By the end of this chapter, you will be able to:
- Explain the origins and development of early Christian art.
- Characterize the early development of Byzantine art and architecture in the Eastern Roman Empire.
By 476, the Roman Empire had vanished from Western Europe; by 655, the Persian Empire had vanished from the Near East. It is only too easy to write about the Late Antique world as if it were merely a melancholy tale of ‘Decline and Fall’: of the end of the Roman Empire as viewed from the West; of the Persian, Sasanian Empire, as viewed from Iran. On the other hand, we are increasingly aware of the astounding new beginnings associated with the period: we go to it to discover why Europe became Christian and why the near east became Muslim…
Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity: AD 150-750. (New York: Norton, 1989), 7.
The Byzantine Empire
In 313, the Roman Empire legalized Christianity, beginning a process that would eventually dismantle its centuries-old pagan tradition. Not long after, emperor Constantine transferred the empire’s capital from Rome to the ancient Greek city of Byzantion (modern Istanbul). Constantine renamed the new capital city “Constantinople” (“the city of Constantine”) after himself and dedicated it in the year 330. With these events, the Byzantine Empire was born—or was it?
The history of Byzantium is remarkably long. If we reckon the history of the Eastern Roman Empire from the dedication of Constantinople in 330 until its fall to the Ottomans in 1453, the empire endured for some 1,123 years.
Scholars typically divide Byzantine history into three major periods: Early Byzantium, Middle Byzantium, and Late Byzantium. But it is important to note that these historical designations are the invention of modern scholars rather than the Byzantines themselves. Nevertheless, these periods can be helpful for marking significant events, contextualizing art and architecture, and understanding larger cultural trends in Byzantium’s history.
Generally speaking, Byzantine art differs from the art of the Romans in that it is interested in depicting that which we cannot see—the intangible world of Heaven and the spiritual. Thus, the Greco-Roman interest in depth and naturalism is replaced by an interest in flatness and mystery. Surviving Byzantine art is mostly religious and, for the most part, highly conventionalized, following traditional models that translate their carefully controlled church theology into artistic terms. Painting in frescoes, mosaics, and illuminated manuscripts, and on wood panels were the main, two-dimensional media. Figurative sculpture was very rare except for small, carved ivories.
Early Byzantine architecture drew upon the earlier elements of Roman architecture. After the fall of the Western Empire, several churches were built as centrally planned structures. However, stylistic drift, technological advancement, and political and territorial changes gradually resulted in the Greek-cross plan in church architecture. Buildings increased in geometric complexity. Brick and plaster were used in addition to stone for the decoration of important public structures. Classical orders were used more freely. Mosaics replaced carved decoration. Complex domes rested upon massive piers, and windows filtered light through thin sheets of alabaster to softly illuminate interiors.
One of the early Christian churches were built during this period included the famed Hagia Sophia, or Church of Holy Wisdom, built by Isidorus of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles in the sixth century under Emperor Justinian. Like most Byzantine churches of this time, the Hagia Sophia is centrally planned, with the dome serving as its focal point.
The vast interior has a complex structure. The nave is covered by a central dome that at its maximum is over 180 feet from floor level and rests on an arcade of 40 arched windows. Although the dome appears circular at first glance, repairs to its structure have left it somewhat elliptical, with its diameter varying between 101 and nearly 103 feet.
The dome of Hagia Sophia has spurred particular interest for many art historians, architects, and engineers because of the innovative way the original architects envisioned it. The cupola is carried on four, spherical, triangular pendentives, an element that was first fully realized in this building.
The pendentives implement the transition from the circular base of the dome to the rectangular base below to restrain the lateral forces of the dome and allow its weight to flow downwards. They were later reinforced with buttresses.
At the western entrance side and the eastern liturgical side are arched openings that are extended by half domes of identical diameter to the central dome and carried on smaller semi-domed exedras. A hierarchy of dome-headed elements creates a vast, oblong interior crowned by the central dome, with a span of 250 feet.
The Imperial Gate, reserved only for the emperor, was the main entrance of the cathedral. A long ramp from the northern part of the outer narthex leads up to the upper gallery, which was traditionally reserved for the empress and her entourage. It is laid out in a horseshoe shape that encloses the nave until it reaches the apse.
One of the most important surviving examples of Byzantine architecture and mosaic work is San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy . It was begun in 526 or 527 under Ostrogothic rule. It was consecrated in 547 and completed soon after.
One of the most famous images of political authority from the Early Byzantine period is the mosaic of the Emperor Justinian and his court in the sanctuary of the church of San Vitale. This image is an integral part of a much larger mosaic program in the chancel. A major theme of this mosaic program is the authority of the emperor in the Christian plan of history.
The mosaic program can also be seen to give visual testament to the two major ambitions of Justinian’s reign: as heir to the tradition of Roman Emperors, Justinian sought to restore the territorial boundaries of the Empire. As the Christian Emperor, he saw himself as the defender of the faith. As such it was his duty to establish religious uniformity or Orthodoxy throughout the Empire.
In the mosaic Justinian is posed frontally in the center. He is haloed and wears a crown and a purple imperial robe. He is flanked by members of the clergy on his left with the most prominent figure the Bishop Maximianus of Ravenna being labelled with an inscription. To Justinian’s right appear members of the imperial administration identified by the purple stripe, and at the very far left side of the mosaic appears a group of soldiers.
This mosaic thus establishes the central position of the Emperor between the power of the church and the power of the imperial administration and military. Like the Roman Emperors of the past, Justinian has religious, administrative, and military authority.
The clergy and Justinian carry in sequence from right to left a censer, the gospel book, the cross, and the bowl for the bread of the Eucharist. This identifies the mosaic as the so-called Little Entrance which marks the beginning of the Byzantine liturgy of the Eucharist. Justinian’s gesture of carrying the bowl with the bread of the Eucharist can be seen as an act of homage to the True King who appears in the adjacent apse mosaic. Justinian is thus Christ’s vice-regent on earth, and his army is actually the army of Christ as signified by the Chi-Rho on the shield.
Popular Early Monograms of Christianity
A Christogram is a monogram or combination of letters that forms an abbreviation for the name of Jesus Christ, traditionally used as a religious symbol within the Christian Church.
The symbolism of the early Church was characterized by being understood by initiates only, while after the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire during the 4th century more recognizable symbols entered in use. Below are some of the most common forms that you will see:
Closer examination of the Justinian mosaic reveals an ambiguity in the positioning of the figures of Justinian and the Bishop Maximianus. Overlapping suggests that Justinian is the closest figure to the viewer, but when the positioning of the figures on the picture plane is considered, it is evident that Maximianus’s feet are lower on the picture plane which suggests that he is closer to the viewer. This can perhaps be seen as an indication of the tension between the authority of the Emperor and the church.
The Middle Byzantine period followed a period of crisis for the arts called the Iconoclastic Controversy, when the use of religious images was hotly contested. Iconoclasts (those who worried that the use of images was idolatrous), destroyed images, leaving few surviving images from the Early Byzantine period. Fortunately for art history, those in favor of images won the fight and hundreds of years of Byzantine artistic production followed.
Broadly defined, iconoclasm is defined as the destruction of images. In Christianity, iconoclasm has generally been motivated by people who adopt a literal interpretation of the Ten Commandments, which forbid the making and worshiping of graven images. The period after the reign of Justinian I (527–565) witnessed a significant increase in the use and veneration of images, which helped to trigger a religious and political crisis in the empire. As a result, aniconic sentiment grew, culminating in two periods of iconoclasm—the First Iconoclasm (726–87) and the Second Iconoclasm (814–42)—which brought the Early Byzantine period to an end.
