Byzantine Art

Byzantine Art

Periodization of Byzantine Art

Byzantium formed out of eastern half of the decayed Roman Empire with the capital in Constantinople (now Istanbul). Its art is divided into six stages, corresponding to major historical milestones and reigning dynasties:

  • Early Christianity (1 — 3 cent.) — protobyzantine culture.
  • “Golden Age” of Justinian (6 — 7 cent.) — the first raising of Byzantine culture, formation of Byzantine style.
  • Iconoclasm (circ. 730 — 843) — struggle against use of icons and religious images, began by edict of Leo III.
  • Macedonian Renaissance (867 — 1056) — the high point of Byzantine art, marked by shaping of canon and return of “classical style”.
  • Komnenian age (1081 — 1185) — elaboration of canonic schemes with interest to spiritual side of images.
  • Palaeologan Renaissance (1261 — 1453) — the revival of Hellenistic traditions.

Byzantine Art Architecture

In civic architecture, Byzantines were in a certain sense heirs of romans — their public places, like Hippodrome, aqueducts, palaces demonstrated analogical aspiration for grandeur of public places. When it came to religious sphere, they gradually developed unique building tradition. Although, for early Christian churches, the basilica building type was adopted (Basilica of San-Appolinaire Nuovo is an exquisite example of it), later, towards 4 — 5 cent, the authentic centric planning gained wider use: it had a cupola, dome drum with windows and square under dome space. For erecting domes the system of pendentives was invented. Stone pillars with carved capitals supported the ceiling. The brightest sample of centric temple is Hagia Sophia (532 — 537), designed by Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles. By the 8 cent. crossed-dome architectural form became predominant, combining two previous building types. The Church of St. Sophia in Thessaloniki is the characteristic crossed-dome monument of that period.

Byzantine Art Icons

Icons is an essential part of ecclesiastic culture for Eastern Church. They are painted on wooden panels with tempera. Though, first know icons are encaustic (hot wax painting) — technique, borrowed from Fayum portraits.

Orthodox Christian theologians call icons “windows to heaven”, through which a believer can establish connection with divine spheres. The latters are invisible for our eyes and minds. It was thought some icons were godsend. After iconoclasm, Byzantines set special rules for “depicting of inconceivable” and icon painters distinctly followed this canon. They were guided detailed descriptions of the right way to depict Christ, Virgin and saints (from composition to appearance, attributes etc.), so only changes in manner, visual nuances were possible.

Main features of Byzantine canon were:

  • The reverse perspective, opposed to realism of linear perspective (already familiar for ancients). It allowed creating an effect of sacral space that exposed before the viewer, but not drowned him in.
  • Estrangement from picturesque style. Icon painters balanced between lifelikeness and schematism to show the relativeness of the image, which was an imprint of something invisible to us.
  • Accent on eyes that were an expression of high spirituality of a person.
    Color symbolism. Golden was seen as divine energy, white — as symbol of holiness and purity, blue — as symbol of transcendent world. Green was an earthly color, color of life and red associated with passion and sacrifice.
  • The cut projection of interior scenes.
  • Absence of exaltation. Byzantine art was devoid of Western expressionism in religious images. They preferred showing emotional nuances: acceptance, compassion, affection.
  • Luminescence. The idea of divine Tabor Light was incarnated in golden background the icons had.

Monumental paintings and mosaics

Temples were richly decorated with frescoes and mosaics laid of smalta — colored glass cubes. Subjects and their placement were dictated by a hierarchal scheme — iconographical program, connected with the orthodox liturgy. According to it, figures of Pantocrator (iconographical type of Jesus), archangels, and evangelists were placed on the dome’s vault and drum that symbolized Heavens; other vaultings and upper parts of the walls were assigned for stories from Old, New Testament, and saints; lower part — for mundane scenes. In fact, the interior’s setting had two purposes: aesthetical and elucidative, as paintings were visual narrations of Biblical text for vast masses.

The manner of mosaics’ and frescoes’ execution were changing from period to period — varying from naturalistic, ponderous to incorporeal, ascetic images. Nevertheless, most of them were static, shown frontally or at three-quarter angle and on flat (often golden) background. The tremendous territory of the country led to formation of numerous local schools with diverse artistic approaches.

Illuminated manuscripts

Apart from their religious function, monasteries were main intellectual centers in the medieval period. Many books of different character (from Bibles and Hagiographies to chronicles) were written and illuminated in their scriptoriums. To emphasize a wide color-palette (from browns, flesh-tints to cobalt blue and damask-red), an art of chrysography (writing in gold) was practiced. Usage of gold, lavishly employed over texts and miniatures, along with some common geometrical and floral ornaments, reveals signs of the oriental influence.

Figures were often modeled not with darker hues of a color, but with a complementary (contrast) one. Style of illustrations was generally close to iconic approach but was more liberate in informal secular scenes on margins of the manuscripts. The Paris Psalter is a magnificent example of classical style in byzantine illumination.


Sculpture was comparatively rare in Byzantine art, since painting was less “materialistic” and could reflect the world, hidden from eyes. Early Christian period left some example of round sculptural images of Christ and other saints, but after iconoclasm, solely reliefs were produced (for decoration of sarcophaguses and pulpits, for instance). But no attempt to produce life-like images was made in them — compositions were mostly symbolical. The field, where byzantine sculptors revealed their masterly skills was ivory carvings, served for trimming of icons, caskets, pyxides and other liturgical accessories, as well as objects of private use.

The ascendancy of Byzantine art spread across territory of Italy, Balkans, Eastern Europe, Transcaucasia and Middle East. As a monotheistic country, that succeeded Roman Empire, it assimilated some of antique achievements in fine arts, having processed them in the context of Christian culture. Though Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453, byzantine traditions didn’t vanish and are kept alive even nowadays. Byzantine canon, based on chief theological concepts, established the foundation for further development of orthodox religious art.

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