Rome in the East: Art and Architecture of the Byzantine Empire



Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (then Constantinople) / Photo by Arild Vågen, Wikimedia Commons


Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh / 03.15.2018
Historian
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief



1 – Early Byzantine Art and Architecture

1.1 – Introduction

The Byzantine Empire began as a continuation of the Roman Empire but gradually became distinct through cultural changes.

1.1.1 – The East-West Schism

After the death of Theodosius I in 395, the Roman Empire was divided into an Eastern half, based in Constantinople, and a Western, half based in Rome . Less than a century later, in 476, the last Western emperor Romulus Augustulus abdicated to a Germanic warlord who placed his own rule under that of the Eastern emperor. This act effectively ended the line of Western emperors and marked the end of the Western Empire. However, the Eastern portion (what historians call the Byzantine Empire) would continue for approximately another millennium.

The Byzantine Empire at its height: The Byzantine Empire (red) and its vassals (pink) in 555 CE during the reign of Justinian I.

The word Byzantine derives from Byzantium , the original name of Constantinople before Constantine moved the Roman imperial capital there in the fourth century. Despite this present-day appellation, those living within the borders of the Byzantine Empire did not call themselves Byzantine. They continued to call themselves Romans and, until the early seventh century, continued to speak Latin. Even Roman Catholicism remained the official religion of the Byzantine Empire until the eleventh century.

In an effort to recreate a unified Roman Empire, Justinian I (r. 527–565) was able to reconquer most of the Mediterranean coast, including North Africa, Rome, and southern Spain. This swath of territory remained in the Byzantine Empire for two centuries.

A significant cultural shift occurred in the early seventh century when Heraclius (r. 610–641) replaced Latin with Greek as the official language of the Empire. This caused religious tensions with the church in Rome that began in the fourth century, and resulted in seven Ecumenical Councils over six hundred years. Finally, in 1054, the East–West Schism officially made the Eastern Orthodox Church, centered in Constantinople, its own separate entity from the Roman Catholic Church.

From the tenth century to the fifteenth, the empire experienced periods of peace and prosperity, as well as war and economic downturns. In the late eleventh century, the empire lost much of Asia Minor to the Turks, a temporary setback that foreshadowed the eventual weakening of Constantinople and the further loss of territory to the growing Ottoman Empire . In 1453, the Ottoman Turks invaded and captured Constantinople, bringing the Byzantine Empire to an end.

1.1.2 – Byzantine Art and Architecture

Surviving Byzantine art is mostly religious and, for the most part, highly conventionalized, following traditional models that translate their carefully controlled church theology into artistic terms. Painting in frescos , mosaics , and illuminated manuscripts , and on wood panels were the main, two-dimensional media . Manuscript painting preserved some of the classical realist tradition that was missing in larger works. Figurative sculpture was very rare except for small, carved ivories .

Byzantine art was highly prestigious and sought-after in Western Europe, where it maintained a continuous influence on medieval art until near the end of the period. This was especially true in Italy, where Byzantine styles persisted in modified form through the twelfth century.

However, few incoming influences affected Byzantine style. By means of the expansion of the Eastern Orthodox church, Byzantine forms and styles spread throughout the Orthodox world and beyond.

Ascension scene from the Rabula Gospel: Miniatures of the sixth-century Rabula Gospel display the more abstract and symbolic nature of Byzantine art.

Early Byzantine architecture drew upon the earlier elements of Roman architecture. After the fall of the Western Empire, several churches, including the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and San Vitale in Ravenna, were built as centrally planned structures. However, stylistic drift, technological advancement, and political and territorial changes gradually resulted in the Greek-cross plan in church architecture.

Buildings increased in geometric complexity. Brick and plaster were used in addition to stone for the decoration of important public structures. Classical orders were used more freely. Mosaics replaced carved decoration. Complex domes rested upon massive piers , and windows filtered light through thin sheets of alabaster to softly illuminate interiors.

Plan of the katholikon church of the Pelekete monastery: The plan of katholikon church provides the typical layout of Byzantine churches after the eighth century.

Influences from Byzantine architecture, particularly in religious buildings, can be found in diverse regions from Egypt and Arabia to Russia and Romania. Most of the surviving structures are sacred in nature; secular buildings are mostly known through contemporaneous descriptions.

1.2 – Architecture in the Early Byzantine Empire

1.2.1 – Introduction

The Byzantine Emperor Justinian I launched an ambitious building program to develop holy sites to restore the glory of the Roman Empire.

Justinian I from San Vitale in Ravenna: Byzantine Emperor Justinian forcefully pushed for the spread of Christianity along with the expansion of his empire.

Justinian I devoted much of his reign (527–565 CE) to reconquering Italy, North Africa, and Spain. During his reign, he sought to revive the empire’s greatness and reconquer the lost western half of the historical Roman Empire. This attempt at restoration included an ambitious building program in Constantinople and elsewhere in the empire, and is the most substantial architectural achievement by one person in history.

1.2.2 – Hagia Sophia

One notable structure for which Justinian was responsible is the Hagia Sophia, or Church of Holy Wisdom, built by Isidorus of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles, both of whom would oversee most building projects that Justinian ordered within Constantinople. Like most Byzantine churches of this time, the Hagia Sophia is centrally planned , with the dome serving as its focal point.

Isidorus of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles plan for the Hagia Sophia: a) Plan of the gallery (upper half); b) Plan of the ground floor (lower half).

The vast interior has a complex structure. The nave  is covered by a central dome that at its maximum is over 180 feet from floor level and rests on an arcade of 40 arched windows. Although the dome appears circular at first glance, repairs to its structure have left it somewhat elliptical, with its diameter varying between 101 and nearly 103 feet.

An interior view of Hagia Sophia: The Emperor Justinian ordered the construction of Hagia Sophia in 532 CE.

The dome of Hagia Sophia has spurred particular interest for many art historians, architects, and engineers because of the innovative way the original architects envisioned it. The cupola is carried on four, spherical, triangular pendentives , an element that was first fully realized in this building.

The pendentives implement the transition from the circular base of the dome to the rectangular base below to restrain the lateral forces of the dome and allow its weight to flow downwards. They were later reinforced with buttresses .

At the western entrance side and the eastern liturgical side are arched openings that are extended by half domes of identical diameter to the central dome, and carried on smaller semi-domed exedras . A hierarchy of dome-headed elements creates a vast, oblong interior crowned by the central dome, with a span of 250 feet.

The Imperial Gate, reserved only for the emperor, was the main entrance of the cathedral . A long ramp from the northern part of the outer narthex leads up to the upper gallery, which was traditionally reserved for the empress and her entourage. It is laid out in a horseshoe shape that encloses the nave until it reaches the apse .

After the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, the plan of the Hagia Sophia would significantly influence the construction and design of the Süleymaniye Mosque (1550–1557).

1.2.3 – The Church of the Holy Apostles

The Church of the Holy Apostles, originally built under the purview of Constantine in 330, was no longer considered grand enough when Justinian ascended the throne. Because of this, the architects Isidorus of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles designed and built a new church on the same site in the late 540s (consecrated in 550).

Like the original church, Justinian’s replacement had a cruciform plan and and was surmounted by five domes: one above each arm of the cross and one above the central bay where the arms intersected. The western arm of the cross extended farther than the others to form an atrium . Because blueprints did not exist yet, and because the church was demolished shortly after the Ottoman conquest, the design details of the building are a matter of dispute.

1.2.4 – The Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus

Little Hagia Sophia: A general view of the interior, looking south and west.

The Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus (527–536), known today as Little Hagia Sophia, was probably a model for the actual Hagia Sophia. It was recognized at the time as an adornment to all of Constantinople.

During the reign of Justinian’s uncle Justin I, the future emperor faced accusations of conspiring against the current emperor and was killed for it. However, the Saints Sergius and Bacchus were said to intervene and vouched to Justin that his nephew was innocent. After the restoration of his title, Justinian commissioned Isidorus of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles to construct the church as a gesture of thanksgiving.

When the church was built, it shared its narthex, atrium and propylaea with another church. It became one of the most important religious structures in Constantinople.

