Christian Art (Byzantine Era)
Characteristics & History: Mosaics, Icons, Ivories, Architecture.

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Hagia Sophia, Istanbul (532-37)
The replacement for the sacked
Cathedral of Constantinople.
An awesome example of Christian
Byzantine architecture.

For details of art movements
and styles, see: History of Art.
For a quick guide to specific
styles, see: Art Movements.

Byzantine Christian Art (c.400-1200)


Art During the Decline of Rome
Rise of Christian Art
Church Art in Constantine's Eastern Empire
Mausoleum of Galla Placidia at Ravenna
Church of St Sophia (Constantinople); Church of San Vitale (Ravenna)
Use of Mosaics as a Form of Christian Architectural Art
Development of Mosaic Iconography
Effects of Christian Byzantine Mosaics (Ravenna)
Byzantine Icons
Christian Romanesque Art in Western Europe

NOTE: Byzantine art is almost entirely devoted to Christian art, and revolves around the church. It is dominated by mosaics and icons, for which it is world famous. In addition to icons - typically small panel paintings done in encaustic paint - Byzantine-era artists excelled at fresco mural painting, as well as the illustration of gospel texts and other devotional manuscripts.

Mosaics in San Vitale, Ravenna.

Art During the Decline of Rome

The break-up of the Western Roman Empire was accompanied by wars, invasions, and immense dislocations of the social stability of Europe. Under such conditions it was inevitable that the sense of security without which craftsmanship and skill cannot flourish, should be undermined, and with it the traditions on which the cultural languages of mankind are built. At such times not only the arts of painting and sculpture and architecture become chaotic but also language and literature. Men must have worked, eaten, built houses, written books, sung songs, carved statues, and painted images during those few centuries we call the Dark Ages (c.400-800), but it is difficult to picture them at it. There seems to be no centre of focus, no peg on which to hang our thoughts about those queer, flavourless centuries. Rome was dead as a cultural centre of gravity, and early Christian art was surviving only on the fringes of Europe - in Constantinople and Ireland.

The Forty Martyrs of Sebaste
10th century ivory relief panel.
Bode Museum, Berlin. Ivory was the
most common early Christian sculpture
in Constantinople.

For details of the best painters:
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Rise of Christian Art

The earliest examples of Christian art in the Roman catacombs are crude and timid, but for that very reason they, are not hampered by the weight of a strong stylistic tradition. Before Christianity could evolve an articulate artistic language of its own it was necessary that the pagan language of art, so carefully perfected by the Greeks, should disintegrate. And it was fortunate that at the very moment when the earliest Christian artists were groping for a means of expression, that disintegration was already in an advanced stage. The symbolic language (iconography) for which the Christian was searching would have been strangled by the descriptive language of pre-Christian art. (See also: Christian Roman Art [313 onwards].)

As long as Christianity had no official status it could produce no art of any permanence. In the Roman catacombs a few tentative experiments in evolving the new symbolism were made, but they are of little aesthetic interest. There was, however, one exception to the confusion that reigned over most of Europe. There was a patch that was comparatively peaceful and comparatively civilized round the eastern end of the Mediterranean. Syria, Asia Minor, and Egypt formed an area within which, given favourable circumstances, new types of art could develop. It needed the stimulus of a state-protected religion, and the consequent appearance of a set of state-approved churches to give such art a dwelling-place. It was at this moment that the pendulum that had swung steadily from Egypt to Crete, from Crete to Athens, and from Athens to Rome, stopped swinging and hung in the balance, waiting for the advent of a fresh impulse to reverse its movement.

Church Art in Constantine's Eastern Empire

If the impulse can be attributed to a single man, that man is the Emperor Constantine, who had the good sense to choose this moment (330 CE) to move eastwards into the area that still showed signs of civilization, and to transfer the seat of the Empire to Constantinople (Byzantium), and at the same time to adopt a protective and tolerant attitude towards Christianity. At last it was possible for Christian religious art to attach itself to something permanent - to the church wall. There it could find a home for itself more fitting than the art of Egypt had ever found in the tomb, or the art of Greece in the temple. The art of Egypt belonged to the tomb only in the sense that a bundle of share certificates belongs to a fire-proof safe; and Greek statues had belonged to the temple only in the sense that easel-pictures belong to a room. But early Christian art belongs to the church as the text of a book belongs to the paper on which it is printed. The Christian artist had an opportunity given to no other artist before him, the opportunity of creating a complete iconography of the visual side of religion, and not merely of illustrating it. It was an opportunity almost too big for any man to grasp, and at first it was done fumblingly. See, for instance, the Byzantine-influenced Garima Gospels (390-660) from Ethiopia's Abba Garima Monastery, the world's most ancient illuminated Christian manuscripts.

