Byzantine art

Byzantine art . An artistic expression that takes shape from the 6th century on, deeply rooted in the Hellenistic world as a continuation of Eastern Paleo-Christian art. In its first moments it was considered as the natural conservator in the eastern Mediterranean countries of the Roman Empire, being a transmitter of artistic forms that powerfully influence medieval western culture. The periods of Byzantine art adjust, of course, to the great phases of its political history.


[ hide ]

  • 1 Historical development
  • 2 Byzantine architecture
    • 1 Characteristics of Byzantine architecture
    • 2 Byzantine domes
    • 3 Byzantine arches
    • 4 Byzantine columns
  • 3 Byzantine figurative arts
  • 4 Byzantine sculpture
  • 5 Byzantine mosaic and painting
    • 1 Byzantine mosaics
    • 2 Byzantine painting
  • 6 Sources

Historical development

It was born and developed from the 4th century after Christ in the Eastern Roman Empire , where it flourished until the 15th century . From there, it goes to the countries of Eastern Europe .

Various events affect its development. The most notable are: the iconoclastic movement of the 8th century , and in the 11th century , the rupture between the Church of the East and that of the West. This art produces monumental architecture manifested in its churches, splendid mosaics and impressive sculptures. Two cities of particular interest to Byzantine art are Byzantium – Constantinople and Ravenna .

Since the beginning of the 5th century , a formal artistic language of its own and differentiated from that maintained in the Western Empire has been created. Later, in the time of Justinian I (527-565) the first specifically Byzantine stage begins: it is the First Golden Age that includes the 6th and 7th centuries , it is the stage of formation of Byzantine art in its basic formal aspects.

After the period of the iconoclast struggle, although poor in monuments, begins around the year 850, the Middle Byzantine art or Second Golden Age that lasts until the year 1204 , when Constantinople is conquered by the Crusaders; At this time the formal and spiritual aspects of Byzantine art are essentially consolidated; it is the true creative and defining stage of Byzantine aesthetics.

After Latin dominance, with the dynasty of the Palaeologists, the Golden Third Age began, which centered on the 14th century and ended with the capture of Constantinople in the year 1453 . Later, Byzantine art flourished in the Slavic countries, Russia and southeastern Europe, being transmitted to this day through Mount Athos.

Byzantine architecture

In the First Golden Age, the time of Justinian I, the 6th century, the greatest architectural works were carried out, revealing the technical and material characteristics, as well as the constructive sense that characterizes Byzantine art of this period. From the Eastern Roman and early Christian world it maintained various elements such as materials (brick and stone for exterior and interior mosaic cladding), semicircular arches, classical columns as supports, etc. but they also contributed new features among which the new dynamic conception of the elements and a novel spatial sense stand out, and, above all, its most important contribution, the systematic use of the vaulted roof, especially the dome on pendentives, that is, spherical triangles at the angles that facilitate the passage from the square to the circular plan of the dome. These hemispherical vaults were built using concentric rows of brick, like crowns of decreasing radius reinforced externally with mortar, and were conceived as a symbolic image of the divine cosmos.

Byzantine architecture features

  • Byzantine architecture is varied and monumental.
  • Use the plan of the basilica inherited from the Romans, the circular plan of the martyrdoms and the Greek cross . * For larger sizes, multiply the arches, vaults, and domes, as well as the columns. Furthermore, the Byzantines have learned to build light domes with brick and ceramics .
  • In the elaboration of the walls they easily mix brick, stone and mortar. The external walls are sober, with a natural finish. The interior mosaic decorations are lavish.
  • The Hagia Sophia Basilica in Istanbul is one of the most important Byzantine buildings. This church of divine wisdom, dedicated to the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, built by the architects Antemio de Tralles and Isidoro de Mileto, between the years 532 and 537, following the direct orders of Emperor Justinian I , allows you to see its numerous domes around the main one. The 4 tall towers on each side of the building are minarets erected by the Muslims, who conquered the remains of the Roman Empire .
  • It maintained several elements such as materials (brick and stone for exterior and interior mosaic cladding), semicircular arches, classical column as support, etc.
  1. b) They also contributed new features, among which the new dynamic conception of the elements and a novel spatial sense stand out.
  • His most important contribution, the systematic use of the vaulted roof, especially the dome on pendentives, that is, spherical triangles at the angles that facilitate the passage from the square to the circular plan of the dome. These hemispherical vaults were built using concentric rows of brick, like crowns of decreasing radius reinforced externally with mortar, and were conceived as a symbolic image of the divine cosmos.
  • Another contribution of great importance was the decoration of capitals, of which there were several types; thus, that of the Theodosian type is a Roman heritage used during the 4th century as an evolution of the Corinthian and carved into a trephine, resembling wasps’ nests; another variety was the flat-faced cubic capital decorated with two-plane reliefs.

