Byzantine Art Period Facts, Examples, & Characteristics

Byzantine Art Period Facts, Examples, & Characteristics

What is Byzantine Art, and how does it differ from other types of art?

Between Emperor Constantine, I's Edict of 313, which recognized Christianity as the national religion, and Rome's fall to the Visigoths in 476, preparations were made to divide the Roman Empire into a Western half (governed from Rome) and an Eastern half (governed from elsewhere) (ruled from Byzantium). While Western Christendom descended into the barbaric Dark Ages, its religious, secular, and aesthetic qualities were preserved by Byzantium, its new Eastern center (renamed Constantinople after Constantine).

Thousands of Roman and Greek artists and craftsmen arrived in Byzantium with the transition of Imperial authority and proceeded to produce a new set of Eastern Christian imagery and icons known as Byzantine Art.

This style, which was exclusively preoccupied with Christian art yet evolved (in particular) from Greek and Egyptian techniques and forms, extended across the Byzantine empire, as Orthodox Christianity blossomed. Ravenna, Italy, and Kiev, Novgorod, and Moscow, Russia, were important early Christian art centers. See also Christian Art, Byzantine Period for more information.


What characterizes Byzantine art?

In Byzantine art, stylized iconography was valued above naturalistic ones. The goal of their artwork was to elicit awe and reverence for the church. The use of elegant, floating figures and gilded tesserae accentuated the religious subjects' otherworldliness in this way.

The Byzantine art style was almost totally focused on religious expression, particularly the translation of church dogma into visual language. Byzantine architecture and art (there was little sculpture produced during the Byzantine era) were consistent and faceless, and they followed a strict tradition. The consequence was a level of style refinement rarely seen in Western art. Mosaics and fresco wall paintings were used to decorate the walls and domes of churches in Byzantine medieval art.

The impact of these mosaics was so magnificent that it caught on in Italy, particularly in Rome and Ravenna. The icon (from the Greek word 'eikon' meaning image) - the holy image panel-paintings established in the monasteries of the eastern church, employing encaustic wax paint on moveable hardwood panels - was a less public art form in Constantinople.


What is Byzantine art, and what does it entail?

Byzantine art is distinguished by a move away from the realism and glorified forms associated with ancient Greek and Roman art and toward more decorative, abstract shapes, with a general tendency toward flatness. Mosaics, symbols, and wall paintings were among the two-dimensional media used by artists.

What distinguishes Byzantine art?

Byzantine art (fourth to fifteenth centuries CE) is characterized by a shift away from the naturalism of the Tradition toward the abstract and universal, a strong inclination for two-dimensional depictions, and a predominance of religious artworks.

What are some Byzantine art examples?

  • Madonna and Child by Duccio di Buoninsegna
  • MaestĂ  by Duccio di Buoninsegna
  • Pala d'Oro by Doge Pietro Orseolo

A Byzantine Art History

The Byzantine art period, which lasted from 330 until 1453 A.D., was extremely significant in art history. While some commentators have downplayed Byzantine art's importance, thinking it to be less well-known than the Italian or Northern Renaissance, the period had a significant impact on the creation of artworks and sculptures, and its style is still in use today.

The artworks created during the Byzantine Empire were notable for their opulent mosaics and excessive use of gold since they were supposed to be in response to the development of Christianity in Europe. After the Roman emperor, Constantine the Great transferred the ancient imperial palace from Rome to Byzantium, which was called Constantinople in his honor, Byzantine art emerged.

As Emperor Constantine had finally professed tolerance for Christianity, Roman artists were transferred to the city to adorn Christian churches with a multitude of antique Roman mosaics. Constantinople was also known as the "New Rome" because of its newly discovered status as the Roman Empire's political center. The city's inhabitants were Greek-speaking Christians who considered themselves Romans and hence heirs to the ancient Roman Empire.

Byzantine art arose from the Roman Empire's Christianized Greek civilization, with aspects of both Christianity and classical Greek mythology reflected aesthetically in the artworks created. As the Byzantine Empire grew, one of its most important characteristics was that it was more Greek than Roman in several ways. As a result, Classical art and the idea of naturalism influenced art output at the time. As a result, Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, became the main focus of art history at the time, assisting in the dissemination of the style's works, methods, and concepts throughout the Empire.

Early Byzantine art had a significant Roman and Classical influence and was known as the Eastern portion of the Roman Empire in its early stages. When making art, artists embraced numerous Roman practices, such as the method of collecting and showing artworks in solitude to Byzantium's elite, who were supposed to create art more. Themes that were originally deemed very essential within Roman and Classic art began to be revised and altered as the Byzantine artwork evolved.


867-1204: Middle Byzantine

The Macedonian Renaissance is named after Basil I the Macedonian, who, after being crowned in 867, reopened universities and encouraged literature and art, reigniting attention in classical Greek academics and aesthetics.

Greek became the Empire's official language, and libraries and researchers amassed massive collections of classical writings. Photios, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, was not only a famous theologian but also "the best intellectual of his day," according to historian Adrian Forescue. His Bibliotheca was a significant collection of about 300 books by ancient authors, and he was a key figure in the understanding of Byzantine civilization as anchored in Greek culture.

The result was "an almost antiquarian enthusiasm for the traditions of classical art," as expressed in works like the illuminated manuscript, the Paris Psalter (c. 900), a book of Biblical psalms that included full-page illustrations from King David's life and used a more realistic treatment of both the figures and the landscape. Byzantine society and art were regarded as the pinnacle of aesthetic refinement throughout Europe, and many rulers, including those who were politically opposed to the Empire, engaged Byzantine artists. Roger II, the first Norman King, attracted Byzantine painters in the Norman-conquered Sicily, and as a result, the Norman design that evolved in Sicily and Great Britain after the Norman Conquest in 1066 strongly influenced Gothic design.