If it had been left to Rome to do it, it would have been badly done. All Rome could do was to apply worn-out pagan symbols to the new religion, to depict an Apollo or an Orpheus and label him Jesus, or to make Christ and his disciples look (as they do in the early mosaic of S. Pudenziana in Rome), rather like an informal meeting of the Roman Senate. (See also: Roman Art.) Fortunately the Oriental section of the Empire was much better fitted for the task. Even, before Christianity had been recognized, a mysticized version of paganism (known as Mithraism) had been developing in Egypt, Syria, and Asia Minor, and it was easy enough to adapt this mystical frame of mind to Christianity.


Mausoleum of Galla Placidia at Ravenna

It is difficult to fix a precise date at which the pendulum can be said to have begun to swing back. One of the earliest major works of Christian art is the mausoleum of Galla Placidia at Ravenna of the fourth century. Here, in a tiny brick building no bigger than a country cottage, the Roman idioms are used with a purely Oriental effect. The Saints look like Roman philosophers, the beardless Christ is nothing but a rustic shepherd sitting in rather vapid bucolic contentment among his sheep, and yet to enter the brick shell and to find oneself in an unearthly gloom encrusted with blue and silver and gold mosaics is to be taken at a leap right across the Greek peninsula into an atmosphere that only a semi-oriental vision could have conceived. This is the earliest successful attempt to serve up the old pagan wine in the new Christian bottle.

Church of St Sophia (Constantinople); Church of San Vitale (Ravenna)

The pendulum has begun to swing, but only just. A more spectacular impulse was given to it by the building of the great church of St Sophia in Constantinople by the Emperor Justinian and his pious wife Theodora. We are not here concerned with the church as a landmark in architectural construction, and the mosaics which cover its interior have only relatively recently been freed from the coat of whitewash with which Islam insisted on covering them after the Turkish occupation of Constantinople. But Justinian erected an equally significant though smaller example of sixth-century Byzantine art in the church of San Vitale in Ravenna. Here the new symbolism is beginning to gain the upper hand. The Roman idioms are still there but they have ceased to count for much. They are supplanted by a new orchestral use of colour. Colour, treated by the Egyptians and Greeks merely as a useful descriptive or decorative addition, is here used for full-blooded emotional ends.

What is significant about this building and its successors is that it was regarded, architecturally, as a set of interior wall-spaces. It was built from the inside outwards. It had no significance whatever until one entered it. If the typical Greek temple was an object of deliberate self-contained beauty, to be looked at from the outside - a building of self-conscious perfection which a little added sculpture would certainly improve, but which could easily survive the absence of it - then the church of San Vitale is a blank brick book whose pages are meaningless until they have been lined with mosaic.

Use of Mosaics as a Form of Christian Architectural Art

The Christian artist was being given his opportunity with a vengeance. The new attitude to mosaic is of the utmost significance. Mosaic art was not an unknown medium before the Byzantine era, but it had been thought of by the Greeks and Romans as a means of decorating a surface unsuitable for paint - a floor where paint would have been worn away, or the inside of a fountain, where paint would have been washed off. But now it became not only a structural part of the wall, but the raison d'etre for the wall. Conceived, in a sense, as a new form of Biblical art, the wall was built for the sole purpose of holding the mosaic, and windows were pierced in the wall for the sole purpose of illuminating it. See in particular: Ravenna Mosaics (c.400-600).

