Early Byzantine Art



As you know, Rome was the capitol of the Roman Empire until the era of Constantine. In 324, Constantine moved the capital from Rome to the Greek City of Byzantium and renamed it Constantinople.  


Things were fine for awhile, but by the 5th century of the common era, things began to change. The West was under attack by the barbarians and ultimately fell apart.  The cities that were part of the Roman empire declined in population or simply died.  Many cities in France, Algeria, Syria, etc. simply disappeared.  What did survive were small settlements around a church. It was a period in which centralized government was replaced warring kingdoms.  The city of Rome continued to exist, but was reduced to 10,000 people or so.  In the west, the population decreased and economic resources decreased.


Justinian as World Conqueror, left leaf of a diptych, mid-6th century, Ivory  


Around 527, Justinian came to the throne in the East — the part of the Roman empire that had its capitol at Byzantium.  He wanted things to go back to the way they were.  He wanted to recreate the Roman empire.  Note that the Eastern emperors still referred to their empire as “Rome” — not as the Byzantine empire.  They saw themselves as legitimate successors to the Ancient Roman emperors, even though they spoke Greek and not Latin. 


The center scene here is the Adventus — Justinian is on horseback, with a barbarian begging for mercy.  On the left, we a subject bringing tribute to the emperor. On the right, a small Victory figure is crowning Justinian.  At the base, the central figure is a personification of earth.  Additional figures bringing tribute — a figure with elephant and tusk, a figure with a tiger, a figure with lion — all representing Justinian’s conquests in Asia and Africa


This is standard Roman imperial imagery — but juxtaposed with Christian imagery. At the top is a youthful Christ with cross — and a reference to the rising sun and the night sky.  It's the same symbolism of eternity that we saw with the Augustus of Prima Porta.  Christ is flanked with winged figures — the Nike figures of victory now read as heavenly angels. 


Justinian did not see himself as presiding over a period of decline.  Although this was a period of diminished resources, it actually was a period of lavish spending on the church.  Justinian ruled the Byzantine Empire for 38 years. 


At the time of Justinian’s reign, Constantinople was a large city of about 1.5 million people.


Although the Byzantine Empire remained intact, Justinian’s rule was almost always under threat, and he was almost constantly at war.  He also adopted harsh policies that were not popular with the people of Byzantium.  In order to save money, he banned all games and spectacles and eliminated some municipal services.  He also decreed that government officials could not acquire property while in office. 


All of this created a good deal of public discontent.  Two factions in Constantinople emerged — the Blues and the Greens.  In 532 they attacked police and government officials.  They freed prisoners from jail.  During the Nika Revolt, the Church of Hagia Sophia was burned.  These factions marched on the palace and sought to replace Justinian with one of his rivals.


Justinian’s throne was saved by his wife, Theodora.  Justinian’s impulse was to flee, but Theodora refused.  She rallied the court — declaring that she would rather die in the imperial palace than live in exile.   Theodora, therefore, was successful in convincing the court to suppress the uprising. 


Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus, Hagia Sophia, Constaninople (Istanbul, Turkey), 532-537




The Church of Hagia Sophia or “Church of Holy Wisdom” was THE Church of the Eastern empire, just as Old St. Peter’s was THE Church of the Western empire.


In 532, the older version as burned to the ground in a riot against the Justinian because his taxes were so high — the Nika Revolt.  Nika means “conquer.”  Justinian rebuilt Hagia Sophia with extreme opulence.



The above illustration is a model of what the church originally looked like (disregard the minarets; they are later additions from when Hagia Sophia was transformed into a mosque.  Today it is a museum.)


Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus, Hagia Sophia, Plan    


Hagia Sophia is a traditional basilica, but with an enormous dome (highlighted in yellow).  It combined Eastern and Western Tradition.  It is believed to have been Justinian’s idea, although the emperor needed help in translating his vision to reality.  He hired a professor and a mathematician to work on the project—Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus.


One first entered into a central courtyard, then proceeded though the narthex, and into the nave (surrounded by side aisles).  The apse was at the far end.  The whole central space was restricted to processions, and the common people people were restricted to the aisles.


The dome is supported by four large piers which are hidden, thus making the architecture hard to understand. 


Illustration of Pendentives & Squinches




The weight of the dome is channeled to the piers through the use of pendentives.  This is the first use of pendentives we have seen in this course.  Also, there are half-domes supporting the whole dome. 


Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus, Hagia Sophia, Interior View



Hagia Sophia had a huge interior space. The whole upper part is covered with gold mosaics.  Originally, there were no images in this church — the upper zone was pure gold.  The lower part was covered with marble.  It was probably the most expensive building ever built.  However, it was also an architectural challenge! 

This church set a pattern for using domes in the Churches in the Byzantine world.  Later, Byzantine churches keep the dome, but not the basilica.


Notice that streaks of light that come through the windows of the dome.  The dome looks like its floating due to the ring of windows.  It's quite the heavenly vision!


San Vitale, Ravenna, 526-547, Exterior View



As we've previously discussed, Ravenna is in Italy, which was part of the Western empire.  As Italy was becoming weaker and weaker, Honorius, the Western emperor, moved the Western capital to RavennaRavenna was a small Etruscan town, but it was surrounded by swamps and easily defended.  When Honorius died, his half-sister, Galla Placidia, took over the Western government for a short while.  After her death, the town was captured by the Germans, then the Ostrogoths.  However, it finally became part of the Byzantine empire when it was captured by Belisarius on behalf of Justinian. 


During Justinian’s reign, Ravenna prospered.  Today, the monuments that survive there allow art historians to see the artistic transition from the Early Christian style to the Byzantine style.


This church was dedicated to Saint Vitalis, who was a Christian martyr.  But it was also very much the Church of Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora.


From the exterior, notice the unadorned brickwork and the central dome within an octagonal pavilion


San Vitale, Ravenna, Plan



Although it has a plain exterior and a polygonal apse, this is not a basilica, and it is not a large building.  It introduces in Ravenna a new plan for Byzantine churches -- one that emphasizes the centralized dome.  The central plan for a church is an Eastern Tradition and was prevalent in Constantinople.  Note the narthex (in orange), the series of doors (in purple), the columns (in green), the choir (in light blue) and the apse and altar (in dark blue).  There are also stair towers (in pink) and chapels (in red).  The apse and altar are off-center.  Why this is the case is unknown; there may have been  planning issues related to the site or the existing roads.  Then notice that the center of the church consists of two concentric octagons.  Finally, notice the large black piers that support the octagonal dome and create curved niches.


San Vitale, Ravenna, Interior view of the choir and apse




Here, we are looking towards the choir and the apse.  There is marble and mosaic on every surface. Much of the mosaic in made from tesserae of gold and it reflects light.  Thus, the architecture and mosaics transport the viewer to a spiritual world.  Although the design looks simple in plan, the actual execution is visually complex. Also note the squinches which support the octagonal dome.



The capitals in San Vitale have been transformed with vines, the cross, animals, and called “historiated capitals.”  There is also a new element between the capital and the arch known as an impost block.


San Vitale, Ravenna, Detail of an historiated capital



The area around the altar — the chancel — retains its original mosaics. 


San Vitale, Ravenna, Apse mosaic of the Second Coming of Christ 



In the apse is a mosaic depicting the Second Coming of Christ.  Christ is beardless and youthful in the Early Christian style.  His pose recalls that of an enthroned Roman emperor.  He is holding a scroll with the seven seals as described in the book of Revelation.  He sits on an orb that represents the world.  Below him are the Four Rivers of Paradise.  On his right, Christ extends a victory wreath (Roman symbol) to Saint Vitalis, who is accompanied by an angel.  On his left stands another angel who is introducing Bishop Ecclesius.  Ecclesius is presenting a model of the Church to Christ. The foundations of the church were built under the authority of Bishop Ecclesius.  Notice that both Saint Vitalis and Bishop Ecclesius are labeled.


San Vitale, Ravenna, Interior view of the choir and apse



Below the apse mosaic are two frieze-like mosaics, one of Justinian and one of Theodora.  The two key figures appear opposite one another in the lower register of the apse.  Note that Christ (above) appears to be extending the wreath towards Justinian.


Justinian, Bishop Maximianus, and attendants, San Vitale, Ravenna, ca. 547





In this mosaic, Justinian is in the center.  Nobody steps on his toes — which indicates that he stands in front.  Justinian is dressed in the purple robe which was reserved for the Emperor.  He wears a crown, but also a halo, which emphasizes his importance. Both Justinian and Theodora have halos, which was picked up from Mithra.  Later, the halo will only be used for holy figures.  In this scene, Justinian is celebrating mass.   He is holding a paten — a large golden bowl containing the  Communion Bread.


