Byzantine (330-1453)

from The New Book of Knowledge®

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Byzantine art is the art of the Eastern Roman Empire. Constantine, the first Christian emperor of the Roman Empire, moved his capital from Rome to the old Greek city of Byzantium. He renamed the city Constantinople after himself. But the art of the Eastern Roman Empire that he founded is known as Byzantine.

Byzantine art extends from the founding of Constantinople in A.D. 330 until the Turks captured the city in 1453. However, long after the fall of Constantinople, artists in the Greek islands, in the Balkans, and in Russia continued to create works in the Byzantine style.

In the days of its glory, Constantinople was the most magnificent city in the world. Above the gates and towers of the city walls rose the golden domes of the churches and the tall, shining columns set up by the emperors. Some of the most famous statues of ancient Greece had been brought to the city. The huge palace of the emperor blazed with gold and silver, marble and mosaics. There the emperor, covered with jewels, was surrounded by priests in shining robes and by men-at-arms of every barbarian race.

The Byzantine Empire was a religious state. The emperor was not only the ruler of his people but God's representative on earth. The ceremonies of the church and of the court were meant to show the emperor's sacred character. His magnificent jewels, robes, and crown were intended to give him a majestic and saintly appearance.

The purpose of Byzantine art was to glorify the Christian religion and to express its mystery. All of Byzantine art is filled with a kind of spiritual symbolism--things on earth are meant to stand for the order of heaven. Another characteristic of the art of this rich empire is a love of splendor.

Byzantine art is a combination of Eastern and classical Western art. The Byzantine Empire inherited the ideas and forms of art of the classical world of Greece and Rome. However, part of the empire was in Asia and Africa. The shores of Asia could be seen from Constantinople. It was natural that the art of this empire should be greatly influenced by the art of the Near East.

The art of Greece and Rome was naturalistic--artists wanted to show the world about them as it actually looked. Their greatest interest was in the human body. To create an ideal beauty, they showed the body as it would look if it were perfect.

The art of the ancient Near East was more an art of decoration. Artists filled large, flat areas with patterns that were repeated again and again. Instead of copying nature, they made natural forms into flat patterns. They did not have the great interest in the human body that classical artists had, and they did not hesitate to change the shape of the body to fit into their designs. Another characteristic of Eastern art was a use of glowing color.

The Late Antique Period: The Beginning of the Byzantine Style (330-527)

For the first 200 years of the Byzantine Empire, artists worked in the same style as the artists of ancient Greece and Rome. Because the art was still based on that of the old classical world, these years are called the Late Antique period. During these years the new Byzantine style gradually grew out of the decaying art of the classical world.

In this period the Roman Empire lost its lands to the barbarian invaders from the north. Much of the art of this time of violence and disorder shows a loss of skill and craftsmanship. Artists were no longer able to make the human body look like that of a living person. They could no longer achieve the realism or ideal beauty that Greek and Roman artists had. Instead, for representing heads and bodies, they used certain rules that made human figures look unreal--stiff and wooden. This unreality was made-to-order for expressing the spiritual ideals of Christianity.

The First Golden Age (527-726)

The earliest true Byzantine style appeared in the First Golden Age. By the 6th century Byzantine artists had broken away from the classical styles. They had created a new style to show the supernatural nature of Christ and the sacredness and grandeur of the emperor.

The most important ruler of the First Golden Age was the Emperor Justinian. He is remembered for his code of laws and his great building projects in Constantinople and Italy. After recapturing much of Italy from the Goths, Justinian chose the city of Ravenna as the center of Byzantine rule in Italy.

There is a famous mosaic picture of the great emperor in the church of San Vitale at Ravenna. He is shown surrounded by his attendants. His stiff pose and rich robes make him a symbol of majesty. On the opposite wall is a picture of his wife, the Empress Theodora, with her ladies-in-waiting. At the end of the church, in the half dome behind the altar, Christ is shown among the angels. Christ, the All-Ruler, is surrounded by the members of his court in heaven just as Justinian and Theodora are surrounded by a court on earth.

These pictures are done in mosaic. A mosaic picture or design is made of thousands of small glass or marble cubes, called tesserae, set in cement. The walls and domes of the great churches of Ravenna and Constantinople were decorated with glass tesserae, brilliantly colored or covered with gold.

