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Byzantine art is the term

commonly used to
describe the artistic
products of the Eastern
Roman Empire (Byzantine
Empire) from about the
5th century until the fall of
Constantinople in 1453.

The term has also been

used for the art of states
which were contemporary
with the Byzantine Empire
and shared a common
culture with it, such as
Bulgaria, Serbia or Russia,
and also Venice, which had
close ties to the Byzantine

Byzantine art grew from the

art of Ancient Greece, and
never lost sight of its
classical heritage, but was
distinguished from it in a
number of ways. The most
profound of these was that
the humanist ethic of Ancient
Greek art was replaced by a
Christian ethic.

If the purpose of classical

art was the glorification of
man, the purpose of
Byzantine art was the
glorification of God, and of
His Son, Jesus.

The triumph of Christianity

brought with it a Christian
moral derived from its
roots in Judaism and
replaced this classical
preoccupation with human

The figures of God the

Father, Jesus Christ, the
Virgin Mary, and the saints
and martyrs of Christian
tradition were elevated,
and became the dominant
- indeed almost exclusive focus of Byzantine art.

The figures of God the Father,

Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and
the saints and martyrs of
Christian tradition were elevated,
and became the dominant indeed almost exclusive - focus of
Byzantine art. This is also
connected with the most
important form of Byzantine art,
still dominant, - the icon.

Icon creates reverence in

worship and serves as an
existential link to God.
Icon has been called
prayer, hymn, sermon in
form and color. It's used as
an object or veneration in
Orthodox churches and
private homes.

Another consequence of the

triumph of Christianity was a
decline in the importance of
naturalistic representation in
art. The Byzantines lost interest
in the realistic portraiture. Ideal
images of Christ, the saints and
martyrs were used, and this
became the norm of Byzantine

This is sometimes interpreted

on the West as a decline in
artistic skills and standards. It
is only partially true that some
of the technical expertise of
the classical world, particularly
in sculpture, was lost in the
Byzantine world and it wasn't
seen there as representing as
any decline

It was seen as the

harnessing of artistic skill to
the service of the one true
Belief, rather than using art
for the production of pagan
idols or the gratification of
personal vanity and sensual
pleasure, as the ancients
had done.

The Byzantine artist

sought to depict the inner
or spiritual nature of his
subjects. To this end
simplification and
stylization were perfectly

The Byzantines developed

new techniques and
reached new heights.
Byzantine gold and
silversmith, enamel-work,
jewelry and textiles
preserved the quality of
anything done in ancient

In mosaics and iconpainting they developed

major and original art
forms of their own. In
architecture they achieved
masterpieces such as
Hagia Sophia, a building of
superior scale and
magnificence to anything
in the ancient world

he Art of Byzantium

Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus

Hagia Sophia,
Constantinople (Istanbul), Turkey, ca 532-537

Byzantium's grandest building

and one of the supreme
accomplishments of world
architecture; its steel-less
structure is about 270 feet long
and 240 feet wide. The dome is
108 feet in diameter, and its
crown rises 180 feet above the
ground. In scale, Hagia Sophia is
like the Pantheon, the Baths of
Caracalla, and the Basilica of
However, the building's present
external aspects are much
changed from the origial
appearance; the first dome
collapsed in 558 and was
replaced by the present one,
greater in height and stability.
Huge buttresses were added to
the Justinianic design, and four
Turkish minarets were

Even though the walls and floors are lavishly decorated

with colored stones from around the world, what
distinguishes Hagia Sophia from the interiors of Roman
buildings is the mystical quality of the light that floods the

Figure 12-3

The Art of Byzantium


Justinian, Bishop Maxanius and attendants,

mosaic from the north wall of the apse,
San Vitale, Ravenna, italy,
ca. 547

The golden wreath of victory

Christ extends during the
Second Coming to Saint
Vitalis is also extended to
Justinian, for he appears on
the Savior's right side in the
dependent mosaic below
and to the left of the apse
These rites confirmed and
sanctified his rule,
combining the political and
the religious. The laws of the
Eastern Church and the laws
of the state, united in the
laws of God, were manifest
in the person of the emperor
and in his God-given right.
Justinian is distinguished
from those around him, not
only by his royal purple,
by his halo, another

Each figure's position in the mosaic is important.

Justinian, in the center, is distingushed by his holy halo.
He seems to be behind bishop to the right, and with the
imperial powers to the left, yet his bowl is in front of the
bishop, unifying the two groups of people.

he Art of Byzantium
Virgin (Theotokos) and Child,
icon (Vladimir Virgin), tempera on wood,
Late 11th to Early 12th Century

It was exported to Russia in
the early twelfth century and
then taken to Moscow to
protect the city.
The Russians believed that
the Vladimir icon saved the
city of Kazan from later
Tartar invasions and all of
Russia from the Poles in the
seventeenth century.
It is a historical symbol of
Byzantium's religious and
cultural mission to the Slavic
These types of images were
not universally accepted by

The following passage

from Exodus 20:4,5
explains the reason behind
the iconclast ideal: Thou
shalt not make unto thee any
graven image or any likeness of
anything that is in heaven above,
or that is in the earth beneath, or
this is in the water under the earth.
Thou shalt not bow down thyself
to them, nor serve them

Those who opposed the use

of icons are termed
Figure 12-29
iconoclasts and those who

he Art of Byzantium

Theadora and attendants,

mosaic from the south wall of the apse,
San Vitale, Ravenna, italy, ca. 547

Again, the figures are

elongated, with bent elbows.
The faces are all facing
forward, and the eyes of the
prominent figures are
looking towards the viewers.
The hands of the major
figures in the mosaic are
across their heart, and all of
the poses are very regal and
stiff, upright.
The dimension of the mosaic
is flat and there is very little
attempt at portraying
objects and people in some
type of perspective.