Although all the figures are in a procession, they are very different from other processions that we have seen — like the Panathenic procession on the frieze of the Parthenon or the Imperial procession of the Ara Pacis. 


In this case, all of the figures look out at you; they are given a frontal presentation.  There is no depth.  There is minimal landscape (just a tiny bit of green).  There is no defined ground line, although there is a difference between the green ground and the gold above, that is highly ambiguous space.  The artist intends to suggest that this procession is taking place before the actual altar in San Vitale.


The figures are tall and elongated.  They display small, splayed feet. The overlapping of the feet define the order of the procession.  There is no body weight, no body beneath drapery, and the emphasis is on the head.  The drapery is linear, that is it is falling in straight lines.


Take note of these stylistic elements -- THESE ARE ALL STYLISTIC QUALITIES OF BYZANTINE ART!


Portrait heads were used for the better known attendants in this lineup:

Which figure is more important — Justinian or Maximianus??  Actually, the visual evidence suggests a close tie —  and this indicates the close alliance of church and state.


Notice that there are twelve figures besides Justinian — this was a deliberate artistic choice, and it alluded to Christ and his twelve apostles.  There are other allusions to Christ, including the Chi-Rho shield being carried by Justinian’s military.


Finally, notice the clasps used are shoulders — these are fibula (Remember the Etruscan fibula?  We will see more of them when see study Early Medieval art).


Theodora and attendants, San Vitale, Ravenna, ca. 547



In this scene, Theodora is within a courtyard with fountain.  There is an arch or canopy over her back.  She appears to be moving toward an open doorway. 


So Justinian is shown in the church, but Theodora is shown outside or perhaps in the narthex.  In fact, she couldn’t actually participate in the mass because she was a woman!


She is dressed in purple, bejeweled and frontal in here presentation.  We see no ground line and there is total negation of space.


Theodora is carrying the chalice of wine that will be delivered to the altar.  Therefore, in these mosaics, both Justinian and Theodora are eternal celebrants of the mass.


On the hem of Theodora, we see depictions of the Magi, suggesting an equal status with the biblical kings who were present at Christ’s birth.


Taken together, the emperor represents Christ, and the empress represents the Virgin.  In both cases, there is a clear mixing of political and religious symbols.


Theodora has an interesting history — she was not born into an aristocratic family.   Her father worked at a circus in Constantinople as a “keeper of bears.”  That is, he trained bears for bear fights, bear hunts, and bear performances that were popular in Rome.  Her mother was an actress, which was not a highly regard profession.   Later, Theodora also became an actress and a prostitute. 


Justinian met Theodora when he was about 40 and she was 25.  He was a senator, and she became his mistress.  However, by law, senators were forbidden to marry actresses.  Justinian went to his uncle, the emperor Justin, who then rewrote this law so that it was okay for a senator to marry an ex-actress. 


Justin died in 527 and Justinian was crowned emperor.  Theodora then became empress.  As noted in the context of the Nika revolt, Theodora was strong-willed and an intelligent advisor to Justinian.   Apparently Justinian and Theodora were faithful to each other for the rest of their lives. 


Neither Justinian not Theodora visited Ravenna.  Neither of them actually saw San Vitale.  But the fact that they were BOTH included in this composition shows that she indeed held power in Justinian’s court.


Sant Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna, dedicated 549



Until the 9th century, this church held the body of Saint Apollinaris.  We know that he existed, but we have no historical record of his life.  We know he was a bishop at Ravenna, that he was martyred, and that he was memorialized through churches in Ravenna like this one, which were dedicated to him. 


It is an Early Christian type church — a basilica.  The exterior is plain brick and undecorated.


San Apollinaris amid Sheep, Sant Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna, 549



The church was dedicated in 549, and so that’s when the interior was probably completed.  The mosaics are very different from the mosaics associated with Early Christianity, such as those associated with the Masoleum of Galla Placidia.


In the apse, we have a scene of paradise.  In the center is a medallion displaying a cross; Christ appears as a small portrait in the cross.  Beneath the cross is St. Apollinaris (his body is underneath the altar).  His hands are raised, and he is praying.  Through his gesture and his frontal stance, he invites you to pray through him.  