A picture made out of many pieces of glass cannot be as freely done or copy nature as exactly as a painting. In the pictures of Justinian and Theodora in San Vitale, the figures are stiff. The bodies are flat, and the magnificent robes do not seem to cover any solid shapes. The feet point downward on the flat ground, giving the illusion that the bodies are floating in air. However, the stiff poses of the rulers, and their long, flat shapes, are not simply the result of the use of mosaic. These are characteristics of the new Byzantine style. The heads of the figures show us that the artist was capable of a much more realistic portrayal. The faces are almost like portraits in the old Roman tradition. However, Byzantine artists were not interested in realism, in showing solid forms in real space. Instead, they developed a formal style, a style in which the body is just another part of a flat design.

Hagia Sophia, the Church of Holy Wisdom
The greatest building of the whole Byzantine world is the church of Hagia Sophia, in Constantinople. Hagia Sophia, known as the Church of Holy Wisdom, was built on the site of an ancient temple to Pallas Athene, the Greek goddess of wisdom. It was dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

The church was designed by the architects Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus. Construction was begun in A.D. 532, and it is believed that the Emperor Justinian himself personally supervised the work. A legend tells that he followed the orders of an angel.

Hagia Sophia is so large that the human eye cannot take in the whole huge shape of the interior. If you stand inside the great church, you must look at it one part at a time. Your eyes are led from the pillars to the vaults, then to the smaller domes, finally to the central dome 180 feet (55 meters) high. This may be what the architects wanted. The eyes of the worshiper finally come to rest on the great mosaic figure of Christ in the dome, looking down as though from heaven itself. The feeling of endless space in Hagia Sophia makes it one of the most impressive buildings in the world. The many marble columns are enormous, but in the huge interior they seem small. At the same time the mounting of domes of increasing sizes up to the great central dome gives a feeling of order.

The splendor of Hagia Sophia also comes from color. The columns, brought from every corner of the empire, are of stone and marble of many different colors--blue, green, and blood-red. Even more brilliant in color is the mosaic decoration. The floor is covered with marble mosaic and the walls glitter with glass mosaics. The mosaics have designs of vines and pomegranates--the fruit of the pomegranate was a symbol of life after death--and imaginary beasts. Below the central dome are mosaic pictures of star-eyed angels. On the golden background of the vast, topmost dome is the figure of Christ as judge and ruler of all.

The Dome on Pendentives
Byzantine architects did not invent the plans or building methods that they used; they adapted them from the architecture of the Near East and Rome. However, the architects of Hagia Sophia did solve the problem of placing a round dome on the square plan of the walls that support it. They did this by building up masonry from the corners of the walls in the shape of a triangle. This construction is called a pendentive. Pendentives not only support the dome but join the dome to the walls in one continuous sweep.

The pendentives of Hagia Sophia rest on four massive piers. The stone blocks of these piers are set in lead rather than in mortar. The dome is also made stronger by half domes that carry its outward-pushing weight to huge buttresses, or supports, on the outside. To make it lighter the dome was built out of a special kind of light brick.

Some scholars believe that Byzantine architects learned how to build domes from earlier Roman buildings. Others think that they learned from Near Eastern architecture. However, the meaning of the dome in religious architecture came from Persia. In the ancient Near East, people thought that heaven was like a cup placed upside down over the earth. In Persia from the 3rd to 7th century A.D., architects used the shape of the dome to suggest the architecture of heaven. Since Byzantine architects also used this idea, it seems likely that both the knowledge of how to build a dome and the meaning of this shape came to Byzantium from her eastern neighbors.

Ivory Carving: A Bishop's Throne
The Byzantine Church did not approve of sculpture in the round--sculpture that can be seen from all sides. The Church feared that it would recall the idols of the Greek and Roman religions. However, small carvings in relief (raised from a flat surface), especially in ivory, were allowed as church decoration. One of the most beautiful examples of ivory carving of the First Golden Age is the throne of the Bishop Maximian at Ravenna.

The wooden chair is covered with many ivory panels of different sizes. In the center of a long rectangular panel on the front of the throne is the monogram of Christ. On either side are carved peacocks, symbols of paradise or everlasting life, and grapevines, symbols of the wine of Communion. Byzantine designs of birds and animals placed among the curling branches of vines are like the complicated patterns in Oriental rugs. Byzantine artists probably adapted these designs from textiles or carvings made in the Near East.