Byzantine domes

Dome of the Church of Saint Sophia

Domes are the most obvious element of Byzantine architecture. They are wide and numerous, originally circular. They evolve, with the passage of time and under the Arab influence, towards the onion- shaped domes so characteristic of the Russian landscape. They are placed directly on the walls of the building or isolated by a drum. They are attached to the square base by means of triangular and curved pendentives.

Byzantine arches

The semicircular arch is an essential element of Byzantine architecture. The blind arch is frequently integrated as a decorative element of the walls. The open semicircular arch supports high walls that do not need to be very thick. Archways parallel to the external walls and repeated over several floors are common.

Therefore, there is no problem in leaving wide gaps in the walls, and the Byzantine churches, with their numerous windows, are full of natural light that underlines the spiritual symbolism present in all Byzantine art. The arches themselves give access to wide barrel vaults, often with ridges.

Byzantine columns

They are decorative columns. They participate in the play of light and colors that takes place in Byzantine buildings. Many times they are made of colored marble. Because they do not support lintels, but series arches, they require voluminous capitals. In these are all kinds of decorations, in particular intricate plant motifs. The abacus also changes, adopting a trapezoidal shape, more convenient in the arches.

In the typology of the temples, according to the plan, those with a centralized plan abound, undoubtedly consistent with the importance given to the dome, but the churches with basilica plan and cruciform churches with the same sections are not inferior in number (plan of cross Greek ).

In almost all cases, it is common that the temples, in addition to the main nave body, have an atrium or narthex, of early Christian origin, and the presbytery preceded by iconostasis, so called because painted icons were placed on this openwork enclosure.

The first Christian work, from the first third of the 6th century, is the church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, in Constantinople (527-536), a square central building with an octagon in the center covered with a half-crowned gallon dome on eight pillars and nave in your enviroment. At this very moment in the first half of the 5th century, the rectangular church with two domes of Santa Paz or Santa Irene corresponds, also in Constantinople.

Also important was the defunct Church of the Holy Apostles of Constantinople, designed as an imperial mausoleum and inspired by the Church of Saint John of Ephesus, offering a model of a Greek cross plan with five domes widely imitated throughout the Byzantine world, for example in the famous Byzantine church of San Marcos in Venice, a work from the 11th century.

Constantinople was not the only important focus in this first Golden Age of Byzantium, it is necessary to remember the nucleus of Ravenna (capital of the Byzantine Empire in the West from the 6th century to the 8th century ), the western exarchate located in the northeast of the peninsula Italian, on the banks of the Adriatic Sea, next to Venice.

The Byzantine churches of Ravenna present two models: one of clear constantinopolitical inspiration related to the church of Saints Sergio and Bacchus, that of the church of San Vital in Ravenna (538-547), in which, like its model, it is octagonal plan with a nave surrounding the high pillars and with a semicircular extension at the head, in front of the apse of the presbytery; at the feet it has a wide atrium with lateral towers.

In this church of San Vital, the most characteristic features of stylistics in medieval western architecture are already prefigured, especially those referring to the vertical direction of the construction to the detriment of the preceding horizontality. The other Byzantine churches in Ravenna have early Christian influence due to their flat-roofed basilica structure. They are the church of San Apolinar in Classe and the church of San Apolinar il Nuevo, both from the first half of the 5th century and with outstanding mosaics.

In the Second Golden Age, churches with a Greek cross plan predominate, covered with domes raised on a drum and with a prominent corrugated cornice at the outer base. This new type of church is embodied in the late Nea church of Constantinople (881), built by Basil I. The same compositional scheme corresponds to the Athens cathedral, the church of the Daphni monastery, which uses horns instead of pendentives, and the monastic complexes of Mount Athos in Greece.

In Italy, the aforementioned Basilica of San Marcos in Venice, from the year 1063, stands out, a Greek cross plan inscribed in a rectangle and covered with five cupolas on a drum, one on the transept and four on the arms of the cross, resembling their structure to the defunct Church of the Holy Apostles of Constantinople. In this Second Golden Age Byzantine art spread to the Russian zone of Armenia, in Kiew the church of Saint Sophia was built in the year 1017, faithfully following the influences of the architecture of Constantinople, it was structured in basilica form of five finished naves in apse, in Novgorod the churches of Saint George and Saint Sophia are built, both with central plan.

