Artistic style that developed in the eastern Mediterranean under the rule of the Byzantine Empire and spread beyond its boundaries to other parts of the Christian world. It moved away from classical naturalistic figures to flat frontal figures and is best seen in mosaics and icons.
Art produced during the Middle Ages by the Byzantine Empire, or Eastern Roman Empire, spanning the fourth to the fifteenth century. The style is defined by devotional, Christian subjects depicted in angular forms with sharp contours, flattened colour and gold decoration. Byzantine art appeared in a wide range of art and design forms including painting, architecture, mosaic, metalwork and carved ivory relief, although it is most widely recognised for its lavish gold icons which still exist in churches around the world today.
The Byzantine Empire
Byzantium was the eastern strand of the Roman Empire, which at its height covered large areas of the Mediterranean, present-day Turkey, Southern Spain and Italy. Orthodox Christianity was the official religion, lending the art a mostly devotional quality. Under the reign of Emperor Justinian from 527 to 565, Constantinople became the political capital of the empire. Justinian organised the building of the vastly scaled, ambitious Hagia Sophia domed church, as well as setting up workshop spaces for various art and craft forms including ivory carving, enamel metalwork and icon painting. He also encouraged the spread of ideas and iconography to Ravenna in Italy, where the San Vitale church, with its domed ceiling, terracotta forms and mosaicked interior came to encapsulate the Byzantine era.
The Byzantine style rejected the realistic forms of classical Roman art in favour of highly stylised, flattened designs. At its peak, the era was defined by elongated figures with angular faces, positioned face-on against ornate, gold backgrounds. Icons were particularly popular, illustrating Christ, the Virgin Mary or other important figures of worship, most commonly painted onto wooden panels with the encaustic technique, where coloured pigments were mixed in with wax and burned into the wood. Holy figures were seen front on, engaging viewers in a direct stare, which many believed could enable communication with the divine spirit, lending the work a deeply devotional quality. Historian Peter Pearson reflected on the magical, metaphysical spirituality these icons could hold, writing, “Iconography, good iconography, strives to convey invisible reality in a visible form.”
In the eighth century, the validity of icons came under fire, as new Byzantine Emperor Leo III launched the ‘Iconoclasm’ movement, ordering the destruction of religious icons across the Empire, a period which continued until 842, ending with a change in imperial power and political agency, when Empress Theodora worked to restore their legacy.
Made a space more beautiful, instructed illiterate public, encouraged faithful – churches were lavishly decorated with Biblical subjects. Usually in a certain order, where Christ filled the centre, evangelists on the wings between the vault and dome, Virgin and Child in the sanctuary and walls with scenes of the New Testament. Like icons, earlier styles were flattened, geometric, richly gilded, later replaced with more emotional, naturalistic details in the later years of the Byzantine era.
Architecture, Sculpture and Decorative Art
Byzantine art and design was broad ranging and encompassed a wide variety of forms, including architecture, sculpture, interior mosaics, carved ivory sculptures and precious metalwork. There was no division between artist and craftsperson, with makers often extending their skills into more than one discipline. Byzantine architecture was innovative and influential, introducing various new stylistic devices including churches with domed roofs, including the squinch, which brought an arch into corners of a square base, transforming it into an octagonal shape, and the pendentive, a triangular corner support curving into the dome. They also introduced the Greek aesthetic for Poikilia into church interiors, where variegated, multi-coloured surfaces were explored to create complex, multi-sensory spaces.
Mosaics were predominant within Byzantine Poikilia, commonly featuring gold tiles which shimmered with light, invoking a sense of religious aura around scenes illustrating Christ, the Virgin Mary and saints, as were carved, variegated stone surfaces, particularly in ivory relief, with minutely accurate, intricate areas of detail that suggested realistic sculptural depth. Other decorative forms of art included metalsmithing, enamelling and illuminated manuscripts, all of which were lavishly bedecked with semi-precious stones and enamels. Textiles, fabric design and pottery also featured richly coloured Biblical scenes with ornate areas of patterning.
In the fifteenth century the Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottoman Turks, but by now the thousand year-long era had been profoundly influential, shaping architectural forms in Islam, Greece, Eastern Europe and Russia, as well as continuing into the painting and sculpture of the Early Renaissance across Europe, seen in paintings by El Greco and Giotto di Bondone. Artists since this time have been fascinated by the religious worship of icons, attempting to instil this same sense of awe and wonder into their art, including Natalia Goncharova, Kasimir Malevich, Alan Davie and Agnes Martin.