Four ivory carvings on the front of the throne show Saint John the Baptist and the four Gospel writers. The thinness of the saints and their haggard appearance is typical of Byzantine art. In the early centuries of Christianity, many holy men fasted and tormented themselves. One famous hermit, Saint Simeon Stylites, even spent many years sitting on top of a column. The bodies of such holy men were very different from the healthy bodies of the Greek athletes. Extreme thinness came to be a sign of holiness, and this is one reason that the artist has carved such tall figures. By making the bodies of the saints very tall and fragile, they appear to be more spirit than flesh. The flat pattern of the saints' robes also makes their bodies look weightless, as if the cloth did not fall over any solid shapes.

The entire chair is carved with great precision and delicacy. The patterns of vines, birds, and beasts are wonderful examples of the Byzantine craftsman's creativeness in making a rich and exciting pattern.

The Period of Iconoclasm (726-843)


In the 8th century the mosaics of the churches of Byzantium were covered with whitewash, and the sculpture was destroyed. This was done by the iconoclasts (image-breakers), who did not approve of representations of the saints or the Holy Family. They believed that many people really worshiped the picture or statue instead of the holy figure it represented. During the period when the iconoclasts were in power, no pictures of the Deity were allowed. The iconoclast movement not only interrupted the development of Byzantine art but caused the destruction of nearly all the great treasures of the First Golden Age.

The Second Golden Age (843-1204)


When the iconoclasts lost power, a new golden age began. Constantinople was still a city of great treasures, shimmering with gold. It was the richest city in the world. The art of this period shows an Eastern fondness for things that are richly ornamented and perfectly made. Everything is on a smaller scale. Artists made small, beautiful things that are delicate rather than impressive. Compared with the grand monuments of the time of Justinian, the churches of this period are tiny. Religious art was made to appeal to the worshiper in much more human terms. Instead of the solemn grandeur that made Christ unapproachable, there was a new emphasis on his sufferings as a man.

The churches of the Second Golden Age are like little jewel boxes in stone. They are most impressive from the outside, where the harmony and logic of the construction can be seen. The plan is square. Within the square is a cross with arms of equal length. A typical example is the Little Metropole in Athens. Three stories high, the church has a blocklike ground floor. The arms of the cross plan project into the second story. On the third level a small dome is placed over the center of the cross. Domes are also built between the arms of the cross plan on the second level, but these cannot be seen from the outside.

Another feature of the buildings of the Second Golden Age is the texture of the walls. In some places the surface is rough, in others smooth. This kind of surface causes an ever-changing activity of light and shade. The walls of the church at Athens are decorated with fragments of ancient Greek carving as well as reliefs of that time.

Saint Mark's
The famous church of Saint Mark's in Venice has nearly the same plan as the Little Metropolitan but is many times larger. Begun in 1063, it was probably copied from a church in Constantinople. The domes, like those in Hagia Sophia, have a ring of windows at their bases to let in light. The sunlight shining on the gold mosaics makes the domes look like golden shells hung in the air. The glow of gold mosaics and the sheen of colored marble make the visitor feel that he is really in a heaven brought to earth. On the outside the round domes are covered by domes of fantastic shape that make Saint Mark's look like an Eastern fairy palace. Marbles and mosaics of many different periods decorate the outside of the church.

The Mosaics at Daphni
The style of the mosaics of the Second Golden Age is like an echo of the great age of Greek art. In Greece, not far from Athens, is the church of Daphni. Inside the church are some of the finest mosaics in the whole history of Byzantine art.

In the dome there is a large picture of Christ. Only his head and shoulders are shown. His hand is raised in blessing, but his bearded face is solemn, even frightening. The large size of this picture, the beard, and the fearful solemnness of the face are like an ancient representation of the Greek god Zeus. The artist wanted to show Christ as the tremendous power that rules over the fate of man. It was natural that he should have turned to the noble beauty of Greek art for inspiration. He may even have been influenced by the bearded head of a statue of a Greek god.

