Rome with a Christian Face? Early Byzantine Art 330–527
The discussion of Byzantine art represents a challenge for the researcher. The main issue about Byzantine art is that it demonstrates incompliance with the traditional chronologically-based methodologies of art. Standardly perceived as the art of “religious icons”, Byzantine art can be defined as the religious art spanning a period of thousand years from 330 to 1453 and centering in the Christian society of Constantinople (Cormack 2).
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In a way, Byzantine art is timelessness: Christian themes are constant and unchanging throughout its periods. The change and development occurred via new forms of expression and new subjects. The key feature of Byzantine art is that it is mostly religious. The Bible was the main source of inspiration, and most objects of art created at that time were considered sacred.
Constantinople was the place that played a dominated role in the history of Byzantine art. It was brought to glory as a large metropolis according to the ambitious plan of emperor Constantine. Kilometers of protective walls and aqueducts built by 330 made Constantinople an impregnable stronghold that attracted new citizens by its broad spacious streets.
Due to many disastrous fires and gales, the city changed its face repeatedly throughout history, and gradually gained the reputation of a “collage city” (Cormack 9). Masterpieces were brought to Constantinople from all over Greece and Asia Minor. But the unique feature of Byzantine art proper was that it never used the classical Greek works of art as a sample for imitation.
Although Constantinople is mostly associated with the life of Christian society, the city was not established as Christian initially. Started as a typically Roman base with a hippodrome for chariot races, it gradually evolved into a Christian shrine, when a vast collection of holy relics was brought from Jerusalem and St Sophia Cathedral was designed as the center of the Christian empire.
Therefore, Christian art as such did not originate in Constantinople. It flourished already in the third century all around the Roman empire, which can be illustrated by the wall paintings in the mud-brick houses of Syria (Cormack 13).
The schematic manner of presentation in those paintings is rather traditional. But the innovatory issues are traced in the subject matter which is Christian: the paintings feature motifs of death and salvation from the Old and the New Testament. The Christians of the time used art as a way of communicating their main ideas on life after death. Consequently, scenes including Jonah image were especially popular because Jonah’s rescue from the wale’s inside reminded of Christ’s resurrection from sepulcher (Cormack 14).
The early art in Byzantium preserved the images of imperial Rome, as well as continued developing the Christian traditions. Marble sarcophagi, reliefs, and statues were still parts of the city landscape. However, in the sixths century the art of sculpture experienced an overall decline, and marble was thus often recycled for building new Christian churches. Apart from marble, such materials were used as stone, brick, and wood.
This diversity of materials was made possible by the breadth of Byzantine geographical borders: the empire spanned the territories of Asia Minor, Syria, Palestina, Egypt, North Africa, Italy, and much of the Balkans and Greece (Cormack 17). But this geographical variety was centralized and governed by the city of Constantinople which was the symbol of Byzantine power and control.
The location of the Byzantine empire both in the east and in the west provided for the specific marriage of different traditions in Byzantine art. Such blend represents a stumbling block for art historians, since the issue of whether Byzantine art is separate from the western style or it developed according to standards common for both.
The multifacetedness of Byzantine art makes it difficult to classify the art into self-contained periods. And yet, an attempt to classify early Byzantine art can be made basing on the key historical events: the rise of Constantinople under emperor Constantine (324–337), the expansion of the Byzantine empire under Justinian (527–565), and the iconoclastic policy of emperor Leo III (717–741) (Cormack 18).
In the difficult task of surveying the diversity of Byzantine art, the researchers face two extremes. On the one hand, there has been an immense loss of historical material due to natural disasters and hostility acts. On the other hand, the variety of the remaining material may puzzle an unprepared observer by the kaleidoscope of time and places it covers. From this discrepancy emerges a problematic issue: “whether to treat all the different media and materials that Byzantine art employs together or separately?” (Cormack 21–22).
Tracing each branch of Byzantine art in chronological order appears a complex problem, since many artists worked with several types of material simultaneously. In addition, old and new art was equally displayed in Byzantine reality, and therefore Byzantine art demonstrates a unique quality of continuity combining tradition and innovation.
