Byzantine Details And Ornamental System

In the early Middle Ages the classic buildings were plundered for their columns and capitals as long as any could be found. It is pure chance or the inexhaustible supply of ruins in certain instances (like the city of Rome, where very little building moreover was done in the later Middle Ages) that has left us any ruins at all. The piecemeal adaptation of the old material to new uses is found in many places. Besides these direct adaptations of classic forms new ones were designed in more or less original departures from them. Capitals which clearly go back to Corinthian or Ionic originals are found as late as the twelfth century. All of these had Byzantine prototypes. There is, however, a distinctive form of Byzantine capital, the cube form, expanding from the neck of the column to an intermediate supporting member (which took the place of the ancient abacus), which has many beautiful variants. The surface ornaments of these capitals, like other ornamental Byzantine details, are simplified evolutions from the classic scrolls, spirals, acanthus leaves, and trefoils, which they frequently also repeat in very obvious derivative forms. There are many beautiful Byzantine capitals in Ravenna, in Venice (St. Mark’s), and in Constantinople. The later Romanesque churches continued many of their forms and details. The true artistic genius of the Byzantine art is nowhere so immediately obvious as in its architectural ornament. Its study is moreover important as leading to the comprehension of the arabesque (or Moresque) patterns, which were originally based upon and derived from it.

Aside from decorative sculptured, or stuccoed, details the Byzantine churches employed a system of marble paneling, in which the slabs, as sawn into thin pieces, were so fitted together as to form a series of symmetrical patterns from the veining of the marble. St. Mark’s at Venice and the St. Sophia church at Constantinople show the finest examples of this work. When we add the effect of the colored mosaic decorations already described, it is clear that Byzantine architecture was a glorious and artistic creation. The peculiar failings and limitations of the figure design, when compared with the perfection of Byzantine decorative art, thus appear more clearly to be due to general historic causes and are certainly not due to any element of barbarism or natural ignorance, for we know in many ways that the East Roman civilization was of a highly refined and elaborated character.

As regards Western Europe in general it will be understood that the models furnished by Ravenna and by Venice are by no means types of an equal perfection elsewhere. These cities were distinctly connected with Byzantine civilization ; one by government and the other by commerce. The meaner and more carelessly built existing ancient churches of Rome would be better examples of what was done habitually in most parts of western Christendom between the fifth and eleventh centuries.