Byzantine Art
History, Characteristics: Christian Mosaics, Icons of Constantinople.

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The magnificent soaring domes
of the interior of the Hagia Sophia
in Istanbul (Constantinople).
Islamic elements are visible
on the top of the main dome.

Centres of Byzantine-style
early Christian art were
Ravenna, Kiev, Novgorod
and Moscow. Please see:
Christian Byzantine Art.

The Collapse of Rome and the Rise of
Byzantine Art (c.500-1450)


What is Byzantine Art?
General Characteristics
Byzantine Mosaics (c.500-843)
Byzantine Art: Revival and Development (843-1450)
Byzantine Icons

What is Byzantine Art?

Between Emperor Constantine I's Edict in 313, recognizing Christianity as the official religion, and the fall of Rome at the hands of the Visigoths in 476, arrangements were made to divide the the Roman Empire into a Western half (ruled from Rome) and an Eastern half (ruled from Byzantium). Thus, while Western Christendom fell into the cultural abyss of the barbarian Dark Ages, its religious, secular and artistic values were maintained by its new Eastern capital in Byzantium (later renamed Constantinople after Constantine). Along with the transfer of Imperial authority to Byzantium went thousands of Roman and Greek painters and craftsmen, who proceeded to create a new set of Eastern Christian images and icons, known as Byzantine Art. Exclusively concerned with Christian art, though derived (in particular) from techniques and forms of Greek and Egyptian art, this style spread to all corners of the Byzantine empire, where Orthodox Christianity flourished. Particular centres of early Christian art included Ravenna in Italy, and Kiev, Novgorod and Moscow in Russia. For more detail, see also: Christian Art, Byzantine Period.

Barberini Diptych (c.500-550)
Louvre Museum, Paris. A Byzantine
masterpiece of ivory carving. Ivory
reliefs were the main form of
early Christian sculpture in

Medieval Byzantine mosaics in
St Mark's Basilica, Venice.

For chronology and dates
see: History of Art Timeline.

General Characteristics

The style that characterized Byzantine art was almost entirely concerned with religious expression; specifically with the translation of church theology into artistic terms. Byzantine Architecture and painting (little sculpture was produced during the Byzantine era) remained uniform and anonymous and developed within a rigid tradition. The result was a sophistication of style rarely equalled in Western art.

Byzantine medieval art began with mosaics decorating the walls and domes of churches, as well fresco wall-paintings. So beautiful was the effect of these mosaics that the form was taken up in Italy, especially in Rome and Ravenna. A less public art form in Constantinople, was the icon (from the Greek word 'eikon' meaning 'image') - the holy image panel-paintings which were developed in the monasteries of the eastern church, using encaustic wax paint on portable wooden panels. [See: Icons and Icon Painting.] The greatest collection of this type of early Biblical art is in the monastery of St Catherine in Sinai, founded in the 6th century by the Emperor Justinian. And see also, the Byzantine-influenced Garima Gospels (390-660) - world's most ancient illuminated gospel manuscript - from Ethiopia.

For details of arts under
Charlemagne and the Ottos,
see: Carolingian Art (750-900)
and Ottonian Art (900-1050)

Romanesque Art (1000-1200)
For Italian-Byzantine styles, see:
Romanesque Painting in Italy.
For more abstract, linear styles, see:
Romanesque Painting in France.
For signs of Islamic influence, see:
Romanesque Painting in Spain.

During the period 1050-1200, tensions grew up between the Eastern Roman Empire and the slowly re-emerging city of Rome, whose Popes had managed (by careful diplomatic manoeuvering) to retain their authority as the centre of Western Christendom. At the same time, Italian city states like Venice were becoming rich on international trade. As a result, in 1204, Constantinople fell under the influence of Venetians.

This duly led to a cultural exodus of renowned artists from the city back to Rome - the reverse of what had happened 800 years previously - and the beginnings of the proto-Renaissance period, exemplified by Giotto di Bondone's Scrovegni Chapel frescoes. However, even as it declined, Byzantine influence continued to make itself felt in the 13th and 14th centuries, notably in the Sienese School of painting and the International Gothic style (1375-1450), notably in International Gothic illuminations, like the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, by the Limbourg Brothers. See also Byzantine-inspired panel-paintings and altarpieces including Duccio's Stroganoff Madonna (1300) and Maesta Altarpiece (1311).

NOTE: For other important historical periods similar to the Byzantine era, see Art Movements, Periods, Schools (from about 100 BCE).