Demonstrative of the balance of continuity and change in Byzantine art are two samples of different time periods. The earlier sample is a “vast monumental mosaic”, the later one is a “small portable icon” (Cormack 23). At first sight, both of them appear to depict the same subject — Christian saints in heaven after their death. Saints are a universal topic for Christian art, but the choice of specific saints for depiction may point out significant differences in the topic of the artwork.
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Certain visual clues allow for distinguishing the two samples from each other. The enormous mosaic in the dome of the church is largely damaged, and the preserved part features seventeen figures. Despite the fact that the saints are named, there is no visible clue as to the logics of their arrangement.
The central position in the mosaic was probably occupied by the figure of Christ surrounded by flying angels. An analysis of the possible thematic scope prompts the idea that the subject matter of the mosaic could be the Second Coming. This powerful image produced an unquestionable visual effect on the early Christians and signified the glory and triumph of the Christian church over the ideas of the antiquity in the late fifth – early sixth century (Cormack 29–30).
Representing a later period in Byzantine art, the small icon is “a work of art of a different form […] and function” (Cormack 30). Similar to the mosaic in its subject matter, the icon represents a group of saints surrounding Christ. In contrast to the mosaic, Christ is depicted not at the moment of the Second Coming but as a baby sitting in his mother’s lap.
The scene represented in the icon can be identified as the Sunday of Orthodoxy. Along with other figures, it features “iconophile champions” who struggled in 726–843 for recognition of icons as a symbol of the Orthodox church (Cormack 32). In this sense, the icon presents the topic of true and firm belief in the core values of the Orthodox church.
In the Shadow of St. Sophia Byzantine Art in the Sixth Century and Its Aftermath 527–680
Despite the fact that the development of Byzantine art may seem quite gradual, there existed several turning points that marked significant change. In the sixth century such crucial event occurred on the Christmas Day 537, when emperor Justinian dedicated the renovated church of St Sophia. Destroyed by fire in 532, the church was restored in record short period and demonstrated a qualitatively new interpretation of church symbolism.
The new St Sophia was proclaimed “a holy place, a house of prayer, the assembly of the people, the body of Christ, […] an earthly heaven [that] represents the Crucifixion, Burial, and Resurrection of Christ” (Cormack 37). Symbolic of so many Christian values, St Sophia was the heart of Constantinople and a place for public and state contemplation of God. In its interiors, scenes and events from the New Testament were reenacted and thus provided a powerful historical link and revival of the Biblical narratives.
The peculiarity of St Sophia interior of the time was that, unlike the latter trends in decoration, it did not contain any figurative mosaics. Rather, the presence of God was visualized by more objective and universal symbols: the sign of cross was repeated over and again in golden colors. There could be several reasons for such simple yet efficient solution. On the one hand, the restoration of St Sophia had to be completed in shortest terms, and avoiding complicated mosaics saved time and effort.
On the other hand, if there had been any figurative images, the viewer’s gaze would stop on each individual scene and not perceive the overall grandeur of the church. St Sophia indeed impresses by its sizes: about 56 meters high, 30 meters wide, and 60 meters long, the building’s nave was much broader than that of a typical Gothic cathedral (Cormack 40).
As for the interior decoration of St Sophia, in the sixth century it was characterized by especial lightness and freshness that resulted from absence of heavy figurative mosaics.
Only eight porphyry columns were left, and the walls were covered with veined marble. Carved monograms of emperor Justinian and empress Theodora spread all over the colonnades. Although attention was definitely given to details, the moderateness of the embellishment signifies shortness of time for the church restoration. The main decorative function was therefore placed on the sculptural carvings.
The attention, effort, and finance invested in the renovation of St Sophia by emperor Justinian emphasize the significant role church played in the political life of the time. After a series of successful military campaigns, the Byzantine empire stretched out immensely and was in need of powerful controlling mechanisms, of which morale was the key factor.
Following the experience of the Romans, Justinian realized that not only administrative and legal system should be universal for all, but also the common religious creed mattered. Thus the stronghold of Christianity as a guiding religion for the empire was emphasized in the newly revived St Sophia in Constantinople.
With the emergence of St Sophia as the central church which outshone the others by its splendor and grandeur, there still remained the tradition of pilgrimage to holy places. One of the most significant locations personally for emperor Justinian was the church of the Archangel Michael at Germia in Asia Minor (Cormack 45).
