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27 Jul

Byzantine Art and Architecture

The Byzantine Empire which was separated from the Western Roman Empire already 395 and developed as an independent empire survived the barbarian invasions in the Early Middle Ages and developed distinctive art and architecture commonly known as the Byzantine art and architecture. The Byzantine art and architecture flourished in the period from about 4th century to the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and greatly influenced art and architecture of other Eastern Orthodox countries, while Byzantine influence can be noticed even in Italy and France. Very little remained preserved from the early Byzantine art and architecture from the 4th to the beginning of the 5th centuries. The most notable examples of the early Byzantine architecture are the obelisk of Theodosius I (395) and the remains of the Basilica of St. John at the Stoudius Monastery which was supposedly founded by Constantine the Great although it was consecrated in 463.

A photo of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Much is also lost of later so-called second phase which was marked by the reign of Emperor Justinian I (527-565) when the Byzantine art and especially architecture reached their golden age. Justinian I ordered the construction of some of the finest religious and secular monuments in Constantinople including the two most magnificent churches: the Church of Saints Sergius and Baccus and Hagia Sophia. With its 50 meters high dome and magnificent interior Hagia Sophia represents the finest example of Byzantine religious architecture. In contrary to the western type of basilicas which attract attention forward to the altar by an arcade of columns separating the nave from aisles, the light coming in through the windows of the dome of the Byzantine basilicas attracts attention upwards.

A photo of Saint Mark's Basilica, Venice

Saint Mark’s Basilica, Venice

The Byzantine religious architecture was distinctive for the absence of decoration with statues which was forbidden. The inner walls were decorated with splendid mosaics, mostly of colored glass. The mosaics predominantly decorated the apses, ceilings and walls above the columns. However, sometimes colorful mosaics covered almost the entire church. The best example is the St Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Italy, built in the Byzantine style and covered with more than 8,000 square meters of mosaics.

Many of splendid Byzantine mosaics were lost after the fall Constantine in 1453. The finest examples of Byzantine mosaics can be found in Ravenna, Italy, which under Byzantine rule for a long period, while its Byzantine churches remained undamaged.

Both side-walls in the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo decorated with mosaics of the 26 martyrs indicate that the mosaics were not only used for inner decoration but as an integral component of architecture. The splendid mosaics with golden background also match with other church’s treasures and reveal the triumph of Christianity which evolved from a persecuted sect into the state religion.

A detail from the mosaic of 26 martyrs, Basilica of Sant' Appolinare Nuovo, Ravenna, 6th century

Detail from the mosaic of 26 martyrs

The Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna contains two precious mosaics from the golden period of the Byzantine art and architecture. The first mosaic depicts the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I with his retinue on golden background. The halo around Justinian’s head depicts him as Christ, while his retinue symbolizes the structure of Byzantine government: next to Justinian are standing courtly and church officials that support his government, while the five pretorian guards standing on the left side ensure Emperor’s authority over his subjects. The second mosaic in Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna depicts Byzantine Empress Theodora with her retinue and greatly resembles the mosaic of Emperor Justinian I with his retinue.


Mosaic of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I with his retinue, Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, 6th century

Justinian I with his retinue, Basilica of San Vitale

Mosaic of Christ Pantocrator (Almighty), Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Christ Pantocrator

Mosaic of Empress Theodora with her retinue, Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, 6th century

Theodora with her retinue, Basilica of San Vitale

Depiction of saints, Jesus, Mary and other important figures in Christianity were very similar to those of Justinian I and Theodora in the Basilica of San Vitale. Barefooted Jesus was often depicted as crowned king with halo around his head and his mother Mary as queen of heaven on the throne, surrounded with angels symbolizing heavenly guards. Religious and imperial motifs underlined the eternal religious truths, almightiness of God and majesty of imperial authority. The primal goal of the Byzantine art was to show the religious passion and greatness of saintly and imperial dignity.

Byzantine art eventually became more restricted and fell under control of the church and the court. Every artistic work was carefully analyzed and disapproved if it did follow the strict standards. Byzantine artists were eventually replaced by craftsmen who copied the works of earlier artists, while a special book of patterns precisely regulated how certain person or a saint should be depicted. For that reason Byzantine icons, frescoes, mosaics and paintings from all periods appear so similar. However, the best artists knew how to insert smaller or greater changes in their works without breaking the precise regulations.

Photo of Hagia Irene, Istanbul, 8th century

Hagia Irene, 8th century

The Age of Justinian was followed by the stagnation of the Byzantine art and architecture. The period between the 7th and 9th centuries was marked by inner struggles, constant warfare against the Persians and Arabs, natural disasters and iconoclasm (762-843) which resulted in the mass destruction of the existing figural decoration. Many religious and secular buildings fell into decline, while the religious architecture from the 7th to 9th centuries indicated the crisis of the Byzantine Empire. The buildings became smaller and besides the basilican plan with flat roofs or domes emerged the construction of churches with the cross-in-square form. Among the finest examples of cross-in-square architectural form are the churches of Hagia Sophia in Thessaloniki, Greece, and Hagia Irene in Istanbul, Turkey, both from the 8th century.

A photo of the monastery Hosios Lukas near Distomo, Greece, 10th century

Hosios Lukas

Byzantine art and architecture, especially the religious architecture was revived after the accession of the Macedonian dynasty to the Byzantine throne in the 9th century. The cross-in-square became the predominant architectural form. Excellent example of the cross-in-square architecture from the period of Macedonian dynasty is the monastery Hosios Lukas near Distomo, Greece from the 10th century.

A photo of Cathedral of Ani, Armenia, 10th century

Cathedral of Ani, Armenia

Byzantine architecture reached its height in the period between the 9th and 11th century and greatly influenced the architecture in countries which under Byzantine economic or political influence: Orthodox Balkan states, Caucasus region and Kievan Rus although Byzantine influence can be also found in Western Europe (St Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Italy).

Fresco of Milutin of Serbia holding a model of King's Church, Studenica monastery, Serbia, 12th century

Milutin of Serbia with a model of King’s Church

Byzantine art and architecture fell into crisis after conquest and sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204. With revival of the Byzantine Empire under the Palaeologan Dynasty in the second half of the 13th century Byzantine art and architecture reached their golden age for the last time in history. However, Byzantine art and architecture survived the collapse of the Byzantine Empire in 1453 Byzantine art in other Orthodox countries, especially in the Balkans and Russia which became the center of the Orthodox world after the Ottoman conquest of the Balkan Peninsula.

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