1.3 – Painting in the Early Byzantine Empire

The Early Byzantine period witnessed the establishment of strict guidelines for the production of icons.

1.3.1 – Icon Painting

Icon painting, as distinct from other forms of painting, emerged in the Early Byzantine period as an aid to religious devotion. In contrast , earlier Christian art had relied more on allegory and symbolism. For example, earlier art might have featured a lamb or a fish rather than Christ in human form.

Before long, religious figures were being depicted in their human form to emphasize their humanity as well as their spirituality. While this issue would be debated and challenged during the later Iconoclastic period, for a time, images of the saints in icon paintings flourished.

After the adoption of Christianity as the only permissible Roman state religion under Theodosius I, Christian art began to change not only in quality and sophistication but also in nature. Paintings of martyrs and their feats began to appear, and early writers commented on their lifelike effect. Statues in the round were avoided as being too close to the principal artistic focus of pagan cult practices, as they have continued to be (with some small-scale exceptions) throughout the history of Eastern Christianity.

Icons were more religious than aesthetic in nature. They were understood to manifest the unique presence of the figure depicted by means of a likeness to that figure maintained through carefully maintained canons of representation. Therefore, very little room is made for artistic license.

Almost every aspect of the subject matter has a symbolic aspect. Christ, the saints, and the angels all have halos. Angels, as well as some depictions of the Holy Trinity, have wings because they are messengers. Figures have consistent facial appearances, hold attributes personal to them, and use a few conventional poses.

1.3.2 – Use of Color

Color plays an important role, as well. Gold represents the radiance of Heaven. Red signifies divine life, while blue is the color of human life. White is the Uncreated Light of God, only used for scenes depicting the resurrection and transfiguration of Christ. In icons of Jesus and Mary, Jesus wears a red undergarment with a blue outer garment (God as Human), and Mary wears a blue undergarment with a red outer garment (humanity granted divine gifts). Thus, the doctrine of deification is conveyed by icons. Most icons incorporate some calligraphic text naming the person or event depicted. Because letters also carry symbolic significance, writing is often presented in a stylized manner.

Russian icon depicting the Holy Trinity: Christ, seated in the middle, wears a blue garment over a red one to symbolize his status as God made human. All three figures wear wings to signify their roles as messengers. The gold background places their location in Heaven.

Early Byzantine icons were painted in encaustic on wooden panel and, like Egyptian funerary portraits produced in the same media , they appeared very lifelike. Nilus of Sinai, in his fifth-century Letter to Heliodorus Silentiarius, recounts a miracle in which St. Plato of Ankyra appeared to a Christian in a dream. The Saint was recognized because the young man had often seen his portrait.

1.3.3 – Veneration of Icons

This recognition of a religious apparition from its likeness to an image was also a characteristic of pagan, pious accounts of appearances of gods to humans and was a common theme in hagiography . During this period, the church began to discourage all non-religious human images, with the Emperor and donor figures counting as religious.

By the second half of the sixth century, there were isolated cases of direct veneration of the icons themselves, as opposed to the figures represented on them, due to continued claims of icon-associated miracles. This perceived misuse, in part, justified the banning and destruction of icons in the eighth century.

Icon of St. Peter : This icon of St. Peter, produced in encaustic, bears lifelike qualities that eventually vanished from icons in favor of more stylized imagery. This icon is from St. Catherine’s Monastery at Mt. Sinai, circa sixth century.

Documentation exists to prove the use of icons as early as the fourth century. However, there are no surviving examples produced before the sixth century, primarily due to the period of Iconoclasm that ended the Early Byzantine period.

Christ as the Good Shepherd: This mosaic from the mid-fifth century is an example of a generic beardless Christ, as he might have appeared in contemporaneous icons. From the mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna, Italy, circa 450.

The surviving evidence of the earliest depictions of Christ, Mary, and the saints therefore comes from wall paintings, mosaics , and some carvings. Because Augustine of Hippo (354–430 CE) argued that no one knew the appearance of Jesus or that of Mary, the earliest depictions of Jesus were generic, rather than portrait images, and generally represented him as a beardless young man. Such an example can be seen in a mosaic in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, which houses the remains of the daughter of Theodosius I.

1.4 – Mosaics in the Early Byzantine Empire

In the Byzantine period, a building’s interior decoration often took the form of mosaic paintings, but with an added sense of spiritual drama that ordinary paintings could not convey.

1.4.1 – Mosaic Art

Mosaic art flourished in the Byzantine Empire from the sixth to the fifteenth centuries. Whereas in Antiquity , walls were usually decorated with less-expensive painted scenes, the Byzantine aesthetic favored the more sumptuous, glittering effect of mosaic decoration.

Some of the finest surviving Byzantine mosaics are preserved in the Middle East and in the Italian city of Ravenna. Mosaics were not a Byzantine invention. In fact, some of the most famous surviving mosaics are from ancient Greece and Rome .

The artists of the Early Byzantine period expanded upon precedent by celebrating the possibilities of the mosaic technique. They began to use it on wall surfaces as a type of painting technique in stone. Unlike traditional wall paintings, however, mosaics could create a glittering, shimmering effect that lent itself to a heightened sense of spirituality. The imagery befit the Byzantine culture that emphasized the authority of one, true religion.

The mosaic technique was more expensive than traditional wall painting, but its effects were so desirable as to make it worth the cost. Further, technological advances (lighter-weight tesserae and a new cement recipe) made wall mosaics easier than they had been in the preceding centuries, when floor mosaics were favored.

The mosaic technique involved fitting together small pieces of stone and glass (tesserae). When set together, the tesserae create a paint-like effect in which different colors meld into one another to create shadows and a sense of depth. Moreover, Byzantine artists often placed gold backing behind the clear glass tesserae, such that the mosaics would appear to emit a mysterious light of their own. This play of light added a sense of drama and spiritualism to the images that suited the symbolism and magic inherent in the Byzantine religious ceremony .

1.4.2 – Mount Nebo, Jordan

Floor Mosaic from Mount Nebo: Hunting and grazing scenes from a floor mosaic in Mount Nebo, circa 530 CE.

Most often, however, mosaic decoration in the classical world was reserved for floor surfaces. Byzantine churches continued this tradition in locations such as Mount Nebo in Jordan, a medieval pilgrimage site where Moses is believed to have died.

The Church of Saints Lot and Procopius (founded 567 CE) has a richly tiled floor that depicts activities like grape harvesting. Seemingly mundane, the grape harvest could be symbolic of the wine component of the Eucharist. The mosaic is located in the baptistery, where infants were initiated into the Christian faith and, according to biblical teachings, be cleansed of Original Sin. Thus, a symbolic depiction of the next sacrament in the religion would help to underscore the theme of salvation.

Another Mount Nebo floor mosaic (c. 530) depicts four registers of men and animals. The first two registers are hunting scenes in which the men hunt big cats and wild boars with the help of domesticated dogs. On the bottom two registers, the animals appear more domesticated, peacefully eating fruit from trees as a shepherd observes them at the left; they wear leashes pulled by their human masters. Among the domesticated animals are a camel and what appear to be a zebra and an emu. As in the Church of Saints Lot and Procopius, this mosaic likely has a religious message beneath its seemingly mundane subject matter.

1.4.3 – Monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai

Transfiguration of Jesus: Apse of the monastery of Saint Catherine, Mount Sinai, Egypt, circa 548–565 CE.

Important Justinian-era mosaics (c. 548–565) decorate Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai. In the apse is a depiction of the Transfiguration on a golden background, that denotes the otherworldliness of the event. Christ, standing in the center as the focal point, is crowned with a halo and surrounded by a mandorla as his awestruck apostles observe the event. The apse is surrounded with bands containing the medallions of Biblical apostles and prophets, and two contemporary figures who are identified as Abbot Longinos and John the Deacon.

1.4.4 – Ravenna

1.4.4.1 – Arian Baptistery

Inside the Arian Baptistery in Ravenna are four niches and a dome with mosaics that depict the baptism of Jesus by Saint John the Baptist. Although the mosaics were produced before Justinian I annexed Italy to the Byzantine Empire, their overall design is very similar to those produced under Byzantine rule.