It contained a grand ivory carving of Archangel Michael, presumably Justinian’s patron throughout his life. The prayer on the carving symbolized the emperor’s humility in face of the divine power. To commemorate his deceased wife Theodora, emperor Justinian built another masterpiece of Byzantine art, a fortified monastery of St Catherine on the Egyptian mount of Sinai.
A popular destination for pilgrims already in the fourth century, mount Sinai was an ideal place for monks to retire from the vanities of the world and spend time in prayer and worship of God. The Sinai church, a wooden-roofed basilica, was surrounded by high walls and guarded by armed garrison. As a symbol of divine protections, multiple crosses were carved in the walls. The interior of the Sinai church itself was changed with the time, but in the sixth century it was mostly dominated by carvings and mosaics.
The latter depicted, inter alia, the biblical events mostly related to mount Sinai: Moses at the Burning Bush and Moses receiving the Tablets of the Law (Cormack 50). Bright colors and gold in which the images were performed nearly blinded the visitor and thus produced the maximum impact and inspired the feelings of profound veneration.
The significance of Justinian’s rule for development of Byzantine art cannot be overestimated. Together with restoring St Sophia and reinforcing the Sinai monastery, emperor Justinian promoted Byzantine art on the western borders of the Byzantine empire. The location most demonstrative of the emperor’s involvement is the north Italian city of Ravenna.
Initially supporting the Arian branch of the Christian religion, the city could boast a spectacular mosaics in the church of S. Apollinare Nuovo. The enormous scale of Biblical events depicted in the mosaics can be imagined by realizing that only a small part of it contained already twenty-six scenes from Christ’s life (Cormack 55).
After the 540 conquest of Ravenna by Justinian’s army, the Arian politics of the city experienced a radical turn. This was also reflected in the religious artworks: the depictions of the previous ruler were removed from S. Apollinare Nuovo mosaics, and a large group of Orthodox saints was added instead.
Another building embodying Byzantine imperial power and reflecting the ambitious aspirations of its rulers was the church of S. Vitale in Ravenna. Housing the relicts of the local martyr Vitalis, the building reflected many of Byzantine art characteristic.
On the one hand, the marble columns of the church resembled many of the kind made of the same material in Constantinople. On the other hand, the church of S. Vitale contains powerful images of most influential Byzantine emperor and empress, which adds an additional link between Constantinople and the western borders of the empire.
The two mosaics depict emperor Justinian and empress Theodore who had actually never been to Ravenna. But their presence and participation in the liturgy is emphasized by the objects they are carrying: Justinian is holding bread and Theodora bears a goblet of wine, which played a crucial role in Orthodox ceremony.
Despite of the effort emperor Justinian took to build and maintain the grandeur of his vast empire, his creation did not survive for long. But the consequences of his rule for Byzantine art were significant. The culture of monks flourished; churches and monasteries were generously sponsored and thus survived the crisis of the Dark Ages (Cormack 65).
This emergence of monasteries as keepers of the Byzantine culture allowed for efficient replacement of whatever artworks were lost with new ones. A popular medium of expression was found in painted icons, and multiple prescriptions and canons of depiction appeared depending on the view of Christ by the clergy. The large number of icons signifies the transition to a more personal kind of emotional involvement with prayer and worship.
The Definition of an Orthodox Christian Empire Byzantine Art 680–843
The peculiarity of studying Byzantine art is connected with the fact that the transformations occurring in art are deeply rooted in the reconsideration of the social functions of art. The situation is further complicated by the issue of especial timelessness of Byzantine artworks and their stylistic ambiguity.
Therefore, Byzantine art cannot be considered from position of style change alone. The flowering of religious art in the time of emperor Justinian’s rule can thus be explained by the significant social function performed by Byzantine art of the time. The especial realism of icons in Justinian’s time was called to bring the Biblical meanings and messages closer to the average people. A system of visual and written clues would provide clear hints for even the illiterate to recognize certain saints.
The latter would usually possess significant distinctive features or attributes. An especial significance was placed on the way the saints looked at the viewer: the gaze was by large one of the main composites of the icon and reflected the popular belief about protection from the evil eye (Cormack 77).