During the Third Golden Age, between the 13th and 15th centuries Byzantine art continued to spread throughout Europe and Russia, with church floors covered by bulging domes on circular or polygonal drums prevailing. To this stage correspond in Greece the church of the Holy Apostles of Thessaloniki, from the 14th century, the church of Mistra, in the Peloponnese, and some monasteries of Mount Athos.

Likewise, the Byzantine temples multiplied by the Danube valleys, by Romania and Bulgaria, reaching the Russian lands of Moscow where the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Kremlin stands out, in Red Square, made in the time of Ivan the Terrible ( 1555 – 1560 ), whose five domes, the highest and most slender in the transept and four others located at the angles that form the arms of the cross, stand out for their coloring, for the high drums and for their characteristic bulbous profiles.

Byzantine figurative arts

Byzantine painting and mosaics, more than their sculpture, have had a singular importance in the history of forms of plastic representation, in that they have served as a bridge to Eastern Christian models towards Europe, as well as to the transmission of forms classic when in the West it had disappeared due to the action of the barbarian peoples, and finally, Byzantine art has been the main source in the fixation of western iconography.

Byzantine sculpture

Byzantine sculpture is of two types: huge or small, and in any case, scarce. Contrary to Roman tradition, he takes little care of the profiles. The sculptures are frontal, hieratic and formal. The eyes, large and looking upwards, are intended to convey transcendental concerns.

The large statues are made of stone ( marble , etc.). The small ones are reliefs organized in portable diptychs made of ivory .

Byzantine sculptural plastic represented the culmination of early Christian art, maintaining its techniques and its aesthetic of progressive distancing from classical qualities: the greater rigidity, the repetition of stereotyped models, the preference of bas-relief to works of round bulk and the use of materials rich (ivory) that provide small pieces, are the most prominent characters of the Byzantine statuary of the first stage.

After the systematic destruction of the iconoclastic period, there is a return to the cult of images, but in order not to fall into idolatry and by the influence of the new Islamic currents, the human figure disappears in exempt statuary.

The most outstanding works are the ornamental works of the capitals with plant and animal motifs faced such as those of San Vital de Ravenna or the sarcophagi of the same city in which the themes of the Good Shepherd are represented.

But the capital works of Byzantine sculpture are small works, diptychs and boxes, carved in ivory, highlighting the Barberini diptych, Louvre Museum, from the 5th century, or the famous Chair of Bishop Maximiano, in Ravenna, carved around 533 on ivory plates with meticulous work.

Byzantine mosaic and painting

Byzantine mosaics

The Byzantine mosaics, abundant and exuberant with light and color, exercise didactic and above all symbolic functions. As in late Roman art, the technique adopted is the opus tesselatum, which mixes colored stones and glass.

A strong preference is now given to gold and a rigid symbolism is instituted for the other colors (purple for the emperors and for the risen Christ, for example). The mosaics cover the interior walls and the domes. On the walls the space is symbolically divided into three parts: lower for the terrestrial representations, medium for the transitional representations and upper for the sky.

The elements included follow strict canons that dignify the lives of emperors and religious figures. The taste for richness and ornamental sumptuousness of Byzantine art, eminently Aulic, required the covering of the walls of its temples with mosaics, not only to hide the poverty of the materials used, but also as a means to express religiosity and semi-divine character of imperial power ( cesaropapismo ).

Of the First Golden Age, the most important group is that of Ravenna, which links with the early Christian mosaics of the 5th century: in the churches of San Apolinar Nuevo and San Apolinar in Clase its upper walls are covered with mosaics that represent, in the first a processional procession, led by the Three Kings , towards the Theotokos or Mother of God, in the second, in the apse, a heavenly vision is shown in which Saint Apollinar (from Ravenna) leads a flock.

The masterpiece of music art is, without a doubt, the set of mosaics of San Vital de Ravenna, composed around the year 547, representing various biblical themes and on the sides of the apse the groups of Justiniano I and his wife Teodora with their respective entourage.

The iconoclastic struggle ended, in the middle of the 9th century, when Byzantine aesthetics and its iconography were truly configured. A new Golden Age will emerge, the second, which will mark the apogee of the figurative arts, radiating its influences on Islamic art, then in formation, and the emerging European Romanesque art.

The figures show a certain rigidity and monotony, but very expressive in their symbolism, with evident contempt for nature and space laws; they are long and with a certain dehumanization aspect.

