The following research concerns Byzantine Art. Byzantine Art developed after the split in the Christian world which took place after the division of the Roman Empire. christianity came to the fore in the Roman Empire during the first three centuries of the Christian era. The emperor Constantine was converted in the fourth century A.D., and this was but the official recognition of a development toward Christianity that had long been in preparation. This new religion gave hope to the masses of people for whom living conditions had become impossible. Rome finally fell not so much because of outside invasions as from internal social decay, poverty, corruption, and the loss of control by the civil government. When Constantine moved the capital from Rome to Constantinople, the empire was divided into west and east.
Constantinople was the new name for the Greek town of Byzantium. This move by the emperor was an acknowledgement of the growing strategic and economic importance of the eastern provinces. The new capital also symbolized the growing Christian influence in the empire, for the new capital
was also in the heart of the most thoroughly Christianized region of the empire. It was not intended that this move split the realm in two, yet that is what had occurred within a hundred years of the move. The emperors in the eastern region did not relinquish their claim on the western regions. Those areas fell to invading Germanic tribes. The eastern region survived these onslaughts until the fifteenth century, when the Turks invaded Constantinople itself.
The division of the Roman Empire also led to a religious split in the Christian world. The Bishop of Rome had been the acknowledged head of the Christian Church, but this claim was soon disputed by the patriarch of Constantinople. Differences of doctrine developed, and a division into Western, or Catholic, and Eastern, or Orthodox, Churches became final. The differences went very deep — Catholicism maintained a separation from any state authority; the Orthodox church was based on the union of spiritual and secular authority in the person of the emperor. This gave the leader of the state a position not quite the same as the emperor-gods of old.
”Byzantine Art” refers not only to the art produced in the Eastern Roman Empire but to a style of art as well. There is no clear-cut distinction between Early Christian Art and the beginnings of Byzantine Art. It is only after the sixth century that West Christian characteristics are discernible. During the reign of Justinian (527-565), the shift in the power of influence to the East was complete. Constantinople reasserted its political dominance over the West and became the undisputed artistic capital as well. Justinian was a great patron of the arts, and he sponsored works that had an imperial grandeur that fully justifies the acclaim of those who refer to his as a golden age. There is also an inner coherence of style which links them with the future development of Byzantine Art.
The richest array of monuments from this period are in Constantinople and in the Italian town of Ravenna, which was a stronghold of Byzantine rule in Italy during the era of Justinian.
The view of those in the Eastern Church concerning art divided into two factions, both because of their antipathy toward the Latin Pope. One group opposed all images of a religious nature, and they were called iconoclasts. They gained the upper hand for a time, but finally those who saw all images as a reflection of the supernatural world on this world because the leaders. The Byzantines, thus, came to insist on the observance of traditions. The Church asked artists to keep strictly to the ancient models when they painted sacred images, and this helped to preserve the ideas and achievement of Greek art in the types used for draperies, faces or gestures. Though there was a certain rigidity, Byzantine Art remained closer to nature than the art of the West in subsequent periods.
The artworks of the Byzantine period were largely architectural or statuary, and those paintings that were executed had to conform to an architectural severity in form. The images have a geometric severity of design that endows the features with a monumental grandeur. The icons were held in veneration, and for this reason they had to conform to strict formal rules with fixed patterns that were repeated over and over again. There is more exacting craftsmanship in these works than artistic inventiveness, and echoes of classicism abound. There is a two-dimensional quality to many of these works that is not flat so much sa transparent, somewhat like the look of a stained-glass window.
