Ancient Byzantine Art

The arts of the Byzantine era correspond to the dates of the Byzantine Empire, an empire that thrived from 330 A.D. after the fall of Rome to 1453 when Constantinople fell to the Ottomans. The art of the Byzantine Empire is essentially the artistic works produced by Eastern Orthodox states like Greece, Bulgaria, Russia, Serbia, etc…under the auspice of the empire’s capital at Constantinople. Despite the vast area covered by the empire, the art of the Byzantines remained true to certain characteristics for centuries.

Generally speaking, the main characteristics of Byzantine art include a departure from classical art forms that were highly realistic in nature. Byzantine artists were less concerned with mimicking reality and more in tune with symbolism, religious symbolism in particular. That is not to say Byzantine artists abandoned classical influences; indeed, Byzantine art reflects many ancient influences such as the widespread use of mosaic art, but, by and large, a more abstract view of reality was preferred.

Religious subject matter is certainly a main characteristic of Byzantine art. Ornate church decoration was certainly apparent especially in the sixth-century Hagia Sophia in the capital, but the painting of icons is a main hallmark of Byzantine art. Images of Christ and the saints were painted as religious icons. Frequently, backgrounds were painted gold so that subjects in the foreground appeared to be floating. In such cases, aesthetic value was less important than religious significance. The painting of icons was denounced as idolatry during the iconoclasm period of the eighth and ninth centuries, but in time tradition won over and Byzantine art would invariably be associated with its religious icon paintings such as the famous Georgian work Icon of the Savior. Many icons reflect the use of formula as well; Christ was often depicted with a raised hand in blessing and holding scriptures in the other.

Although the period of art during the reign of Justinian (pre-iconoclasm) witnessed a flowering of Byzantine art, the period following iconoclasm, particularly in Macedonia, saw a great revival of ancient arts and even a return to classical subjects. Increased architecture resulted in many new churches that were painted with frescoes. Ivory carving, such as the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste, reached new levels of greatness during this period which is often referred to as a Byzantine renaissance.

Byzantine art was also concerned with the illumination of texts. Religious texts, both scriptures and devotional materials, were illuminated, or accented with painted scenes and artistic designs. The illumination of secular texts was also permitted. Other arts also thrived during the Byzantine period such as jewelry-making, ceramics, and metalwork. The use of unfaceted gems and enameling was also a hallmark of the Byzantine style, and indeed, many icons were enhanced with rubies, pearls, and other precious stones.

Overall, Byzantine art enjoyed eight hundred years of devotion to its characteristic style. Although Byzantium fell in 1453, the orthodox religion and its particular aesthetic continued to thrive especially in Russia. Icon painting would continue to be popular in Orthodox lands and the Byzantine influence would be felt for centuries beyond the fall of Constantinople.