After the death of the last Iconoclast emperor Theophilos, his young son Michael III, with his mother the regent Theodora and Patriarch Methodios, summoned the Synod of Constantinople in 843 to bring peace to the Church. At the end of the first session, on the first day of Lent, all made a triumphal procession from the Church of Blachernae to Hagia Sophia to restore the icons to the church in an event called the Feast of Orthodoxy.
Imagery, it was decided, is an integral part of faith and devotion, making present to the believer the person or event depicted on them. However, the Orthodox makes a clear doctrinal distinction between the veneration paid to icons and the worship which is due to God alone.
After the end of iconoclasm, a new mosaic was dedicated in the Hagia Sophia under the Patriarch Photius and the Macedonian emperors Michael III and Basil I. The mosaic is located in the apse over the main alter and depicts the Theotokos, or the Mother of God. The image, in which the Virgin Mary sits on a throne with the Christ child on her lap, is believed to be a reconstruction of a sixth-century mosaic that was destroyed during the Iconoclasm.
The image of the Virgin and Child is a common Christian image, and the mosaic depicts Byzantine innovations and the standard style of the period. The Virgin’s lap is large. Christ sits nestled between her two legs. The figures’ faces are depicted with gradual shading and modeling that provides a sense of realism that contradicts the schematic folding of their drapery.
Their drapery is defined by thick, harsh folds delineated by contrasting colors: the Virgin in blue and Christ in gold. The two frontal figures sit on an embellished gold throne that is tilted to imply perspective. This attempt is a new addition in Byzantine art during this period. The space given to the chair contradicts the frontality of the figures, but it provides a sense of realism previously unseen in Byzantine mosaics.
The period of Late Byzantium saw the decline of the Byzantine Empire during the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries. Although the capital city of Constantinople and the empire as a whole prospered as a connection between east and west traders, Byzantium continually dealt with threats from the Ottoman Turks to the east and the Latin Empire to the west.
Between 1204 and 1261, the Byzantine Empire suffered another crisis: the Latin Occupation. During the Fourth Crusades, Crusaders from Western Europe invaded and captured Constantinople in 1204, temporarily toppling the empire in an attempt to bring the eastern empire back into the fold of western Christendom. By 1261, the Byzantine Empire was free of its western occupiers and stood as an independent empire once again, albeit markedly weakened)—the breadth of the empire had shrunk and so had its power. Nevertheless, Byzantium survived until the Ottomans took Constantinople in 1453. In spite of this period of diminished wealth and stability, the arts continued to flourish in the Late Byzantine period, much as it had before.
Although Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453—bringing about the end of the Byzantine Empire—Byzantine art and culture continued to live on in its far-reaching outposts, as well as in Greece, Italy, and the Ottoman Empire, where it had flourished for so long. When the Renaissance was first emerging, it borrowed heavily from the traditions of Byzantium. Cimabue’s Madonna Enthroned of 1280–1290 is one of the earliest examples of the Renaissance interest in space and depth in panel painting, but the painting relies on Byzantine conventions and is altogether indebted to the arts of Byzantium.
So, while we can talk of the end of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, it is much more difficult to draw geographic or temporal boundaries around the empire, for it spread out to neighboring regions and persisted in artistic traditions long after its own demise.
The sack of Constantinople in 1204 marks the starting point of Late Byzantine Art, which lasted until the fifteenth century and spread beyond the borders of Byzantium. Art during this period began to change from the standards and styles seen in the Early and Middle periods of Byzantium rule. A renewed interest in landscapes and earthly settings arose in mosaics, frescoes, and psalters. This development eventually led to the demise of the gold background.
The Church of the Holy Savior in Chora was first built in Constantinople during the early fifth century. Its name references its location outside the city’s fourth-century walls. Even when the walls were expanded in the early fifth century by Theodosius II, the church maintained its name.
The Chora Church that stands today is the result of its third stage of construction. This building and the interior decoration were completed between 1315 and 1321 under the Byzantine statesman Theodore Metochites, whose additions and reconstruction in the fourteenth century enlarged the ground plan from the original small, symmetrical church into a large, asymmetrical square that consists of three main areas: an inner and outer narthex or entrance hall, the naos or main chapel, the side chapel (known as the parecclesion) that serves as a mortuary chapel and held eight tombs that were added after the area was initially decorated.
