The Byzantine Empire served as the successor to the Roman Empire after centuries of concentrated rule in Western Europe. The shift of power to the east created a combination of Greek and Roman artwork with nascent Christian imagery. The stages of Byzantine-era art can be divided into three “golden ages” over the more than a thousand years of their rule – one under the emperor Justinian, the second after the shift away from iconoclasm in the ninth century, and the late age before the fall of Constantinople.
The most important and primary feature of the Byzantine Empire comes from its founding ruler, Constantine I, and his conversion to Christianity. After his victory and accession to the imperial throne, he enacted laws that legitimized Christianity in the Roman Empire. The epitome of this is apparent in his moving of the capital to Byzantium, a Greek city situated in modern-day Turkey. Renamed Constantinople, the renovation of the city shows the emperor’s endeavor to glorify Christianity that continued with his successors.
The first examples of that type of Christian artwork under Constantine can be found in the basilicas created in the 4th century. The mausoleum of Santa Costanza in Rome created for Constantine’s daughter Helena retains many instances of early Christian art in its walls and domes. Structurally it still has many remnants of classical art with columns and a sarcophagus made of red porphyry with reliefs of cupids and Roman soldiers. It is in the ambulatory vaults that include mosaics made from small pieces of marble – known as tesserae – that show a mix of Christian and pagan imagery, which serves as a great example of Constantine’s attitude towards the inclusion of the religion at the time. There is also a mosaic of Christ as the ruler of the world along with images of grape harvest—a sign attributed to the Greek god Bacchus – throughout the basilica.
The most famous architecture that exemplifies the achievement of the empire’s Christian dominance comes from the Church of Holy Wisdom or the Hagia Sophia as it more commonly is known. It was constructed under the reign of Justinian I and is dedicated to the Logos, or idea that Christ is the base of reason. At its center is a massive dome with forty windows that produces what some consider a mystical light that gives it an illusion of it being the ceiling of Heaven. The light also gives the walls, mosaics, and floors an otherworldly shine that reinforce the idea.
While the Hagia Sophia remains the pinnacle of Justinian’s artistic mark on the Byzantine Empire, there is more created under his rule that is of note and comprises the first golden age of Byzantine art. The prominent theme of Byzantine work during that time is that it was not only new but entirely Christian in theme. Many history books show when describing the Byzantine Empire one of the many mosaics of Justinian. An example of this is the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, where one of the walls has a mosaic of Justinian with his retinue. The symbolism is apparent in the mosaic – Justinian has a halo and is in a position that gives him a similarity to the images of Christ at the time. He also wears Christ’s imperial clothes in the painting, justifying him as a true Christian emperor – a necessity as at the moment Ravenna was under the control of the Goths. The empress Theodora also has her own portrait to signify the power both she and Justinian wielded. Justinian holds the bread in his portrait while she holds the cup of wine – the integral parts of the Eucharist.
It did not last by the seventh century, as political and economic crisis affected the eastern Roman Empire. The most important change came from the Arab invasions during the 630s that made the empire lose more than two-thirds of their territories in the east. This ended the first golden age of Byzantine art, as the collapse of power in the area. This, plus the effect of having a powerful religion like Islam at their front door, began questioning the state of religion throughout the empire.
The root of the debate between Christians of that time came about from the significance of icons. In particular, it was the idea of using portraits of saints found on frescoes and mosaics as the source of communication between the believer and the divine. This created a rift that brought about the iconoclasm movement that believed Christians should not use physical representations of God due to a fear of them worshipping the actual relics and art and not the underlying belief or person it represented.
There was a cultural and political basis for the idea – the Old Testament and Islamic belief of no visual representation of God for the former and the societal clashes between the poor and rich for the latter. From this came the destruction or disrepair of holy paintings and statues. An example of this is a painting of iconoclast John the Grammarian whitewashing an image of Christ. The decree made by Emperor Leo III banning the creation of any religious art effectively stopped the advancement of Byzantine art for more than a century.
It was after the backlash against iconoclasm in the mid-9th century that a flourishing for art returned in the empire, starting the second golden age of art. This was done under the rule of Basil I, whose Greek influence could be felt in the artwork of the time. Frescoes and mosaics returned to churches. One of the most famous, the Theotokos and Child, can be found in the Hagia Sophia. It is a mosaic found in an apse, a semi-dome common in church architecture, which depicts the Virgin Mary sitting on a backless throne holding the child Christ on her lap. On either side are the angels Michael and Gabriel. The mosaic has a golden-colored background. There is also a version of this painting in the Monastery of the Hodegoi which spread across the empire and beyond after the end of the iconoclasm.
The final age of Byzantine art started in the early 13th century. What made it different than the previous two was in the blending of Western styles with the existing Byzantine iconography. Fresco painting became more popular than mosaics, although mosaics were still made. A notable example is the apse fresco of Christ in the Church of Christ in Chora. Unlike previous single images of holy people, this depicts a scene, in this case, that of the Resurrection, that are parts of a cycle of events. Another interesting point of late Byzantine art was in the addition of art techniques like shading and giving the figures the image of having a physical body instead of the flat images of the past.
The quantity of the artistic works created during the long reign of the Byzantine Empire is unquestioned. This can be attributed to the empire’s role in the development of Christianity created under their rulers. While many forces, whether it was internal iconoclasts or Ottoman Turks reshaping churches to mosques, destroyed a good portion of the art, the iconography realized through the work made its way to Western Europe, mixing and enhancing art that would later become the base of early Renaissance art. Like other cultures before it, Byzantium continued on in the work to come.
Kleiner, Fred S. "Byzantium." Gardner's Art through the Ages: A Global History. 254 - 81. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning, 2012.