. The triangular supports at the corners of the dome's square base redistributed the weight, making it possible to build the largest dome in the world until the St. Peter's Basilica dome, which also employed pendentives, was completed in Rome in 1590.
Hiring 10,000 artisans to build and decorate the Hagia Sophia, Justinian I also established innumerable workshops in icon painting, ivory carving, enamel metalwork, mosaics and fresco painting in Constantinople. As art historians H.W. Janson and Anthony F. Janson wrote, during his reign, "Constantinople became the artistic as well as political capital of the empire....The monuments he sponsored have a grandeur that justifies the claim that his era was a golden age." As the Empire was at its most geographically expansive during Justinian's reign, Byzantine art and architecture influenced modern day Turkey, Greece, the Adriatic regions of Italy, the Middle East, Spain, Northern Africa, and Eastern Europe. While other structures, particularly his Chrysotriklinos, the imperial palace reception room, were equally influential, that building, like other early structures in Constantinople, was later destroyed. As a result, the best examples of Early Byzantine innovation can be seen in Ravenna, Italy.
Justinian I appointed his protégé Maximianus, a lowly and somewhat unpopular deacon, as Archbishop of Ravenna, where he acted as a kind of implicit regent for the Emperor within Italy. In 547, Maximianus completed the construction of San Vitale, a central-plan church using a Greek cross within a square that became a model for subsequent architecture. The shallow dome, placed upon a drum, used terra cotta forms for the first time as construction material, while the interior's exquisite mosaics and sacred objects, including the Throne of Maximianan (mid-11th century) defined the Byzantine style.
Having survived almost intact since its consecration, the interior of the Church of San Vitale created an effect of intricate splendor, with every inch richly decorated. Large mosaics depicting the Emperor and Empress established Byzantine composition and figurative techniques, as the realistic depictions of classical art were abandoned in favor of an emphasis upon iconographic formality. The tall, thin, and motionless figures with almond shaped faces and wide eyes, posed frontally, against a gold background became the instantly recognizable definition of Byzantine art.
Acheiropoieta and Icons
Early Byzantine artists pioneered icon painting, small panels depicting Christ, the Madonna, and other religious figures. Objects of both personal and public veneration, they developed from classical Greek and Roman portrait panels and were informed by the Christian tradition of Acheiropoieta. Acheiropoieta, meaning, "made without hands," was an image believed to have been miraculously created. According to tradition, St. Luke the Evangelist, one of the original twelve apostles, painted the image of the Madonna and Child Jesus when they miraculously appeared to him. The Monastery of the Panaghia Hodegetria in Constantinople was built to house a now-lost icon believed to be St. Luke's painting. As art historian Robin Cormack noted, it became "perhaps the most prominent cult object in Byzantium." These miraculous images influenced the development of iconographic types, as St. Luke's icon became known as Hodegetria, meaning "She Who Points the Way," as the Madonna pointed to the Child Jesus.
Acheiropoieta were often credited with contemporary miracles. The Image of Edessa was believed to have come to the divine aid of the city of Edessa in its 593 defense against the Persians. The central image of Christ's head, known as the Mandylion in the Byzantine tradition, recalled the image of Christ's face imprinted on a cloth while he walked to the place of his crucifixion. Worshippers believed they were in the presence of the divine, as art historian Elena Boerck wrote, "Icons, unlike idols, have their own agency. They're interactive images, in which the divine is present." Nonetheless, as the worship of icons became a dominant feature of Byzantine life, a fierce and destructive theological debate developed.
By the 8th century, the Byzantine Empire was under pressure and often at war, and in this tense climate the controversy over the spiritual validity of icons erupted. Motivated by the belief that recent events, including military defeats and a volcanic eruption in the Aegean Sea in 726, were God's punishment for what he called, "a craft of idolatry," the Emperor Leo III officially prohibited religious images in 730 and launched a movement called Iconoclasm, meaning "breaking of icons." Long standing theological debates over the divine and human nature of Christ and a power struggle between the imperial state and the church stoked the controversy. The Iconoclasts felt that no icon could portray both Christ's divine and human nature, and to convey only one aspect of Christ was a heresy. Those who supported icons argued that, unlike idols which depicted a false god, the images simply depicted the incarnate Christ and that the images derived their authority from Acheiropoieta. By inserting himself into the debate, the Emperor substituted imperial decree for religious authority, undercutting the influence and power of the church. Subsequently, the state violently supressed monastic clergy and destroyed icons.