Jesus is shown as a beardless, half-submerged youth in the Jordan River. John the Baptist, wearing a leopard skin, stands on the right, while the personification of the Jordan River stands to the left. Above, the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove sprays holy water from its beak. Below, a procession of the Apostles, led in separate directions by Saint Peter and Saint Paul circle the dome, meeting at a throne with a bejeweled crucifix resting on a purple cushion.

Baptism of Jesus: Located in the Arian Baptistery, Ravenna, Italy, and created in the late fifth to the early sixth century.

It took the artists several years to complete these mosaics, as can be clearly seen from the different colors of the stones used to depict the grass at the feet of the apostles. The designs are quite simple, but the use of a gold background should be noted, as it was typically used in this era to infuse these simple scenes with an ethereal glow.

1.4.4.2 – Mausoleum of Galla Placidia

The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia is one of the earliest Byzantine buildings in Ravenna. While the exterior is plain, the interior is extensively decorated in elaborate mosaics. These mosaics create a truly spiritual space–a world removed from the ordinary. The vaulting is covered with floral motifs (possibly symbolic of the Garden of Eden) and the stars that stand out against a blue background seem to sparkle with their own mystical light.

Ceiling mosaic at the mausoleum of Galla Placidia: The Byzantines used mosaics more creatively and liberally than other cultures in the classical world.

Mosaics cover the walls of the vault , the lunettes , and the bell tower. The iconographic themes developed in the decorations represent the victory of eternal life over death. The inside contains two famous mosaic lunettes, and the rest of the interior is filled with mosaics of Christian symbols.

An internal view of the mausoleum of Galla Placidia: This early Byzantine structures demonstrates the intricate use of mosaics in Byzantine design.

The central bay ‘s upper walls are decorated with four pairs of apostles, including Saints Peter and Paul, who acclaim a giant gold cross in the center of the dome against a blue sky of stars. Symbols of the four evangelists float among the clouds. The other four apostles appear in the barrel vaults of the transepts.

1.5 – Ivory Carving in the Early Byzantine Empire

Carved, ivory relief sculptures were central features of Early Byzantine art.

1.5.1 – The Appeal of the Miniature

Ivory carving is the manual or mechanical carving of either animal tooth or tusk, wherein very fine detail can be achieved, and the surviving works often demonstrate intricate and complicated designs. This art form has a special importance to the history of Byzantine art because it has no bullion value and is not easily recycled like precious metals or jewels. Because of this, many ivory carvings from the Early Byzantine period still survive. Ivory diptychs, often elaborately decorated, were issued as gifts by newly appointed consuls.

In the Early Christian period, Christians avoided monumental sculpture, which was associated with the old pagan Roman religion and sculpted almost exclusively in relief. During the persecution of Christians, such reliefs were typically kept small in scale, no larger than the reliefs on sarcophagi.

Objects that were small-scale and lightweight are more easily carried and hidden, attributes that a persecuted class worshiping in secret would have found necessary. When Christianity was legalized and later became the official religion of the Empire these attitudes remained. As a result, small-scale sculpture—for which ivory was in many ways the best material—was central to art in a way that it rarely was at other times.

Consuls—civil officers who played an important administrative role until 541—gave Roman consular diptychs as presents. The form was later adopted for Christian use, with images of Christ, the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary), and saints. Such ivory panels were used as treasure bindings (elaborate book covers) from the sixth century, usually as centerpieces, and surrounded by metalwork and gems. These book covers were sometimes assembled from up to five smaller panels due to the limited width of the tusk. Carved ivory covers were used as treasure bindings on the most precious illuminated manuscripts.

1.5.2 – The Barberini Diptych

The Barberini Diptych (c. 500–550 CE) is a Byzantine ivory leaf from an imperial diptych dating from Late Antiquity . It is carved in the style known as Late Theodosian, representing the emperor as triumphant victor .

Barberini Diptych: This is an early example of Byzantine ivory work, circa 500–550 CE.

The Barberini Diptych is attributed to an imperial workshop in Constantinople. The emperor depicted in it is usually identified as Justinian, or possibly Anastasius I or Zeno. Although it is not a consular diptych, it shares many features of their decorative schemes.

The emperor is accompanied in the main panel by a conquered barbarian in trousers to the left, and a crouching allegorical figure on the right that probably represents territory conquered or reconquered, and who holds his foot in gratitude or submission. An angel or Victory crowning the emperor with the traditional palm of victory, which is now lost.

The spear that partially conceals the barbarian does not wound him. He seems more astonished and overawed than combative. Above, Christ, with a fashionable, curled hairstyle, is flanked by two more angels in the style of pagan victory figures. He reigns above, while the emperor represents him below on Earth.

In the bottom panel barbarians from the West (left, in trousers) and East (right, with ivory tusks, a tiger and a small elephant) bring tribute, which includes wild animals. The figure in the left panel, apparently representing not a saint but a soldier, carries a statuette of Victory; his counterpart on the right is lost.

1.5.3 – The Archangel Ivory

Dating to approximately the same period as the Barberini Diptych is the Archangel Ivory (c. 525–550 CE), the largest surviving half of an ivory diptych from the Early Byzantine period. The subject matter is an archangel, possibly Michael, who holds a scepter in his left hand and an orb capped with a cross in his right hand, which he extends in a gesture of offering .

This is the insignia of imperial power. Above the angel hovers a Greek cross surrounded by a laurel wreath, possibly signifying victory. Its missing half might have depicted Justinian I, to whom the archangel would be offering the insignia. It and the Barberini Diptych are the two most important surviving sixth-century Byzantine ivories attributed to the imperial workshops of Constantinople under Justinian.

Archangel Ivory: This is the largest surviving half of an ivory diptych from the Early Byzantine period.

The figure is depicted in a highly classical  style, wearing Greek or Roman garb, and with a youthful face and proportions that conform to the ideals of classical sculpture. Although the architectural elements consist of a classical round arch supported by Composite columns , the space is more typically Byzantine in its bending of spatial logic.

The archangel’s feet are at the top of a staircase that recedes from the base of the columns, but his arms and wings are in front of the columns. His feet are also not firmly planted on the steps. The top of the ivory bears a Greek inscription that translates as, “Receive this suppliant, despite his sinfulness;” it is possibly an expression of humility on the part of Justinian.

In the Byzantine and Eastern Orthodox world, the disapproval of large religious sculpture was to remain unchanged to the present day. However, in the West it was overcome, probably beginning with the court of Charlemagne in the ninth century. As large monumental sculpture in other materials became more important, the centrality of ivory carving slowly lessened.

2 – Middle Byzantine Art and Architecture

2.1 – Architecture and Mosaics

Architecture and mosaic decoration thrived during the Middle Byzantine period that followed Iconoclasm’s stifling of the arts.

2.1.1 – The First and Second Iconoclasms

Broadly defined, iconoclasm is defined as the destruction of images. In Christianity, iconoclasm has generally been motivated by people who adopt a literal interpretation of the Ten Commandments, which forbid the making and worshipping of graven images . The period after the reign of Justinian I (527–565) witnessed a significant increase in the use and veneration of images, which helped to trigger a religious and political crisis in the empire. As a result, aniconic sentiment grew, culminating in two periods of iconoclasm—the First Iconoclasm (726–87) and the Second Iconoclasm (814–42)—which brought the Early Byzantine period to an end.

Byzantine Iconoclasm constituted a ban on religious images by Emperor Leo III and continued under his successors. It was accompanied by the widespread destruction of images and persecution of supporters of the veneration of images. The goal of the iconoclasts was to restore the church to a strict opposition to images in worship that they believed characterized at the least some parts of the early church.

2.1.2 – The Feast of Orthodoxy

After the death of the last Iconoclast emperor Theophilos, his young son Michael III, with his mother the regent Theodora and Patriarch Methodios, summoned the Synod of Constantinople in 843 to bring peace to the Church. At the end of the first session, on the first day of Lent, all made a triumphal procession from the Church of Blachernae to Hagia Sophiato to restore the icons to the church in an event called the Feast of Orthodoxy.

