Notebook, 1993-


Byzantine and Medieval Studies [Fordham University, NYC - USA]

Byzantine Art

(ca. 330-1453)

Art associated with the Eastern Roman Empire, founded in AD 330 by the emperor Constantine and ending in 1453 when his capital Constantinople (formerly named Byzantium) was captured by the Turks and under the name of Istanbul became the capital of the Ottoman Empire. During these eleven centuries the Byzantine territories varied greatly in extent: at one time they embraced almost the whole Mediterranean basin, but from the 7th cent. onwards many provinces were lost, first to the Arabs and later to the Turks.

Byzantine art, however, cannot be defined adequately in political or geographical terms. It did not come suddenly into being, and for a long time it might as properly have been called Roman as Byzantine. Nor did it cease in 1453, for during the second half of the 15th cent. and a good part of the 16th the art of those regions where Greek Orthodoxy still flourished--such as Mount Athos--remained in the Byzantine tradition. And Byzantine art passed far beyond the territorial limits of the empire, to penetrate, for instance, into the Slav countries.

Byzantine art is, above all, a religious art. Not that it treated religious subjects only. There was a fine efflorescence of the 'minor arts' of metal-work, textiles, carved ivories, enamels, jewelry, etc. Secular paintings and mosaics also adorned the imperial palaces. But these, which have largely disappeared, were few in comparison with the subjects taken from the Old and New Testaments, from the apocryphal books (Gospels of the childhood of Christ or of the Virgin, of Joseph the Carpenter, etc.) and the lives of the saints. It is also a theological art, in the sense that the Byzantine artist did not aspire to freedom of individual interpretation but was the voice of orthodox dogma and subject to the Church which established the dogma. His function was to translate into the language of art, for the instruction and edification of the faithful, the thought of the theologians and the decisions of Councils. Consequently this art was impersonal and traditional. The artist's personality was suppressed, and indeed very few Byzantine masters are known to us by name. The arrangement of mosaics or paintings in a church, the choice of subjects, even the attitudes and expressions of the characters, were all determined according to a traditional scheme charged with theological meaning. If the artist attempted innovation, he risked incurring the guilt of heresy or sacrilege. His role was akin to that of the priesthood and the exercise of his talent a kind of liturgy --liturgy in a sense almost sacramental--rather than a didactic function. It is this which differentiates the essentially theological art of Byzantium from the more didactic art of the West in the medieval period.

Even when it was imperial, Byzantine art hardly diverged from this theocratic and religious character. There was indeed a form of art responsible for glorifying the emperor; but at Byzantium the emperor was an oriental sovereign, an earthly image of the Deity. His court with its carefully contrived hierarchy reflected the hierarchy of heaven. The ceremonies of the Great Palace, meticulously regulated, were a kind of liturgy.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Byzantine art was an art of stylization. It was fundamentally opposed to the spirit of ancient Greek art, whose theme was man and his natural likeness. Byzantium shuns earthly man, the individual, and aspires to the superhuman, the divine, the absolute. By stylization it destroys humanity in art and transfuses forms with the numinous quality of symbols. It is not naturalistic but ritualistic. The conventions of Byzantine art were eventually challenged by the more naturalistic ideals of artists such as Giotto and (---).

[Chilvers, Ian, Harold Osborne, and Dennis Farr, eds. Oxford Dictionary Of Art. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.]



The contents of this site, including all images and text, are for personal, educational, non-commercial use only. The contents of this site may not be reproduced in any form without proper reference to Text, Author, Publisher, and Date of Publication [and page #s when suitable].