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Byzantine Painting

( Originally Published 1955 )



The term Byzantine is employed rather loosely to describe various historical phenomena. In general it means the art of the Christian epoch in the Eastern Mediterranean, an art that came into being when the city of Byzantium, from which it derived its name, was re-named Constantinople in the early fourth century. Constantinuple, then, was the focal point of Byzantine painting, but owing to losses of its monuments. our best knowledge of the art is seldom derived from examples in the city itself. The Byzantine styles of painting and mosaic not only represent one of the major artistic traditions of the medieval period; they are of particular importance for their influence upon the nascent arts of Western Europe. On walls, on portable panels, and in the pages of manuscripts. Byzantine culture produced one of the most sumptous arts of all time. Popularly thought of as rigid in form and unchanging in style, the term Byzantine actually embraces a variety of manners of painting and types of forms. In the later middle ages the art of Byzantium served both as an inspiration to the creation of iconic images in the West and as a repository and model of the Antique tradition of plastic form and liveliness.

For the period before the ninth century, it is customary to use the terms Early Byzantine and Early Christian interchangeably. Early Christian art was in many ways an extension of late Imperial Roman forms and was subject to the same regional and provincial variations that characterized that pagan tradition. Although in general the early Churches pursued similarly a transcendental symbolism, a number of distinct styles seem to have arisen in Rome, Gaul, Spain, North Africa, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor, and Constantinople. Categorically, we refer to the western group of styles as Early Christian (see) and the eastern group as Byzantine, assuming Constantinople to have been most representative of the latter. However, as nothing important remains of Constantinopolitan painting before the ninth century, we base our knowledge of its style on such holdings of Justinian as Ravenna in Italy, which geographically speaking is West Christian. Actually, the monuments are so few and so isolated in the Early Byzantine (and Early Christian) period that it is more rewarding to examine their innate artistic qualities than their historical interrelationships.

A certain difference in taste is to be seen in Byzantine painting before and after the Iconoclastic Controversy (over image worship). which lasted from 726-867. Throughout the entire history of Byzantine painting there is an emphasis on floating coloristic effects, flat forms. limited space, decorative highlights and detail, and neutral backgrounds in deep color or gold. However, before the eighth century these effects were less systematized than later. In Early Byzantine art there was a close identity between religious and political symbolism. echoing the important position of the Emperor in ecclesiastical affairs. Our most conclusive evidence for the character of Byzantine painting previous to the Controversy is in the rich mosaics of Ravenna and Salonika (see EARLY CHRISTIAN PAINTING, MOSAIC PAINTING). We learn little. on the other hand, from the simple ornamental mosaics that adorned Justinian's great church of Hagia Sophia when it was constructed in the sixth century. The recently uncovered figure mosaics of this building, the leading church of Byzantium, were all added later (ninth to twelfth centuries). many as special votive panels endowed by important personages. There are also frescoes from the early period in provincial areas, but as in the Greek paintings of San Saba and Santa Maria Antiqua in Rome it is difficult here to isolate Byzantine elements from local tendencies. Movable paintings are almost lacking except in books. The Dioscorides Codex, produced in Constantinople. tells more of its Hellenistic model than of the current Byzantine style; the purple codices of Rossano, Vienna, and Sinope cannot be localized but merely give us an inkling of the rich colorism of the imperial art.

With the disappearance of figurative or representational art in the doctrinal dispute over images in the eighth to ninth centuries, painting apparently turned to ornamental and landscape forms, as can be seen in the work done by Byzantine craftsmen for the Moslems in Damascus and Cordoba.

From the ninth century on, the distinct character of Byzantine painting is clearer and more easily differentiated from both Western and Asiatic art. It portrayed the official dogma of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and retained its distinctive character even when it was engulfed by the Turks (fifteenth century) and had spread to the Balkans and Russia. Following the triumph of the iconodules or pro-icon party in the ninth century, the iconography became more purely biblical and liturgical, paralleling the monkish isolation of its religion from the secular world. The carefully adjusted community of icons no longer mirrored the Justinian hierarchy, but seemed to take on a magical and strongly personal relation to the worshipper in the little domed churches of the late Byzantine periods.

