Early Byzantine Art

For as long as I can remember, my brother and I have shared a fascination with ancient cultures. I recall that as a child, he built his own small wooden sarcophagus for a gauze-wrapped Barbie, encrusting it with fake plastic jewels and exalting it on our bookshelf with our other bizarre objects (we shared a room as kids). Skulls and bones, odd jewelry, strange rocks, and rare coins were only some examples of the weird things that were hidden in the crevices of our space. A lot of my work this semester somehow reconnected me with my interest in ancient art… it just feels so interesting that creative production (or whatever you would call it) has been a constant thread throughout humanity and is such a key element to our evolution as a species, as well as for recording our history. I wanted to talk briefly about Byzantine art, even though it largely occupies the “late antiquity period” rather than the “ancient” times (whatever, ok). Sometimes, when I’m interested in learning more about a topic, I’ll deliberately make a blog post about it so I’m forced to research it more. If anything, studying history gives me a fuller and more fleshed-out perspective of the present moment… so without further ado, here is some basic information about one of the true old-school empires, Byzantium!

The Turkish city of Istanbul is the site where the ancient city of Byzantium (soon to be renamed to Constantinople in 330) would form after Greek colonization in the 7th century BC. After the Emperor Constantine adopted Orthodox Christianity, he would establish Constantinople as the capital of the Byzantine empire (or the continuation of the Roman empire in the east as the Western Empire was falling). Because the Eastern Roman empire would adopt Christianity at a much more rapid and encompassing rate, art, in turn, would shift dramatically. Gone were the classically-inspired Greco-Roman style sculptures, reliefs and paintings! Instead this era would introduce the flat, halo-centric pieces we are all familiar with when it comes to Byzantine art. In my opinion, the Byzantine Empire produced some of the most bizarre and compelling pieces in all of history… it’s not exactly the correct descriptor, but Byzantine art, particularly early Byzantine art, just kind of creeps me out (in a good way). It’s oddly alien, dealing with unknown realms and depicting figures in states of levitation, or styled in ways that incur a sense of mystery. Even more interesting is the lack of art that is available from the Early Byzantine days, largely due to the iconoclastic era of the Middle Byzantine empire when many portraits and mosaics were destroyed for being idolatrous (idols of worship).

Justinian and his attendants (photo: Steven Zucker, CC: BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Take a look above at the famous Justinian Mosaic, located inside the San Vitale Basilica in Ravenna, Italy. Justinian is placed in the center, surrounded by his court, religious figures and soldiers, effectively asserting his power as a figure who has access/control over these elements. The background is a solid gold, representing the ethereal realm of heaven and God, which Justinian is clearly connecting himself to if the halo around his head didn’t already speak for that. If it wasn’t already obvious by Constantine’s actions, religion and rulership were inseparably combined. The figures are almost floating, their feet affixed to nothing in particular. I suppose the bizarre parts of Byzantine art for me are the way in which humans were idealized. They look incredibly stiff and flat, sort of like each limb was pinned to the mosaic like a really well attempted pin-the-halo-on-the-ruler run. There is something that I find off-putting about the way in which hands were depicted so delicately… again it’s not that I dislike the work, just stylistically unsettling for me… not inherently a bad thing. I’m also a sucker for artists who depict hands as worn and unidealized (see Kathe Kollwitz and Egon Schiele’s work!) so maybe Byzantine hands are just not up my alley.

The earliest Christian churches were also built during this time, including the iconic Hagia Sohpia (532-537), a remarkable example of Byzantine architecture. Saint Catherine’s Monastery (Full name Sacred Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai) in Egypt also hosts another classic example of Byzantine Art, Virgin (Theotokos) and Child between Saints Theodore and George. Theotokos (Eastern Orthodox term for Mother of God or God-Bearer… used in place of the Virgin Mary) sits in the middle with child son of God, Jesus.

The Theotokos version of the Virgin is often robed and hooded, and nearly always accompanied by a halo behind her head. She is placed in a seat/throne between the two saints, Theodore and George as she holds the baby Jesus (with an already receding hairline?) on her lap. That is one thing about the “Theotokos” or Early Byzantine style baby Jesus… his proportions look like that of a small adult, rather than a child. For example, look at this Byzantine piece below, brought to Venice in 1349, Jesus looks older than his mother!

I would like to continue writing about Ancient Art and art from Late Antiquity in future posts, and I hope to expand on the Byzantine theme in upcoming weeks! Anyways, to wrap things up, here is one of my favorite “Theotokos” style pieces of the Virgin and Child, housed inside the Hagia Sophia.

Virgin and Child in the Apse of Hagia Sophia

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