On the pendentives are four scenes from the life of Christ. In the Crucifixion scene there are only three figures: Christ is on the cross, and Mary and Saint John are at the foot of the cross, one on each side. The figures are arranged in the shape of a triangle against the empty golden background. Each figure is separate and yet unified with the other figures. The balanced arrangement is like that used by Greek sculptors in placing their figures in the pediments of temples. Also, the position of Saint John--bending, with his weight on one leg--is a pose often used by Greek sculptors. The body of Christ is almost like that of a classic athlete. However, unlike Greek sculpture, the anatomy is not true to life. The Byzantine artist changed the body into a pattern of flat shapes. In doing this he tried to show Christ as perfect, unlike any ordinary human being.

The faces of Saint John and the Madonna have the flatness and heavy lines of the Byzantine style, but they express the calm of Greek statues. The emptiness of the background and the nobility of the figures show that this is an event that is not part of the everyday world. The artist has not tried to make a picture of the actual happening or to show what the real scene was actually like. Instead he has made a symbol of the Crucifixion.

Our Lady of Vladimir
Few examples of paintings on wooden panels have survived from the Second Golden Age. One of them is the famous Madonna of Vladimir, one of the first paintings to depict the Madonna and Child as mother and son, showing affection for each other. The picture reveals a new interest in human feeling. The softness of the features and the expression of sadness in the eyes are like the technique and feeling of late Greek painting.

Our Lady of Vladimir was taken to Russia in the 11th or 12th century and became the model there for many later representations of the Madonna. This new, more human idea of divinity also influenced the religious painting of Italy in the 14th century.

Byzantine artists were not supposed to invent new compositions but to repeat as closely as possible the shapes of famous images. The Church wanted the representations of religious figures always to look the same. Artists followed rules written in manuals. In a beautiful ivory carving of the Madonna and Child, we can see that the artist has followed certain of these rules. The Madonna is carved in one of the standard poses--standing, she holds the Christ Child on her left arm. The carver has also used the Byzantine system of proportion for the body. The Madonna's body is extremely long and drawn out--9 or 10 times as long as the head. In ancient Greece artists usually made the bodies of athletes or gods seven times as long as the head.

The ivory carving has features that are typical of the Second Golden Age. The carved Madonna has the same sad, wistful look as the Madonna of Vladimir. Her oval head is delicate, with large, almond-shaped eyes and a tiny mouth. The strange, ghostly face under a heavy hood makes us feel that we are looking at a being from another world.

A particularly beautiful feature of this ivory is the flattened pattern of the drapery arranged in a fanlike design.

The End of the Second Golden Age
The Second Golden Age came to an end with the capture of Constantinople by the Venetian crusaders in 1204. Like earlier crusades, it had been organized to fight the Turks in the Holy Land. Instead the crusaders attacked the most powerful city in the Christian world. When Constantinople fell into their hands, the invaders plundered the churches and palaces and burned the libraries. Many ancient works that had lasted from Greek and Roman times were lost in the flames. When the Venetians were finally driven out, the last period of Byzantine civilization, the Third Golden Age, began.

The Third Golden Age (1261-1453)


The architecture typical of the Third Golden Age can be seen in many churches in the Balkans. These buildings differ from earlier churches like the Little Metropolitan because they give the impression of being tall, soaring buildings. Tiny domes are set on tall bases that sprout from the first story. The upward feeling is increased by the number of pilasters on the outside of the church. Pilasters are column-like strips built into the side of a wall. These churches do not look massive and solid like the churches of the Second Golden Age.

The Paintings of Kharieh Djami
In the paintings of this period, we seem to be looking at real dramatic happenings. The painters of the wall paintings of the church of Kharieh Djami in Constantinople were interested in storytelling. The figures in the Christian stories are placed in actual settings instead of on an empty golden background. Many of the old rules survive, but there is a new life and movement and a real beauty of color. Byzantine painters finally became interested in experimenting with realism, and in this respect they are the equals of their famous contemporaries in 14th-century Italy.

The End of Byzantium
Hagia Sophia was the spiritual center of the Byzantine Empire for 900 years. There the sacred emperors were crowned; there the priests celebrated the mass until that last dark night in Byzantine history, May 29, 1453. On that night the crowds prayed for the last time in the shadow of the great dome as the armies of the Turkish sultan attacked the city. Gathered inside the church, waiting for a miracle, they must have heard the crumbling of the city's walls. They must have heard the rattle of bridle chains in the streets, the clamor of the Turkish soldiers, the sound of axes hewing down the great doors as the sultan came to still forever the heart of the Byzantine world.

Benjamin Rowland, Jr.
Harvard University

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