Byzantine Mosaics (c.500-843)

Using early Christian adaptations of late Roman styles, the Byzantines developed a new visual language, expressing the ritual and dogma of the united Church and state. Early on variants flourished in Alexandria and Antioch, but increasingly the imperial bureaucracy undertook the major commissions, and artists were sent out to the regions requiring them, from the metropolis. Established in Constantinople, the Byzantine style eventually spread far beyond the capital, round the Mediterranean to southern Italy, up through the Balkans and into Russia.

Rome, occupied by the Visigoths in 410, was sacked again by the Vandals in 455, and by the end of the century Theodoric the Great had imposed the rule of the Ostrogoths on Italy. However, in the sixth century the Emperor Justinian (reigned 527-65) re-established imperial order from Constantinople, taking over the Ostrogothic capital, Ravenna (Italy), as his western administrative centre. Justinian was a superb organizer, and one of the most remarkable patrons in the history of art. He built and re-built on a huge scale throughout the Empire: his greatest work, the church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, employed nearly 10,000 craftsmen and labourers and was decorated with the richest materials the Empire could provide. Though it still stands gloriously, hardly any of its earliest mosaics remain, thus it is at Ravenna that the most spectacular remnants of Byzantine art in the sixth century survive. See: Ravenna Mosaics (c.400-600).

Within the dry brick exterior of S. Vitale in Ravenna, the worshipper is dazzled by a highly controlled explosion of colour blazoned across glittering gold. Mosaic art and beautifully grained marble cover almost all wall surfaces, virtually obliterating the architecture that bears them. The gold, flooding the background, suggests an infinity taken out of mortal time, on which the supernatural images float. In the apse, wrapped in their own remote mystery, Christ and saints preside unimpassioned. Nevertheless, in two flanking panels of mosaic, one showing the Emperor Justinian with his retinue and the other, opposite, his wife Theodora with her ladies, there persists a clear attempt at naturalistic portraiture, especially in the faces of Justinian and Theodora. Even so, their bodies seem to float rather than stand within the tubular folds of their draperies.

In S. Vitale, and in Byzantine art generally, sculpture in the round plays a minimal part. However, the marble capitals (dating from the pre-Justinian's era) are carved with surprising delicacy, with purely oriental, highly stylized vine-scrolls and inscrutable animals. A rare example of Byzantine figurative sculpture is an impressiye head, perhaps that of Theodora, in which the Roman tradition of naturalistic portrait art lingers.

To the East, Justinian's most important surviving work is in the church, (slightly later than S. Vitale), of St Catherine's Monastery on Mount Sinai. There, in the great Transfiguration in the apse, the figures are again substantial presences, suspended weightlessly in a golden empyrean. The contours, however, are freer, less rigid, than at S. Vitale, and the limbs of the figures are strangely articulated - almost an assemblage of component parts. This was to become a characteristic and persistent trait in the Byzantine style.

Elsewhere (notably at Thessaloniki) there were other vocal variations of style in mosaic. Relatively little remains in the cheaper form of fresco, and still less in manuscript illumination. A very few 6th century illuminated manuscripts, on a purple-tinted vellum, show a comparable development from classical conventions towards an austere formality, though pen and ink tend to produce greater freedom in structure and gesture. In the famous Rabula Gospel of 586 from Syria, the glowing intensity of the dense imagery may even bring to mind the work of Rouault in the twentieth century. Ivory panels carved in relief have also survived, usually covers for consular diptychs. This type of diptych consisted of two ivory plaques, tied together, with records of the departing consul's office listed on their inner surfaces. The carvings on the outside, representing religious or imperial themes, have the clarity and detachment characteristic of the finest mosaics, and are splendidly assured.

In the 8th and 9th centuries the development of the Byzantine style was catastrophically interrupted in all media. Art was not merely stopped in its tracks: there was a thorough, wide-ranging destruction of existing images throughout the Byzantine regions. Figurative art had long been attacked on the grounds that the Bible condemned the worship of images; in about 725 the iconoclasts (those who would have religious images destroyed) won the day against the iconodules (those who believed they were justified) with the promulgation of the first of a number of imperial edicts against images. Complicated arguments raged over the issue, but iconoclasm was also an assertion of imperial authority over a Church thought to have grown too rich and too powerful. It was surely owing to the Church that some tradition of art did persist, to flower again when the ban was lifted in 843.