Monumental sculpture marked the first period, but it tended to disappear from the fifth century on. However, Byzantine Art is marked by the sizeable architectural works, primarily churches, that were constructed during this period. The most famous monument of Justinian’s reign is the Hagia Sophia (the Church of Holy Wisdom), the architectural masterpiece of the age. It was built during the period 532-537. After the Turkish conquest, the building became a mosque, and the four minarets were added at that time. The mosaic decorations of the Christian era were largely hidden under whitewash. The building was turned into a museum in recent years, and many of the mosaics have been uncovered since. The design of this church represents a unique combination of elements. It has the longitudinal axis of an Early Christian basilica, but the central feature of the nave is a square compartment crowned by a huge dome and abutted at either end by half-domes, so that the nave becomes a great oval. Semi-circular niches are attached to these half-domes, each with open arcades. In a sense, the dome of the Hagia Sophia has been inserted between the two halves of a central-plan church. The dome rests on four arches that carry its weight to the great piers that stand at the corners of the square, so that the walls below the arches have no supporting function at all. Spherical triangles called pendentives form the transition from the square formed by these arches to the circular rim of the dome. The entire unit is a dome on pendentives, which permits the construction of a taller, lighter and more economical dome than the older method of placing the dome on a round or polygonal base. Hagia Sophia is the earliest use of this device on a monumental scale, and thereafter it was a basic feature of Byzantine architecture and Western architecture as well, though somewhat later.
The plan for Hagia Sophia contains elements of two earlier churches — the Church of Saint Sergius and the Church of Saint Irene. The aim in architecture for a long time had been to open up the interior of a building and get a sense of space, and here the architects managed to do this by using the large half-domes east and west and arched galleries north and south. This opened up space in all directions. The dome was constructed of light-weight tiles, and contemporaries were in fact impressed by the lightness of this structure. The present structure was placed on the church in 562, four years after the first dome collapsed.
Byzantine architecture never produced another structure to rival Hagia Sophia. Those that followed in the Second Golden Age were modest in scale, monastic rather than imperial in spirit. The usual plan of these later structures was that of the Greek cross contained in a square, with a narthex added on one side and an apse on the other. The central feature is a dome on a square base, often resting on a cylindrical drum with tall windows, which raises it high above the rest of the building.
The Hagia Sophia contained elements of East and West, and it thus united these two traditions, past and future, in a single entity. The scrolls and designs within all derive from Classical architecture, but the effect is different because of the lightness and airiness of the structure.
Byzantine art ultimately allowed the Italians to leap the barrier between sculpture and painting. Byzantine Art had a certain rigidity, but it had preserved more of the discoveries of the Hellenistic painters than had survived the picture-writing of the dark ages in the West. Artists of imagination could now translate the life-like figures of Gothic sculpture into painting. This influence is seen in the works of Giotto di Bondone. His most famous works are wall-paintings or frescoes. Giotto rediscovered the art of creating the illusion of depth on a flat surface, and this enabled him to change the whole concept of painting. It was the influence of Byzantine Art that led to this change.
Byzantine Art was the result of a schism in the political and religious world of the first millennium A.D. The expression of this religious controversy is seen in the battle between those who decried the representation of religious subjects in art, and those who saw such representation as the purpose and reason for art. The latter ultimately won, and Byzantine art reflected a deep religious conviction. The rigidity of the period came from the fact that this religious fervor dictated that an ideal form be followed in religious subject matter, and this gives a sameness to these works that stifles the imagination. However, they also preserved the classical forms and led to a greater form of painting in the future.
It was in architecture that the Byzantine Art made the greatest innovations. Religious fervor was again the impetus, for these buildings were all religious in nature. The forms of earlier periods were modified to create a style and manner of architecture that influenced future generations and continue in use today. Space was achieved on the interiors, and for all the massiveness of the work and the size of the structures, a certain lightness of design and construction was noticed from the beginning. The Hagia Sophia is probably the finest work of its era, and the most lasting example of Byzantine architecture at its height.
Christensen, Erwin O. A Pictorial History of Western Art. New York: New American Library, 1964.
Gombrich, E.H. The Story of Art. London: Phaidon, 1972.
Janson, H.W. History of Art. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice- Hall, 1962.
1.Erwin O. Christensen, A Pictorial History of Western Art (New York: New American Library, 1964), p. 169.2.H.W. Janson, History of Art (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962), p. 157.3.Janson, p. 169.4.E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art (London: Phaidon, 1972),5.pp. 97-986.Janson, pp. 177-178.7.Janson, pp. 171-172.8.Christensen, pp. 125-126.9.Janson, pp. 172-173.10.Gombrich, pp. 151-152.