Imagery , it was decided, is an integral part of faith and devotion, making present to the believer the person or event depicted on them. However, the Orthodox makes a clear doctrinal distinction between the veneration paid to icons and the worship which is due to God alone.

Since Iconoclasm was the last of the great Christological controversies to trouble the Church, its defeat is considered to be the final triumph of the Church over heresy. When the Iconoclasm controversy came to an end in 843, Byzantine religious art underwent a renewal.

A series of naturalistic innovations can be seen in examples from the Hagia Sophia, the monastery of Hosios Loukas, and Saint Mark’s Basilica. This revival of a classical style of art was partly due to a renewed interest in classical culture , which accompanied a period of military successes, during the Macedonian Renaissance (867–1056).

2.1.3 – Theotokos Mosaic at the Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia is a former Greek Orthodox patriarchal basilica (church), constructed from 537 until 1453. A combination of a centrally planned and basilican building, it is considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture.

After the end of iconoclasm, a new mosaic was dedicated in the Hagia Sophia under the Patriarch Photius and the Macedonian emperors Michael III and Basil I. The mosaic is located in the apse over the main alter and depicts the Theotokos, or the Mother of God. The image, in which the Virgin Mary sits on a throne with the Christ child on her lap, is believed to be a reconstruction of a sixth-century mosaic that was destroyed during the Iconoclasm.

An inscription reads: “The images which the impostors had cast down here, pious emperors (Michael and Basil) have again set up.” This inscription refers to the recent past and the renewal of Byzantine art under the Macedonian emperors.

Theokotos and Child: This image, in which the Virgin Mary sits on a throne with the Christ Child, is believed to be a reconstruction of a sixth-century mosaic that was destroyed during the Iconoclasm.

The image of the Virgin and Child is a common Christian image, and the mosaic depicts Byzantine innovations and the standard style of the period. The Virgin’s lap is large. Christ sits nestled between her two legs. The figures’ faces are depicted with gradual shading and modeling that provides a sense of realism that contradicts the schematic folding of their drapery.

Their drapery is defined by thick, harsh folds delineated by contrasting colors: the Virgin in blue and Christ in gold. The two frontal figures sit on an embellished gold throne that is tilted to imply perspective. This attempt is a new addition in Byzantine art during this period. The space given to the chair contradicts the frontality of the figures, but it provides a sense of realism previously unseen in Byzantine mosaics.

2.1.4 – Hosios Loukas, Greece

Plan of Hosios Loukas: Top (1 on diagram): Plan of the Church of the Theotokos. Bottom (2): Plan of Katholikon.

The monastery of Hosios Loukas (St. Luke) in Greece was founded in the early tenth century to host the relics of St. Luke. Located on the slope of Mount Helicon, the monastery is known for its two churches, the Church of the Theotokos (tenth century) and the main building called the Katholikon (eleventh century).

The churches were decorated in mosaics, frescoes , and marble revetment. The two churches are connected together by the narthex of the Theotokos and an arm of the Katholikon. The churches demonstrate two different styles of architecture.

2.1.5 – Church of the Theotokos and the Katholicon

The Church of the Theokotos represents a Greek cross-plan style church. It has a large central dome that rests on a series of pendentives. The Katholikon is also a Greek cross-plan style church but instead of the dome resting on pendentives, the dome of the Katholikon rests on squinches, which create an octagonal transition between the square plan of the church and the circular plan of the dome.

The difference in style between the pendentives and the squinches allow for different relationships between the architecture and the decoration and different play of light and darkness in the shapes the squinches provided.

The Katholikon’s dome: Unlike the Church of the Theokotos, the dome of the Katholikon rests on squinches.

The mosaics found in the Katholikon were created in an early Byzantine style commonly seen in the centuries before Iconoclasm. The scenes depicted are flat with little architecture or props to provide a setting. Instead, the background is covered in brilliant gold mosaics.

Christ Washing the Feet of His Disciples: In the Katholikon, the figures in these scenes are depicted with naturalistic faces that are modeled with long, narrow noses and small mouths.

The figures in the scenes, such as those seen in the apse mosaic of Christ washing the feet of his disciples, are depicted with naturalistic faces that are modeled with long, narrow noses and small mouths. The clothing of the figures is represented through schematic folds and contrasting colors. While the folds of the drapery represent a body underneath, there appears to be no actual mass to the body.

These characteristics of Byzantine mosaics began to change in the following century, partially through the addition of perspective in the Theokotos of the Hagia Sophia.

2.1.6 – St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice

Plan of St. Mark’s Basilica: The circles mark the location of each dome.

Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Italy, was first built in the ninth century and rebuilt in the eleventh century in its current form following a fire. The basilica is a grand building, built next to the Doge’s Palace. It initially functioned as the doge’s private chapel, then a state church, and in 1806 became the city’s cathedral . The basilica houses the remains of Saint Mark, which the Venetians looted from Alexandria in 828 and prompted the building of the basilica.

Saint Mark’s Basilica was built in the Byzantine Greek-cross plan. Each arm is divided into three naves and topped by a dome. At the crossing is a large central dome. The main apse is flanked by two smaller chapels. The narthex of the basilica is U-shaped and wraps around the western transept .  It is decorated with scenes from the lives of Old Testament prophets.

The interior of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Italy: A view from the clerestory-level walkway shows its richly decorated mosaics and marble, polychrome panels.

The entirety of the basilica is richly decorated. The floor is covered in geometric patterns and designs that use the Roman decoration techniques known as opus sectile and opus tessellatum.

The lower walls and pillars are covered in marble polychromatic panels, and the upper walls and the domes are decorated with twelfth- and thirteenth-century mosaics. The central dome depicts an image of Christ Pantocrator , and the overall decorative program depicts scenes from the life of Christ and images of salvation from both the Old and New Testament.

2.2 – Objects of Worship in the Middle Byzantine Empire

Personal objects (psalters and triptychs), reliquaries, and icons were popular objects of worship during the Middle Byzantine period.

2.2.1 – Triptych

Triptychs are a type of panel painting or relief carving for devotional objects that are created on three panels. The panels could also be divided in two, known as diptychs, or sometimes had more than three panels, known as a polyptych .

The use of triptychs began in the Byzantine period, and they were originally made to be small and portable. Later during the Gothic period, multi-panel devotional paintings were enlarged as altarpieces . However, the small, portable triptychs of the Byzantine period were used as personal objects of worship. They were designed to guide their owner in prayer and direct their thoughts towards Christ.

The triptych was designed with one central panel and two wings that folded over the main image and allowed the object to be portable, when closed, and to stand, when the wings were open. The wings are typically carved with portrayals of saints, while the main image often depicted Christ, although the imagery varied. The Harbaville Triptych depicts a scene of Deesis with Christ as the Pantocrator, while the Borradaile Triptych depicts an image of the Crucifixion.

2.2.1.2 – Harbaville Triptych

The Harbaville Triptych is an early example from the mid-tenth century of the new ivory triptychs that replaced diptychs during the Middle Byzantine period. The main scene depicts the figures of Christ Pantocrator flanked by John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary, in a supplication scene known as a Deesis.

John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary are depicted as intercessors, praying on behalf of the triptych’s owner to Christ. On the register below them are the apostles James, John, Peter, Paul, and Andrew. The two side panels depict two registers with two characters each, all of which are identifiable saints.

Harbaville Triptych: The supplication scene, Deesis with Saints. Made of ivory, circa 950.

The figures are carved in a recognizably Byzantine style . Their bodies are elongated and narrow, and they seem to float or hover just above the ground instead of stand with weight. This illusion is furthered by the fact that nearly each character stands on a small platform.

The saints are elegantly draped, and their bodies are distinguished by the folds of their drapery and not any type of modeling. The figures’ facial expressions are solemn, and their facial features are deeply carved. The saints each face outward, except for John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary, who are each slightly turned and bowing to an enthroned Christ. Christ sits on an elaborate throne as the Pantocrator, with a book of Gospels in one arm and his hand gesturing in a motion of blessing.

