Byzantine Art

Topic 2: Byzantine Art

  • The art and culture of the Byzantine empire, centered on Constantinople on the far eastern edge of the Mediterranean, reflect a far greater degree of continuity with the Classical world. In the east, the rule of emperors continued with little interruption from 330 C.E. to 1453 C.E., when the city of Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks.

  • Though its borders shifted over time, the heartland of the Byzantine empire generally included Greece and parts of Asia Minor - much of the old Magna Graecia and the later Hellenistic Empire. For much of its existence it extended into the Near East and the old kingdom of Egypt centered on the Nile. These lands were far more urban and long-settled than the barbarian west; they were also united by the Greek language and by the Christian religion. Classical and Hellenistic Greek art and learning were living influences.

  • At its greatest extent, under the sixth-century Emperor Justinian, the empire took in the shores of the western Mediterranean and much of the Italian peninsula itself. This is why one of the greatest Byzantine monuments, the church of San Vitale, was built in Ravenna, on the east coast of Italy. The church contains lavish mosaics (a Greco-Roman art form) made of colored and gilded glass, depicting Justinian and his court as well as Christian scenes.

  • Justinian was also responsible for the building of the Hagia Sophia (Greek for "holy wisdom"), the cathedral of Constantinople and the seat of the Patriarch, leader of the Byzantine church. The Hagia Sophia is best known for its architectural innovations, especially its vast dome.

  • Officially, the Byzantines observed the same Christian religion as the Latin West, but the two traditions soon began to grow apart. This split would be formally recognized with the Great Schism in the year 1054. What became Eastern Orthodox Christianity tended to be more mystical and abstract than Latin Christianity. Greek-speaking Byzantine missionaries also converted newly settled tribes in eastern Europe, so a part of Europe was more influenced by Constantinople than by Rome.

  • One of the most important Byzantine art forms was the icon, an image of a holy person, often painted on a wooden panel, used for prayer and contemplation. As "graven images", icons were always controversial, and at one point their use was briefly forbidden by imperial decree. (Opposition to icons was called iconoclasm, those who opposed them iconoclasts.) The tradition of icon painting was also a major influence on the art of medieval Italy.

Related Links:
Early Christian, Byzantine, Islamic, Romanesque, and Gothic Quiz
Medieval European and Early Islamic Art and Culture
AP Art History Quizzes
AP Art History Notes