Key word to use when describing the mosaics on the walls of

San Vitale:
Elongated, spiritual, ethereal, votive eyes, religiously
symbolic, denatured


The focus is on human

figures, whose identities
reveal three main elements
in the formation of the
Byzantine empire. Most
prominent are the holy
figures of the Christian faith-Christ, the Virgin Mary, the
saints, and the apostles.

Bishops and angels often

are portrayed in their
company. Central to the
political structure was the
emperor, who was believed
to be divinely sanctioned
by God.

Art played a vital role in

visualizing his powers.
Images of cherubs,
mythological heroes, gods
and goddesses, and
personifications of virtues
are reflections of the
continuing influence of
Byzantium's classical

Some points to remember

about Byzantine art

Byzantine artists created

impressive and innovative forms
in architecture which proves their
ability to think threedimensionally. But otherwise
their art was one of surfaces. By
the fifth century threedimensional sculpture, which had
been a prominent form in
Hellenistic and Roman art , was
no longer produced..

To create figures that were

physically beautiful but no
longer actually solid must
have been a conscious
decision stemming from a
desire to express the
spirituality of the Christian

Human figures, the main

subject matter, are
portrayed in two different
styles. In one style which
expresses power, authority,
and grandeur, frontal
figures of Christ, the Virgin,
saints, bishops, and the
imperial family and court
face the viewer.

These images are full length.

However, the upper part of the
body is depicted when the
focus is on the eyes, facial
expression, and hands, which
may gesture meaningfully and
hold significant objects. Such
portrayals may have originally
derived from ancient Roman
portrait paintings and carved

In the second figural style

the subjects in religious
narratives turn and
gesture to express
adoration, sympathy,
prayer, distress, and so on.

Figures in action, often

casual and playful, also
appear in classical
mythological scenes. The
poses of the hands and
arms make visual ideas
such as blessing, teaching,
pointing the way, prayer,
and authority, which is
indicated by the figure's
holding a scepter, a book,

Folds of drapery are manipulated

to further express meaning.
Simplified vertical folds or no
folds at all reinforce the stasis of
frontal full-length figures. In
contrast, fluttering drapery
reveals movement and emotion.
Subtle emotions, never extreme
ones, are expressed in the eyes
and facial expressions. There is
always a sense of classical

The classical tradition of

modeling using light and
shadow to give volume to
figures was not abandoned

Such modeling was used to

suggest facial features and
drapery folds. Figures
depicted on flat surfaces,
however, seem to be almost
weightless--a sense created
in part by their feet, which
do not rest firmly on the
ground but point downward
as if the figure is floating.

In depicting groups of
figures, depth is shown by
overlapping and placing
figures higher up on the
same plane. The use of gold
backgrounds in mosaics,
manuscript illustrations,
enamels, and panel painting
sets the figures apart from
real time and real space.

There is little interest in

natural setting.
Architectural details are
decorative and usually
smaller in scale than the
human figures.

The art is linear, not what

in art historical terms is
called "painterly." Figures
and indications of setting
are defined by outlines,
not by atmosphere or soft

Clarity is the rule, not only

in describing shapes but
also in arranging figures in
balanced compositions so
that the actions of the
narrative are clear.

The scale and placement

of figures show either
their ranking in the
Byzantine court or their
relative importance in the
hierarchy developed for
the mosaics and frescoes
of Byzantine churches.

In religious art figures

higher up and closer to the
sanctuary are more
important. The image of
Christ in the central dome
is the largest and most
important of all.

To express the glory of

heaven and the power and
wealth or the empire,
artists selected deluxe
materials and often
combined them in intricate
designs that took
extraordinary skill to

The preference was for strong,

brilliant colors and contrasts to
add to the impression of richness.
Color was also important to make
figures in mosaics and frescoes
readable, even at a distance. In
the imperial court, color
distinguished the emperor and
empress, who wore red shoes and
purple robes. In addition, each
rank of officials had a particular
color for their robes.

A variety of geometric
patterns appear in the
stone inlays of floors. In
court costumes the rank of
officials was identified not
only by the color of the
robe but also by a
distinctively patterned silk
rectangle worn on the
front of the robe

Being an artist was an
honorable profession in
Byzantium, although named
individuals are extremely rare
before the thirteenth century.
Artists were not narrowly
specialized; a mosaicist, for
instance, could also paint on
fresh plaster, creating frescoes.

An artist's training usually

consisted of a father
passing down his skills and
equipment, possibly
including drawings, to his
offspring, including
daughters. Parents also
placed their children as
apprentices with masters..

Sometimes painters who

created small-scale objects
worked either at home or
in small clusters. When
Byzantine artists worked
abroad, they usually
traveled in groups

What Byzantine Art Reveals about

Byzantine Civilization
The power and expressiveness of
the figures portrayed in the art
suggest the vitality and strength of
Byzantine traditions, which have
outlasted the fall of the empire.
The richness of the materials,
especially the lavish use of gold,
indicates wealth.

The great variety in the

subject matter, media, and
types of art attests to the
taste and sophistication of
the society that
commissioned it and to the
remarkable artistic skill of
the craftsmen who created

The continuing portrayal of

classical themes and
idealized human figures
are visual reminders of the
importance of the GrecoRoman heritage in
Byzantine thought.

In style and subject matter

the arts of peoples as near
as Rus', Georgia, Armenia,
and Bulgaria, and as far
away as western Europe
and the middle East show
the vast expanse of
Byzantine cultural and
artistic contacts.

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