Byzantine Art

Byzantine art referred to the artistic product of Byzantium, which was part of the Eastern Roman Empire.

Map of the Byzantine Empire

Byzantine Empire during the Middle Ages

The Byzantine Empire remained intact even after the fall of the Western Roman Empire up until the decline of Constantinople in 1453.

Historians believed that many eastern orthodox states and some Muslim states in the eastern Mediterranean had been influenced by Byzantium’s art and culture, and had preserved some aspects of Byzantine arts for centuries.

Capital of Byzantine Empire

Byzantine art was developed from the arts of the Roman Empire. This art form embraced classical heritage and was highly influenced by ancient Greek and Egyptian art.

A number of classical sculptures can be found in Constantinople, the capital of Byzantium during the medieval era. Although Byzantine art was said to have been influenced by new aesthetics in the later years.

Byzantine Empire

Other contemporary states such as Bulgaria and Serbia as well as non-orthodox states like the Republic of Venice and the Kingdom of Sicily, had close ties with the Byzantine Empire and were influenced by the empire’s culture and the arts.

Even to this day and age, some artistic traditions that originated from Byzantine art are being maintained in eastern orthodox countries such as Greece, Macedonia, and Russia.

Byzantine Art Characteristics

Byzantine arts were mostly concerned with religious expression. One of the most profound Byzantine art characteristics was the translation of church theology into artistic forms such as sculptures, mosaics, and paintings.

These art pieces were produced in such rigid tradition that resulted in a highly sophisticated artistic style, which had remained unequaled in Western art.

Byzantine Mosaic Art

Byzantine mosaic art was beautiful and the theme was often religious

However, Byzantine art was highly marked by the revivals of classical aesthetics. Art historians believed that it was influenced by new modern aesthetics later on.

One of the characteristics of classical art was its closest representation of reality or at least an attempt to mimic it.

Byzantine Art

However, Byzantine art was characterized by anti-naturalistic and abstract ideas. The transformation which was said to have largely taken place during late antiquity had been subject to scholarly debates throughout the ages.

Other scholars attributed this shift in style to the decline of artistic style and standards before the Renaissance period.

Byzantine Art Definition

There are several Byzantine art definitions. One defined it as art pertaining to the style developed and elaborated by Byzantine and its provinces. As per definition, Byzantine art was chiefly ecclesiastical and highly formal with the use of rich sumptuous tones.

Byzantine Art Ravenna

Others said that Byzantine art can be defined as primarily religious and imperial in nature, which was a result of the autocratic yet religious nature of Byzantine society.

Other art historians also believed that this was a result of the empire’s economic structure where the wealth of the empire was concentrated only in the hands of the church and the imperial government, which may be true at the time since the emperor of Byzantine acted as the head of the church and the state.

Medieval Church Byzantine

Look at the fancy byzantine artwork in this medieval church

Early Byzantine Art

Some art historians were faced with difficulty in distinguishing Christian art from early Byzantine art. This is primarily because the early Byzantine art adapted Christian and late Roman styles.

Early Byzantine art was a new language created depicting the union of the state and the church. These art forms flourished from 500 AD to 843 AD, spreading through the capital and to the Mediterranean towards the southern part of Italy.

Byzantine Art Mosaic

Byzantine art mosaics on a Church Ceiling

Historians also observed that several trends in Christian art were found in full expression with Byzantine art. However, the early Byzantine art did not only follow these trends, they refined Christian art into sophisticated pieces, creating the most beautiful art pieces in Western Europe.

Byzantine Art History

Byzantine art history started with mosaics decorating the walls of churches, domes as well as fresco wall paintings. These forms of arts were taken up in Italy, Rome, and Ravenna with it its beauty and sophistication.

Unfortunately, only a few Byzantine art samples survived to this date. Looking into Byzantine art history, so few Byzantine art pieces survived as they went through several periods of iconoclasm, which meant the destruction of religious images.

During these periods, hundreds of Byzantine mosaics and paintings were destroyed.

Byzantine Architecture

Famous Byzantine Architecture Ravenna

The invasion of the Turks further led to the destruction of the remaining Byzantine art pieces. And the only remaining pieces that historians were able to identify and study were the ones found in western cities where iconoclasm or Islam never took off.

Medieval Mamluk Soldiers

Byzantine Art Styles

The Byzantine art style was created mainly for the Eastern Orthodox church. One distinct Byzantine art style was its severely formal, abstract form. Most of the figures were floating instead of standing on the ground.

The figures were also mostly centrally located, front and elongated. Another distinct Byzantine art style pointed out by some art historians was the use of gold as the background or highlights.

Byzantine Architecture Church

Byzantine Architecture Beautiful Church Ceiling

Although not entirely an art style, some art historians believed that Byzantine art was fond of inserting imperial propaganda into religious images.

This may have been brought about by the tight political structure of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, whose emperor funded the creation of most of these art pieces.

Norman Arab Byzantine Culture

The Byzantine art style also broke away from its early Christian predecessors. This has formed an architectural tradition that was truly different from that of the West.

Byzantine Cities Constantinople Turkey

Byzantine Mosaics

The Byzantine empire had inherited a strong tradition of making mosaics. Earlier variants of this kind of art flourished in Alexandria and Antioch, but eventually spread far beyond Constantinople to the Mediterranean, Italy, and Russia.

Byzantine mosaics had stylistic, cultural, and most importantly, religious aspects in them. These played significant roles in Western arts.

Although mosaics generally appeared and had become widespread in various places throughout different periods in history, Byzantine mosaics became the leading pictorial art form from the 4th century to the 14th century.

Christ Pantocrator mosaic from Hagia Sophia

The mosaic of Christ Pantocrator in Hagia Sophia, Istanbul dates back to the 12th century and is one of the finest examples of Byzantine mosaics

Byzantine Religious Art

Mosaic as an art was not totally an unknown medium before the Byzantine empire began. In fact, it had been embraced by the Greeks and Romans as a means of decorating surfaces that were unsuitable for painting.

Hagia Sophia Byzantine Architecture

Mosaic had become a structural part of the wall. Christian artists took this given opportunity with utmost significance and took it as a perfect vehicle for visual symbolism.

Byzantine religious art and mosaic were exhibited throughout Europe. This has brought about Byzantine iconography which referred to the distinct style in most Eastern Orthodox religious images.

Inside Hagia Sophia Istanbul Byzantine Architecture

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul dates back to 537 and is considered a masterpiece commissioned by Justinian The Great.

However, from this iconography the iconoclastic controversy had risen, where iconoclasts believed that images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints should not be created, while iconodules disagreed.

Debates surrounding this controversy lasted for years and had eventually led to the destruction of many Byzantine religious art pieces.

Byzantine Art Fast Facts

  • Byzantine art began with the foundation of Constantinople in AD 324 and ended in 1453 following its capture by the Ottoman Turks.
  • Byzantine mosaic has brought mosaic art to an unprecedented level of power.
  • Painting of devotional panels became an important aspect of Byzantine arts as the cult of icons played a very significant part in both secular and religious life.
  • Byzantine workmanship in metalwork, ivory and enable was highly prized, especially during the middle ages.
  • Several Byzantine artworks were regarded as treasures of some Western Churches.