The Byzantine Art

It is not till the eleventh century that we see spontaneous efforts at improved design in Western Europe, and for that date the existing monuments of such spontaneous efforts are quite rare—for instance, the bronze cathedral doors made under direction of Bishop Bernward of Hildesheim. Meantime we see either survivals of the old classic decadence, as represented by some of the sarcophagi of Ravenna; or efforts of more or less untrained barbarism or ignorance; or what is known as the “Byzantine ” style. This last was native to Eastern Europe and the Roman territories of the Eastern Mediterranean, but is found in widespread examples also in all parts of Western Europe.

It should be explained that these three classes of art works are not to be conceived as existing at one time in one territory. The coexistence of the Byzantine style with semi-barbaric art is to be expected. The coexistence of the survival of the older classic decadence with the Byzantine style is also to be expected. But the classic decadence survival will, generally speaking, exclude the barbaric art and for obvious reasons. Being a survival it is confined to certain localities which for one reason or another had escaped the more overwhelming devastations of the invasions. Arles (in Southern France), Rome, and Ravenna, are the places where this style is best represented and it scarcely survived the sixth century. Otherwise we find its examples, and some peculiarly fine ones, in ivories, and for the reason that this art was much practiced and consequently preserved a higher traditional standard of excellence.

The Byzantine style is naturally found coexistent with the semi-barbaric art because it represented the intrusive art of imported Byzantine workmen or was itself actually imported. We also find various stages of imitation of the Byzantine style, so that there are all possible transitions between a wholly clumsy untrained early medieval effort and a highly finished product of the pure Byzantine style.

We shall now consider this style somewhat more closely. As regards its name we observe that Byzantium was the older title of the Greek colony on the Bosphorus, whose site was selected by the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century for the new capital of his empire. As to all the reasons which inspired Constantine in this transfer of the seat of the capital from Rome we are not clear, but the most important one is obvious. As the residence of the emperor (who was always a military man and commander in chief of the army above everything else) Byzantium was halfway between the two frontiers which were most in danger in the fourth century, viz., the lower Danube and the upper Euphrates. Although this capital has always been known as Constantinople since the time of Constantine—the adjective “Byzantine” (probably for reasons of euphony as preferable to ” Constantinopolitan ” has always been applied by moderns to the empire whose sole capital it became after the German tribes founded their new states in the Western Empire. The Byzantine Empire is simply therefore the Roman Empire under a new name, which name is applied to it for the period after the German invasions and is therefore to be understood as meaning the empire bereft of those territories which became the Germanic states of the Middle Ages. As the Ottoman Turks conquered, in the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries, all the countries of the Byzantine Empire, a map of Turkey in Europe and Turkey in Asia in its widest extent (and before recent nineteenth century losses) will give a fair idea of its territories. In its most flourishing period, which was the time of the Emperor Justinian (sixth century), it included for a short time also the whole of Italy, and it retained possession of Ravenna and the “exarchate of Ravenna” until the close of the eighth century. It also ruled in Justinian’s time the whole of North Africa. This territory, together with Egypt and Syria, was lost to the Arabs in the seventh century. The empire lasted in Asia Minor till the fourteenth century, and in Eastern Europe till the fifteenth century (1453).

These political facts are essential to the comprehension of the influence of Byzantine art in Western Europe and of the long-continued duration of this influence.

The peculiar style of Byzantine design is shown by a number of illustrations, which are, however, highly unfair to it where color is concerned, and that is to say in the case of all mosaics. The evolution of this style from the earlier classic art of the Roman-Greek eastern countries, is not represented by existing monuments. We find it in the sixth century fully developed, and the transition stages are not well known to us.

It is clearly a style which grew out of traditional repetition of set designs,—pictures of saints, Bible stories, etc.,—without the least reference to correction by observation of natural forms, and this indifference to nature has been explained as an element of the early Christian movement (p. 78). The figures are unnaturally elongated, the attitudes are formal and motionless, the expressions are rigid, conventional, and lifeless. The technical execution is frequently or generally of finished perfection for the given material.


Aside from architecture itself, the best efforts of Byzantine art were devoted to church decoration and especially to decoration in glass mosaics. It is here that the East Romans succeeded best and that their art, for the given purpose, was entirely adequate. In this art also, their own workmen were sought for in all other countries, and through this art their influence is most apparent and was most felt in Western Europe.

There is only one church in the world whose whole interior is now visible in the mosaic decorations of its ancient time. This is the church of St. Mark at Venice, begun in the tenth century, which is also the tomb and shrine of the (supposed) body of the saint, which was brought at that time from Alexandria, in Egypt. The mosaics are not all of the date of the church and some have been considerably restored, but the general effect corresponds to what it has always been. The backgrounds of the glass mosaics are invariably gold, the other colors are brilliant or warm in tone and beautifully harmonized and contrasted. The formalism of the designs assists the color effects and is largely essential to them. This is because colors are more effective when boldly opposed and contrasted with one another—and less effective when connected by shaded transitions or modified tints. When colors are directly contrasted there must be a boundary between them, that is to say a formal line. That these outlines may be beautiful and in a sense natural is true, and the Greeks so understood the art of decorating with figures, but it is also true that as far as color results are concerned the beauty of the form is a matter of indifference. This appears in the fine color effects of many Oriental de-signs whose forms are stiff and unnatural. It is when we study the mosaics in their architectural position and. in their decorative color results that the peculiar Byzantine style is seen at its best and for the given use and place it then seems absolutely perfect—from a decorative point of view.