Mosaic, unlike paint, is a rigid, inflexible medium; it imposes a fierce discipline on the artist who uses it. The Romans, who used it in places where paint was unsuitable, tried to make it express painterly ideas, and the early Christian artists of the West (see the upper panels of Sant' Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna and in St Maria Maggiore in Rome) continued so to use it. Even in San Vitale, where the general effect is remote and unearthly, the two famous groups of Justinian and his ecclesiastical attendants and soldiers on one side and of Theodora with her handmaidens on the other, are relics of a Roman view of life in which the Emperor's image could find an appropriate home on the walls of the church, and the earth was as worthy of the artist's attention as the heavens. But as the Byzantine pendulum continued to swing, and as the influence of the Eastern group of artists spread, mosaic began to be used as it should be used, as the perfect vehicle for visual symbolism on a large scale.
William Morris once said mosaic was like beer in that it was no good unless you had a lot of it. In the churches of Parenzo on the Adriatic opposite to Ravenna (sixth century), of Sant' Agnese in Rome (seventh century), Santa Prassede in Rome (ninth century), at Daphni, near Athens (eleventh century), at Cefalu, in the Capella Palatina and in the Cathedral of Monreale in Sicily (twelfth century), in St Mark's, Venice (mainly thirteenth and fourteenth centuries), to pick out a handful of typical examples from a host of others, what counts for as much as the quality of the design and the richness of the colour is the sheer profusion of the mosaic. It is overpowering through its cumulative effect. Some of it is not particularly interesting in detail, but almost always it is impressive in its general planning, in the placing of its climaxes and in its genius for being glowing and remote at the same time.

Development of Mosaic Iconography

In the Byzantine case the necessary schematization was imposed on the artist from above, so that he became the illustrator of a series of incidents for the benefit of an illiterate people. His iconography evolved in stages, exemplified by the following works: (1) the upper portions of the sides of the apse of San Vitale (6th century), where a beardless Moses standing on an impossibly symbolic mountain watches the hand of God emerge from impossibly romantic clouds; (2) the wall above the apse of Santa Prassede, Rome (9th century), where the twenty-four elders stand in a pattern as formal, and as violently distorted, from the point of view of visual truth, as anything Picasso has ever dared to attempt with the human figure; (3) the mosaics in the domes of the Narthex of St Mark's, Venice (13th century), in which the story of Genesis is told in concentric circles, each divided into square compartments like a modern comic strip. The first is a half-hearted attempt to depict an actual scene by a man who is not interested in actuality, but cannot think how to dispense with it; the second is pure symbolism without a thought for actuality; the third is an attempt to use symbolism for the purposes of narrative by a man who has been out of touch with actuality for seven centuries, but whose employers are beginning to demand it once more.


During the whole of this period no name emerges, no mosaicist of genius to whom one can point as having produced the perfect flower of Byzantine art. It is an anonymous art. Even more than in Egypt is the artist submerged in his task and even more than in Egypt is he compelled to work within a set of established formulas. He is serving a cause, not exploiting his personality. For this very reason it is not easy to write the history of Byzantine art. To do so is like trying to make a map of a wide landscape with a distinctive character of its own but without milestones or landmarks. Its course is marked by none of those discoveries that the typical European artist always tries to make and which the art historian delights to record. It is as little capable of being translated into words as a melody; and, worse still, it almost refuses to be translated into reproduction. A photograph of an Egyptian statue gives one a fairly accurate sense of the original, a photograph of a fresco by Giotto or a painting by Velazquez supplies more information about the originals, than pages of laboured description. But a photograph of the interior of the church at Cefalu bears as little relation to the church itself as a Walt Disney drawing of Donald Duck does to a Donald Duck cartoon. Similarly, a photograph of a Byzantine mosaic may illustrate the boldness of Byzantine formalism, but it fails to convey Byzantine impressiveness. Add to this the unfortunate fact that Byzantine mosaics are not portable, and it becomes plain that to write an adequate account of this - by far the most important - aspect of Byzantine art is almost impossible. And yet, the whole corpus of Byzantine mosaic from the sixth to the twelfth century is one of the most deeply moving of all manifestations of the human spirit.