2.2.1.3 – Borradaile Triptych

The Borradaile Triptych’s main image depicts the Crucifixion of Christ instead of a Deesis. The central image takes up the entirety of the main frame and the two wings are divided into three registers. The figures on the wings are images of saints, similar to the Harbaville Triptych.

The central scene is dominated by the image of Christ on the cross. Two angels flank him above his arms. Below are the figures of the Virgin Mary and St. John. St. John gestures and averts his eyes, while Mary lifts a veil to her face, which bears a distraught expression.

Borradaile Triptych: Central panel carved with the Crucifixion, the Virgin and St. John, and above, the half-length figures of the archangels Michael and Gabriel; on the left leaf, from top to bottom: St. Kyros; St. George and St. Theodore Stratilates; St. Menas and St. Prokopios; on the right leaf: St. John; St. Eustathius and St. Clement of Ankyra; St. Stephen and St Kyrion. On the reverse are two inscribed crosses and roundels containing busts of Saints Joachim and Anna in the centers, with Saints Basil and Barbara, and John the Persian and Thekla at the terminus. Made of ivory, circa 10th century.

The figures, like those of the Harbaville Triptych, are elongated, although less narrow and more rigid. They also are less deeply carved and appear more insubstantial. Except for Christ’s upper body, which is unclothed, the bodies of the figures are defined by their rigid drapery. The saints stand in straight, upright positions that further provide a sense of solemnity to the scene.

Christ is seen on the cross in a stance that focuses on his divine qualities and not his human suffering. The only emotion from the scene derives from his mother, the Virgin Mary, who stands weeping beneath him.

2.2.3 – Reliquaries

A reliquary is a protective container used for the storage and display of sacred objects called relics. Relics were a part of the body of a dead saint that was preserved for veneration. Some relics are believed to be endowed with miraculous powers, and other relics have come to play key roles in certain church festivals.

The veneration of relics and use of reliquaries became popular during the Byzantine period when the bodies of saints were often moved and divided between Churches. While many relics were honored and venerated, the church never considered this form of devotion as a form of worship—that was an act reserved for God.

Reliquary of the True Cross: This reliquary depicts a scene of the Crucifixion with fourteen saints around the border. The reliquary is very small and probably contained a piece of the True Cross, the cross on which Christ was crucified.

Reliquaries take many forms and shapes and are made out of a variety of materials. However, many reliquaries were made from or decorated with expensive material, such as gold and precious stones.

A reliquary from the early ninth century depicts a scene of the Crucifixion with fourteen saints around the border. The reliquary is very small and probably contained a piece of the True Cross, the cross on which Christ was crucified. This reliquary is made from cloisonné, a metalworking technique in which metal was soldered into compartments and was then filled with enamel, glass, gems, or other materials. This reliquary is made with green, white, blue, and red enamel and gold and is only four inches high by nearly three inches wide.

2.2.4 – Psalters

Paris Psalter: David composing on his harp.

Like triptychs, psalters were small, private objects used for private devotion and worship. A psalter is a book that contains the Book of Psalms and other liturgical material such as calendars. They were often commissioned and were richly decorated and illuminated. The surviving psalters contain many fine examples of the painting styles and techniques from the Middle Byzantine period.

The Paris Psalter is a mid-tenth century manuscript with fourteen, full-page, miniature paintings created in a classical style. As with most of the art produced under the Macedonian Dynasty , the figures and subject matter were influenced by a revived interest in classical culture .

The figures painted in these scenes have bodies with mass and drapery that conforms, not shapes, their bodies. The image depicts David, a psalmist, in an idyllic country setting outside a city (seen in the distance) composing psalms on his harp. He sits with a sheep, goats, dogs, and an angel, representing Melody, while a personification of Echo peers around a column .

A male figure, representing the mountain of Bethlehem, lounges on the ground. The image is reminiscent of a Greco-Roman wall painting of the musician Orpheus charming people and animals with his music. While the figures appear modeled and are reminiscent of classical art, the psalter has a Byzantine style to it.

The clothing is still rendered with bright, contrasting colors and the folds of the drapery are stylized and dark. The slightly skewed perspective given to the vase on top the column and the city in the background are additional elements that provide the scene with a Byzantine artistic style.

2.2.5 – Icons

Double-sided icon with the Crucifixion and the Virgin Hodegitria: The original painting was done in the ninth century, and additional details were added in the thirteenth century.

Icons remained popular devotional objects during the Byzantine period. These objects, which varied in size, depicted the image of a saint, or a sacred person such as Christ or Mary, who was considered sacred and was venerated. The images were often painted panels and the display of icons surged following the end of Iconoclasm in the ninth century.

Many icons, once reaching this status, would be furthered objectified and protected through the addition of custom gilded frames, or gold or silver cases that covered the entirety of the image except for the face of the subject. Other icons, such as a ninth-century depiction of the Crucifixion, contained imagery on both sides.

2.3 – Painting in the Middle Byzantine Empire

2.3.1 – Introduction

Paintings were popular materials for representing stories and to guide devotion during the Middle Byzantine period.

Painting during the Middle Byzantine period began to progress and change stylistically. Artists approached common scenes with an ingenuity based on a mix of naturalism in the conveyance of emotional reaction, and schematics in specific renderings of the body. This can be seen in the fresco of the Lamentation found in the Church of Saint Pantaleimon in the city of Nerezi, Macedonia, an illumination of the Death of St. Onesimus, and an icon of the Virgin and Child.

2.3.2 – Lamentation from Saint Pantaleimon, Nerezi, Macedonia

The Lamentation of Christ is an iconic scene that depicts the Virgin Mary holding and mourning her dead son, just after Christ has been removed from the cross. She wraps an arm around his shoulders and presses her face against his. St. John grasps Christ’s right hand while Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus kneel at Christ’s feet. A fifth follower enters the scene with arms outstretched from the right and a group of angels fly above the scene in the deep blue sky.

The Macedonian painters created a scene filled with emotional tension that was unprecedented in Byzantine art. The figures faces are neither solemn nor formal but instead are emotionally charged with grief and sorrow. Mary’s face especially denotes the emotion and pain that a mother feels when grieving a lost child.

The figures are also bent over Christ’s body, which further emphasizes the emotions in the scene—no longer stiff or static , these figures feel and cause the viewer to be filled with emotion.

Lamentation of Christ: This is a detail from the wall painting in the Church of Saint Pantaleimon, Nerezi, Macedonia.

Despite these elements of naturalism, there are some elements of Byzantine style in the fresco. For one, the figures’ clothing is still schematically rendered, even though most of the figures appear to have bodies and mass under their garments. For another, the seminude body of Christ is rendered in a style similar to the drapery. The muscles are defined through schematic lines that denote parts of his body, such as his knees and abdominal muscles.

Another oddity is that Christ’s body is not on the ground but instead hovers unnaturally off the ground. This is hardly noticed at first, since the placement of his torso and feet make sense in their individual context, but as a whole it requires Christ’s body to float instead of lay naturally on the ground.

2.3.3 – The Death of St. Onesimus

A similar mixture of naturalism and stylization is evident in a painting that depicts the martyrdom of Saint Onesimus (c. 985 CE). The image is part of the Menologion of Basil II, an illuminated manuscript compiled circa 1000 CE as a church calendar.

The Epistle to Philemon, written by Paul the Apostle to the slave-master Philemon, concerns a runaway slave called Onesimus. This slave found his way to the site of Paul’s imprisonment to escape punishment for a theft of which he was accused. After hearing the Gospel from Paul, Onesimus converted to Christianity.

Paul, having earlier converted Philemon to Christianity, sought to reconcile the two by writing the letter to Philemon which today exists in the New Testament. During the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian and the persecution of Trajan, Onesimus was imprisoned in Rome and might have been martyred by stoning, although some sources claim that he was beheaded.

The Death of St. Onesimus: From the Monologion of Basil II, a painting produced around 985 CE; the book was assembled around 1000.

