Mosaics were one of the most popular forms of art in the Byzantine Empire. They were extensively used to depict religious subjects on the interior of churches within the Empire and remained a popular form of expression from 6th century to the end of the Empire in the 15th century.
After the fall of the Empire, many mosaics underwent destruction but many remained well-preserved and are extant to this day. The mosaic art of the Byzantine Empire exerted a significant influence on the Muslim art during the Omayyad and Abbasid caliphate and later in the time of Ottoman Empire.
The Use of Mosaics
Mosaic was a popular form of artistic expression in the Byzantine Empire. They were initially used to depict religious figures such as Christ as well as different scenes from the Bible. Subsequently, the mosaics came to depict non-religious subjects as well.
By the time of Justinian’s reign in the 6th century, mosaics were being commissioned directly by the Emperor himself as well as the top bureaucracy. During Justinian’s reign, mosaics came to adorn the vast and magnificent interiors of many churches that he built, especially those in Ravenna and Constantinople.
Byzantine Mosaics in Ravenna
During Justinian’s rule, Italy came under the Byzantine rule and Justinian made the city of Ravenna his administrative centre. It was during this period that many grand structures were built in the city and these buildings were adorned with exquisite mosaics.
These include the mosaics in Church of San Vitale, and the Basilica of Sant-Apollinare. The earliest of these mosaics in Ravenna were commissioned directly by Justinian or his wife. But the trend continued over subsequent centuries and many iconic mosaics of Ravenna date to 7th century.
The Period of Iconoclasm
During the 8th century, the Byzantine rulers decreed the use of any icons to be heretic. This included the depiction of religious figures which had been the dominant theme of Byzantine mosaics in previous centuries. As a consequence, many of the mosaics created during the previous centuries were destroyed during this period.
Mosaics After 8th century
After the ban on icons was lifted in the Empire, the creation of mosaics underwent a rapid revival. It was during this period from the 9th to 11th centuries that some of the most magnificent Byzantine mosaics were created. Most notable examples of mosaics during this period were made on the interior of the Hosios Loukas Monastery as well as the Nea Moni Monastery.
During this period, new mosaics were painted on the interior of the Hagia Sophia church as well, depicting numerous religious figures in a more naturalistic style.
Destruction and Restoration of Mosaics
The richest repository of Byzantine mosaics was the city of Constantinople throughout the Empire’s history. The city was sacked in the 13th century and many notable buildings damaged. These buildings, including the Pammakaristos Monastery, were restored later in the century and embellished with a new set of mosaics. Notable examples of original Byzantine mosaics of this period include those used in the decoration of the Chora Church in Constantinople.