Byzantine Art and Architecture
Summary of Byzantine Art and Architecture
Existing for over a thousand years, the Byzantine Empire cultivated diverse and sumptuous arts to engage the viewers' senses and transport them to a more spiritual plane as well as to emphasize the divine rights of the emperor. Spanning the time between antiquity and the Middle Ages, Byzantine art encompassed an array of regional styles and influences and developed long-lasting Christian iconography that is familiar to practitioners today.
Because of its longevity and geographical scope, Byzantine art does not necessarily proceed in a linear progression of stylistic innovations. Its origins in the Roman Empire meant that even in the face of unclassical tendencies that favored hierarchical compositions and symbolic meanings there were periods of revival that emphasized more naturalistic renderings that foregrounded storytelling. Within this milieu, distinctive styles of mosaics and icon paintings developed, and innovations in frescos, illuminated manuscripts, and small-scale sculptures and enamel work would have lasting influence not just in Eastern realms such as Turkey and Russia but also in Europe and even in contemporary religious painting.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- In further developing Christian iconography that began during Roman times, images became powerful means to spread and deepen the Christian faith. Many of the now-standard iconographic types, such as Christ Pantocrator and the Virgin and Child enthroned, were created and evolved during the Byzantine era. This new-found power of images, however, was not without controversy and sparked a heated and, at times, violent debate over the place of images in the church.
- Byzantine emperors used art and architecture to signal their strength and importance. Often, depictions of the emperor were less naturalistic and instead used compositional clues such as size, placement, and color to underscore his importance. Additionally, the emperor was often visually associated with Christ, making it clear that his power was divinely ordained and, thus, secure.
- Beginning with the basilica and central plans used by the Romans, Byzantine architects and designers made huge engineering innovations in erecting domes and vaults. The use of pendentives and squinches allowed for smoother transitions between square bases and circular, or octagonal, domes.
- The architectural surfaces of Byzantine churches were covered in mosaics and frescoes, creating opulent and magnificent interiors that glittered in the candle and lamp light. In building such elaborate and seemingly miraculous structures, the goal was to create the sense of a heavenly realm here on earth, a goal that later Gothic architecture fully embraced.
Overview of Byzantine Art and Architecture
The term Byzantine is derived from the Byzantine Empire, which developed from the Roman Empire. In 330 the Roman Emperor Constantine established the city of Byzantion in modern day Turkey as the new capital of the Roman empire and renamed it Constantinople. Byzantion was originally an ancient Greek colony, and the derivation of the name remains unknown, but under the Romans the name was Latinized to Byzantium.
Important Art and Artists of Byzantine Art and Architecture
In Istanbul, the Hagia Sophia's most prominent and celebrated feature is its large dome, soaring above the city, while its square brick edifice and two massive towers, create an impression of fortress-like solidity. The interior is equally renowned for its light-filled space that creates a heavenly atmosphere. As the Emperor Justinian's biographer Procopius wrote at the time, "Yet [the dome] seems not to rest upon solid masonry, but to cover the space with its golden dome suspended from Heaven." The dome is the largest in the world, made possible by the architects' pioneering use of pendentives; the corners of the dome's square base curve up into the dome and redistribute its weight. The architects also inserted forty windows around the base of the dome, lightening the weight of it and illuminating the interior. They gilded the frames of the windows so that the stone refracts and reflects the light, making it appear that the dome is floating. When the church was completed, Justinian supposedly exclaimed, "Solomon, I have outdone thee!"
In 532 Justinian I appointed Isidorus of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles to rebuild the church. The previous church had been destroyed in rioting against Justinian's government, and its consecration was meant to mark the restoration of his central authority. At the same time, as the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, the church also symbolized the spiritual authority of the Orthodox church. The structure of the interior also communicated social hierarchies, as the ground floor and upper gallery were segregated according to gender and social class with the gallery reserved for the emperor and other notables. Similarly, the entrance to the nave of the church contained nine doorways with the Imperial Door, reserved for the emperor, in the center. In effect, the church was a concrete schemata of the religious, political, and social organization of the empire - an earthly but heavenly city.
In 1453 following the Turkish conquest, the building became a mosque, and the four minarets, each over 200 feet tall, were added. Interior mosaics were painted over in gold and replaced with large medallions inscribed with calligraphy. Nonetheless the building's original design was much admired, as shown by the Ottoman historian Tursun Beg who wrote in the 15th century, "What a dome, that vies in rank with the nine spheres of heaven! In this work a perfect master has displayed the whole of the architectural science." The church became a model for Ottoman architecture, as seen in the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (1609-1616), popularly known as the Blue Mosque. Today the Hagia Sophia is a national museum, in order to remove it from the religious controversies that are still associated with the site today.
