Most art historians date Byzantine art beginning around the middle of the Hagia Sophia, Istanbul5th century until the conquering of the capital city of Constantinople (modern Istanbul) by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Since this is a long and consistent art tradition, we will concentrate primarily on the era of the so-called "First Golden Age", most of which coincides with the reign of one Emperor named Justinian I, who ruled from 526-565 AD, who commissioned many spectacular monuments both in Constantinople and in the secondary capital of Ravenna, Italy. Since the time Constantine moved the capital in 330 from Rome to this former Greek town known as Byzantium (from which we get the name for this era), the population had flourished from approximately 20,000 to about a half a million. This new Imperial Christian Rome was transformed with many new churches, a quarter mile long processional way lined with columns, and several commemorative squares with triumphal columns reminiscent of the Column of Trajan. By the time of Theodosius II, some thirty churches had been built. Recent excavations have allowed experts to reconstruct some of this former splendor, as seen in this plan, showing some of the processional way (two main roads which cut through the city) and the many churches (black dots to the right) on the Eastern premonitory on the Bosborus. Another view here shows in the foreground, the ruins of the hippodrome built by an earlier Roman ruler-Septimus Severus in 211 AD and expanded by Constantine.

Question: What reasons can you give as to why this sight may have been chosen for the new Christian capital? Why would Constantine have desired such a move? (Some clues are in the map.) Looking from a wider scope of time, what major transformations will result from this move? Do you feel these changes were positive or negative and why? 


The Icon and Iconoclasm:

One of the prominent concepts of Byzantine Art is the use of The ICON, a powerful and fascinating tradition which continues in the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches today. An icon (the Greek word meaning likeness or image, borrowed by computer programmers), in art history has a specific religious connotation, where it is a sacred image of a saint or deity and is seen as a divine revelation, equivalent to the revelation of the written word or Bible. It is an aid to prayer, not an object of worship, however the separation of these concepts plagued even the Orthodox Church at times. In 703 AD a period of ICONOCLASM set in with the Emperor Leo III which lasted 113 years, causing great religious and political turmoil. Because of this era of ICONOCLASM (literally means smashing or forbidding of icons), many early pieces were destroyed. The two examples at the right come from the Monastery of St. Catherine, on Mount Sinai, in Egypt, where some of the oldest icons somehow miraculously survived this destruction. These 6th C. wood panel paintings would be placed within an altar setting. (Technically the icon is a wood panel altar image, however, the term is also applied to mosaics of saints, angels, Mary and God.) The upper example represents Christ, while the lower represents Mary with the Christ child flanked by St. Theodore on the left and St. George on the right. Look carefully at the top and you will see two angels, plus in the center the hand of God reaching down. This symbolizes the exclusion of the image of God within the Trinity, that is, the divine God can be represented only through his hand, while Jesus, due to his human transformation and presence on earth is allowed to be represented in human form. The icons are traditionally arranged with a symmetrical composition placing Mary or the main person in the center (called HEIRATIC). To overwhelm us the images are strictly frontalized and present the so-called devotional stare, demanding that the worshipper connect to them. Notice also, in addition to the above standard Byzantine features, because this icon is so early in date; we also see some stylistic characteristics of Greek Hellenistic style.
Christ, Monastery of St. Catherine Madonna and Child, Monastery of St. Catherine


Question: What characteristics of Greek Hellenistic style do you see in the Icon of the Madonna from St. Catherine, Mt. Sinai? Answer on the Etudes discussion bd.

The emotional impact of the Icons:

As we look at the two on the right above, we can understand how these images had great emotional appeal. When combined with the spiritual exhilaration of the shimmering gold mosaic surfaces of the church interior walls, these haunting faces and mystical symbols stress the metaphysical side of the religion. The icons and mosaics become windows into another reality, which leave the worshiper awestruck and humble, while at the same time elevate him out of his mundane level of existence. This is impossible to explain in words one must visit such a Byzantine church (see topics for paper) or visit the internet sights below.

Some of this effect is seen in the mosaics from the Church of St. Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna shown below. These are female, martyred saints whose names appear above and who carry two symbols of martyrdom, the crown and the palm branch. The lilies and greenery at their feet symbolize paradise. In Byzantine art all objects have a spiritual and symbolic message, and will be represented in a style which tends to negate the material and physical world thus, the colors are those least found in nature, violet, white, black and the gold particularly radiant of the celestial reality. Once again, though, since these are early Byzantine examples you will still see shades of the earlier Greco-Roman representationalism.

Saints, St. Apollinare Nuovo


Go to these sources to get a fuller preview of Byzantine Art.

(NOTE: To get back to this site after you have viewed the following links, you must minimize or close their window completely. The ARTII site stays open underneath for cross referencing.)

For the Church of the Hagia Sophia, in Istanbul
More on Hagia Sophia
Art History Resources on the Web - Byzantine
Museums in Istanbul








 Last Published 7/14/16