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Byzantine Art

Art of the Eastern Roman Empire and of its capital Byzantium

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Byzantine Art signifies the art of the Eastern Roman Empire and of its capital Byzantium, or Constantinople. The term denotes more especially those qualities which distinguish this art from that of other countries, or which have caused it to exert an influence upon the art of regions outside of the Eastern Empire. Christian art was dependent for the representation of its new conceptions upon the forms which the time and place of its origin happened to offer. In the beginning, whether at Rome, Ravenna, or Byzantium (Constantinople), it was equally influenced by classical art and by Eastern inclination to allegory. It is a distinguishing characteristic of Constantinople, however, that it was able to maintain a more uniform classical tradition in the face of manifold Oriental influences. These two elements, from the time of Constantine, developed in the Byzantine art more and more of an individual character, though account must also be taken of the friendly intercourse with Western Europe during several hundred years. Beginning with the seventh century, the contrast between the art of the Eastern Empire and that of the Western grew more marked, and Byzantine art underwent a change. It rose to great splendor under the Macedonian emperors (867-1056), then declined up to 1453, and has since existed in the East in a petrified form, so to speak, up to the present time.

THE BYZANTINE QUESTION.—In regard to the first period of Byzantine art, which closed either before the reign of Justinian or at the end of the sixth century, scholars differ greatly. Some, like Schnaase, Strygowski, and Woermann, date Byzantine art proper from the time of Constantine’s establishment of his capital. They base this opinion upon certain differences between the art remains of the first period of the Eastern Roman Empire and those of the Western Roman Empire, which differences they maintain are essential. Other scholars, such as Springer, Kraus, and Kuhn, hold these peculiarities to be unessential, since they find them here and there in Western countries as well, a fact which the former critics ascribe to Oriental influence. Brehier disagrees with both views. He distinguishes between Oriental art and that specifically Byzantine; that is, between the art of Byzantium, or Constantinople, and that of her dependent provinces, Asia Minor, Syria, Persia, and Egypt. This is a fairly good solution of the “Byzantine question”. But as it is difficult to distinguish in detail the combinations of old classic and Christian with Oriental art, we can only group together the principal characteristics of the new style and its materials, with a few examples.

CHARACTERISTICS.—The introduction of Eastern court ceremonial by Constantine was accompanied in the domain of art by the appearance of extraordinary gorgeousness and pomp, expressed, however, with stiffness and formality. The power and pride of the new empire offered the means for great undertakings and gave the impulse to them. The Proconnesian marble, found in the vicinity of the capital, and the stone obtained from other rich, quarries provided the material, and, long before this era, the art of working in stone had reached a high state of development, especially in Asia Minor. Moreover, the East had been from ancient times the home of the minor arts. In Constantinople there flourished, along with the art of decorative sculpture, the arts of stone-carving, of working in metal and ivory, of ornamental bronze work, of enamelling, of weaving and the art of miniature-painting. From classical and ancient Christian art Byzantine genius derived a correct combination of the ideal with truth to nature, harmonious unity along with precision in details, as well as the fondness for mosaics, frescoes, and pictures on panels, in opposition to the dislike of non-Christian and sectarian Orientals to pictorial representation. The iconoclasm of the eighth and ninth centuries wrought great destruction in the domain of art, but these outbreaks were successfully suppressed.

EXAMPLES.—In regard to the influence of the Byzantine style on architecture see Byzantine Architecture. As to the other arts a few examples may here be given. The church of St. Sophia was adorned in the sixth century with a splendor worthy of Solomon. The interior was sumptuously decorated with mosaics upon a golden background. These mosaics, it is true, with the exception of an “Adoration of Christ by the Emperor” were destroyed, but they were replaced later by others. Some of the walls were ornamented with designs of grape-vines with golden leaves. Pictures of animals decorated the walls of the portico. A silver choir-screen rose above pillars, in the capitals of which medallions of Christ, the Blessed Virgin, saints, and prophets were carved. This is the so-called iconostasis. The altar was of gold inlaid with precious stones; the altar-cloth was of brocaded silk in which were woven pictures of Christ, the prophets, and the apostles. The ambo, according to description, was brilliant with gold, silver, precious stones, and ivory. At Parenzo, in Istria, and at Bauit, in Egypt, superb mosaic pictorial ornamentation dating from the sixth century is still preserved. A gold cross decorated with pictures in hammered work was presented by Justin II to the church of St. Peter and is still preserved at the Vatican. A number of ivory bookcovers are also still in existence. The illuminated manuscripts of Rossano and Sinope date from the sixth century.

INFLUENCE.—As regards the influence exerted by Byzantine art in the sixth century there can be no doubt that the architecture of Ravenna, though affected by other Eastern influences, strongly reminds us, in its splendid mosaics, of Constantinople. The Proconnesian capitals and other products of decorative art spread even more easily. Like Ravenna, Southern Italy and Gaul came under the influence of the East and Constantinople. Even more specifically Byzantine is African art. In Rome the traces of Byzantine art are more difficult to discover than other Oriental influences. In the East itself pictorial art met with opposition, and decorative art came to the forefront. In general, however, after the rise of the Macedonian dynasty the Byzantine style gained the supremacy in all branches of art as well as in architecture. The Byzantine style spread in the East as well as in Northern Italy and Sicily. The numerous mosaic pictures, which are to be found everywhere, still strove to imitate classical models; their symbolism reminds us of the general symbolic tendency of early Christianity, and their form gradually becomes more stiff and fixed. (Painter’s Book of Mount Athos.) Purely Oriental, however, was the dislike constantly increasing for sculpture in the round, and the preference for the flat ornamentation in architecture. To the same Oriental influence may be attributed the taste for costly and many-colored stones and woven fabrics, for goldsmith-work, and enamel. For example, in the treasury of San Marco may, be seen Byzantine reliquaries, ivory triptychs, chalices, costly fabrics, and specimens of pictorial art. Some are large and some small, but taken altogether they show how a church of the eleventh century was transformed into a veritable treasure house. The sable taste and the same characteristics of the art of Byzantium (Constantinople) have ever since maintained their supremacy in the East. For further bibliography see Byzantine Architecture.


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