This ivory relief was originally a diptych, hinged to another panel that was subsequently lost. Two smaller panels - the right one also lost - frame the central depiction of an energetic emperor, likely Justinian, on horseback. As the muscular and dynamic horse rears on its hind legs, the emperor looks forward as he grasps the shaft of a lance in his right hand and with his left grasps the horse's reins. Around him, three smaller figures symbolize his power and dominance. The winged figure of Victory on the upper right stands on a globe inscribed with a cross, holding a palm branch, another symbol of victory, in her left hand while her right hand crowns the emperor. A defeated barbarian stands on the left behind the horse, and a partially nude woman, who holds a cornucopia in her lap and reaches out to grasp the emperor's foot with her right hand, symbolizes the earth.
In the upper panel, two heraldic angels hold a central medallion depicting Christ holding a cross and flanked by symbols of the sun, moon, and stars. In the left panel, a soldier, holding a statuette of Victory, turns toward the emperor. The lower panel depicts two Western barbarians on the left and two Eastern barbarians on the right, all bringing tribute, including ivory tusks, lions, tigers and elephants, to another winged Victory figure at the center who gestures toward the emperor above. Every element reiterates imperial authority and is innovatively depicted with energetic compression; the figures seem to surge within the frame. The model for this small portable work was the famous equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, but rather than the stoic strength of that work, this depiction makes the emperor "brim with the same energy as his charging stead," as the Jansons wrote.
The Early Byzantine era pioneered ivory reliefs, which had a long-lasting influence upon Western art. They were much prized by the European elite, and this particular piece is now named after Cardinal Barberini, a noted 17th-century art patron and collector. Created during the reign of the Emperor Justinian, the work also exemplified the Early Byzantine style, which still drew upon classical influences, as the figure of the emperor and his horse, the lance, and the winged victory are carved in such high relief that they seem fully three dimensional. The surrounding panels are carved in shallower relief, visually emphasizing the emperor as the source of energy and power. The message of the work was also innovative as it combined the military victory of the emperor with the victory of Christianity, employing two angels carrying an image of Christ rather than the Roman era's use of a pair of winged Victories. As art historian Ernst Kitzinger wrote, "Christ makes his appearance in heaven at the moment in which the emperor stages his triumphal adventus on earth. It is a graphic depiction of the harmony between heavenly and earthly rule."
This famous mosaic depicts the Emperor Justinian I, haloed, wearing a crown and an imperial purple robe and holding a large golden bowl for the bread of the Eucharist. Carrying a gold cross, Bishop Maximianus of Ravenna, whose name is inscribed above, stands on the emperor's left along with three other clergy, one holding a incense censor and the other a gilded Gospel. On the emperor's right stand two men in white robes with a purple stripe, identifying them as members of the imperial administration, as well as a group of soldiers, gathered behind a single shield decorated with a cross. Placed in the center, the Emperor is thus depicted as the central authority between the power of the church and the power of the government and military.
The distinctive style of this mosaic defined Early Byzantine art. The naturalistic treatments of classical Greek and Roman art were abandoned in favor of a hierarchal style that, rather than drawing the viewer's eye into a convincing image of reality, presented figures with direct gazes that were meant to spiritually engage the viewer. This was one of two mosaics flanking the altar; the second depicts the Empress Theodora, similarly accompanied, and in both scenes the figures are shown as if they were bringing the gifts of the Eucharist to the altar that occupies the physical space between the mosaics. All of the figures are posed frontally in a distinctive figurative style, with tall thin bodies, tiny feet pointed forward, oval faces and huge eyes, and without any suggestion of movement. As the art historians H.W. Janson and Anthony F. Janson wrote, "The dimensions of time and earthly space have given way to an eternal present in the golden setting of Heaven. Hence the solemn, frontal images seem to belong to a celestial rather than a secular court. This union of political and spiritual authority reflects the 'divine kingship' of the Byzantine emperor."
Useful Resources on Byzantine Art and Architecture
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- Byzantium art comes to life at Art InstituteBy Laura Pearson / Chicago Tribune / Oct 1, 2014
- On BackgroundBy Sarah Williams Goldhagen / New Republic / August 11, 2010
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- Contemporary Byzantine Painting: An Interview With FikosOur PickBy Fr. Silouan Justiniano / Orthodox Arts Journal / August 30, 2016
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