Characteristics of Byzantine Art

The beginning and end of Byzantine are determined not by Constantinople , but by the 'Province' , although this term is not really apt for centres such as Antioch and Alexandria . They were provincial cities in the organisational sense of the division of the Empire , but intellectually and culturally , on the other hand , metropolises unequalled in their way . Only in the 5th. century was Constantinople gradually able to assert itself against this competition , the influence of the capital grew , culminating in the first flowering in the 6th. century which was never to be repeated again as far as architecture was concerned .

The decline in artistic activity during iconoclasm also diminished Constantinople's aura ; with the revival of Byzantine power , it regained its dominating role as a political and intellectual centre in the Empire for several centuries until the Komnenes' rule . The art of the Palaiologan period only reached the periphery after a lag in time and second hand because the political link had been interrupted ; with the wave of refugees in 1453 , Byzantine painting ebbed away in those provinces held by Latin conquerors and thus not yet Turkish . As the art of the Orthodox Christians it has lived on into our own century , but the strength for a reviving change was broken for a long time ; the in part oppressive living circumstances gave no room for artistic impulses .

What applies for the relationship of Byzantine history to the Roman Empire , applies also for the relationship of Byzantine art to Classical art : it developed gradually over a period of several centuries out of the Roman-Hellenistic tradition . Oriental elements became interwoven in it . But the decisive feature was the adaptation of the Christian element in plastic arts , despite the sharp protest of the Church . Even at the end of the 4th. century , the Cypriot Archbishop Epiphanios campaigned against the portrayals of Christ without succeeding in achieving a change . Over and above the depiction of ambiguous and therefore innocuous symbols , the monumental decoration of the communal rooms had long since become customary .

With the 3rd. century then began the scenic reproduction of Biblical events .Only sculpture was never able to become established on account of the closeness to the Classical idol in the East . Painting found its models in the heathen surroundings . The first bath of Achilles becomes the bath of the new-born Christ ; Jesus Christ is modelled with the features of Orpheus .

The pictorial decoration of churches became politically necessary through the integration of Christianity into the state . Frescoes and mosaics acquired a second task and adapted themselves to the new requirements . Pictures of Christ were originally free from every imperial claim ; Jesus sat as a teacher in the midst of his disciples who , engaged in relaxed dispute , formed a semicircle around him . After Constantine I had promoted the transfer of Roman imperial symbolism to the Son of God , the speaking gesture with which Jesus had originally turned to his disciples changed into a sign of authoritarian pronouncement of the new world order . The apostles now stand and acclaim , i.e. they confirm the new ruler in accordance with the act laid down for this in court ceremonial . In the 6th. century, the picture of Christ in majesty , originally just a loan from the picture of the Emperor (also called Cosmocrator , ruler of the world), was regarded as a form of portrayal to which only Christ was entitled . Under the designation Pantocrator , after the turn of the millennium it formed part of the fixed programme of decoration in churches .

Parallel to the adoption of Classical picture schemes , the formation of two trends of style came about which were to accompany Byzantine art from then on with varying intensity : a modified retention of Hellenistic illusionism on the one hand and a deliberate dispensing with central perspective , plasticity , natural distribution of light and much else in favour of a ceremonial-sacral conception on the other .

The Classical inheritance was inaccessible in the West for centuries , among other things on account of the linguistic difference ; with Italy as pioneer , there was only a return to the Greek source again in the time of the renaissance , which takes its name from this process . In the Hellenistic East , on the other hand , Classical literature , science and art remained a living tradition and thus one may only speak in a limited sense of renaissances in Byzantine art : in the sense of a return to their own roots after a period of external or internal threat . Such returns to the inheritance took place in the 6th. century after the consolidation as 'half' a Roman Empire (Justinian) or in the 9th. century after the threat by Islam (Macedonian/early Komnenian) , in the 12th. after the destruction by the Crusaders (late Komnenian) and in the 14th. century in view of the threat by the Turks (Palaiologan) . In addition , there is the epoch of iconoclasm , although its own vocabulary of forms has only survived in a few examples with mat colours , undecorated crosses and ornaments . The most important effect of this period is the theological formulation of the pictorial language and arrangement inside the church building which marks the period after 845 .

Mosaic and dome

Justinian's attempt to restore the Roman Empire , may be regarded as a first 'renaissance'. In art , the rivival of the Roman past aimed at by the emperor led to a fundamental renewal . In two fields in particular , solutions came into being which were long to be retained by the following generations : in church construction and mosaic art .

Until the 4th. century , the multiple-aisled basilica formed the dominant structural type used for churches . The centre nave was higher and wider than the side aisles , but this form of emphasis did not satisfy Justinian's main idea . The central or round form handed down for baptisteries and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre corresponded just a little to the new need for representation . It found its fulfillment in the synthesis of the renowned Hagia Sophia . The central-plan building and basilica amalgamated into a gigantic interior above which rose semidomes and niches in several steps . A gigantic dome spans the entire interior .The room acquires an almost boundless dimension , the roof construction with its numerous windows spreads out like the firmament over the visitor . This milestone in architecture remained an unrepeatable ideal , but the idea of the domed central-plan building which contrasted the contemplative persistence of the purposeful basilica and is of unparalleled majestic effect , lay ready together with its technical solution .

The main problem was the technical development of the transition between the dome and the rectangular ground-plan . In the case of the possibility preferred in Bysantium , the cruciform base of the dome was inscribed inside a square (cf. Fig.18) . For this , four pillars or also walls were required which bear the lower concave corner points of four triangles .