To the question "what is Byzantine art?" one might propose the following answer: Byzantine art is the art produced by and for the citizens of the empire that was centered in Constantinople from a.d. 330–1453. This answer, however, underscores the difficulty of applying any one label to the arts of Byzantium. Byzantine art is Late Antique art, Early Christian art, the art of the Eastern Orthodox Church, the art of the Eastern Roman Empire and eastern Medieval art. All of these labels are applicable, but none covers all of Byzantine art. To understand Byzantine art one must first understand the origins of the Byzantine Empire. Centered in constantinople, modern-day Istanbul, Turkey, the Byzantine emperors saw themselves as heirs and continuers of the Roman Empire. In 330 the emperor constantine i (r. 324–37) transferred his capital from Rome to the site of an ancient Greek colony named Byzantion but soon called Constantinople in recognition of its new founder (Constantinoupolis: 'City of Constantine'). Strategically situated on the banks of the Bosphorus, overlooking eastern Europe and western Asia Minor, the new capital granted the security necessary for the new empire to flourish. The borders of the Byzantine Empire were never stable but fluctuated over the 1,100 plus years of its existence. At its greatest extent Byzantium nearly encircled the Mediterranean, stretching from southern Spain to Italy, Greece, Asia Minor, the Middle East, and northern Africa. At its smallest, in the 15th century, the byzantine empire was reduced to the area surrounding Constantinople. Our distance from this world and from the art it produced is evident in the term "Byzantine," which would be meaningless to any citizen of this empire. From the founding of Constantinople until its fall to the Ottomans in 1453 the Byzantine emperor styled himself ruler of the Romaioi —of the Romans. Yet, while the terms "Byzantine" and "Byzantium" are modern designations they do distinguish the unique nature of this civilization from its Roman predecessor. While Byzantium continued to recognize Roman law, it differed from Rome in fundamental ways. Where the language of Rome was Latin, the language of the Byzantine Empire was Greek. Where the Roman state supported various pagan religions, after 321 Christianity was the recognized religion of the Byzantine Empire. This singular combination of Roman law, Greek language, and Christian religion shaped the art of Byzantium.
It is usual to divide Byzantine art into three phases, reflecting major political events. Early Byzantine art encompasses that produced from the mid-4th to the mid-6th century. This is followed by a gap, as from the mid-6th until the 9th century Byzantium was caught in crises precipitated by many factors, both internal and external. The Middle Byzantine period begins in the 9th century and continues until 1204, when Constantinople fell to the army of the Fourth Crusade. The final phase of Byzantine art, the Late Byzantine period, dates from the Byzantine reconquest of Constantinople in 1261 to its final fall to the Ottomans in 1453.
An Early Byzantine work that displays Byzantium's debt to classical art and also illustrates its differences is an ivory diptych carved with the figure of the Archangel Michael. Diptychs, pairs of carved, hinged panels, are known from Rome; originally this leaf was the right-hand panel of a set. Many diptychs were produced at the end of the 4th century and display a resistance to the imposition of the Christian faith by the great senatorial Roman families. They served to announce marriage alliances and senatorial promotions, and in style and iconography they display the continuity of pagan themes and the endurance of the classical style.
The diptych of the Archangel Michael, most likely produced in Constantinople in the early 6th century, shows a shift in both patronage and iconography. The figure of the Archangel is taken from the pagan Nike, or winged victory, although in this Christian use the female Nike has become male. Other adjustments were made to fit the old iconography to the new message. Instead of a palm branch, the attribute of the Nike signifying victory, the Archangel holds an orb surmounted by a cross. The laurel wreath above Michael's head, another symbol of military victory, is here transformed into a Christian symbol of resurrection by the inclusion of a cross. The style has also undergone transformation, reflecting the new merging of classical form with Christian message. Michael's calm detached expression has its roots in classical relief sculpture, but here it serves to underscore his otherworldliness.
The precise modeling of the Archangel's form, with believably solid limbs outlined by clinging drapery, also has roots in the classical representation of the human figure. Yet despite this realistic modeling there is ambiguity in the relationship between the Archangel and his architectural setting. Michael's feet seem precariously posed on the topmost stairs, behind the square bases that support the framing columns. The rest of his body, including his wings, is in front of these columns. This spatial ambiguity reflects the new concerns of Byzantine art. While it is clear that the artist was well aware of the classical tradition of figural representation, he was not as occupied as his predecessors with naturalistic representation. This is appropriate to his subject, as according to Byzantine theology Archangels exist in both the earthly and heavenly realms.
