Under the Byzantine Empire from the 4th century to the 15th century, painting flourished in many different forms and mediums. Most notable form of Byzantine paintings was icon painting which was frequently used as decoration for church interiors as well as simply standalone paintings. Icon painting evolved significantly over the course of the Empire’s history.
Other popular forms of painting during the Byzantine period include paintings used to illustrate classical texts and panel paintings.
Byzantine icon painting refers to paintings which depict the images of Church, the Virgin Mary, the Saints or any other scenes related to the Biblical narratives. Icon painting was particularly popular in Byzantine and was often used in churches, homes as well as other buildings as a form of religious veneration.
In the early period of the Empire until the iconoclastic ban in the 8th century, painted icons were popular. This changed from 8th to 12th centuries but painted icons again became popular from 12th century onwards. The pre-iconoclastic period of icon painting in the Byzantine Empire was marked by more naturalistic tendencies while the period from 12th century onwards often had icons painted with many decorative qualities.
Most icon painting in the Byzantine Empire was done with cool colours, often gilding scenes with gold when depicting revered figures, and making the overall scenery fairly colourful. The faces of the figures depicted in the Byzantine icons are often softly radiant which served a practical purpose since the icons were meant to give the viewer a sense of the depicted figure’s divine presence.
Another popular form of painting in the Byzantine Empire was the illustration of the manuscripts of famous pieces of literature. The Bible was one of the foremost books which was illustrated by the artists using paintings. Some fragments of such illuminated biblical manuscripts are extant to this day. Other books popularly illustrated with paintings by the Byzantines include Homer’s Iliad and works of Virgil.
The Byzantine paintings, whether they were icons or illustrations, mostly dealt with religious subjects. This was primarily because Christianity became one of the key motivators to art and aesthetics in the early period of the Empire. So the Orthodox Church emerged as the major patron of arts and the art produced consequently was often utilised in church buildings.
Secular paintings in the Empire often dealt with the Emperor and his family, probably a result of the direct patronage of art by different Emperors such as Justinian.
Byzantine paintings, specifically Byzantine icon painting, came to cast a very significant influence on the development of art in Greece, Russia and certain parts of Asia Minor. In Greece, icon painting as borrowed from the Byzantine culture continued well after Constantinople had fallen to the hands of the Ottomans in the 15th century.
Russia became a major region heavily influenced by the Byzantine art where icons in the style of the Byzantine began to be made well before the end of the Byzantine Empire. By the time of the Empires end, Russia had a thriving icon art with a number of renowned artists in the field.