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:
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.
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:
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.
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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