The era came to an end with a change in imperial power. Following the death of her husband, the Emperor Theophilus, in 842, the Empress Theodora took the throne and, as she was passionately devoted to the veneration of icons, summoned a council that restored icon worship and deposed the iconoclastic clergy. The occasion was celebrated at the Feast of Orthodoxy in 843, and icons were carried in triumphal procession back to the various churches from which they had been taken. Nonetheless, the Iconoclastic Controversy had a notable impact on the later development of art, as the councils that restored the worship of icons also formulated a codified system of symbols and iconographic types that were also followed in mosaics and fresco painting.
Middle Byzantine 867-1204
The Middle Byzantine era is often called the Macedonian Renaissance, as Basil I the Macedonian, crowned in 867, reopened the universities and promoted literature and art, renewing an interest in classical Greek scholarship and aesthetics. Greek was established as the official language of the Empire, and libraries and scholars compiled extensive collections of classical texts. The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Photios was not only the leading theologian but has been described by the historian Adrian Forescue as "the greatest scholar of his time." His Bibliotheca was an important compilation of almost three hundred works by classical authors, and he played a leading role in seeing Byzantine culture as rooted in Greek culture. The result was, as Janson and Janson wrote, "an almost antiquarian enthusiasm for the traditions of classical art," displayed in works like the illuminated manuscript, the Paris Psalter (c. 900) a book of Biblical psalms that included full page illustrations from the life of King David and that employed a more realistic treatment of both the figures and the landscape.
Throughout Europe, Byzantine culture and art was seen as the height of aesthetic refinement, and, as a result, many rulers, even those politically antagonistic to the Empire, employed Byzantine artists. In Sicily, which had been conquered by the Normans, Roger II, the first Norman King, recruited Byzantine artists and, as a result, the Norman architecture that developed in Sicily and Great Britain, following the Norman Conquest in 1066, profoundly influenced Gothic architecture. Hundreds of Byzantine artists were also employed at the Basilica of San Marco in Venice when construction began in 1063. In Russia, Vladimir of Kiev converted to the Orthodox Church upon his marriage to a Byzantine princess. He employed artists from Constantinople at the St. Sophia's Cathedral he built in Kiev in 1307. Notable examples of Macedonian Renaissance art were also created in Greece, while the influx of Byzantine artists influenced art throughout Western Europe as shown by the Italian artist Berlinghiero of Lucca's Hodegetria (c. 1230).
The Latin Occupation 1204-1261
Famed for its wealth and artistic treasures, Constantinople was cruelly sacked and the Empire conquered in 1204 by the Crusade Army and Venetian forces under the Fourth Crusade. The brutal attack upon a Christian city and its inhabitants was unprecedented, and historians view it as a turning point in medieval history, creating a lasting schism between the Catholic and Orthodox churches, severely weakening the Byzantine Empire and contributing to its later demise when conquered by the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Many notable artworks and sacred objects were looted, destroyed, or lost. Some works, like the Roman bronze works of the Hippodrome, were carried off to Venice where they are still on display, while other works, including sacred objects and altars as well as classical bronze statues, were melted down, and the Library of Constantinople was destroyed. Though the Latins were driven out by 1261, Byzantium never recovered its former glory or power.
Late Byzantium 1261-1453
Following the Latin Conquest, the Late Byzantine era began to renovate and restore Orthodox churches. However, as the Conquest had decimated the economy and left much of the city in ruins, artists employed more economical materials, and miniature mosaic icons became popular. In icon painting, the suffering of the population during the Conquest led to an emphasis upon images of compassion, as shown in sufferings of Christ. Artistic vitality shifted to Russia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Greece, where regional variations of icon painting developed. Russia became a leading center with the Novgorod School of Icon Painting, led by master painters Theophanes the Greek and Andrei Rublev. Byzantine art also influenced contemporaneous art in the West, particularly the Sienese School of Painting and the International Gothic Style, as well as painters like Duccio in his Stroganoff Madonna (1300).