The new iconographic types adapt symbolically, according to a predetermined program ( Hermeneia ), to the different parts of the temple: the Pantocrator (Christ in Majesty blessing) in the dome, the Tetramorphs (four evangelists) in the pendentives, the Virgin in the apse , the saints and evangelical themes on the walls of the ships.

The most repeated models are the figures of Christ with a split beard and middle age (Syriac model) and of the Virgin who appears under various advocations ( Kyriotissa or throne of the Lord in which she holds the Child on her legs, as if she were a throne ; Hodighitria , standing with the Child on the left arm while with the right one points to Jesus as the way of salvation – it is the model developed in the Gothic -; the Theotokos , or Mother of God, offers the Child a fruit or a flower; the Blachernitissa or Platytera with a halo on the belly in which the Child appears indicating the motherhood of the Virgin).

Byzantine painting

Other very repeated themes are the Déesis or group formed by Christ with the Virgin and Saint John the Baptist, as intercessors, and those dedicated to the twelve liturgical festivals of the year, among which the Anastasis or Bajada de Cristo al Limbo, the Transit of the Virgin, the Vision of Manré, that is, the appearance of the three angels to Abraham, symbolizing the Trinity.

During the Third Golden Age the mosaic continued in use until the 13th century, at this time the iconography of the “Marian” cycles, of the saints and evangelicals, was enriched, while, by Italian influences, greater freedom was appreciated compositional and an evident mannerism in the stylizations.

Destroyed the mosaics of Constantinople are the only references to those of Saint Mark of Venice, with abundant use of gold that will have a marked influence on the Gothic works of Cimabue, Duccio and other Italian painters.

Byzantine painting

The painting replaces the mosaic in this Third Age, counting on the precedent of the interesting rock church ensembles of Cappadocia, in Asia Minor.

The Russian workshops of Novgorod and Moscow are important, where Theophanes the Greek, fresco artist and panel painter worked in the XIV century and in the following century the Virgin of Vladimir (Moscow) and the monk Andrés Rublev or Rubliov especially stand out as a masterpiece especially to Through its icon of the Trinity, this 15th century icon is considered the most important Byzantine icon of the Russian school, it represents the Trinity through the biblical scene called Manré’s vision , that is, three angels who appear to the patriarch Abraham.

It is characterized by a melancholic air, of intense spirituality, in which the angel in the center, wearing a red robe, is believed to represent Christ with a tree in the background; the one on the left represents God the Father and the one on the right the Holy Spirit. The perspective is typical of the Byzantine type, that is, inverse, the lines opening as they move away from the viewer’s eyes.

Somewhat later are the Venetian and Cretan schools where Andrea Riccio de Candia stood out, who is credited with creating the famous icon of the Virgin of Perpetual Help.

Icon painting has continued throughout the Modern Age, taking as an aesthetic reference the characters of classical Byzantine painting, which prevails over Italian influences.

The most complete collections of icons are in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, in the Puskin Museum in Leningrad, in the Cathedral of Sofia (Bulgaria) and in the icon museum “La Casa Grande” in Torrejón de Ardoz (Madrid). In the Cathedral of Santa María and San Julián de Cuenca there is the diptych of the despots of Epirus corresponding to the Yugoslav school.

At the same time, the production of miniatures for the purple codices is developed, named after the use of purple backgrounds. From the first period is the Genesis of Vienna, from the 5th century, the evangelists of Rábula and Rossano, both from the following century.

In the following stages the psalters stood out with abundant representations throughout the page or in the margins full of narrative meaning. They emphasize the Menologio de Basilio II (Vatican Library) and the treatise of Oppiano’s Cinegética (Paris).

In the sumptuary arts they excelled thanks to the Byzantine court environment.

Textile work was inspired by Sassanid patterns (motifs circled); In goldsmithing, the use of enamels on precious metals stands out, following the technique of partitioning or honeycomb of Germanic origin, in which the colors are separated by gold filaments. The goldsmith’s masterpiece is the Pala de Oro, San Marcos de Venecia or the enameled icon of San Miguel from the same temple.

Also noteworthy are the so-called Christ Pantócrator , who are figures of Jesus surrounded by an aura of white light (symbolizing purity), and he finds himself cross-legged. In one hand he has the index finger raised and in the other hand the Holy Scriptures. It is located inside an almentra (that is, an ovoid drawing) and is surrounded by the four evangelists or ocepas , one in each corner. This image denotes fear, command, and even fear. We can highlight the Pantócrator of the Hagia Sophia Museum of Constantinople.


Leave a Comment