While the Archangel ivory relies primarily on figural imagery to convey its message, another medium combined
text and image in the service of defining and disseminating Christianity. Books, written by hand and illustrated with painted images, or illuminations, were popular among the clergy and the elite. While a few secular illuminated manuscripts have survived, the majority of extant Early Byzantine manuscripts are religious, comprised mainly of the Gospels and the Book of Genesis. Illuminated manuscripts were luxurious and costly objects, precious both for the skill it took to produce them and for the intrinsic value of their materials. Pages of specially prepared animal skin could be embellished by painters with gold leaf or with pigments made by grinding semiprecious gems, such as lapis lazuli. Scribes, responsible for copying the text, could write in silver or gold ink over pages dyed purple. Such so-called purple codices (codex, plural codices, is the Latin term for book) reflect patronage at the highest level. The color purple, derived from a rare organic dye and consisting of many hues of what today would be called red and blue, was reserved for imperial use throughout much of Byzantine history.
One such purple codex is the Rossano Gospel, created in Byzantium and now preserved in the treasury of the cathedral of Rossano, Italy. Its materials, style, and large size—the pages measure 30.7 x 26 cm (12 x 10.5 in.)— allow it to be dated to the 6th century. The once-purple color of the dye has faded over time to a brick-red color, and the silver used to inscribe the text has oxidized to black. One characteristic page illustrates the Last Supper and the Washing of the Feet. Above, the first scene depicts Christ and his disciples arranged around a semicircular table that resembles those painted in Pompeii or the catacombs of Rome. Christ is identified by his prominent position and larger size as well as by his distinctive dark hair and beard. In contrast, the identifying feature of the disciples is not their individual appearance but their collective number, so the artist is careful to show us 12 distinct heads while the bodies beneath merge into undifferentiated forms. Only the disciple on the far right is shown in full-figure as he reclines, Roman style, on his couch. The next scene also uses this same abbreviated style. Christ is recognizable by the replication of His form and features, and also by His halo, marked by the arms of a cross and therefore known as a cruciform halo.
What is important for identifying and understanding this scene is the interaction between Peter and Christ, as the disciple sits and allows Christ to wash his feet. Below, Old Testament authors hold up scrolls that display quotes
that are presented as prophesies of the events depicted above, declaring that Christ is the Messiah foretold by the Jewish scriptures. The linking of scenes from the life of Christ in the top half of the page with the Old Testament authors depicted below is emphasized by the authors' gestures, which draw the viewer's eyes up and across the page. Yet we do not understand fully the joining of the two halves of the page unless we read the text and it is this combination of text and image in the service of the message of the Gospel that is new.
The illuminations of the Rossano Gospels do not simply narrate the events of Christ's life but present arguments about the true nature of Christ. This was a topic of great controversy in the Early Byzantine period. The First Ecumenical Council, calling together bishops "from throughout the world" was convened by Constantine I in 325 in Nicaea in order to define Orthodox theology and to condemn heretics. In 451 a second council met in Chalcedon to further explicate the Orthodox position. The crux of the matter was the duality of Christ.
According to the Orthodox view, Christ was equally human and divine. After Constantine, Orthodox Christianity spread throughout the western world via Byzantium, which reached its greatest territorial extent under the rule of Justinian I (r. 527–65). After Justinian, the rise of the Islam and Slavic incursions reduced the territory held by the empire. Adding to the tensions were increasing disagreements within Byzantium about the nature of Christ. Previously the Orthodox doctrine was directed against non-Byzantine Christians, most notably the monophysites, who believed that Christ was divine in nature and when on Earth as man was therefore not fully human.
In the 8th century the theological battle raged inside the Orthodox Church, and while it touched on many aspects of orthodox theology, it centered on Christian art. One faction asserted that the veneration of religious images
facilitated the faithful, serving as a vehicle for their prayerful contemplation. The opposing side countered that religious images were idolatrous. In particular, representations of Christ were labeled as heresy, as artists could depict Christ's humanity, but not his divinity. This debate is known as the Iconoclastic Controversy (see iconoclasm), from the Greek words eikon, meaning image, and klao, to break. Iconoclasm was first decreed in 726 by the emperor Leo III (r. 717–41). The argument against religious imagery, and the persecution of those who continued to venerate or to produce such images, was intensified by Leo's successor Constantine V (r. 741–75). Constantine convened the Iconoclastic Council of 754, which decreed that there should be no representations of Christ or of any other religious figures, and that all images of religious content should be destroyed. A brief respite was provided by the Second Council of Nicaea in 787, which rejected the earlier council and reinstalled the use of religious imagery.