The "Second Golden Age," or mid-Byzantine period (ninth to twelfth centuries), saw a revival of the classical tradition in Greek lands. This can be detected in the classical architecture of such manuscripts as Stavroniketa 43 (tenth century) and in the statuesque effect of the mosaics of Daphni (eleventh century). Although the thematic organization of manuscript and mural cycles became standardized during the Comnenian Dynasty of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, there were several different aesthetic traditions observable. Less sculptural than Daphni, but more human in an expressionistic way. were the eleventh-century mosaics of Nea Moni in Chios and St. Luke in Phocis. Another style, devoid of subtle compositional effects, is seen in the provincial frescoes of Cappadocia (tenth and eleventh centuries) or the Marginal Psalters of the same period. The latter carry their illustrations as a gloss in the margin of their pages. They represent a different tradition, probably monastic, which contrasts with "aristocratic" productions of Constantinople like the Gospels in Paris (Greek Mss. 74) of the eleventh century.

At this time some of the richest mid-Byzantine mosaics, at least from the viewpoint of expanse of gold, appeared in the West in Italian cities of the Adriatic and in Norman foundations of Sicily. In S. Marco, Venice, there are intrusions of local style owing perhaps to the employment of Italian craftsmen. The Norman kings, however, seem to have exerted themselves to rival the Byzantine Emperors and the product, for example at Monreale (twelfth to thirteenth centuries), is close to the imperial style. However, the iconographic system suffered because of its application to a long basilica instead of to a small central church. In parts of Italy the mid-Byzantine style was reproduced in fresco in a hard schematic fashion called "maniera greca." This can be seen at S. Angelo in Formis (eleventh century).

The sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204 and the break-up of the Empire produced a hiatus in creative activity. Later under the Paleologue Emperors of the twelfth to fifteenth centuries there came another, limited revival. Again the inspiration was apparently the Antique, but not the monumental classic so much as the anecdotal, landscape tradition. This is seen in the mosaics of the Church of the Chora, Constantinople (early fourteenth century), where a more human sensibility and a concern for natural landscape effects prevails. However, Byzantium never carried these Duccio-like effects to the logical conclusion of a naturalistic art of measurable space.

Other regions - the Balkans, Russia, and Crete - practiced fresco instead of mosaic painting for reasons of economy and perhaps taste. Much of this work demonstrates the new sense of human feeling, an expressionism generally called "Macedonian," perhaps because of its provincial origins. Nerezi, Milesevo, and Gracanica in Jugoslavia and Mistra in the Greek Peloponnesos are examples of this.

Following the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the Orthodox painting tradition carried on elsewhere: in Russia, Mt. Athos, Crete, etc. The Byzantine style had first produced appreciable effects in Russia in twelfth-century Kiev. Vladimir and Novgorod succeeded Kiev in artistic importance in the late middle ages, giving way to Moscow during the times we call Renaissance. The church of St. Demeritos at Vladimir and the Savior Church of Nereditsa (Novgorod) are examples of early work in the "Macedonian" style. The growth of Moscow in artistic importance was owing partly to Theophanes the Greek (active c.1400), who brought an expressionistic style there from Novgorod. His follower, Andrei Roublew (see), is the best known of Russian painters.

Crete, associated with Venice from 1204, practiced a more conservative, less personalized tradition and was noted for the production of icons. Best known of these craftsmen was Andrea Rico of Candia in the sixteenth century. From Crete came the culminating artist of the Byzantine style, El Greco (see). Mt. Athos in Greece also preserved the Greek style, but in a crystallized, stereotyped fashion evident from the Painter's Guide, a rule book for painters assembled by Dionysius of Fourna on the basis of sixteenth-century practices.

Other forms of Byzantine painting included painted wooden panels, portable (miniature) mosaics on wood, and enamel work (see). These techniques were used for the standard type of icon (see). In the late Orthodox church, such icons were assembled decoratively on an iconostasis or screen separating the church from the sanctuary. This screen had originated in Justinian's times as a low barrier, but in fourteenth-century Russia the barrier grew into a tall wide screen covered with panels in set arrangement not unlike the western altarpiece.



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