Byzantine Art: Revival and Development (843-1450)

The halt to iconoclasm - the destructive campaign against images and those who believed in them - came in 843. The revival of religious art that followed was based on clearly formulated principles: images were accepted as valuable not for worship, but as channels through which the faithful could direct their prayer and somehow anchor the presence of divinity within their daily lives. Unlike in the later western Gothic revival, Byzantine art rarely had a didactic or narrative function, but was essentially impersonal, ceremonial and symbolic: it was an element in the performance of religious ritual. The disposition of images in churches was codified, rather as the liturgy was, and generally adhered to a set iconography: the great mosaic cycles were deployed about the Pantocrator (Christ in his role as ruler and judge) central in the main dome, and the Virgin and Child in the apse. Below, the main events of the Christian year - from Annunciation to Crucifixion and Resurrection - had their appointed places. Below again, hieratic figures of saints, martyrs and bishops were ranked in order.

The end of iconoclasm opened an era of great activity, the so-called Macedonian Renaissance. It lasted from 867, when Basil I, founder of the Macedonian dynasty, became absolute ruler of what was now a purely Greek monarchy, almost until 1204, when Constantinople was disastrously sacked. Churches were redecorated throughout the Empire, and especially its capital: in Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, mosaics enormous in scale took up the old themes and stances, sometimes with great delicacy and refinement.

Despite the steady erosion of its territory, Byzantium was seen by Europe as the light of civilization, an almost legendary city of gold. Literature, scholarship and an elaborate etiquette surrounded the Macedonian court; the 10th century Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitos sculpted and himself illuminated the manuscripts he wrote. Though his power continued to diminish, the Emperor had enormous prestige, and the Byzantine style proved irresistible to the rest of Europe. Even in regimes politically and militarily hostile to Constantinople, Byzantine art was adopted and its medieval artists welcomed.

In Greece, the Church of the Dormition at Daphni, near Athens, of about 1100, presents some of the finest mosaics of this period: there is a grave, classic sense of great delicacy in its Crucifixion, while the dome mosaic of The Pantocrator is one of the most formidable in any Byzantine church. In Venice, the huge expanses of S. Marco (begun 1063) were decorated by artists imported from the East, but their work was largely destroyed by fire in 1106, and later work by Venetian craftsmen is in a less pure style. In the cathedral on the nearby island of Torcello, however, The Virgin and Child, tall, lonely, and solitary as a spire against the vast gold space of the apse, is a 12th century survival. In Sicily, the first Norman king, Roger II (ruled 1130-54), was actively hostile to the Byzantine Empire yet he imported Greek artists, who created one of the finest mosaic cycles ever, in the apse and presbytery at Cefalu. The permeation of Byzantine art into Russia was initiated in 989 by the marriage of Vladimir of Kiev with the Byzantine princess Anna and his conversion to Eastern Christianity. Byzantine mosaicists were working in the Hagia Sophia at Kiev by the 1040s, and the Byzantine impact on Russian medieval painting remained crucial long after the fall of Constantinople.

NOTE: Goldsmithing and precious metalwork were another Byzantine speciality, notably in Kiev (c.950-1237), where both cloisonné and niello styles of enamelling were taken to new heights by Eastern Orthodox goldsmiths.

The secular paintings and mosaics of the Macedonian revival have rarely survived - their most spectacular manifestation was lost in the burning of the legendary Great Palace in Constantinople during the Sack of 1204. Such works retained much more clearly classical features - the ivory panels of the Veroli casket are an example - but such features are to be found, too, in religious manuscripts and in some ivory reliefs (sculpture in the round was forbidden as a concession to the iconoclasts). The Joshua Roll, though it celebrates the military prowess of an Old Testament hero, reflects the pattern of Roman narrative columns of relief sculpture such as Trajan's Column in Rome; the famous Paris Psalter of about 950 is remarkably Roman both in feeling and iconography: in one illustration the young David as a musical shepherd is virtually indistinguishable from a pagan Orpheus, and is even attended by an allegorical nymph called Melody.

Note: The importance of Byzantine murals on the development of Western medieval painting should also not be under-estimated. See, for instance, the highly realistic wall paintings in the Byzantine monastery Church of St. Panteleimon in Gorno Nerezi, Republic of Macedonia.