Byzantine Art and Architecture: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
Known for its central plan buildings with domed roofs, Byzantine architecture employed a number of innovations, including the squinch and the pendentive. The squinch used an arch at the corners to transform a square base into an octagonal shape, while the pendentive employed a corner triangular support that curved up into the dome. The original architectural design of many Byzantine churches was a Greek cross, having four arms of equal length, placed within a square. Later, peripheral structures, like a side chapel or second narthex, were added to the more traditional church footprint. In the 11th century, the quincunx building design, which used the four corners and a fifth element elevated above it, became prominent as seen in The Holy Apostles in Thessaloniki, Athens, Greece. In addition to the central dome, Byzantine churches began adding smaller domes around it.
Byzantine architecture was informed by Poikilia, a Greek term, meaning "marked with various colors," or "variegated," that in Greek aesthetic philosophy was developed to suggest how a complex and various assemblage of elements created a polysensory experience. Byzantine interiors, and the placement of objects and elements within an interior, were designed to create ever changing and animated interior as light revealed the variations in surfaces and colors. Variegated elements were also achieved by other techniques such as the employment of bands or areas of gold and elaborately carved stone surfaces.
For instance the basket capitals in the Hagia Sophia were so intricately carved, the stone seemed to dematerialize in light and shadow. Decorative bands replaced moldings and cornices, in effect rounding the interior angles so that images seemed to flow from one surface to another. Photios described this surface effect in one of his homilies: "It is as if one had entered heaven itself with no one barring the way from any side, and was illuminated by the beauty in changing forms...shining all around like so many stars, so is one utterly amazed. [...] It seems that everything is in ecstatic motion, and the church itself is circling around."
Iconographic Types and Iconostasis
Byzantine art developed iconographic types that were employed in icons, mosaics, and frescoes and influenced Western depictions of sacred subjects. The early Pantocrator, meaning "all-powerful," portrayed Christ in majesty, his right hand raised in a gesture of instruction and led to the development of the Deësis, meaning "prayer," showing Christ as Pantocrator with St. John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary, and, sometimes, additional saints, on either side of him. The Hodegetria developed into the later iconographic types of the Eleusa, meaning tenderness, which showed the Madonna and the Child Jesus in a moment of affectionate tenderness, and the Pelagonitissa, or playing child, icon. Other iconographic types included the Man of Sorrows, which focused on depicting Christ's suffering, and the Anastasis, which showed Christ rescuing Adam and Eve from hell. These types became widely influential and were employed in Western art as well, though some like the Anastasis only depicted in the Byzantine Orthodox tradition.
Iconostasis, meaning "altar stand," was a term used to refer to a wall composed of icons that separated worshippers from the altar. In the Middle Byzantine period, the Iconostasis evolved from the Early Byzantine templon, a metal screen that sometimes was hung with icons, to a wooden wall composed of panels of icons. Containing three doors that had a hierarchal purpose, reserved for deacons or church notables, the wall extended from floor to ceiling, though leaving a space at the top so that worshippers could hear the liturgy around the altar. Some of the most noted Iconostases were developed in the Late Byzantine period in the Slavic countries, as shown in Theophanes the Greek's Iconostasis (1405) in the Cathedral of the Annunciation in Moscow. A codified system governed the placement of the icons arranged according to their religious importance.
Novgorod School of Icon Painting
The Novgorod School of Icon Painting, founded by the Byzantine artist, Theophanes the Greek, became the leading school of the Late Byzantine era, its influence lasting beyond the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453. Theophanes' work was known for its dynamic vigor due to his brushwork and his inclusion of more dramatic scenes in icons, which were usually only depicted in large-scale works. He is believed to have taught Andrei Rublev who became the most renowned icon painter of the era, famous for his ability to convey complex religious thought and feeling in subtly colored and emotionally evocative scenes. In the next generation, the leading icon painter Dionysius experimented with balance between horizontal and vertical lines to create a more dramatic effect. Influenced by Early Renaissance Italian artists who had arrived in Moscow, his style, known for pure color and elongated figures, is sometimes referred to as "Muscovite mannerism," as seen in his icon series for the Cathedral of the Dormition (1481) in Moscow.