Effects of Christian Byzantine Mosaics

Replicas of portions of the Ravenna mosaics have been exhibited throughout Europe. They are as faithful in detail as a replica needs to be, and even detached from their architectural context their effect is remarkable. As samples they leave nothing to be desired, yet a considerable imaginative effort is needed if they are to have the same emotional effect as their originals. The Oriental colour orchestration and the encrusted surfaces that catch and reflect the light like jewels, survive: but the cumulative power, the great visual crescendos that depend for their effect on sudden changes of scale and the relationship of flat wall to curved semi-dome, are inevitably lost.

What they illustrate quite clearly, even to those who have never seen them in situ, is that here is the only instance of a style in which Eastern and Western elements meet and are fused. Art historians have been at considerable pains to analyse the various ingredients - Greek, Roman, Syrian, Semitic, even Mesopotamian - which have been fused together in different proportions in the best of Byzantine art. But, as always, analysis of this kind is only valuable historically. What makes Byzantine medieval art unique is that it achieved the full expression of a mystical Christianity in terms of oriental opulence. In theory, the asceticism of the former should have been contradicted and nullified by the sensuousness of the latter. In practice the two opposing elements reinforce and intensify each other. The perfection of formal physical beauty that had been the Greek achievement has been abandoned in favour of the formless, timeless, Christian conception of a religion in which perfection was, by definition, unattainable. The artist, tethered for so long to the material world, finds himself free to exploit an entirely different world of form. Yet because that very freedom from the old mimetic duties might create confusion and chaos, the mimetic discipline is replaced by an equally strict iconographical discipline.

Perhaps the nearest counterpart today to this strange mingling of the spiritual and the sensuous is to be found in Christian Catholic ritual, where both mystery and miracle are expressed in terms that could hardly be more formal, so rigid and prescribed is their pattern, and yet the symbolic ingredients - the vessels of gold, silver, and the embroidered vestments - could hardly be more materially precious or gorgeous.

Students can study elsewhere the strict iconographical rules laid down for the creation of Byzantine mosaic art and fresco painting, and the purely technical processes involved in the manufacture and the handling of the medium - how tesserae of glass and marble were fixed into their bed of mastic, and how gold-leaf was fused between an upper and a lower layer of transparent glass. The whole of the later Byzantine era was characterized by a respect for tradition in both iconography and craftsmanship. The level of craftsmanship in ivory carving (see, for instance, the Throne of Maximianus, bishop of Ravenna, 556), or low relief sculpture, metal-work and jewellery, as well as miniature painting, frescoes and icons, was remarkably high.


The influence of Byzantine mannerisms was widespread in the East. All over the Balkans, especially in the area that was once Serbia, provincial schools of fresco wall painting took root, but the form of medieval painting that specially concerns us here is icon painting which developed so surprisingly late and continued for so long in Russia. When Constantinople passed into Mohammedan keeping it was Russia which became heir to the Byzantine view of life, and the forms which for centuries had ceased to mean anything in Europe became the central Russian tradition. Again, it is an anonymous art, and though provincial schools of icon painters developed slightly different ways of treating the given themes, almost the only famous names among the painters of icons are those of Andrei Rublev (c.1365-1430), a monk of the Spas Andronievski Monastery in Moscow - noted for the Holy Trinity Icon (1411-25) - and Dionysius (c.1440-1502). The famous Madonna of Don Icon (c.1380, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow) by Theophanes the Greek (c.1340-1410) shows how simple and intense in feeling the icon could be at its best, and though as far as design is concerned the whole school seems to have developed out of itself (it is the only example of art based on art that did not immediately perish for lack of outside stimulus), the harmonization and distribution of colour in the best of the icons are among the most adventurous and subtle experiments in the history of painting.

NOTE: For more about early Christian icon painting in Russia, see:
- Russian Medieval Painting (c.950-1100)
- Novgorod School of Icon Painting (1100-1500)

Christian Romanesque Art in Western Europe

So much for the eastern half of Europe. Meanwhile the continued social and political chaos in the western half made it impossible for a parallel set of traditions to evolve until much later. Again, the development of a western European art was dependent on the building of churches. In the East there was no break in output between the final collapse of Rome and the rise of Constantinople, but in the West there occurred a real hiatus filled only by the carving of a few stone crosses in Northumberland and on the Scottish border, or by a few gospel manuscripts from Ireland or from Central Europe. One has to wait for the advent of Romanesque architecture before the representational arts can find a new point d'appui.

