Sunday, October 22, 2006

Early Christian and Byzantine Painting

Galla Placidia Interior The richly decorated interior of the 5th-century Galla Placidia mausoleum in Ravenna, Italy, contrasts with the plain brick exterior. This contrast is typical of Early Christian architecture. The mosaic from the entrance wall features Jesus Christ as the good shepherd.Scala/Art Resource, NY

Surviving Early Christian painting dates from the 3rd and 4th centuries and consists...
of fresco paintings in the Roman catacombs and mosaics on the walls of churches. Certain stylizations and artistic conventions are characteristic of these representations of New Testament events. For example, Christ was shown as the Good Shepherd, a figural type adopted from representations of the Greek god Hermes; the resurrection was symbolized by depictions of the Old Testament story of Jonah, who was delivered from the fish. Among the most extraordinary works of this Early Christian period are the mosaics found in the 6th-century churches in Ravenna, Italy. San Vitale, in particular, is noted for its beautiful mosaics depicting both spiritual and secular subjects. On the church's walls, stylized elongated figures, mostly shown frontally, stare wide-eyed at the viewer and seem to float weightlessly, outside of time.

This otherworldly presentation became characteristic of Byzantine art, and the style came to be associated with the imperial Christian court of Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), which survived from ad330 until 1453. The Byzantine style is also seen on icons, conventionalized paintings on wooden panels of Christ, the Virgin, or the saints, made for veneration. Illuminated manuscripts both of non-Christian texts—for example, the Vatican Virgil (4th or early 5th century, Biblioteca Vaticana, Rome)—and Christian writings such as the Paris Psalter (10th century, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris) show remnants of Greco-Roman art style

Iconography, in art history, the study of subject matter in art. The meaning of works of art is often conveyed by the specific objects or figures that the artist chooses to portray; the purpose of iconography is to identify, classify, and explain these objects. Iconography is particularly important in the study of religious and allegorical painting, where many of the objects that are pictured—crosses, skulls, books, or candles, for example—have special significance, which is often obscure or symbolic.

The use of iconographic symbols in art began as early as 3000 bc, when the Neolithic civilizations of the Middle East used nonhuman or animal figures to represent their gods. Thus, the Egyptian mother goddess Hathor was associated with the cow and usually appeared in relief sculpture and wall paintings as a cow-headed woman. The sun god Ra had a hawk's head, and the creator Ptah appeared as a bull.

In ancient Greece and Rome, each of the gods was associated with specific objects. Zeus (Jupiter), the father of the gods, was often accompanied by an eagle or a thunderbolt; Apollo, the god of art, by a lyre; Artemis (Diana), the hunter, by a bow and quiver. In addition, the Romans perfected the use of secular allegorical symbols. For example, a woman surrounded by bunches of grapes and sheaves of wheat would be readily understood as a representation of the bounties of the earth.

Early Christian art during the period of Roman persecution was highly circumspect, and innocuous objects—the fish and the dove—were used to symbolize Christ and the Holy Spirit. Later Christian art, however, became replete with iconographic symbols. In particular, many of the saints became associated with specific objects—Saint Peter with two keys, for instance, or Saint Catherine with a broken wheel.

During the Renaissance and through the 18th century, allegorical paintings were especially popular, as artists constructed elaborate symbolic schemes to illustrate such themes as the vanity of human existence. Objects such as jewels, coins, and musical instruments personified the vain pleasures of life, while skulls, hourglasses, and extinguished candles were memento mori, or reminders of death.

In the modern period, much art has become so highly individualistic that the use of widely understood iconographic objects has disappeared. Some exceptions are Cubism, Dada, and pop art, the images of which are everyday objects—newspapers, soup cans, photographs, comic-book figures—that have become genuine iconographic symbols reflecting modern culture.

Byzantine Art

The art of the Byzantine, or Eastern Roman, Empire. It originated chiefly in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), the ancient Greek town of Byzantium, which the Roman emperor Constantine the Great chose in ad330 as his new capital and named for himself. The Byzantine Empire continued for almost 1000 years after the collapse of the Western Empire in 476. Byzantine art eventually spread throughout most of the Mediterranean world and eastward to Armenia. Although the conquering Ottomans in the 15th century destroyed much in Constantinople itself, sufficient material survives elsewhere to permit an appreciative understanding of Byzantine art.

Byzantium the Glorious
The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted an exhibition in 1997 that spanned four centuries of Byzantine art and culture. Curators gathered a wide variety of items for the exhibition, including ceramics, paintings, textiles, and sacred objects such as religious scrolls, icons, and frescoes, from more than 20 countries. The exhibit focused not simply on artifacts from the ancient city of Byzantium, but on the entire eastern portion of the Roman Empire. This article from Collier’s 1998 Year Book chronicles the rise and fall of the Byzantine period and describes the “painstaking craftsmanship and lavish materials of its art.”
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Byzantine art arose in part as a response to the needs of the Eastern, or Orthodox, church. Unlike the Western church, in which the popular veneration of the relics of the saints continued unabated from early Christian times throughout the later Middle Ages, the Eastern church preferred a more contemplative form of popular worship focused on the veneration of icons (see Icon). These were portraits of sacred personages, often rendered in a strictly frontal view and in a highly conceptual and stylized manner. Although any type of pictorial representation—a wall painting or a mosaic, for instance—could serve as an icon, it generally took the form of a small painted panel.