After emperor Justinian had died, there is observed a decrease in the quantity of artwork. However, the significance of art in everyday life for prayer and instruction. The debatable issue that emerged was that the abundance of icons challenged the authority of the saints and lead to the increasing importance of the icons proper.
Gradually, a view was adopted that “icons were not made by hand” (achieropoietos) but rather appeared miraculously and thus represented the healing powers and protection of Christ (Cormack 77). Among the most outstanding examples of such achieropoietos were the Mandylion of Edessa at Sinai, the mosaic of Christ in the church of Hosios David at Thessaloniki, and the Kamouliana icon of Christ in Cappadocia (Cormack 77–78).
One of the situations that had a crucial impact on the development of Byzantine art was the rise and expansion of Islam. Initially taken as just another occurrence of heresy by the Byzantines, Islam actually had much more lasting and deep consequences for Byzantine art.
Along with the military confrontation, a surprising blending and cooperation between the two cultures could be observed. One of the demonstrative examples of such cooperation is the mosaic of the Great Mosque at Damascus that uses ornaments similar to those in the Christian Rotunda in Thessaloniki (Cormack 79–80). In addition, the Islamic leaders coined money which closely resembled Byzantine monetary standards.
This cultural cooperation was significantly damaged when around 692 emperor Justinian II reformed the design of Byzantine gold nomisma: the obverse featured the face of Christ, while the emperor’s image occupied a secondary position on the reverse (Cormack 80). In reply, all imagery on Islamic coins was substituted by koranic verses. These events first brought the image of Christ in the secular sphere of money.
A second version of Byzantine coin was made after Justinian II had recaptured the throne in 705, and Christ was depicted very unconventionally there: without a nimbus and with a very short beard. The two Byzantine coins bore not only a religious message but that of social and political significance.
The first one represented a “distinctive Byzantine Orthodox identity in face of Islam and other rivals”; the second one emphasized Justinian II’s message that “Byzantium stood for good order in every aspect of life” (Cormack 81). The coins served as signs of national and cultural identification of the Byzantine people.
The other situation that entailed grave consequences on the course of Byzantine art of the time was the way the church responded to the changing social and political environment.
A determining event occurred in 692 when the Quinisext Council adopted over a hundred canons, most of which defined the further development and social functioning of Byzantine art. Thus, for example, the image of cross was prohibited to be placed on the floor; Christ should be represented not in symbols but in His own form (Cormack 82).
Thus, together with a generally positive attitude to icons as significant part of Orthodox Christianity, the Council also demonstrated the need for control over the iconic form and content. It is not difficult to see a political motive underlying such attitude: the orderly life in the Christian Byzantine empire was inseparable from the compliance of Christ’s image to the demands of clear representation.
In the situation of increasing state control over the form and content of religious images, a point was reached when counter reaction was quite inevitable. During most of the eighth century and the first half of the ninth century, the art of icon painting was trapped between two contradictive extremes.
On the one pole, there were the ideas of iconoclasm that called to destruction of icons. The ideas of iconoclasm were formulated in 754 during the Council of Hieria. Basing on the quote from the Bible, a second commandment given to Moses that disapproved of any graven image, the Council ruled that icons should be announced illegitimate (Cormack 87). Thus they solved the issue of paganism and its residuals in the Christian Byzantium.
On the other pole, there were the ideas of iconophiles, who assembled in 787 at the Council of Nicaea and ruled that veneration of icons did not possess an idolatrous nature and therefore could be allowed (Cormack 87). Against this background, a fierce dispute unfolded between the two opposing groups.
Unfolding not only in theory, but also in practice, the iconoclastic activities involved destruction of iconic images from such significant object of Byzantine art as St Sophia in Constantinople and many others. The gold mosaics of St Sophia representing images of Christ and saints were ruthlessly scraped off and icons were taken down (Cormack 94).
It should be noted, however, that the attacks of iconoclasts concerned not the art as such but the nature and social purpose. The art continued to be produced but simply in smaller quantities and a different quality. A bright example of iconoclastic art can be found in the church of St Eirene in Constantinople.
After an earthquake in 740, it was restored with mosaics featuring religious texts and the shape of the cross. Thus the main feature of iconoclastic art was avoiding any representation of the image of Christ and saints and substituting those images with the symbol of life-giving cross.