When the Basilica of San Marco in Venice was being built in 1063, hundreds of Byzantine artists were employed. Vladimir of Kiev turned to the Orthodox Church after marrying a Byzantine princess in Russia. He commissioned painters from Constantinople to work on the St. Sophia's Cathedral in Kiev, which he completed in 1307. Greece produced notable instances of Macedonian Renaissance art, while the inflow of Byzantine painters inspired art throughout Western Europe, as the Italian artist Berlinghiero of Lucca's Hodegetria demonstrates (c. 1230).


Constantinople, renowned for its wealth and cultural treasures, was ruthlessly ravaged and the Empire overrun by the Crusade Army and Venetian armies during the Fourth Crusade in 1204. The brutal attack on a Christian community and its inhabitants was unparalleled, and historians consider it a watershed moment in medieval history, causing a permanent schism between both the Catholic and Orthodox churches, severely diminishing the Byzantine Empire, and contributing to its eventual demise when conquered by the Ottoman Turks.

Many important works of art and sacred artifacts were looted, damaged, or disappeared. Some works, such as the Hippodrome's Roman bronze sculptures, were transported to Venice and are still on display, while others, such as sacred objects and altars, as well as ancient bronze statues, were torn down, and the Library of Constantinople was devastated. By the year 1261, the Latins had been pushed away, but Byzantium had never regained its past glory or dominance.


1261-1453 Late Byzantium

The Late Byzantine period started to refurbish and renovate Orthodox churches after the Latin Conquest. However, because the Conquest had devastated the economy and left most of the city in ruins, individuals started to use less expensive materials, and small mosaic icons became fashionable.

The suffering of the people during the Inquisition led to an emphasis on themes of compassion, such as those depicted in Christ's sufferings. Where regional variants in icon painting emerged, artistic vigor transferred to Russia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Greece. The Novgorod School of Icon Painting, founded by renowned painters Theophanes the Greek and Andrei Rublev, established Russia as a major center. The Sienese School of Painting and the Universal Gothic Style, as well as artists like Duccio in his Stroganoff Madonna, were all influenced by Byzantine art (1300).

Sculpture in the Byzantine style

In contrast to the other art forms created throughout the Byzantine era, very little sculpture was produced. The sculptures that were created, on the other hand, were typically modest relief carvings made of ivory. These sculptures were clever and elegant in construction, despite their small size, and were used to cover book covers, burial chamber boxes, and other such artifacts. Sculptors used a variety of materials, including ivory, marble, and limestone, in addition to ivory.

When certain sculptures were claimed to portray emperors and popular charioteers, they were sometimes sculpted out of bronze and marble. Due to the elevated status of its subject matter, these types of sculptures were exclusively carved in these rare materials, and they were displayed in the Hippodrome of Constantinople. The entirety of the Byzantine art period's scarce figure sculptures were made of ivory.

Three-dimensional portraits, on the other hand, were considered relatively rare by the 6th century, as sculpture had not regained its antiquity appeal. Unfortunately, there is just one unrestricted instance of this sculpture work left today.

Famous Byzantine Artwork

During the Byzantine Empire, there was no distinction between artists and craftspeople because both created and built gorgeous products for specialized reasons. As a result, the painters behind the artworks were less important than the paintings themselves, which were seen to have a significant influence on Byzantine culture at the time.

Many Byzantine artists who went on to make illuminated manuscripts were priests and monks, highlighting the delicate line that existed in society between so-called artists and professionals. Before the 13th century, it was unusual for an artist to sign his or her work. As a result, the artists of some of the few surviving artworks are unknown, demonstrating once again that the status associated with making art was not as essential as it is today during the Byzantine Empire.

Artists may not have signed their works because they lacked social prestige at the time, or because the artworks were created by a team of artists rather than a single person. The most likely explanation for this was because personalizing of artworks was thought to detract from their intended purpose, especially in religious art. Byzantine painters were typically funded by patrons such as emperors, temples, and churches, who requested works, demonstrating that the artist's name on the piece was less essential than the cause for which it was created.

The Byzantine Era's Legacy

The Byzantine art period was pivotal in both cultural and archaeological development since it influenced the early development of Western art history. While the art forms that followed it were significant in their own right, they were thought to only attempt to recreate the type of work produced during the Byzantine era.

This was simply due to the Byzantine Empire's art incorporating enormous beauty, which would not be seen in emerging trends for some time. While Constantinople was still the capital, some Byzantine artworks, such as Byzantine silks and mosaics, were sent to monarchs as diplomatic gestures.

Artists were also dispatched to other parts of the world to recreate mosaics that had been seen in Byzantine churches at the time, demonstrating the enormous influence and appeal of Byzantine art in other parts of the globe. While certain locations, like Venice and Norman Sicily, were seen as hubs of Byzantine influence, some artistic trends sprang directly as a result of the Empire's impact. Islamic Art is a good illustration of this, as it began with creative artists who were mostly schooled in Byzantine forms.

While some aspects of Byzantine art were modified, it was the fundamental style that was referenced in the formation of Islamic art and other art styles. Although the Empire was seized by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, Byzantine art remained prominent. At this point, the components that made up Byzantine art had spread widely, allowing the idea to exist as a cultural heritage. Some components of Byzantine art even outlasted the Turkish takeover and were adopted in new movements, illustrating the art's universal importance.


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