Something of the abstract quality of the icons entered into much of Byzantine art. The artistic antecedents of the iconic mode can be traced back to Mesopotamia and the hinterlands of Syria and Egypt, where, since the 3rd century ad, the rigid and hieratic (strictly ritualized) art of the ancient Orient was revived in the Jewish and pagan murals of the remote Roman outpost of Dura Europos on the Euphrates and in the Christian frescoes of the early monasteries in Upper Egypt. In the two major cities of these regions, Antioch and Alexandria, however, the more naturalistic (Hellenistic) phase of Greek art also survived right through the reign of Constantine. In Italy, Roman painting, as practiced at Pompeii and in Rome itself, was also imbued with the Hellenistic spirit.

Byzantine Empire

The Hellenistic heritage was never entirely lost to Byzantine art but continued to be a source of inspiration and renewal. In this process, however, the classical idiom was drastically modified in order to express the transcendental character of the Orthodox faith. Early Christian art of the 3rd and 4th centuries had simply taken over the style and forms of classical paganism. The most typical form of classical art was the freestanding statue, which emphasized a tangible physical presence. With the triumph of Christianity, artists sought to evoke the spiritual character of sacred figures rather than their bodily substance. Painters and mosaicists often avoided any modeling of the figures whatsoever in order to eliminate any suggestion of a tangible human form, and the production of statuary was almost completely abandoned after the 5th century. Sculpture was largely confined to ivory plaques (called diptychs) in low relief, which minimized sculpturesque effects.

Mosaics were the favored medium for the interior adornment of Byzantine churches. The small cubes, or tesserae, that composed mosaics were made of colored glass or enamels or were overlaid with gold leaf. The luminous effects of the mosaics, spread over the walls and vaults of the interior, were well adapted to express the mystic character of Orthodox Christianity. At the same time their rich, jewel-like surfaces were also in keeping with the magnificence of the imperial court, presided over by the emperor, the de facto head of the Orthodox church.


Although the 5th-century art of the empire is sometimes referred to as early Byzantine, it should be more aptly called late Antique. It is a transitional phase between the classical antiquity of Early Christian art and the emergence of a truly Byzantine style shortly after 500, when the portraits of the Byzantine consuls on their ivory diptychs assume the hieratic, depersonalized character of the icons. The golden age of early Byzantine art and architecture falls within the reign (527-65) of the emperor Justinian, a prolific builder and a patron of the arts.


Theodora and Attendants Completed around 547, the lavishly detailed mosaics covering the interior of the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, are some of the most famous in Byzantine (Eastern Christian) art. Here, in a scene from the south wall of the apse, the Empress Theodora stands with her attendants while holding a golden cup for the Eucharist.Scala/Art Resource, NY

The still formative stage of Byzantine art in the age of Justinian is reflected in the variety of mosaic styles. They range from the austere grandeur of the Transfiguration of Christ (circa 540) in the apse of the monastery church of Saint Catherine at Mount Sinai to the mid-6th-century processions of the martyrs in Sant' Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy, which recall the endless rhythmic sequences of marching figures in the art of the ancient Near East.

Byzantine and Islamic Empires Produce Mosaics

The most extensive series of mosaics of the Justinian age, and the finest, are those (finished in 547) in the Church of San Vitale, Ravenna. Rather than a mere expression of stylistic diversity, the different pictorial modes of these mosaics were each adapted to its subject matter. The Old Testament scenes in the choir exemplify the narrative mode, in which the action takes place in picturesque settings of rocks and flowers against a background of rose-tinted clouds, all reminiscent of the illusionistic landscapes of Pompeian painting.

Beyond, on the curving wall of the apse, the emperor Justinian, surrounded by members of his court, confronts the empress Theodora in the midst of her attendant ladies; both rulers are sumptuously arrayed in diadems and imperial purple mantles. The emperor, venerated as Christ's representative on earth, and the revered empress are depicted, along with their retinues, in the uncompromising frontality and with the fixed gaze of the dematerialized figures of icons.

The classical heritage is visible in the beardless Christ, who, like a youthful Apollo, sits on the globe of the universe in the gold semidome of the apse—a Western type of the seated Christ derived from Early Christian sarcophagi. All three modes—the narrative, the iconic, and the classically inspired—are encountered again and again in all major periods of Byzantine art

Microsoft® Encarta® Encyclopedia


Blogger DelicACEy said...

I am in an art history class and your blog has taught me so much! I am so happy to have found this link.

Thank you.

3:40 AM  

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