Rome in the East
The Art of Byzantium
This chapter presents to the student a survey of Byzantium or the Byzantine Empire established by Constantine as the new Rome of the East. Byzantium renamed Constantinople (today known as Istanbul) by Constantine in honor of himself, at that point in time, 324 A.D., Constantine was truly ruler of a united Roman Empire. Rome fell to the barbarians in 476 A.D., Constantinople continued to reign as the capital of the Roman Empire of the East. In 315 A.D., Constantine issued the Edict of Toleration, which gave the Christians the right to follow their religion openly, but he did not outlaw the other religions. Although Christianity became the official religion of the Empire in 325 A.D., Constantine did not have himself baptized a Christian until he lay dying in the year 337 A.D. All so-called pagan religions were made crimes against the state in 383 A.D. by the Christian emperor Theodosius, who specified Christianity as the sole religion of the empire, thus laying the foundations for the theocratic state that Byzantium became. Byzantine art is broken into three periods which does correspond to the historical periods: Early Byzantine 527–726 A.D., the Iconoclasm 726–843 A.D., Middle Byzantine 843–1204 A.D. and Late Byzantine 1204–1453 A.D.. The Iconoclasm or the formal prohibition of the use of images occurred at the end of the Early Period and before the Middle Byzantine Period, sometimes referred to as the Medieval Period. Diminishing territories and Western Christian Crusader occupation of the capital marked the Late Byzantine Period itself. Constantinople was recaptured in 1261 A.D. but this period ends with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 and the Empire finally comes to an end. The reign of the Byzantine Empire was long and fruitful; the art created was stylized and formal.
1) The Early Byzantine Period begins with the reign of Justinian and Theodora. This is the period, which establishes the format for religious imagery and the interior programs for the basilicas and churches that were constructed. The importance of linking the Eastern Empire to the glory was Rome never diminished. The ivory diptych panel, Barberini Ivory ca. 550 A.D. (12–1) depicts Justinian as a triumphant and victorious general and ruler. This sense of triumph and victory comes from Early Imperial tradition of Rome. The depiction of the emperor as triumphant general can be seen in Triumph of Titus from the Arch of Titus, Rome after 81 A.D. (10–39) or detailing the triumphs of Trajan seen on the Column of Trajan, Rome ca. 112 A.D. (10–42). The equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius ca. 175 A.D. (10–59) created a format which gave the sense of the power of Imperial Rome and that power rest in the person of the emperor. Justinian as conqueror mirrored that vision in the ivory panel. The base of the panel describes the victories of Justinian in Africa and Asia. It also depicts the barbarians seeking clemency, the soldier to the left of Justinian holds a small victory statue, further stating visually the victories and triumphs of Justinian. The departure from the Early Imperial motifs is seen in the top portion of the panel. The sourcing of Justinianís power and triumph is seen in the presence of the youthful Christ, cross in hand and even more importantly the other hand raised in blessing. This gesture confers on the person of the emperor his power granted, supported and approved by God. This plaque visually defines the theocratic state that Byzantium had become. Justinian authorized the conquest of Ravenna and it became an outpost in the West for the Eastern Empire. As he did in Constantinople, Justinian constructed churches. San Vitale 526–547 A.D. (12–6 and 12–7) is a centrally planned church, dedicated to the 2nd C. A.D. saint, St. Vitalis, who was martyred in Ravenna. The mosaic program developed for the interior of the church shows the integration of the classical and the abstract. The north and south walls of the apse have two mosaic images of both the emperor and the empress. Justinian (12–10) is standing with the bread of the Eucharist in his hand, ready to participate in the ritual of the Mass. It is significant to note that this mosaic is in the apse, which contains the altar for the celebration of the Mass. Justinian is participating, and thus, by his very presence in the apse is further evidence of his confirmation by God to rule. Even more significant is the presence of Theodora (12–11) on the opposite wall, but still in the apse. She, too, is participating in the ritual; she is holding the chalice for the wine a component in the Eucharist celebration. It is a tribute to her position and her ability to function within the political state that Byzantium was. A Byzantine feature of church architecture is a second story ambulatory which was reserved for the women (12–8), the presence of Theodora in the mosaic, is indicative of her importance to Justinian and her value to the Empire. She was truly an extraordinary woman, reviled, though she was, she remained steadfast to Justinian and served him well as counselor. The integration of classical and abstract motifs is reflected in both mosaics. The elongated figures of both Justinian and his entourage and Theodora and her entourage illustrate the abstraction; the stylized folds of the garments and the wide-staring eyes are also motifs that were favored by the Byzantine tradition. The classical element can be seen in the imperial purple garments of both Justinian and Theodora. An additional confirmation of the support of divine authority can be seen in the figure of the still youthful Christ above in the apse itself (12–9). This figure is also garbed in the imperial purple, seated on the world, as if it were his throne.