Another illustration of iconoclasm in art can be seen in the Khludov Psalter of mid-ninth century. The earliest collection of illustrated psalms, this book contains images symbolic of the prolonged struggle between iconoclasts and iconophiles. This struggle for icons has been the key feature of Christian Orthodox church identity ever since.
Developments and Diversions in the Consolidated Empire Middle Byzantine Art 843–1071
As iconoclasm was defeated in 843, the Byzantine art witnessed a period of revival and restoration of the holy icon. The mutual support between the church and the state was unprecedented: the Byzantine empire was once again restored as a state ruled by order and certainty drawn from firm Christian belief. Such attitude is laid out in emperor Constantine VII’s written piece The Book of Ceremonies (Cormack 105).
Monasteries flourished once again as places of active struggle against iconoclasm, and the role of monks in this struggle was radically reconsidered. Although the model for psalm books was still the Khludov Psalter of the ninth century, the pictures of Patriarch Nikephoros as a vigorous iconophile are replaced with those of the monk St Theodore (Cormack 106). Such substitution evidences the shift of significance from patriarch to monk in struggle against iconoclasm.
The two hundred years starting from mid-ninth centuries are described by art historians as a second “Golden Age” of Byzantine art, or “Macedonian Renaissance” (Cormack 108).
Those definitions apply mostly to the especially wide range of artworks and techniques created and developed throughout the period. After the dark times of iconoclasm, the innovations of Macedonian Renaissance appeared more as return to the past traditions of Byzantine art.
The latter were significantly expanded by new themes and approaches. An example can be seen in the Paris Psalter of mid-tenth century, where — unlike the Khludov Psalter — emphasis is made on the textual contents. Apart from psalms and illustrations to them, the Paris Psalter includes a vast theological and scholarly commentary on the sacred texts (Cormack 109).
As the renaissance period was market by return to pre-iconoclastic tradition, it becomes easy to trace connections between the pre- and post-iconoclastic artworks and note the innovations in the latter. Thus, for example, the post-iconoclastic mosaics of Koimisis monastery at Nicaea is performed in a traditional technique.
But differently colored materials and differently sized cubes in faces and clothes prompt that it was created already after the struggle against iconoclasm. Another instance of merging tradition and innovation is seen in the art of coinage.
The iconoclast emperor Leo III rejected the Christian imagery of money coined by Justinian II and ordered that both the obverse and the reverse of the coin represent a portrait of an emperor. In mid-ninth century, emperor Michael III started coining money with the image of Christ on the obverse.
The idea was not a mere allusion to the coin design of Justinian II. Every line copied the old version and the inscription “Jesus Christ” dispelled any doubt as to the image presented on the coin (Cormack 114). Thus, the coin design became a powerful declaration of return to the past.
In this period of revival and consolidation, not only the old themes and styles were restored but also the connection with the eastern parts of the Byzantine empire was emphasized.
Emperors brought items from the legendary east to their palaces and openly placed them for general admiration. Such was the throne of Solomon, surrounded by golden lions, birds, and trees; according to legends, the lions would roar and the birds would sing when the emperor was sitting on the throne. The solution of this mystery could be that there was an organ built in the throne to produce the amazing sounds.
The idea for the throne presumably originated from the court of Persia (Cormack 115). In addition to the technology of organ-building, the emperor court and the church often used such oriental inventions as Persian silk draperies, as well as elements of Arabic writing. The Byzantine empire was once again open and welcoming other cultures.
After the radical stripping the St Sophia church off its mosaics by the iconoclasts, a new look corresponding to the new vision of religious art had to be given to the building which was the center of Christian empire. Provided the amount of expertise, time, and work required by the large-scale projects, the efforts of patriarch Photios cannot be overestimated.
His speech on the dedication of the first mosaic in St Sophia after iconoclasm, Virgin and the Child, is demonstrative by its deep intellectual analysis. Photios emphasized the double significance of Mary’s image both as “lifelike imitation” and “real archetype” and interpreted it as a reminder of salvation and necessity of reverence to God (Cormack 119–120).