In the Byzantine era, the sculptural tradition of Rome and Greece was essentially abandoned, as the Byzantine church felt that sculpture in the round would evoke pagan idols; however, Byzantine artists pioneered relief sculpture in ivory, usually presented in small portable objects and common objects. An early example is the Throne of Maximianan (also called, the Throne of Maximianus), made in Constantinople for the Archbishop Maximianus of Ravenna for the dedication of San Vitale. The work depicted Biblical stories and figures, surrounded by decorative panels, carved in different depths so that the almost three-dimensional treatment in some panels contrasted against the more shallow two-dimensional treatment of others.
In the Middle Byzantine period, ivory carving was known for its elegant and delicate detail, as seen in the Harbaville Triptych (mid-11th century). Reflecting the Macedonian Renaissance's renewed interest in classical art, artists depicted figures with more naturally flowing draperies and contrapposto poses. Byzantine ivory carvings were highly valued in the West, and, as, a result, the works exerted an artistic influence. The Italian artist Cimabue's Madonna Enthroned (1280-90), a work prefiguring the Italian Early Renaissance's use of depth and space, is predominantly informed by Byzantine conventions.
Later Developments - After Byzantine Art and Architecture
During its almost one thousand year span, the Byzantine era influenced Islamic architecture, the art and architecture of the Carolingian Renaissance, Norman architecture, Gothic architecture, and the International Gothic style. When the Turkish Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople in 1453, renaming it Istanbul, the Byzantine Empire came to an end. Nonetheless the Byzantine style continued to be employed in Greece and in Eastern Europe and Russia, where a "Russo-Byzantine" style developed in architecture.
In the mid-1800s, Russia underwent a Byzantine Revival, also called the Neo-Byzantine, which was established as the official style for churches by Alexander II of Russia, who reigned from 1885-1891. The style continued to be used until World War I, and, following the Russian Revolution of 1917, a number of architects immigrated to the Balkans where churches in the Byzantine Revival style continued to be made until after World War II. The veneration of icons, and the painting of them, is still a notable feature of the Orthodox faith, as Orthodox households have a space dedicated to icons, and churches, renowned for their images, draw worshippers from near and far.
Byzantine icons have continued to exert an influence, being employed for more traditional religious imagery, such as Luigi Crosio's late 19th-century rendering of Lady of Refuge, a popular image among Catholics, but also reframed within modern art in works such as Natalia Goncharova's The Evangelists (1911) and other Russian Futurists of the time. In particular, Russian Suprematist painter Kazimir Malevich famously exhibited his radically abstract Black Square (1915) in the corner of the room, a space traditionally reserved for religious icons and referred to as the "red corner." As Russian writer Tatyana Tolstaya wrote of this radical act, "Instead of red, black (zero color); instead of a face, a hollow recess (zero lines); instead of an icon - that is, instead of a window into the heavens, into the light, into eternal life - gloom, a cellar, a trapdoor into the underworld, eternal darkness." In subverting the traditional Byzantine icon, Malevich hoped to comment on the bleak state of modernity.
Contemporary Interpretations of the Style
Contemporary artists working in Byzantine styles and subjects include the Russian Maxim Sheshukov, the Romanian Ioan Pope, the American architect Andrew Gould, iconographer Peter Pearson, the Canadian sculptor Jonathan Pageau, and the Ukrainian Angelika Artemenko. The Archimandrite, or priest-monk, Zenon Theodor was acclaimed for his 2008 paintings in St. Nicholas Cathedral, in Vienna, Austria, while Greek artist Fikos combines Byzantine murals and icons with his interest in street art, comic book strips, and graffiti in what he calls "Contemporary Byzantine Painting." In America, the Brooklyn-based Alfonse Borysewicz has been called "one of the most important religious artists since the French Catholic Georges Rouault" by art historian Gregory Wolfe.
- Rublev's exquisite icons and frescoes rank him as the most important of all the late medieval Russian masters.
- The Painter and Mosaicist Cimabue took the lead role in the transition from the medieval/Byzantine to the modern era of Italian art.
Do Not Miss
- Romanesque Art refers to medieval art of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, before the rise of the Gothic. Commonly depicting Christian scenes and symbols, Romanesque Art and Architecture shows the marks of Roman, Byzantine, and Northern European influence.
- Early in the 15th century, Florentine artists rejuvenated the arts with a more humanistic and individualistic treatment that spawned on of the most creative revolutions in the arts.
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein
First published on 23 Aug 2018. Updated and modified regularly