The mature bearded Christ figure is thought to have originated in the Holy Land. The sixth century Transfiguration from the Monastery of Saint Catherine in Sinai (12–13) is perhaps the first manifestation of this representation. It became the standard figural representation of Christ in both the East and the West. Similarly there is a rigid formality and compression of space also seen in the mosaics from Ravenna, the progressive disembodiment and flattening of the figures shows the slow transformation during this period of the presentation of figuration in a mosaic program designed for a church interior.
The shimmering gold interior first seen in Hagia Sophia, Constantinople 532–537 A.D. (12–5) continues on into the Middle Byzantine Period. The Theotokos from the same church was dedicated in 867 A.D. The enthroned Virgin and Child are against a gold background devoid of figuration. The emotional quality of this work is one of serene and spiritual majesty. The wide-staring eyes of both figures present an image of calmness, which can be attained in the spiritual realm according to the Byzantine tradition. This work is a continuation of the abstraction of not only the figure but also the philosophical abstract thought which became a component of the Orthodox Church. This mosaic was one of the first to be commissioned since the Iconoclasts (726–843 A.D.), it could be suggested that the representation of the Virgin and Child enthroned could also indicate the preference of the heavenly figures for the Macedonian dynasty and their continuing efforts to restore the images. The interior of the Katholikon at Hosios Loukas, Greece ca. 1000–25 A.D. (12–19) also shows that gold interior which was an earthly representation of the heavenly grace and the divine presence of God. These church interiors were to inspire the congregation with the divine presence, the domed apse containing the image of the Pantocrator was to serve as an image indicating the promise of salvation and redemption. It also served as an image for the divine protection of the Empire. As discussed earlier, the representation of the Christ figure has undergone a transformation from the beardless youthful figure of the Early Christian tradition (11–6) and similar representations in the Early Byzantine Period (12–9) to a mature beaded figure (12–24). It could be suggested that as the religion took hold and shape in both the East and the West, the iconic representation had to take on a more mature representation to indicate the importance of the religion.
The Late Byzantine Period saw a return to the earlier classical tradition. Again from Hagia Sophia, a representation in mosaic demonstrates the plasticity and virtuosity that the mosaic had attained. The Deesis ca. 1260 in the south gallery shows the figure of Christ, albeit a mature figure creates a dialog between the viewer and the divine figure. In the Church of Christ in Chora (now the Kariye Museum) in the apse, is a representation of the Anastasis or the Harrowing of Hell ca. 1310–20. The representation shows the blending of the classical and the abstract, the powerfully striding figure of Christ, releasing Adam and Eve from the pre-redemption state they occupied, presents a corporeal body beneath the white of his robe. The mandorla surrounding the figure of Christ is reminiscent of the mandorla seen in the 6th century mosaic from St. Catherine, Mt. Sinai (12–13). The red, blue and violet colors create a forceful image of the divine grace of love. The figures themselves create an illusion of physical presence. The arrangement of the scene within the circular apse is complementary, all those present lean inward, pointing to the drama of the moment, the salvation of Adam and Eve, literally being pulled from their tombs. The point of the mandorla and the gestures of the figures going up and out also serve as a visual reminder of the heavenly reward. This art stemmed generations and culminated in tying together the heritage of the classical and the abstract traditions of Byzantine art.
2) Byzantine architecture is a synthesis of classical, Christian classical and oriental or eastern fusion. Early Byzantine churches used both the centralized and basilica types. A dialog was set up between centralized structures and the basilica, with many combinations of these two forms. The most outstanding church of the Byzantine period was Hagia Sophia or Holy Wisdom, built at Constantinople under Justinian in the sixth century. This magnificent building, which was designed by the architects Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus, is a masterful merger of the centralized dome church with the longitudinal basilica form (12–4). Two supporting half-domes flank the mighty dome, spanning 107 feet. The great dome, which symbolizes the dome of heaven, seems to float above the congregation rather than being supported by any materiality of earth. As a matter of fact, the original dome had not been supported well enough, for it collapsed twenty years after it was built. It was rebuilt by a nephew of Isidorus who added the great exterior buttresses to the piers that support the dome (12–3). From the interior, however, one is not aware of how the great dome is supported-which is exactly the effect the architects wanted to achieve (12–5). There is a problem about how one sets a round dome on a square base, and essentially two different solutions have been proposed (12–4). The one that was to become most popular throughout Byzantium and the west is a dome on pendentives. Pendentives are the triangular-shaped pieces that make the transition from the circular base of the dome to the four piers that support the weight of the dome. The other solution, which was favored by Islamic architects, was the squinch. Squinches were pieces that were placed diagonally across the four comers of a square, turning it into an octagon, and as such, a more suitable base for a dome.
The centralized type plan can be seen in the church of San Vitale at Ravenna (12–7). Other Early Byzantine churches like the church of Sant’ Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna, followed a simplified variation of the basilica type.