Other mosaics of the church featured essentially timeless scenes from the Bible and at the same time reflected the events of the period, immortalizing the prominent patriarchs and emperors of the time. Important accents were placed on the kind of relations between emperors and God. Humility, repentance in face of God, and generosity were the key qualities to be demonstrated by ideal Byzantine emperors and depicted in various mosaics of St Sophia.
Thus, the main social norms of the time were established through art which once again proved an excellent means of communication. To any of the visitors, the artistic decorations of St Sophia clearly represented a picture of the contemporary cultural and political state of Byzantine society.
In the case of historical analysis of art, the term ‘renaissance’ is mostly applied to the period of Italian art between fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. Justification of Macedonian Renaissance faces the issue of whether artworks created at that time were recreations of the classical samples or whether they were innovations based on the knowledge of classical and Christian art.
Compared to Italian art radical revolution towards the standards of the Ancient Greece and Rome that was based on close study of authentic ancient texts, the Byzantine knowledge of its past art was scarce.
The aggressive period of iconoclasm by large destroyed a big share of classical Byzantine art and left scarce traces of it for the coming generations. Instead of merely copying the classical samples, Byzantine artists of the tenth century rather handled the new techniques they developed against the background of classical values and ideas.
The New Spirituality of the Eleventh Century and the World of the Twelfth Century
After the triumphant revival Byzantine art experienced with the defeat of iconoclasm, Orthodox faith found its expression through a vast range of artistic means. The church of St Sophia was redecorated by mosaics of unprecedented scope, and Constantinople was as always dictating its will to the rest of the empire.
In such situation there emerges an issue of whether Constantinople was an artistic center ever since the fall of iconoclasm and whether the provinces had any artistic traditions of their own. On the one hand, monasteries and churches were built and decorated all over the Byzantine empire, which evidences that cultural interest was not concentrated in the capital city only.
On the other hand, it often occurred that artists from Constantinople were invited to remote areas for design and decoration of buildings, which emphasizes the exclusive nature of contemporary artistic knowledge and skills. Such materials as ivory, silk, mosaics, and enamels have traditionally been ascribed to Constantinople artisans.
In certain rare cases, such as with the city of Thessaloniki, the province had the means to support and develop its own workshops. But still if attention is turned to details, dominance and prevalence of Constantinople artwork is traced in many locations. Such is the case with the church of St Sophia in Sinai: the style of figures and mosaics is similar to that represented in Constantinople.
On the other hand, the interior of other churches in the region suggests a cooperation between the capital and local artists. If Byzantine art is to be considered as that exceeding the borders of Constantinople only, this attitude is supported by examples of churches found in rural areas of Asia Minor and Cappadocia (Cormack 149).
Whatever the case may be, the triumphant position of the Orthodox church at period discussed facilitated quantitative and qualitative intensification in art production. One of the most significant changes of the was the transformation of the church sanctuary.
In early Byzantine churches, the division between spaces for the clergy and for the laypeople was purely symbolical, not more than a humble barrier (Cormack 150). However, after the defeat of iconoclasm, the meaning and importance of the sanctuary increased dramatically, and so did the artwork decorating the place. A screen called templon was set up to divide the areas for laypeople and the places where bread and wine were kept (Cormack 151).
In the centre of the screen the Royal Doors were situated, through which the priest would bring out the bread and wine symbolizing the body and blood of Christ. This screen developed through centuries and was gradually covered with an increasing amount of icons that would forever cover the sanctuary from the eyes of the laypeople.
Such development of the sanctuary screen naturally required an unprecedented amount of icons to be made and venerated. Apart from the templon, icons were used on the adjacent walls and shrines dedicated to individual saints.
Icons of the latter were created according to the following scheme: in the center of the icon, the key scene from the saint’s life was depicted and surrounded by smaller images of biographical moments. The daily calendar of the church also had to be illustrated with icons, and this was done either by separate icon for each occasion or by calendar icons including sets of several monthly icons (Cormack 152).
During the period from ninth to fourteenth century, the quantity of icons on the sanctuary increased dramatically and had a double effect on the perception of the religious sacrament. On the one hand, the shield of icons increased the mystery over the sanctuary and the altar of the church. On the other hand, the images of the icons brought the divine holiness closer to laypeople and made it more understandable for them.