As in the Lamentation scene above, the Death of St. Onesimus combines the naturalistic and the schematic. The two men who beat Onesimus to death convey a sense of dynamism as they bend at the waists and knees. The folds of their clothing and of Onesimus’s loincloth  follows the contours of their bodies as they assume their poses.

Although the painting is damaged, Onesimus’s furrowed brow, possibly suggesting anger or frustration, is still visible. Despite these realistic elements, the folds of the figures’ clothing appears more linear than natural, defined by deep, noticeable lines. Like the figure of Christ in the Lamentation, Onesimus seems to hover over the landscape and rest the top half of his body on the leg of one of his attackers. Furthermore, the blood pours from his legs in a linear manner, appearing more like strings than liquid.

2.3.4 – Theotokos of Vladimir

Theotokos of Vladimir: This new style of icons depict emotion, compassion, and the growing trend in spirituality.

The Theotokos of Vladimir, an icon of the Virgin and Child, represents the new style of icons that were created in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. These icons depict emotion, compassion, and the growing trend in spirituality.

The mother and child are depicted with serene faces in the Byzantine style. Mary’s nose is long and narrow and her mouth small. She looks out and confronts the viewer with compassionate, knowing eyes that remind the viewer of Christ’s future sacrifice . The Christ child is small, although his face is adult-like and he is drawn to his mother and embraces her. His drapery shines as if it was golden rays, and the Virgin is dressed in rich, dark fabric with gold embellishments.

The compassion and humanity between the characters prefigures the emotional Late Byzantine style of the next two centuries. The image was given as a gift to the Grand Duke of Kiev in 1131 by the Greek Patriarch of Constantinople and is an important and protective icon of the Russian cities of Vladimir and Moscow and the country of Russia itself.

3 – Late Byzantine Art and Architecture

3.1 – Introduction

Late Byzantine Art began after the sack of Constantinople in 1204 and continued until the fall of Byzantium in 1453.

3.1.1 – Overview

The division of the Byzantine Empire: The division of the Byzantine Empire after its sacking in 1204 by the French and Italian armies during the Fourth Crusades.

The period of Late Byzantium saw the decline of the Byzantine Empire during the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries. Although the capital city of Constantinople and the empire as a whole prospered as a connection between east and west traders, Byzantium continually dealt with threats from the Ottoman Turks to the east and the Latin Empire to the west.

During the Fourth Crusades, the Crusaders attacked Constantinople, took the city under siege in 1203, and eventually overcame its defenses to sack the city in 1204. Constantinople became the capital city of the Latin Empire, one of the new kingdoms of a divided Byzantium, until the Byzantines retook it in 1261.

Once more, Constantinople  became a prosperous Byzantine city until falling to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. The sack of Constantinople in 1204 marks the starting point of Late Byzantine Art, which lasted until the fifteenth century and spread beyond the borders of Byzantium.

Christ Healing a Paralytic  : A mosaic in Caphernaum from the cycle of the Life of Christ. It is located in the outer narthex of Chora Church, Constantinople, circa 1310–20.

Art during this period began to change from the standards and styles seen in the Early and Middle periods of Byzantium rule. A renewed interest in landscapes and earthly settings arose in mosaics, frescoes, and psalters . This development eventually led to the demise of the gold background.

The settings are often simple, perhaps a hill or a chair at first, and are often pastoral. Architecture began to be depicted more often, which renewed the use of perspective . At first buildings were rendered slightly skewed, but eventually artists refined the combination of material (mosaic and painting) with architecture and perspective .

3.1.2 – Chora Church

Frescoed interior of the Paracclesion Fresco : Scenes from the lives of the Virgin Mary and Christ. Chora Church, Constantinople, c. 1310–20.

Mosaic work was still popular in the Late Byzantine period, but frescoes and the depiction of narrative cycles began to increase in popularity to become the primary decoration in churches. This transition is seen in the Chora Church, which was initially decorated in mosaic, with the final wing decorated with wall paintings. The shift in media changed the subjects depicted.

Mosaics of single scenes and figures were replaced in favor of frescoed narrative cycles and biblical stories. The rendering of the figures also began to change. Artists now relied less on sharp, schematic folds and patterns and instead use softer, more subtle modeling and shading. While sharp folds in the drapery can still be found in images from this period, these folds are rendered in similar, not complimentary, colors and shades. Furthermore the bodies appear to have mass and weight. The figures no longer float or hover on their toes but stand on their feet. This allows for the addition of movement and energy in the painted figures and an overall increase of drama and emotion.

3.1.3 – Pammakaristos Church

Column capital decorated with busts of apostles: Their poses anticipate the return to classicism that would define the Renaissance in the West.

Although sculpture and column design are largely absent from discussions of Late Byzantine art, some notable fourteenth-century examples can be found in the Pammakaristos Church in Constantinople. Although the church was converted to a mosque in the fifteenth century, and all representations of humans and animals were either destroyed or covered, at least two fragments of a column capital depicting the busts of apostles in high relief survives in the collection.

While the heads of the men are somewhat large in proportion to their bodies, their bodies have assumed more naturalistic positions than their predecessors. They direct their gazes to either subtle or sharp angles. The two hands that are visible hold books, possibly the Gospels, to their chests. In sum, their poses anticipate the return to classicism that would define the Renaissance in the West.

3.2 – The Chora Church in Constantinople

The Chora Church is decorated with iconic murals and mosaics from the fourteenth century that represent the Late Byzantine artistic styles.

3.2.1 – Introduction

The Chora Church’s full name is the Church of the Holy Savior in Chora. The church was first built in Constantinople during the early fifth century. Its name references its location outside the city’s fourth-century walls. Even when the walls were expanded in the early fifth century by Theodosius II, the church maintained its name.

Inside the church is a set of frescoes and mosaics that survived the church’s conversion into a mosque in the sixteenth century when its Christian imagery was plastered over. In 1948 the church became a museum after undergoing extensive restoration to uncover and restore its fourteenth-century decoration. It is now known as the Kariye Museum or Kariye Camii.

3.2.2 – Architecture

Ground plan of the Chora Church: Additions and reconstruction in the fourteenth century enlarged the ground plan from the original small, symmetrical church into a large, asymmetrical square that consists of three main areas.

The Chora Church that stands today is the result of its third stage of construction. This building and the interior decoration were completed between 1315 and 1321 under the Byzantine statesman Theodore Metochites. Metochites’ additions and reconstruction in the fourteenth century enlarged the ground plan from the original small, symmetrical church into a large, asymmetrical square that consists of three main areas:

  1. An inner and outer narthex or entrance hall.
  2. The naos or main chapel.
  3. The side chapel, known as the parecclesion. The parecclesion serves as a mortuary chapel and held eight tombs that were added after the area was initially decorated.

There are six domes in the church, three over the naos (one over the main space and two over smaller chapels), two in the inner narthex, and one in the side chapel. The domes are pumpkin-shaped, with concave bands radiating from their centers, and richly decorated with frescoes and mosaics that depict images of Christ and the Virgin at the center, with angels or ancestors surrounding them in the bands.

3.2.3 – Mosaics

Mosaics extensively decorate the narthices of the Chora Church. The artists first decorated the church in the naos and then completed the work in the inner and outer narthices, which results in differences in the mosaics’ execution as the style progressed to show more liveliness and subtlety.

The surviving mosaics in the naos depict the Virgin and Child and the Dormition of the Virgin, a koimesis scene depicting the Virgin after death before she ascends to Heaven. This scene, located above the west door, depicts the Virgin in blue lying on a sarcophagus draped in purple and gold. Christ, in gold, stands behind the Virgin surrounded by a mandorla and holds an infant, representing the Virgin’s soul. The figures in the scene all have a certain weightiness that helps to ground them, adding an element of naturalism.

Koimesis mosaic: The figures in the scene all have a certain weightiness that helps to ground them, adding an element of naturalism.