In 1204, the city of Constantinople was sacked by Latin Crusaders, and Latins ruled the city until 1261, when the Byzantine emperors returned. In the interim, craftsmen migrated elsewhere. In Macedonia and Serbia, fresco painting was already established, and the tradition continued steadily. Some 15 major fresco cycles survive, mostly by Greek artists. The fresco medium doubtless encouraged a fluency of expression and an emotional feeling not often apparent in mosaic.

The final two centuries of Byzantium in its decay were troubled and torn with war, but surprisingly produced a third great artistic flowering. The fragmentary but still imposing Deesis in Hagia Sophia in Constantinople may have been constructed after the Latin domination, rather than during the 12th century. It has a new tenderness and humanity which was continued - for instance in the superb early 14th century cycle of the monastic church of Christ in Chora. In Russia, a distinctive style developed, reflected not only in masterpieces such as the icons of Rublev, but also in the individual interpretations of traditional themes by Theophanes the Greek, a Byzantine emigrant, working in a dashing, almost Impressionistic style in the 1370s in Novgorod. Though the central source of the Byzantine style was extinguished with the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453, its influence continued in Russia and the Balkans, while in Italy the Byzantine strain (mingling with Gothic) persisted in the era of Pre-Renaissance Painting (c.1300-1400) ushered in by the works of Duccio di Buoninsegna (c.1255-1319) and Giotto (1270-1337).


Byzantine Icons

Icons (or ikons), generally small and so easily transportable, are the best-known form of Byzantine art. A tradition persists that the first icon was painted by St Luke the Evangelist, showing the Virgin pointing to the Child on her left arm. However, no examples that date from before the 6th century are known. Icons became increasingly popular in Byzantium in the 6th and 7th centuries, to some degree precipitating the reaction of iconoclasm. Although the iconoclasts asserted that icons were being worshipped, their proper function was as an aid to meditation; through the visible image the believer could apprehend the invisible spirituality. Condensed into a small compass, they fulfilled and fulfil the same function in the home as the mosaic decorations of the churches - signalling the presence of divinity. The production of icons for the Orthodox Churches has never ceased.

The dating of icons is thus fairly speculative. The discovery at St Catherine's monastery on Mt Sinai of a number of icons that could be ordered chronologically with some certainty is recent. Many different styles are represented. An early St Peter has the frontal simplicity, the direct gaze from large wide-open eyes, that is found again and again in single-figure icons. It also has an almost suave elegance and dignity, allied with a painterly vigour that imparts a distinct tension to the figure. There is a similar emotional quality in a well-preserved Madonna and Saints, despite its unblinking symmetry and rather coarser modelling. Both surely came from Constantinople.

Immediately after the iconoclastic period, devotional images in richer materials, in ivory, mosaic or even precious metals, may have been more popular than painted ones. From the twelfth century painted icons became more frequent, and one great masterpiece can be dated to 1131 or shortly before. Known as "The Virgin of Vladimir", it was sent to Russia soon after it had been painted in Constantinople. The Virgin still indicates the Child, as the embodiment of the divine in human form, but the tenderness of the pose, cheek against cheek, is illustrative of the new humanism.

From the 12th century the subject matter of icons expanded considerably, though the long-established themes and formulae, important for the comfort of the faithful, were maintained. Heads of Christ, Virgins and patron saints continued, but scenes of action appeared - notably Annunciations and Crucifixions; later, for iconostases, or choir-screens, composite panels containing many narrative scenes were painted. Long after it had ceased in Constantinople with the Turkish conquest, production continued and developed in Greece and (with clearly discernible regional styles) in Russia, and in Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria. In Russia, individual masters emerged even before the fall of Constantinople, along with important centres such as the Novgorod school of icon painting. The most famous Russian iconographer was the monk Andrei Rublev (c.1370-1430), whose renowned masterpiece, The Holy Trinity Icon (1411-25), is the finest of all Russian icons. He transcended the Byzantine formulae, and the mannerisms of the Novgorod school founded by the Byzantine refugee Theophanes the Greek. Rublev's icons are unique for their cool colours, soft shapes and quiet radiance. The last of the great Russian icon painters of the Novgorod school, was Dionysius (c.1440-1502), noted for his icons for the Volokolamsky monastery, and his Deesis for the Cathedral of the Dormition in Moscow. He was in fact the first celebrated figure in the Moscow school of painting (c.1500-1700), whose Byzantine-inspired icons were produced by the likes of Nicephorus Savin, Procopius Chirin and the great Simon Ushakov (1626-1686).

Source: We gratefully acknowledge the use of material in the above article from David Piper's outstanding book "The Illustrated History of Art".

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