Step by step, icons transformed their initial meaning from illustrations of religious history into visual aids directly incorporated in the liturgy. Icons of the eleventh and twelfth centuries reflect a gradual change to their nature and meaning: for the first time, the heavenly ladder is depicted and thus the ideas of divine light and salvation are promoted.
One of the peculiarities of the period was the separation of monasteries from the church headed by the ‘secular’ patriarch. Emotional and social life of contemporary Byzantium was dominated by monasteries that gave refuge to those who wanted to follow Christ’s life on earth.
The society delegated the task of worshiping God to monasteries and generously endowed them for it. Since in Christian Orthodox practice, art was the way “to assist and enhance spiritual experience”, monasteries played a central role in developments of art at that time (Cormack 158). Emperors patronized monasteries, and one of the brightest examples of it was the 1136 monastery of Christ Pantokrator.
Comprising three churches, a hospital, an old people’s home, and a leprosarium, the monastery could boast interiors decorated with marble, stained glass, and mosaics. Hosting such relics as a stone on which Christ’s body supposedly rested after Crucifixion, and the prestigious icon of Virgin Hodigitra, the monastery attracted pilgrims and their generous donations (Cormack 161).
For the purpose of understanding the ways Christian Byzantine art developed outside Constantinople and its suburbs, it is instructive to consider Christian monasteries that functioned in Greece during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The Greek Hosios Lukas monastery comprised three churches (Theotokos church, katholikon, and the crypt church).
The peculiar features of the first church are the lion-headed gargoyles on the dome and the pseudo-Arabian decorations of the exterior. The katholikon is filled with marble sarcophagi and decorated with multiple wall paintings that provided a less time-consuming substitute for mosaics. The crypt church is thematically connected with the images of katholikon: the katholikon mosaic of Doubting Thomas is copied in the crypt wall painting (Cormack 165–167).
In another Greek monastery, Daphni, a certain semblance in decoration types may be traced with Hosios Lukas. However, the depiction style is different: the figures are more natural and less generalized. Such minor variations suggest that the ways of depiction varied depending on the immediate needs of a given religious community.
The political situation around the Byzantine empire had changed dramatically during the two centuries. The Christian world faced the opposition between the Orthodox and the Latin church. Byzantines were driven from Italy by the Normans. Princes of Kiev established their own powerful state of Kiev Rus’.
Serbian, Bulgarian, and Hungarian people demonstrated autonomous tendencies as well. However, despite the gradual loss of territorial influence, the Byzantine empire managed to extend its existence by introducing its art forms and techniques to the rest of the world. Samples of Byzantine art were created in Spain, Kiev Rus’, and Italy, which helped to preserve Byzantine culture by marrying it to that of western Europe.
Art in the Service of a Failing Society Late Byzantine Art 1204–1453
The event that defined the fate of Byzantine art in its late period was the conquest of Constantinople by the Crusaders in April 1204. A mass transportation of Byzantine artworks started to western Europe. Relics of Christian religion were moved from churches where they originally reposed to churches and monasteries of Italy and France.
Sculptures, vessels, enamels, books, chalices, reliefs, and many other works of art were exported from the Byzantine republic to royal residences. By the time Louis XIV came to the throne, the Louvre could boast a vastest collection of precious Byzantine vessels (Cormack 187). At the same time, the ransacked court in Constantinople struggled to preserve at lease something of its former glory.
The notable issue about the western invasion into the Byzantine empire was that on the one hand, the western people were charmed and mesmerized by masterpieces of Byzantine art which they had previously known only by copies. On the other hand, quite paradoxically, most of the innovations the westerners brought to Byzantium were totally disconnected with the historical culture of the land.
The church of St Sophia in Constantinople was converted for Catholicism and left deteriorating. The new monasteries were built prevalently in western style. The cooperation of the east and the west can be traced only in the creations of Crusaders. Their mosaics, paintings, and manuscripts were therefore crucial for the development of Byzantine art in its late period.
An example of mixture between western and eastern artistic styles and content can be seen in the iconic triptych from Sinai, including the scene of Coronation of the Virgin. Initially, coronation was a western procedure, and placing the Virgin on the throne next to Christ contradicted the principles of Orthodox Christianity (Cormack 190).