Mosaic work was still popular in the Late Byzantine period, but frescoes and the depiction of narrative cycles began to increase in popularity to become the primary decoration in churches. This transition is seen in the Chora Church, which was initially decorated in mosaic, with the final wing decorated with wall paintings. The shift in media changed the subjects depicted.
Mosaics of single scenes and figures were replaced in favor of frescoed narrative cycles and biblical stories. The rendering of the figures also began to change. Artists now relied less on sharp, schematic folds and patterns and instead use softer, more subtle modeling and shading. While sharp folds in the drapery can still be found in images from this period, these folds are rendered in similar, not complimentary, colors and shades. Furthermore, the bodies appear to have mass and weight. The figures no longer float or hover on their toes but stand on their feet. This allows for the addition of movement and energy in the painted figures and an overall increase of drama and emotion.
The depictions of Christ in the Chora Church differ greatly from those of the third and fourth centuries. Recalling Early Christian art, Christ often appears clean shaven and youthful, sometimes cast as the Good Shepherd who tends and rescues his flock from danger. At a time when Christianity was illegal, Christians would have found such imagery of a protector reassuring.
By the fourteenth century, when Theodore Metochites funded the interior decoration, Christianity was no longer a fledgling faith; it was a state religion in which even the emperor recognized Christ as the ultimate authority. The images of Christ in the frescoes and mosaics of the Chora Church depict an authoritative, bearded man who occupies the role of both savior and judge. As an archetypal symbol of authority and wisdom through the ages, the beard would have been a logical choice for the face of the most supreme leader.
- An exception to this rule: the apse of Old St. Peter’s basilica faced West to commemorate the church’s namesake, who, according to the popular narrative, was crucified upside down. ↵
- Placing the foot atop another figure is a motif that has represented control and domination since Early Antiquity. Recall, for example, the vanquishing of the Lullubi in the Stela of Naram-Sin or the defeated foreigners in the Narmer Palette. Therefore, this scene could also refer to, and has been interpreted as, the victory of Christianity over pagan Rome. ↵
a religion centered on secret or mystical rites for initiates, especially any of a number of cults popular during the late Roman Empire.
the religious rite of sprinkling water onto a person's forehead or of immersion in water, symbolizing purification or regeneration and admission to the Christian Church.
a term first used by early Christians for people in the Roman Empire who practiced polytheism or ethnic religions other than Judaism. Alternative terms in Christian texts were hellene, gentile, and heathen. During and after the Middle Ages, the term paganism was applied to any non-Christian religion, and the term presumed a belief in false god(s).
the support that kings, popes, and the wealthy have provided to artists such as musicians, painters, and sculptors
the action or practice of burying the dead.
an underground cemetery consisting of a subterranean gallery with recesses for tombs, as constructed by the ancient Romans.
the merging or assimilation of several originally discrete traditions, especially in the theology and mythology of religion, thus asserting an underlying unity and allowing for an inclusive approach to other faiths.
a poem, word puzzle, or other composition in which certain letters in each line form a word or words.
a small dome, especially a small dome on a drum on top of a larger dome, adorning a roof or ceiling.
a curved triangle of vaulting formed by the intersection of a dome with its supporting arches.
an architectural structure built against or projecting from a wall which serves to support or reinforce the wall
an antechamber, porch, or distinct area at the western entrance of some early Christian churches, separated off by a railing and used by catechumens, penitents, etc.
A Germanic group who had a large empire near the Black Sea, and who migrated westward between the 3rd and 5th centuries to expand their rule.
the space around the altar.
the absence of artistic representations of either the natural and supernatural worlds, or certain figures in religion
Mother of God (used in the Eastern Orthodox Church as a title of the Virgin Mary).