A second Iconoclastic period began in 815 when the Second Council was in turn repudiated and a new ban on images was imposed. This second period lasted until 843. The Byzantine Empire was shattered by Iconoclasm, and while there are numerous documents describing events and defining the ideologies of the iconophiles (imagelovers) and iconoclasts, the very nature of the contest means that little in the way of religious art survives from before or during the time of the destruction of images.
The Middle Byzantine period, beginning in 843 with the lifting of the ban on religious images, often called the Triumph of Orthodoxy, was one of great artistic production. Artists and patrons, freed from over 80 years of restrictions, sought to recapture old traditions and to forge new ways of expressing Orthodox faith. The issues raised by art of this period are still the subject of intense scholarly debate. One characteristic of Middle Byzantine art in general, and of 10th-century art in particular, is the conscious return to the style and motifs of classical antiquity. This has given rise to the term "Macedonian Renaissance," indicating works of art that reflect knowledge of antique models produced under the Macedonian imperial dynasty, from Basil I (r. 866–86) to Basil II (r. 976–1025).
One of the objects that gave rise to the concept of a Macedonian Renaissance is the Paris Psalter (Paris, Bibliothéque Nationale MS gr. 139). A Psalter is book of Psalms that also contains the nine Old Testament odes and sometimes hymns as well. It was a necessary item for priests and monks, whose duties included the weekly recitation of all the Psalms. But a manuscript such as the Paris Psalter demonstrates that these books were also commissioned by, or for, the highest level of court patron
for this is clearly no mere service book. It is the largest surviving illustrated Byzantine Psalter, with fine-grained vellum pages measuring 37 x 26.5 cm (approx. 15 x 11 in.). It contains the usual Psalms and odes and also an extensive scholarly commentary. There are 14 pictures illustrating the life of David, author of the book of Psalms, and the authors of the odes. The book has been associated with the emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (r. 913–59) and his son, the future emperor Romanus II (r. 959–63), thus dating it to 950–70.
The scene of David's Repentance precedes Psalm 51, which relates David's remorse and penitence for his relations with Bathsheeba. Like all the other illustrations in this Psalter, the scene is a full-page illumination enclosed in a painted frame. We see David to the left, seated in profile on his throne, confronted with his sins by the prophet Nathan. The next figure, to the right, moves us forward in time to show David's repentance as he kneels in prayer on the ground. His name is inscribed above him, aiding in his identification, as does the replication of his facial features and royal garments. Above David is a figure turned in profile to the viewer's right, who seems oddly detached from the surrounding scenes. He is dressed in classical robes and leans pensively upon a writing desk that holds a scroll. As he gazes out of the picture frame he is linked to those around him by two details: his halo and the subtle gesture of his right hand, which gestures toward the crouching king beneath him. The accompanying inscription solves the puzzle, identifying the figure as "penance" (metanoia ). This is a personification, one of many used in the Paris Psalter.
Other pages include personifications of concepts such as wisdom and clemency. There are also personifications that serve to identify the scene, such as the personification of Mount Sinai in the depiction of Moses receiving the Tablets of the Law. Such personifications were a standard element of classical art. Their inclusion in the Paris Psalter points to a renewed interest in antiquity, as does the background architecture, which does not reflect contemporary architecture but is reminiscent of that depicted in Roman art. Yet the appropriation of classical motifs is selective and not slavish. This is evident in the figure of David seated on his throne. While he is dressed in archaic robes and painted in classicizing style his pose reflects a 10th-century interest in what we today could call psychological studies. David raises his left hand to his head as if hiding Nathan's accusations while at the same time his right hand responds to the truth of Nathan's words.
This mix of antique elements with contemporary ones served to transmit in a new way a very old concept: the nature of an ideal ruler. In art and literature David had long been presented as an ideal to which earthly rulers should aspire. That is also one of the messages of the Paris Psalter. The final illumination shows David flanked by the personifications of Wisdom and Prophecy, a portrait of ideal rulership. Yet David is not shown in antique robes but in the garments and regalia of a Byzantine emperor. If, as some have argued, this work was commissioned by or for the emperor, it would have been a visual expression of the claim frequently made in Byzantine textual rhetoric, that in spirit and in fact the emperors were descendants of the ancient biblical kings, including David.
