A Brief History of Byzantine Art and Its Characteristics


If you've witnessed the enticing, classic ornaments and decorations in Christian churches around the world, those are perhaps the legacy of Byzantine Art. Cities like Ravenna (Italy), Kiev (Ukraine), or Novgorod and Moscow (Russia) are the epicentres of artworks that were produced during the Byzantine era, artworks that had significant influence on Christianity.

But what is Byzantine Art and what are its distinctive features? Here's a beginner's guide that covers how the art was formed and its evolution.

The Birth of Byzantine Art

"The Virgin and Child" in the Byzantine world | source: medievalists.net‌‌

We must first talk about eponymous empire before we dive deep into Byzantine Art. The Byzantine Empire was the Eastern Roman Empire under Christian rule that thrived in the Middle Ages, from 330 AD until the fall of Rome, when the capital Constantinople (present day Istanbul) fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. The arts of the Byzantine era corresponded to the dates of the empire, which spanned more than a millennium.

This Eastern Roman Empire, unlike the Western half that was ruled from Rome, was a peaceful region that maintained religious, secular, and artistic values. Thousands of painters and craftsmen went to Byzantium to get away from the barbarian Dark Ages in Rome back then. These artists created Byzantine Art as the new style of Eastern Christian images and icons, which ultimately flourished into Orthodox Christianity.

Because Byzantine Art spans over a significant amount of time, it can be divided into three periods: Early Byzantine (330–750), Middle Byzantine (850–1204) and Late Byzantine (c. 1261–1453).

Byzantine Art: Religious Expression and Iconoclasm

Byzantine Art is considered as the shift towards the more abstract and universal style from the naturalism of the Classical tradition. It was born from rationalism and the desire to mimic life forms with a symbolic approach. Generally, the characteristics of Byzantine art were almost completely in tune with the religious realm; particularly about the transcendence of the Orthodox Church under the Byzantine Empire into artistic forms.

Similar to the way of Greek predecessors, Byzantine Art has never forgotten its cultural roots and heritage, which originated in Greek culture after being Christianised from the Eastern Roman Empire. That’s why artworks from the era continued to resemble their origins.

"Christ Pantocrator" - Byzantine Artwork | Source: fineartamerica.com‌‌

More often than not, the background of a Byzantine building is painted in gold so that the subject in the foreground appears to be floating. In such cases, religious values took priority over aesthetic values.

However, there were two periods during the Byzantine era called the Byzantine Iconoclasm (between 726 and 786, and then 814 and 842), where religious expressions were opposed by the governing members of the Orthodox Church, stemming from theological interpretation of certain Biblical scriptures.

Emperor Leo III banned the use of religious portrayals to prevent people from worshipping the image and not God that it represents. This led to mass destructions of Byzantine art, which led to conflicts between the emperor and the pope, until the ban was lifted in 843.

Nevertheless, religious paintings such as the famous Georgian the Saviour, have been an icon in Byzantine Art. There are also repeating patterns in the creation of other iconic works, including the portrayal of Christ Pantocrator with a raised hand as a sign of blessing, and the other holding the Scripture.

Most Notable Monuments

The architecture of Hagia Sophia | hagiasophia.com/<span class="-mobiledoc-kit__atom">‌‌</span>

Now a museum welcoming seas of visitors, the Hagia Sophia was a basilica during the Byzantine era. Under the reign of the Emperor Justinian from 527-565, Hagia Sophia was constructed as he embarked on building Constantinople. Hagia Sophia, meaning “holy meaning”, is also called Church of the Holy Wisdom or Church of the Divine Wisdom. It was a colossal Greek Orthodox Christian patriarchal cathedral with key features resembling Byzantine art style. The building was filled with numerous windows, coloured marble, bright mosaics, and gold highlights. In the subsequent development, this landmark's architectural style became the standard model in Byzantine art.

Mosaics in the former basilica Hagia Sophia | Source: theculturetrip.com<span class="-mobiledoc-kit__atom">‌‌</span>

Though Constantinople became a hotbed for the growth of artistic works, many Byzantine architecture legacies were destroyed over the years. The best place to rediscover and recount the best proof of the Byzantine Byzantine would be Ravenna, Italy.

Ravenna is the city where the 6th-century Basilica of San Vitale is located. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was a central-plan church using a Greek cross within a square that also became a model for Byzantine architecture. The octagonal structure was made of marble, topped with a magnificent terracotta dome.

Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy | Source: pixabay.com <span class="-mobiledoc-kit__atom">‌‌</span>
Mosaic inside San Vitale

For tourists travelling to Ravenna, the Church of San Vitale is obviously a must-visit spot to behold the wonder of Byzantine art. It's home to a plethora of colourful mosaics depicting tall and thin figures of history, vivid landscapes and lively scenes.

Among these mosaics is one of the most famous images of political authority from the Middle Ages: the mosaic of Emperor Justinian. The artwork portrayed the emperor's religious and overall power in the Christian history plan.

The Ruin of Byzantine Era, Revival, and Contemporary Style

In almost 1000 years, the Byzantine era had undergone numerous influences from Islamic Carolingian Renaissance, Norman, and Gothic architecture and art. However, in Russia alone, the revival of Byzantine style occurred in the mid-1800s and continued until after World War II. This Neo-Byzantine period was highlighted by several painters, including Kazimir Malevich, Luigi Crosio, and Natalia Goncharova. The latter produced paintings with the touch of modern style, like The Four Evangelists in 1911.

"The Four Evangelists" painting by Natalia Goncharova | ourtravelpics.com

More contemporary artists continued to bring back the concept of Byzantine Art. From Andrew Gould, American-born architect who designed the Holy Ascension Orthodox Church and its iconography-plastered interior; to Jonathan Pageau, a Canadian sculptor who carves Eastern Orthodox icons and other traditional Christian images in wood and stone; and Fikos, a Greek artisan who produces Byzantine murals and icons in graffiti, street art, and comic book strips known as "Contemporary Byzantine Painting." One last thing for sure: though Byzantine era has fallen, its style is still cherished today.

Iconography in Holy Ascension Orthodox Church | Source: thechurchesoftheworld.com
The relief carving of Jonathan Pageau | Source: thewayofbeauty.org<span class="-mobiledoc-kit__atom">‌‌</span>
Mural for “Bubbledays Festival” by Fikos | Source: <a href="https://www.flickr.com/">flickr.com</a>

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Awal Hidayat