Byzantine architects of later periods explored variants of the centralized plan combined with one or more domes. A typical example is the church of the Holy Apostles at Athens. Here a shallow narthex precedes the sanctuary proper, which is made up of a central square topped by a dome set on a tall drum and surrounded by four equal arms, each ending in a semi-circular apse. Other variants of the plan are seen at Hosios Loukas in Greece (12–18), and in the exterior of the church of San Marco (12–21) in Venice, Italy. In the later church each of the equal arms has its own dome, creating a composition of five great domes. The Byzantine influence extended to Russia and can be seen in the Greek plan of a single dome set on a high drum is followed at the Church of St. Dimitri at Vladimir. A later variant that was to characterize Russian orthodox architecture can be seen in the Cathedral of the Annunciation built in Moscow in the late fifteenth century.
3) The development of icons as small portable objects used in the process of worship has a long history in the Byzantine tradition. First seen in the sixth century (12–15), they were used in order to facilitate the devotional prayers. In this icon, Theotokos with Sts. Theodore and George, the presentation follows closely the format developed for the mosaic programs for church interiors. The figures are elongated and appear to float in space. The seated Virgin and Child are the same height as the two saints, they are not meant to be real portraits of the departed, but rather symbols of their presence in heaven. They have achieved salvation and redemption. They serve as mediators between the faithful and the almighty. The large staring eyes of the Virgin, Child and the Saints establish a dialog with the worshipper by their very gaze they create a spiritual link between the worshiper and the Divinity. The Byzantine worshiper believed that the icon itself could channel their prayers to the Almighty. The icon reinforced the promise of heavenly salvation. A seventh century icon found in Rome, Madonna and Child depicts the same spiritual feeling seen in the Theotokos. Similar to the Theotokos, the Madonna’s face is delicately colored, just a bit of pink on her cheeks, yet the wide-staring eyes give this icon the same sacred transcendence.
Between the Early and Middle Byzantine periods occurred the Iconoclasm (726–843). During this period no figurative art was commissioned and even more devastating, there was a concerted effort to destroy what images had been commissioned during the Early Byzantine period. Only those icons, which had been commissioned on the perimeters of the Empire, survived this destruction, thus only a very few images survived.
The resurgence of icon production came with the Middle Byzantine Period. The Vladimir Virgin late eleventh-twelfth centuries (12–29), demonstrates the evolution of the icon. Gone is the classicism and it has been replace by the stylized presentation that has become a template for the production of icons representing the Virgin and Child theme. She has gone from being presented as the throne of God, to the mother of God. The tenderness of the presentation might be explained as a tribute to the end of the Iconoclasts and a resurgence of the Byzantine Empire. In the Late Byzantine Period, the icon the Annunciation early fourteenth century (12–33) shows the command the art has reached. This panel was mounted on a stand in the church of St. Clement, Skolpje, Macedonia. The front depicts a Christ as Savior of Souls; both images compliment the other. The Annunciation forecasts the coming of the Lord and Christ as Savior of Souls is the response to the Annunciation, conclusion of the salvation dogma. The Annunciation clearly illustrates the event as a statement of fact. The angel Gabriel approaches the seated Virgin with authority. She is seated in almost the same posture as the throne of God, ready to accept the pronouncement and become the throne of God. Andrei Rublyev painted the icon of the Old Testament Trinity ca. 1410 (12–34), which was to serve as a reminder to the faithful of the promise of the salvation and the mystery of the Godhead. The presentation of the story is created by rounded shapes of color counterbalanced by the delicate folds of the gold garments. The positioning of the figures form a very gentle pyramid, another symbol for the Trinity. Each side equal to the other. The table has another reminder of the promise of salvation, on it is a chalice like goblet containing bread, an abbreviated version of the Eucharist. The turning heads are balanced by the wings, Rublyev has created a strong yet gentle fusion of intense color and subtle shape.
4) Manuscripts served both the Empire and the West. It was through manuscripts and the icon that the West became acquainted with Byzantine art. Also this form, manuscript, easily portable and carrying the text became a very useful political gift especially in the West. The interchange between the Byzantine Empire and the West was one that sometimes was mutually beneficial and sometimes not, for example, the occupation Constantinople by the Western Crusaders in 1204–61. The desire to be acquainted with and acknowledged by the Byzantine emperors led many Western rulers to seek and establish trading partnerships. In the ninth century, Charlemagne actively sought just such a partnership. The importance of such manuscripts conveyed the intellectual treatment of the Byzantine religion to the West. In the Ascension from the Rabbula Gospels 586 A.D. (12–14), the final act for the Christian religion was the returning to heaven of Christ. That particular event is depicted in this manuscript page. The intriguing point of this depiction was the inclusion of the Virgin, not part of the texts of the gospels. Similar images of this depiction could have made their way to the West, for just such a rendering appears in the West. A page from the Bible of St. Paul’s Outside the Wall 870 A.D., includes the Virgin, it is also a double depiction, in that it details both the ascension and the Pentecost. Another manuscript, the Mount-Michel Abbey Sacramentary ,somewhat later in time, ca. 1060, shows just the ascension and the Virgin is once again included.
The long period of the Byzantine Empire went through a range of political and social upheavals; the one constant was their art. It went through phases of change, yet it always served the emperor and the religion.