The mosaics found in the narthices of the Chora Church also depict scenes of the lives of the Virgin and Christ, while other scenes depict Old Testament stories that prefigure the Salvation. In the outer narthex, above the doorway to the inner narthex is a mosaic depicting Christ as the Pantocrator , the ruler or judge of all, in the center of a dome. The mosaic depicts a stern-faced Christ against a gold backdrop holding the gospels in one hand while gesturing with the other. An inscription in the mosaic reads, “Jesus Christ, Land of the Living.”

South dome of the inner narthex: This mosaic depicts Christ Pantocrator surrounded by his ancestors.

In another important scene above the entrance to the naos, Christ Enthroned is depicted receiving the donor of the church. The scene follows the Byzantine convention of depicting an architectural donation with an image of Christ in the center and the donor kneeling beside him, holding a model of his donation.

Dedication mosaic: The scene follows the Byzantine convention of depicting an architectural donation with an image of Christ in the center and the donor kneeling beside him, holding a model of his donation.

Here, Christ sits on a throne in a position similar to the Pantocrater, holding a book of gospels while his other hand gestures. The donor Theodore Metochites, wearing the clothing of his office, kneels on Christ’s right. He offers Christ a representation of the Chora Church in his hands. An inscription gives his titles.

3.2.4 – Frescoes

Virgin and Child with Angels: A fresco in a dome in the parecclesion that depicts the Virgin and Child with Angels.

The walls and ceilings of the parecclesion are decorated with scenes from the life of Christ and the Virgin, and themes of salvation befitting for a mortuary chapel. Like the mosaics, the scenes are painted in the upper levels of the building. The lower levels are reserved for painted images of saints and prophets and a decorative dado that mimics marble revetment .

The entirety of the parecclesion is covered in fresco scenes and painted images, creating an overwhelming sense of splendor and glory that ultimately brings the viewer to the final scenes of salvation and judgment.

3.2.5 – Anastasis

The most important of these frescoes is the Anastasis, a representation of the Last Judgment, in the apse of the eastern bay . This image depicts Christ in Hell, saving the souls of the Old Testament. Christ stands in the center grasping the wrists of Adam and Eve, whom he raises from their sarcophagi. Saints, prophets, martyrs and other righteous souls, including John the Baptist, King David, and King Solomon, from the Old Testament stand on either side of Christ. Christ, standing over a bound Satan, wears a white robe and is framed by a white and light blue mandorla.

Anastasis: This image depicts Christ in Hell, saving the souls of the Old Testament. Christ stands in the center grasping the wrists of Adam and Eve, whom he raises from their sarcophagi.

The image is the culmination of the parecclesion’s fresco cycle and one of the most impressive Late Byzantine paintings. Christ stands in an active, chiastic position. His arms reach out to Adam and Eve and his feet are positioned on uneven ground, providing the sensation of imbalance as he retrieves righteous souls.

The figures themselves are rendered in a softer, subtler mode. The harsh, jagged drapery has softened slightly with fluid and delineated folds. The expression of Christ and the others are dignified and stern. The Old Testament figures on either side gesture towards the scene, signaling the future of the faithful, as they wait for Christ to bring them into Heaven.

3.2.6 – Changing Representations of Christ

The depictions of Christ in the Chora Church differ greatly from those of the third and fourth centuries. Recalling Early Christian art, Christ often appears clean shaven and youthful, sometimes cast as the Good Shepherd who tends and rescues his flock from danger. At a time when Christianity was illegal, Christians would have found such imagery of a protector reassuring.

By the fourteenth century, when Theodore Metochites funded the interior decoration, Christianity was no longer a fledgling faith; it was a state religion in which even the emperor recognized Christ as the ultimate authority. The images of Christ in the frescoes and mosaics of the Chora Church depict an authoritative, bearded man who occupies the role of both savior and judge. As an archetypal symbol of authority and wisdom through the ages, the beard would have been a logical choice for the face of the most supreme leader.

3.3 – Icon Painting in Byzantine Russia

Andrei Rublev is considered the foremost fifteenth century Russian icon painter and the master behind the Old Testament Trinity.

3.3.1 – Russian Icons

In 988 CE, the Slavic confederation known as Kievan Rus’ (a precursor to present-day Russia) adopted Orthodox Christianity as its official religion. Shortly thereafter, those living within its borders began producing icons. As a general rule, these icons strictly followed the traditional models and formulas of Byzantine art.

Nevertheless, as time passed, Russian artists widened the vocabulary of types and styles far beyond anything found elsewhere in the Orthodox world. Like Byzantine icons, Russian icons were usually small-scale paintings on wood. However, some icons produced for churches and monasteries were, at times, much larger. Russian artists also used alternative media, such as copper, for their work.

Feodorovskaya icon: Russian artists also used alternative media, such as copper, for their work.

Russians sometimes speak of an icon as having been written because, in the Russian language, the same word means both to paint and to write. Icons are considered to be visual versions of the Gospels, and therefore, careful attention is paid to ensure that each Gospel is faithfully and accurately conveyed.

Because of these strict standards, artists saw themselves as God’s servants and did not strive for individual glory, as would become the norm in the West. For this reason, they did not sign their creations, and very few artists’ names are known to scholars outside of Russia. Andrei Rublev is one rare example.

3.3.2 – Andrei Rublev

Russian icon painters flourished throughout the Byzantine period. Russian icons were known for their strict adhesion to Byzantine-style painting including the use of patterns, strong lines, and contrasting colors. Most Byzantine Russian icons were painted in egg tempera on wood panels. Gold leaf was often used for halos and background colors and bronze , silver, and tin were also used to embellish the icons.

The work of Andrei Rublev, a Russian icon painter in the fifteenth century, is considered to be the pinnacle of Byzantine Russian icon painting. Not much is known about his life. He was born in the 1360s and died in either 1427 or 1430.

What is known about Rublev comes from monastic chronicles, which account for his work as a painter and do not discuss his life. He is believed to have lived at the Trinity-St. Serguis Lavra, a monastery outside of Moscow in the town of Sergiyev Posad. Rublev is first recorded to have painted icons and frescos for the Cathedral of the Annunciation in Moscow in 1405.

He worked at the Cathedral of the Annunciation under Theopanes the Greek, a Byzantine master, who moved to Russia and is believed to have been Rublev’s teacher. Rublev also often worked with Daniil Cherni, another monastic artist. The two painted icons for the Assumption Cathedral in Vladimir in 1408 and the Church of the Trinity in the Trinity-St.Sergius Lavra monastery from 1425-1427.

3.3.3 – The Old Testament Trinity

The icon known as the Old Testament Trinity (1411–1427) is the only work to be attributed solely to Rublev’s hand. It is considered to represent the brilliance of his work and the greatest achievement of Byzantine Russian icons. The egg tempera icon was made for the Church of the Trinity in the Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra and stands just less than five feet tall and is nearly four feet wide.

Old Testament Trinity: This is the only work to be attributed solely to Rublev’s hand. It is considered to represent the brilliance of his work and the greatest achievement of Byzantine Russian icons.

The icon depicts three angels around a table and is an illustration of Genesis 18, the Hospitality of Abraham, in which Abraham and his wife Sarah host three angels at their table. The scene focuses on the three angels and is full of symbolism that focuses on the mystery of the Holy Trinity and the prefiguration of salvation.

The image today is poorly preserved, but it demonstrates Rublev’s style and skill. The three angels sit around a table with a single chalice. The figures are delicately rendered. Their faces and hands are shaded to create volume , and their expressions are calm and serene. Each angel has a halo and wings, and holds a thin scepter.

Despite having nearly identical faces, their vividly painted garments help to distinguish them. Their garments are painted in rich, saturated colors. Each angel wears a robe in brilliant blue coupled with a second color including a orange, a deep red, and a green. The linearity of the robes highlights Byzantine methods of modeling that are based on the use of solid lines and complimentary colors to create contrasting folds and replicate the body’s mass and height.

While the figures appear weighty and naturalistic, the scenery and landscape around them are non-naturalistic. The table and chairs are painted in a skewed perspective and a small architectural detail in the upper left of the panel and a central tree create the basis of the setting.