NOTE: Goldsmithing and precious metalwork were a Russian Byzantine speciality, as practiced in Kiev (c.950-1237), where both cloisonné and niello enamelling were highly developed by Byzantine craftsmen.

Christmas Day, 800, when Charlemagne attended Mass in St Peter's at Rome and was crowned by the Pope as head of the Holy Roman Empire, was a significant day. Not that anything resembling unity in Western Europe was accomplished by the symbolic event, but after the year 800 there was at least a potential rallying force for Western European culture as soon as it was ready to emerge. Charlemagne himself was an unashamed eclectic who could think of nothing better to do for art than to produce a stone church in Aix-la-Chapelle based on San Vitale in Ravenna, to hire Byzantine mosaicists to fill it with decorations which have long since disappeared, and to base his ornamental motifs on Irish illuminated manuscripts. It was not till the beginning of the eleventh century, two hundred years after the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire, that Romanesque architecture had evolved its own language.

It was a language of stone - a three-dimensional language, whereas Byzantine was on the whole a language of brick, coated with two-dimensional decoration. Like Byzantine art, the main body of it is applied art. It belongs to the building and cannot be divorced from it. But being conceived of stone it consists largely of stone sculpture. Generally speaking, the nearer it approaches to the East the more apt it is to emphasize surface and take the form of low relief; the further West it penetrates, the solider and more fully rounded it becomes. But whether it is in low relief and consequently conceived as line, or statues in the round and therefore conceived as mass, it is essentially an art in which form counts rather than colour. This, of course, is roughly true of all European as opposed to Oriental art, but the history of Romanesque art and its development into Gothic art (there seems to be no real reason to separate the two: they are phases of the same movement) is essentially the history of an art whose main concern was with shape.

What is more noteworthy still is that it is an art with no centre of radiation, no main stream traceable to a definite source such as Nineveh or Knossus or Athens had been. In medieval Europe national boundaries were so fluid and national consciousness was so weak that cultural movements found no difficulty in flowing freely across them. (see also: Medieval Christian Artworks and Medieval Artists.) Consequently one can find fully-developed expressions of the Romanesque and Gothic spirit in almost any corner of Western Europe at any moment. The facades of the Church of St Trophime at Arles in Provence, of the Cathedral of Chartres in north-western France, of the Cathedral of Santiago in Spain, of the Church of San Zeno in Verona are all variations on the same theme. Romanesque and Gothic art are dependent on the vast organization of the Catholic Church and not on the inspiration of a geographical centre as Florence was to be later and as Paris was until the spring of 1940.

As in Byzantine art, the output is enormous but anonymous. And, as in Byzantine art, what we have to examine is a slowly changing mood rather than a succession of independent masterpieces. What characterizes the whole Romanesque movement is a perfect coordination between the carving and its architectural setting. The spacing of the statues on the facade of St Trophime, the richness of their surface contrasted with the smooth stone wall above them, the manner in which they alternate rhythmically with the supporting columns of the overhanging porch, the distribution of the shadows, the controlled freedom of line give the eye a thrill of satisfaction. There is nothing profound in this medieval sculpture, but it invented a set of rhythms and textures which make archaic Greek sculpture look pedestrian by comparison. In no other period can one find such masses of carving, affectionate, and meticulous in detail, yet held together by a breadth of design that includes the whole carved area and enables the eye to take it in at a single glance.

Works reflecting the style of Christian art (Byzantine era) can be seen in some of the most beautiful Eastern European churches and best art museums in the world.


The impact of the Byzantine style on later developments in European art was profound. See for instance the Nerezi fresco murals at the small Byzantine monastery Church of St. Panteleimon in Gorno Nerezi, Republic of Macedonia (1164), a beautifully sensitive and realistic series of wall paintings in the style of Comnenian Age Byzantine art. For more, see: Pre-Renaissance Painting (c.1300-1400), which was founded largely by (on the one hand) Giotto and the Florentine tradition, and (on the other) by Duccio di Buoninsegna (1255-1319) of the Sienese School of painting.

• For the meaning of important oils, frescoes and tempera pictures, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.
• For information about painting and sculpture, see: Homepage.

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