For some reasons the mosaics of the Ravenna churches are superior to those first mentioned. The fifth and sixth centuries did best in this art, and those of St. Mark’s are too late in time to represent the best works as regards composition and detail. It is in the preservation of the color effect of an entire interior that St. Mark’s stands foremost and alone. At Ravenna, San Apollinare Nuovo exhibits an interior whose side walls are still entirely covered with mosaics of the sixth century, the only existing church of the basilica type in the world which can claim this distinction. The main wall surfaces show processions of saints issuing from the cities of Ravenna and Jerusalem and terminating with an Adoration of the Magi and a group of angels with the Madonna and infant Savior. The church of San Apollinare in Classe, at Ravenna hasSan Vitale, Ravenna has preserved the mosaic of its apse, or choir, dating a century later than the church, a picture of Christ as the Good Shepherd with his flock. In the tomb chapel of Galla Placidia, at Ravenna, there is a fine mosaic of the fifth century, Christ as the Good Shepherd. In the church of San Vitale, at Ravenna, are the famous mosaic portraits of the Emperor Justinian and his Empress Theodora, surrounded respectively by courtiers and ladies of the court.

The mosaics of the ancient Roman churches are generally of inferior quality or preservation, but the apse mosaic of the church of Santi Cosmo and Damiano on the Roman Forum, has a sixth century mosaic of the Savior as Judge, in colossal proportions, which is the grandest existing work of early Christian art. The church of Saint Sophia at Constantinople (now a mosque) has mosaics entirely filling its dome, but these have been whitewashed by the Turks and are not visible.

Aside from the cities or churches mentioned, remains of early church mosaics are almost unknown, although there were once many of them in Europe. The art declined rapidly after the tenth and eleventh centuries.

The causes of this decline were especially the independent developments of native talent in Western Europe after this date and the abandonment of the habit of employing the Byzantine workmen who were familiar with the art. Fresco paintings then took the place of mosaics both in Northern and Southern Europe, and almost nothing was attempted in this line in Italy after the beginning of the fourteenth century, and the rise of the school of wall painting headed by Giotto. Survivals of the art at a later date, as, for instance, in the decorations of St. Peter’s in the seventeenth century, do not remotely compare in effect with the Byzantine works, as they were imitations of the style of the oil paintings of the same date. A realistic pictorial style is inconsistent with the conditions of wall decoration because the shadings and transitions of color prevent contrast and the objects taken in mass, being too numerous and too much detailed, lose the necessary effects of dimension, simplicity, and balance. In mosaic there is the farther necessary and natural limitation inherent in the coarse material and in the size of the individual cubes of which the picture was composed. No effort was made in the Byzantine style to refine the picture beyond the natural limitations of the material used and this is their great decorative merit. Fig. 62 illustrates, this frank exhibition of the material.

There is no doubt, however, that the stiffness, rigidity, and formalism of Byzantine art were exaggerated and perpetuated by the methods of the mosaic style, which subsequently reacted on the minor arts. Byzantine oil paintings are often obvious imitations of the mosaic style.

It is from this point of view therefore that the topic of Byzantine painting is best approached. The subjects were invariably religious and treated traditionally. The illustration represents the type of panel pictures which ere general in Italy until the fourteenth century. The art of the Greek church in Eastern Mediterranean countries has perpetuated this style down to the present century. It still survives also in Russia, which obtained ts civilization, art, and religion from the Byzantine state. Sculpture, as practiced for life-size figures, was almost absolutely unknown to Byzantine art, which shared the helplessness and incapacity of all early Christian times in this sense. But there was also at one period of Byzantine history a movement in the Greek church which was headed and promoted by certain emperors (the iconoclasts, or image-breakers) which antagonized the use of images in churches, paintings included. As a theory enforced by law or relgious zeal the iconoclast movement was not lasting; but, in matter of fact, the Byzantine art only practiced sculpture of the human figure in exceptional cases.

It is mainly in relief carvings, which approximate to pictorial art, that the art of sculpture is found—in wood carving, in ivory carving, and in worked metal. These materials were variously employed for caskets, especially reliquaries, shrines, altars, book covers, triptychs, etc. The triptychs were small altars with folding panels or wings, used for private devotion.

The foregoing historical accounts of the German invasions and Germanic states, of the Byzantine Empire, and of the general conditions of civilization in Eastern and Western Europe, as assisted by the illustrations, will give a fair idea of the medieval art of design between the fifth and the eleventh centuries (500-1000 A. D.). No general account of this time would, however, be complete, which did not emphasize the importance of Irish civilization and of the influence of the Irish monks in England, France, and Germany. During the invasions Ireland became the refuge of the art and learning of Western Europe ; for this island escaped the terrors of invasion and consequently became a center for the diffusion of later civilization in Europe, only second in importance to the Byzantine Empire. Otherwise, it may be said of this period that the forces of civilization in Western Europe were weakest in Italy, because the ruin of the old culture was most sensibly felt there and that they were strongest (outside of Ireland) in the Frankish state, which finally rose to a territorial power under the Emperor Charlemagne (ninth century) which reached to the Elbe, to the borders of Bohemia and Hungary in Germany, to the Ebro in Spain, and which included the greater part of Italy.