Search this website:

This web page location:

home page  >   Art and Architecture  >   Byzantine Art and Architecture

Art and Architecture

Byzantine Art and Architecture

Roman painting, tesserae, Early Christian art, Byzantine Art, Roman emperor Constantine

Deeper web pages:

>  Early Period

>  Iconoclastic Period

>  Mid-Byzantine Period: Macedonian Renaissance

>  Mid-Byzantine Period: Comnenian Art

>  Palaeologue Period

Byzantine Art and Architecture, the art of the Byzantine, or Eastern Roman, Empire. It originated chiefly in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), the ancient Greek town of Byzantium, which the Roman emperor Constantine the Great chose in ad330 as his new capital and named for himself. The Byzantine Empire continued for almost 1000 years after the collapse of the Western Empire in 476. Byzantine art eventually spread throughout most of the Mediterranean world and eastward to Armenia. Although the conquering Ottomans in the 15th century destroyed much in Constantinople itself, sufficient material survives elsewhere to permit an appreciative understanding of Byzantine art.

Byzantine art and architecture arose in part as a response to the needs of the Eastern, or Orthodox, church. Unlike the Western church, in which the popular veneration of the relics of the saints continued unabated from early Christian times throughout the later Middle Ages, the Eastern church preferred a more contemplative form of popular worship focused on the veneration of icons. These were portraits of sacred personages, often rendered in a strictly frontal view and in a highly conceptual and stylized manner. Although any type of pictorial representation—a wall painting or a mosaic, for instance—could serve as an icon, it generally took the form of a small painted panel.

Something of the abstract quality of the icons entered into much of Byzantine art. The artistic antecedents of the iconic mode can be traced back to Mesopotamia and the hinterlands of Syria and Egypt, where, since the 3rd century ad, the rigid and hieratic (strictly ritualized) art of the ancient Orient was revived in the Jewish and pagan murals of the remote Roman outpost of Dura Europos on the Euphrates and in the Christian frescoes of the early monasteries in Upper Egypt. In the two major cities of these regions, Antioch and Alexandria, however, the more naturalistic (Hellenistic) phase of Greek art also survived right through the reign of Constantine. In Italy, Roman painting, as practiced at Pompeii and in Rome itself, was also imbued with the Hellenistic spirit.

The Hellenistic heritage was never entirely lost to Byzantine art but continued to be a source of inspiration and renewal. In this process, however, the classical idiom was drastically modified in order to express the transcendental character of the Orthodox faith. Early Christian art of the 3rd and 4th centuries had simply taken over the style and forms of classical paganism. The most typical form of classical art was the freestanding statue, which emphasized a tangible physical presence. With the triumph of Christianity, artists sought to evoke the spiritual character of sacred figures rather than their bodily substance. Painters and mosaicists often avoided any modeling of the figures whatsoever in order to eliminate any suggestion of a tangible human form, and the production of statuary was almost completely abandoned after the 5th century. Sculpture was largely confined to ivory plaques (called diptychs) in low relief, which minimized sculpturesque effects.

Mosaics were the favored medium for the interior adornment of Byzantine churches. The small cubes, or tesserae, that composed mosaics were made of colored glass or enamels or were overlaid with gold leaf. The luminous effects of the mosaics, spread over the walls and vaults of the interior, were well adapted to express the mystic character of Orthodox Christianity. At the same time their rich, jewel-like surfaces were also in keeping with the magnificence of the imperial court, presided over by the emperor, the de facto head of the Orthodox church.


Hinkle, William M.

Professor Emeritus of Art History, Columbia University.

Article key phrases:

Roman painting, tesserae, Early Christian art, Byzantine Art, Roman emperor Constantine, wall painting, Byzantine Empire, low relief, Upper Egypt, imperial court, colored glass, Constantinople, Euphrates, Pompeii, gold leaf, magnificence, frontal view, Mesopotamia, new capital, Orthodox church, Antioch, enamels, Mosaics, relics, source of inspiration, vaults, Painters, regions, mosaic, Alexandria, jewel, Rome, emperor, Italy, Armenia, saints, time, architecture, icons, major cities, century, centuries, response, modeling, process, collapse, renewal, instance, rich, style, suggestion, walls, artists, order, surfaces, needs, years

Search this website: