The art of Byzantium

The art of Byzantium

The art of Byzantium
Hagia Sophia

The art of Byzantium is a huge layer of the unique artistic heritage of mankind

Byzantine art is an important regional part of medieval art, based on the cultural traditions of Christianity and the Roman Empire. The art of Byzantium includes a huge number of works of art created over 1000 years in the territory of the Eastern Mediterranean. For many centuries, it had a tremendous impact on the cultural life of not only all of Europe, but also a significant part of North Africa and the Middle East.

The art of Byzantium had a pronounced imperial and religious orientation; over its thousand-year history, it has repeatedly experienced periods of rise and decline. It developed against the background of the incessant struggle between Constantinople and Rome for supremacy in the Christian world. Which resulted in the split of the single church into Catholic and Orthodox.

The art of Byzantium
Frescoes of the Church of St. George

Major periods of Byzantine art

  1. The art of Byzantium is traditionally divided into the following main periods:
  2. Early Christian or pre-Byzantine (III-VI centuries).
  3. Early Byzantine (VI-VIII centuries).
  4. Iconoclastic (VIII – early IX century).
  5. Macedonian Revival (early 9th – mid 11th century).
  6. Comnenian Revival (mid-11th century – late 12th century).
  7. Palaeologus revival (late 12th century – mid-15th century).
The art of Byzantium
Frescoes of the Church of the Ascension

The formation of Byzantine art in the early Christian period began with two major historical events: the public recognition of Christian worship in the Roman Empire in 313 and the transfer of the capital of the state to Constantinople in 330. This became a powerful impetus for the formation of a new center of cultural and political life in the Mediterranean. Over the next two centuries, Rome, Alexandria and Antioch, which were the main rivals of Constantinople in the struggle for cultural dominance in the region, fell under the onslaught of the invaders. From that time on. Byzantine art began to play an important role in the cultural life of Europe for a long time.

The reign of Emperor Justinian I (527-565) at the beginning of the early Byzantine period is rightfully considered the “Golden Age” in the history of Byzantium. It was marked not only by the maximum expansion of the borders of the state. But also by the grandiose construction of temples. As well as the rapid development of various spheres of art. But soon an era of political and economic decline began against the background of the loss of most of the conquered territories.

The art of Byzantium
The Descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles. Mosaic at the Osios Lukas Monastery. Phocides, XI century

The iconoclastic period, which lasted more than a century, caused a serious crisis in icon painting. During this time, figurative art was severely oppressed by the church, and many icons, frescoes and mosaics were mercilessly destroyed. Anthropomorphic images in the decoration of temples gave way to ornamental art with elements of plant and animal themes.

The dark times of iconoclasm at the beginning of the 9th century in Byzantine art gave way to the era of the Macedonian Renaissance. Architectural forms were standardized, figurative painting and sculpture were revived, as well as the ancient antique technique of ivory carving.

The art of Byzantium
Sacred crown of Hungary

The period of the Comnenian Renaissance also had a beneficial effect on the art of Byzantium. Within the empire, after serious shocks, an era of stability came for a short time, and the artists felt powerful support from the authorities. It was a time of returning to the ideals of ancient art, painting paintings and icons in a realistic classical style.

The Palaeologus Renaissance was a unique period in the history of Byzantine art. On the one hand, the once mighty empire has turned into a small state, constantly attacked by aggressive neighbors. On the other hand, there came a time of a short flowering of all types of art, which in 1453 ended with the fall of Constantinople and the entire empire.

Many Byzantine artists were forced to flee from the Ottomans to the countries of Western and Eastern Europe. There they continued to develop the cultural traditions of their homeland, but very soon the Renaissance era began in European art, which forever changed the history of human civilization.

Rebekah and Eliezer at the well. Miniature from the Vienna Genesis. VI century
Rebekah and Eliezer at the well. Miniature from the Vienna Genesis. VI century

The main features of the art of Byzantium

Byzantine artists have made an invaluable contribution to the treasury of world culture, and their creative heritage is a huge field for specialist research. The art of Byzantium, first of all, includes works of art created in the following areas:
Icon painting.
Illuminated manuscript.

Prophet Joel. Egypt, Alexandria, VII century. 8.7 x 10.2 cm, bone carving. Louvre
Prophet Joel. Egypt, Alexandria, VII century. 8.7 x 10.2 cm, bone carving. Louvre

The most important distinguishing feature of Byzantine architecture was the change in the concept of construction of religious buildings. If in ancient times the temple was the earthly abode of one of the many gods, then in the Christian world it turned into a place for offering prayers and union with God. Accordingly, the rules for the interior decoration of temples changed, their interior became more diverse and majestic. But the architects paid less attention to the facing of the facades. The most famous example of architecture of that era is St. Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople, which after the capture of the city by the Turks turned into the Great Mosque of Hagia Sophia.

In sculpture, the achievements of the Byzantines were quite modest. Moreover, according to the philosophy of Christianity, statues were considered elements of idolatry at that time and already in the 9th century they were no longer installed in temples. Relief images were common only as details of the exterior decoration of facades. And classical sculptural compositions almost completely disappeared from cultural life.

The art of Byzantium
Mosaics and frescoes of the Khora monastery (Kakhriye-Jami)

But mosaic in the Byzantine Empire was for a long time the main technique of artistic decoration of temples. Until now, large-scale mosaic panels, preserved in different parts of Europe. Impress our contemporaries with the splendor of colors and shapes.

The art of the surviving painting of the Byzantine era is mainly represented by unique fresco paintings. Which gradually ousted mosaics from temples in the second millennium AD. But only an insignificant number of frescoes have survived to this day in good condition, most of them are irretrievably lost to posterity.

The art of Byzantium
Epiphany. Mosaic of the nave in the monastery of Osios Lucas. Phocides, XI century

Iconography throughout most of the history of the Byzantine Empire was unconditionally considered the most important art form. The church strictly followed the strict observance of the canons of writing sacred images, mercilessly punishing the craftsmen for the slightest signs of free thought. Under the influence of Byzantine masters, the original schools of icon painting were formed in many parts of Eastern Europe. And the masterpieces created by ancient artists now cost a lot of money.

Illuminated manuscripts also form an important part of the Byzantine cultural heritage. Religious handwritten books, adorned with elaborate miniatures and ornaments, were created by monks over the years throughout the empire. The art of making manuscripts was carefully passed down from generation to generation until the fall of the empire. And the beginning of the era of printing in Europe in the middle of the 15th century.

The art of Byzantium is not only unique masterpieces of ancient masters. But also a grandiose part of the spiritual life of European civilization. Its thousand-year history keeps many interesting facts for further study by grateful descendants.

The art of Byzantium
Icon “Ladder”
Diptych Barberini
Diptych Barberini
X century. Treasury of the Cathedral of San Marco, Venice
X century. Treasury of the Cathedral of San Marco, Venice