3.3.4 – Into the Modern Era

Until the seventeenth century, innovation was largely absent from icon production in Russia. When Roman Catholic and Protestant styles from Western Europe triggered new developments, the result was a split in the Russian Orthodox Church. The traditionalists—the persecuted Old Ritualists or Old Believers—continued the traditional stylization of icons, while the State Church modified its practice.

While some artists continued to produce figures in the traditional stylized manner, others opted for a mixture of Russian stylization and Western European realism very much like that of Catholic religious art of the time. The Westernization of Russian icons likely escalated under the reign of Tsar Peter the Great, whose cultural revolution brought Western values and the Enlightenment to Russia.

Tradition and the new style converge in an icon of Saint Nicolas and the Venerable Gerasimus of Boldino holding the much venerated Theotokos of Kazan. The Theotokos of Kazan was an icon of the highest stature within the Russian Orthodox Church. According to legend, it was acquired from Constantinople, lost in 1438, and miraculously recovered in pristine state in 1579. The icon was stolen and likely destroyed in 1904.

In the icon of Nicolas and Geasimus, the two saints, the icon, and the background are realistically rendered. The divine light source in the center causes naturalistic shadows to fall on the the hands of the two saints and the sides of their faces. Color and visual texture also mimic the natural world, while the tiles floor betrays a sense of realistic one-point perspective. Earth tones dominate the picture plane , pointing to possible Dutch Baroque (Protestant) influence.

Icon of Saint Nicolas and Gerasimus of Boldino holding the Theotokos of Kazan: Unlike traditional icons, this example from the seventeenth century or later displays the influence of Western Protestant art, such as the paintings of the Dutch Baroque tradition.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, icon painting in Russia went into a great decline with the arrival of machine lithography on paper and tin. This new technology could produce icons in great quantity and much more cheaply than the workshops of painters. Today, Russian Orthodox worshippers purchase much larger numbers of paper icons than the more expensive painted panels.

3.4 – Painting in the Late Byzantine Empire

As Late Byzantine painting became more naturalistic—bodies gained mass and figures portrayed humanity with emotion and movement—and these developments and traditions continued into the Post-Byzantine age.

3.4.1 – Introduction

The paintings in the Church of Christ in Chora are representative of the style of painting produced in the last centuries of the Byzantine Empire. Large murals were painted over expanses of architecture.

Many icons at this time were panels painted on both sides. Icons were painted this way since they were used in processions, and therefore seen from two directions. In churches, they were often displayed in special stands to allow for the viewing of both sides. Even after the Byzantine shrank and eventually fell, its artistic traditions continued in many former territories. The most famous example is the Cretan School.

3.4.2 – Iconostasis

Iconostasis of the Church of the Annunciation: Designed by Theophanes the Greek, the wall is covered in icons and its doors allow access into the sanctuary and a view of the altar.

During the Late Byzantine period the iconostasis was fully developed. It was a screen or wall that stood in the nave, separating the space from the sanctuary and altar of the church. This wall was covered in icons and usually had three doors that allowed access into the sanctuary and viewing of the altar.

Icons were placed on the iconostasis following a general guideline that included the presence of a Deesis, Christ enthroned surrounded by John the Baptist and the Theotokos. Other icons included images of angels, saints, Old Testament prophets, the Apostles, and the patron saints of the church and city. The presence of the icons and the iconostasis was not to separate but to provide a bridge or a connection between the earthly and heavenly realms.

3.4.3 – Ohrid Icons

The Ohrid Icons (early fourteenth century) were produced in Constantinople and were later moved to Ohrid in Macedonia. One icon depicts the Virgin Mary on one side and the Annunciation on the other side. The Annunciation portrays the Virgin Mary seated on a throne as the angel Gabriel approaches her to deliver the news of her conception of the son of God.

The background is typically Byzantine: gold leaf background that mimics the golden backgrounds of mosaics . The architecture is rendered in a later Byzantine style. The buildings are painted with an attempt at perspective that is more skewed than correct but that still provides a suggestion of space.

This was also seen in the Theotokos of the Hagia Sophia, but in this case the architecture provides more of a place setting, as in the landscape of the Lamentation from Nerezi. The figures themselves are rendered with Byzantine faces—small mouths and long, narrow noses. The faces, hands, and feet are carefully shaded and modeled.

The clothing is also follows the Byzantine style with dramatic, deep folds and a schematic patterning that renders the body underneath. The bodies, however, differ from their earlier Byzantine predecessors. They have weight and appear to exist underneath their clothing.

Annunciation: This icon portrays the Virgin Mary seated on a throne as the angel Gabriel approaches her to deliver the news of her conception of the son of God.

The scene also takes cues from Late Byzantine styles, since it is dramatically depicted. The Virgin’s rigid pose and single gesture signify her unease at the angel’s approach. Gabriel, meanwhile, appears to have just landed. He strides forward, with an arm outstretched. He places his weight completely on his left foot, while he prepares to plant his right foot on the ground .

We are witness to the moment of his arrival. The momentum of his arrival is further emphasized by the placement of his wings. One wing has settled down onto his back while the other reaches upwards to balance his flight. The movement and emotion in the scene can be related to the Anastasias scene of the Chora Church. Both images have a single, central figure full of motion that provides energy to the different scenes depicted.

3.4.4 – Monastery of the Virgin at Studenica, Serbia

Crucifixion: This is painted behind the altar of the Katholikon of the monastery of the Virgin at Studenica.

The Serbian Monastery of the Virgin was built in the twelfth century outside the city of Kraljevo. While the monastery’s churches do not appear from the outside to follow Byzantine architectural styles, the interior painting of the Katholikon, the Church of the Virgin, is painted in the Late Byzantine manner.

The Crucifixion, painted on the western wall overlooking the altar, represents the mastery of Serbian art and the development and spread of the Late Byzantine style from the center of Byzantium in Constantinople. The figures are less elongated than their earlier counterparts, and the background is painted in a brilliant blue with golden stars.

The central image of Christ on the cross is surrounded by mourners, including his mother. The figures in this calm scene have mass. While the Virgin Mary still appears to be a mass of robes, her drapery is more subtly rendered. The bodies of the other figures are more easily denoted by the modeling of their robes. The drapery is still reliant on deep folds, but the folds are no longer contorted and are less schematic. While less dramatic and more serene, there is an underlying emotion of sadness that is subtly depicted by the sway of Christ’s body.

3.4.5 – The Cretan School

  

[LEFT]: El Greco’s Dormition of the Virgin: The Late Byzantine realism in the rendering of the body is evident here, as the mourners assume a variety of poses. The solemn facial expressions and body language reflect the somber mood of the final sleep of the Virgin Mary.
[RIGHT]: Emmanuel Tzanes’ St. Mark the Evangelist: In this icon, St. Mark assumes a dynamic pose, including the dramatic head turn, which would become a common attribute in images of the inspired artist over the course of the next few centuries. Tzanes’s stylized rendering of the lion can be explained by his never having seen one in nature or in visual culture.

Over the course of the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries, the Byzantine Empire lost much of its territory. However, its artistic traditions continued for centuries in areas such as Crete.

Established, in the fifteenth century, the Cretan School is known for its distinct style of icon painting that was influenced by both Western and Eastern traditions. Even before the fall of Constantinople, the leading Byzantine artists were leaving the capital to settle in Crete. This migration continued in the following years and reached its peak after the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

The early icons produced by the Cretan School follow many of the earlier Byzantine traditions. Over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as the styles of Italian and Northern Renaissance artists grew in popularity, the rendering of the human body and illusionistic space became increasingly realistic.

However, many icons retained the traditional gold backgrounds. The influence of the Renaissance, in which the notion of the artistic genius arose, can also be seen in the increasing attachment of artists’ names to their creations.

In the following examples by El Greco (1541–1614) and Emmanuel Tzanes (1610–1690), we can see the transition from the Late Byzantine style (in which the contours of the body were acknowledged beneath the drapery and attempts at realistic perspective were still evolving) to the Post-Byzantine style, which depicts a realistic recession of space and dynamic bodily poses.


Originally published by Lumen Learning – Boundless Art History under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

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