Byzantine Art and Painting

Constantinople was rebuilt and rechristened by Constantine, a Christian emperor, in the year 328 A.D. It became a stronghold of Christian traditions, manners, customs, art. But it was not quite the same civilization as that of Rome and the West. It was bordered on the south and east by oriental influences, and much of Eastern thought, method, and glamour found its way into the Christian community. The artists fought this influence, stickling a long time for the severer classicism of ancient Greece. For when Rome fell the traditions of the Old World centred around Constantinople. But classic form was ever being encroached upon by oriental richness of material and color. The struggle was a long but hopeless one. As in Italy, form failed century by century. When, in the eighth century, the Iconoclastic controversy cut away the little Greek existing in it, the oriental ornament was about all that remained.

There was no chance for painting to rise under the prevailing conditions. Free artistic creation was denied the artist. An advocate of painting at the Second Nicene Council declared that : “It is not the invention of the painter that creates the picture, but an inviolable law of the Catholic Church. It is not the painter but the holy fathers who have to invent and dictate. To them manifestly belongs the composition, to the painter only the execution.” Painting was in a strait-jacket. It had to follow precedent and copy what had gone before in old Byzantine patterns. Both in Italy and in Byzantium the creative artist had passed away in favor of the skilled artisan — the repeater of time-honored forms or colors. The workmanship was good for the time, and the coloring and ornamental borders made a rich setting, but the real life of art had gone. A long period of heavy, morose, almost formless art, eloquent of mediaeval darkness and ignorance, followed.

It is strange that such an art should be adopted by foreign nations, and yet it was. Its bloody crucifixions and morbid madonnas were well fitted to the dark view of life held during the Middle Ages, and its influence was wide-spread and of long duration. It affected French and German art, it ruled at the North, and in the East it lives even to this day. That it strongly affected Italy is a very apparent fact. Just when it first began to show its influence there is matter of dispute. It probably gained a foothold at Ravenna in the sixth century, when that province became a part of the empire of Justinian. Later it permeated Rome, Sicily, and Naples at the south, and Venice at the north. With the decline of the early Christian art of Italy this richer, and in many ways more acceptable, Byzantine art came in, and, with Italian modifications, usurped the field. It did not literally crush out the native Italian art, but practically it superseded it, or held it in check, from the ninth to the twelfth century. After that the corrupted Italian art once more came to the front.

EARLY CHRISTIAN AND BYZANTINE REMAINS: The best examples of Early Christian painting are still to be seen in the Catacombs at Rome. Mosaics in the early churches of Rome, Ravenna, Naples, Venice, Constantinople. Sculptures, ivories, and glasses in the Lateran, Ravenna, and Vatican museums. Illuminations in Vatican and Paris libraries. Almost all the museums of Europe, those of the Vatican and Nagles particularly, have some examples of Byzantine work. The older altar-pieces of the early Italian churches date back to the mediaeval period and show Byzantine influence. The altar-pieces of the Greek and Russian churches show the same influence even in modern work.