The process of assimilation of the other culture was experienced by both the eastern and the western artists which makes it sometimes difficult to distinguish who was the real author of an artwork.
After the historical events of the early thirteenth century, the Byzantine society faced a choice: whether to stick to the established traditions of Byzantine art or assimilate new ideas and techniques that came from the west. Since contacts with the west became part of daily routine in the life of Byzantine empire, the latter option appeared more likely to follow. Against this background of continuous cultural contact, the church was trying to assume a reasonable position.
A profound discussion unfolded on such controversial issues of Christian religion as papal primacy, purgatory, and others (Cormack 194). Western theological works were closely studied in Byzantium and provoked some of the Byzantine people’s disappointment in Orthodoxy and adoption of Catholicism. Byzantine society was torn between two extremes: anti-papists on the one hand and disillusioned intellectuals on the other hand.
In any case, the art of the time reflected the unstable situation where consistent positions were rarely followed. Being closely acquainted with the western achievements in Gothic and Renaissance art, Byzantine art consciously made its choice, either accepting or rejecting the foreign standards. There cannot be traced any distinct and consistent line of either following the western tradition or its denial in Byzantine art of the time.
Means of expression and techniques varied greatly in this period of cultural crossroads. A significant feature of contemporary Byzantine art was its utmost religious emotionality and appeal. The loss of glory and prestige of Constantinople was a hard blow for the Byzantine empire, and the attempts to restore the former influence proved in vain (Cormack 198–199).
With the return of grand court and patriarch to Constantinople in 1261, there emerged a new hope for restoring the empire. Much effort was put into collecting and displaying the artifacts of the glorious past which remained after the Crusaders invasion. The prior task for raising the prestige of the Byzantine capital was refurbishment of its major shrine, the church of St Sophia. An enormous mosaic, the Deisis, was made on the southern wall of the church (Cormack 201).
Over five meters in height and six meters in width, this magnificent panel depicted Christ at the Second Coming and symbolized the restoration of the Byzantine empire to its former greatness. Together with the large scale of the mosaic, it impressed by an especial intimacy and naturalism with which the figures are performed.
The delicate modeling of faces in the mosaic was a bright example of early western Renaissance style adapted by Byzantine artists. The Deisis mosaic represented an icon of extraordinary scale and was not the only representative of this large-scale genre. On the other hand, late Byzantine art also produced micro-mosaic panels that were not only used in Byzantine religious practices but also became collectors’ items among the western connoisseurs (Cormack 202–203).
The late thirteenth century witnessed a peculiar innovation that resulted from artistic patronage of artworks. Thus, in Constantinople, the already existing monasteries obtained new architectural structures and forms.
The two brightest examples are the addition of a side-church to St Mary Pammakaristos and the rebuilding of the Chora Monastery (Cormack 204). The latter involved joint efforts of artists, architects, and church planners, who carried out their project by rearranging the vaults of the former katholikon, building an inner and outer narthex, and other modifications decisive for the new design.
The main subject of the church were the cycles of the Life of the Virgin and the Infancy and Ministry of the Christ (Cormack 207). Focusing on salvation of the soul and significance of the Virgin, the cycles as such represent quite a traditional subject. However, this conventionality is touched up by certain innovatory findings.
For one thing, the cycle contains a number of rare scenes from the life of the Virgin that had not been depicted in other locations. For another thing, different principles of perspective are used in this depiction than in traditional western Renaissance art. Thus together with adherence to Byzantine tradition, the artwork in the Chora Monastery demonstrates latent innovation that was not to draw too much attention.
The fourteenth century witnessed sufficient change in the art of iconography. The templon screen that covered the sanctuary gradually evolved into a whole iconostasis holding several layers of icons (Cormack 210). The range and complexity of the church interior cycles increased, as did the range of spiritual experience depicted in the icons.
Another innovation was including the personal signature of the artist in the icon or wall painting. This tradition rooted in the western art which emphasized the growing social status of artists and presented their work as goods contesting for popularity among consumers.
Although the Orthodox church discouraged such approach, artistic individuality and style became quite prominent during the period. An example of an outstanding icon painter can be found in the figure of Theophanes the Greek who worked in Moscow and Novgorod.
Cormack, Robert. Byzantine Art. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.