Around him are twelve lambs that symbolic of the twelve apostles. Since lambs are common sacrificial offeriing, the lambs are also symbols of martyrs.  There is not too much overlapping.  To the contrary, we see a conscious attempt to eliminate illusionism.


At the top, on either side of the large cross, there are three other lambs and two human figures pointing toward the cross.  This is a purely symbolic representation of the Transfiguration, the moment were Christ revealed his divinity to his apostles.  Three apostles (here again symbolized as sheep) went to Mount Tabor where Christ was transfigured  It was there that the Old Testament prophets Moses and Isaiah came to say that Christ was God.  So that's the subject of this apse mosaic.




The most recent edition of Gardner's crops the image and leaves out the mosaics that appear above the apse, probably because they were added a little later, but there are some important points to be made.  Above the cross, Jesus appears in a rondel.  To his left and right are symbols of the four evangelists (with two details shown above).  You will see these symbols used over and over again and should be familiar with them:

These symbolic creatures come from one of visions of Ezekiel which is recorded in the Book of Revelation.  This is not the first time that these symbols appear, but they do become more and more common during the Medieval period.


Taken together, the whole scene uses the same approach as the art of the catacombs — it's a symbolic image.  This is the first known rendering of the Transfiguration.  This was a representation of divinity that was presented in a guarded and defensive way.


Also notice that the apse mosaic works with the altar — at the altar, the mass is celebrated — where the wine becomes the blood of Christ and the bread becomes the body of Christ.  This, too, is a transfiguration. 


The monastery of St. Catherine, Mount Sinai, Egypt, ca. 565



During Justinian’s reign, large-scale building programs were carried out throughout the Byzantine empire, including the monastery of St. Catherine in Mount Sinai, Egypt.


Among Early Christians, the sense of being an outsider was so strong that monasticism was not necessary.  Over time, however, many people became Christians without really being committed to the religion.  Monasticism emerged as a reaction against the secularization of the church.  The facet of Christianity begins with Saint Anthony, who lived from 251-356 — some 250 years before this monument was built.  There are historical documents that have been used to assigned these dates — a life span of 105 years.  Anthony was born in Egypt.  At age 20, he sold all of his possessions and lived among the local ascetics.  At the age of 35 (286), he decided to live in complete isolation and solitude. He survived by gardening and making mats.  During this period, he underwent a series of temptations, which he successfully avoided.  At the age of 55 (306), he left his isolation to guide disciples.  He clearly lived long enough to see Christianity legalized and legitimized, and we know that he wrote to Constantine.  St. Anthony was claimed to have worked miracles, and he encouraged his followers to flee the temptation of the world.  He was later regarded as the patriarch of all monks and a healer of men and animals. 


Therefore, monasticism began in Egypt — but the idea traveled very quickly and within decades there were monastic communities as far north as Ireland.   The idea became so popular so quickly that thousands of people left various cities — leaving officials truly worried about their tax base, their military support, and their businesses. 


By the 5th century, there was much confusion surrounding various monastery practices that rules were finally written down by a monk — whom we know as St. Benedict.  The Benedictine order was written in 529, stressing that monks live in a common, enclosure under the rule of an abbot. 


The monastery of St. Catherine was built by Justinian at Mount Sinai in Egypt between 548 and 565, approximately two decades after the Benedictine order was written.  The church at this monastery was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, who had been recognized by the Greek Orthodox Church to be the mother of God. 


The Transfiguration of Jesus, mosaic from the church of the monastery of St. Catherine, Mount Sinai, Egypt, ca. 565



This is the apse mosaic within the church at the monastery of St Catherine.  The style is Byzantine.  We see Christ at the center within a mandorla — an almond shaped enclosure that symbolizes glory.  Notice that he is now bearded.   The Early Christian tradition has been modified.   At his feet are the disciples John, Peter, and James.  On either side are the Old Testament prophets Elijah and Moses.


Once again, the scene is the Transfiguration of Jesus.  The figures are elongated and flat.  We see no shadows.  They have stylized linear draperies.  The scene takes place against a gold background — a timeless, spiritual realm.


Beginning in the 7th century, the Byzantine empire found itself battling the Persians, and then the Arabs.  This really ended the Early Byzantine period.  Over the next century, the Byzantine empire lost cities, population and wealth — so much so that the Emperor Leo III concluded that God had punished the empire for its idolatrous worship of icons.  In 726 he prohibited the use of images.  For over one hundred years, his law held firm.