While the Paris Psalter conveyed its messages through a combination of antique and contemporary iconography and style, the enameled box known as the Limburg staurotheke (relic container) shows how similar messages could be conveyed without reference to classical art. An inscription names the emperors Constantine and Romanus, allowing it to be dated to 945–59; it is therefore contemporary with the Paris Psalter. The Limburg staurotheke is constructed of a wooden core covered in hammered gilt metal and decorated with precious gems and enamel plaques. The staurotheke was brought to Germany after the fall of Constantinople to the armies of the Fourth Crusade in 1204, and is now housed in Limburg an der Lahn, Germany. The Limburg staurotheke is a large object, measuring 48 × 35 × 6 cm (19 × 13¾ × 2⅜ in.) and was made to contain several relics, including a fragment of the True Cross and a portion of the towel with which Christ dried the feet of his Apostles.
The lid of the staurotheke contains a large square inset of enamel plaques that depict the divine hierarchy. Christ is central in the composition, occupying the most important space. His primacy is further emphasized by His size; although He is the only seated figure, He is as large as the other, standing figures. Those around Him are also positioned according to their rank in the heavenly court. John the Baptist, the proclaimer and forerunner of Christ, is to the viewer's left, while Mary, known in Byzantine theology as the Theotokos (Bearer of God), is to His left. This trio, of Christ flanked by John and the Theotokos, is a common religious image in Byzantine art. Known as the Deesis (entreaty or prayer), it is also common in painted church decorations and in manuscript illuminations. As the name indicates, the Deesis is an image of intercession. Prayers are directed to the Baptist and to the Theotokos who in turn intercede with Christ on behalf of the faithful. On the lid of the Limburg staurotheke the Deesis is expanded by the inclusion of the Archangels Gabriel and Michael who flank John and Mary, respectively. Above and below these centrally positioned figures are six enamel plaques that contain representations of the 12 Apostles. They are grouped in pairs, and while all are clothed in similar fashion each figure is given individuality through variations of facial features, expressions, hair color, and pose. And, as is the case in most Byzantine art, all figures are also identified by naming inscriptions. The cover of the staurotheke is fitted with a loop at the top, allowing it to be carried in processions, but it would usually have been displayed in one of the imperial churches of Constantinople. Set on display, it functioned like an icon, focusing the prayers of the faithful. The composition of the lid guides the viewer's eye to the aim of his entreaties. Only the figure of Christ is fully frontal, facing the viewer. The rest of the figures turn toward Him in varied degrees, or indicate His presence by word or glance.
While at first glance this object seemingly conveys only religious messages, in the 10th century it also conveyed messages of a secular nature. The lid is surrounded on four sides by an iambic inscription, prominently written in large letters, which declares the name of the patron who commissioned the piece. He was Basil, the eunuch and illegitimate son of the emperor Romanus I (r. 920–44). During the rule of Constantine VII, Basil achieved one of the most powerful positions in the imperial court. He is known to have commissioned other luxury items, including a chalice and paten, which is now in the Treasury of San Marco in Venice, Italy. The Limburg staurotheke not only conveyed Basil's piety, its gleaming gold and precious stones also spoke to his wealth, status, and artistic taste. The enamels are executed in a new variant of the cloisonné technique. While previous cloisonné enamels were small, set against backgrounds of single-colored enamel, in the early 10th century enameled images were inset in gold grounds, allowing for larger panels and greater compositional clarity. This technique displays Basil's cutting-edge taste, as does the inscription, which plays on the word "beauty" (kallos ).
The Limburg staurotheke is not unique in its depiction of a heavenly hierarchy. Such hierarchy is also the fundamental organizing concept of Byzantine church decoration. Churches were embellished with a variety of media: icons, carved relief sculpture, wall mosaics composed of thousand of tiny glass or stone tesserae (cubes), and fresco paintings. Thousands of churches spread across the Byzantine Empire served a variety of functions: monastic, private, patriarchal, and imperial. While it is therefore difficult to characterize any one scheme of decoration as being typical, certain generalities can be observed.
Regardless of the media, the placement of subject matter on the walls and vaults of a church interior reflect the Byzantine concept of the celestial hierarchy. The lower walls of a church, closest to the faithful, are adorned with depictions of martyrs and other holy figures. The choice of individual saints often reflects devotion to popular local saints or reflects the preference of a donor. Higher up on the wall are narrative scenes from the life of Christ arranged in chronological order. These scenes are often referred to as festival scenes, as they represent the principal commemorations of the liturgical year. There is rarely a direct correlation with the liturgy, however, for while there were 12 major church feasts there were more than 12 narrative scenes that could be included in a church's decorative program. Those appearing most frequently include the Annunciation, Nativity, Presentation, Baptism, Transfiguration, Crucifixion, Deposition, Lamentation, and Anastasis (the Resurrection). Above these scenes, in the lower portions of the roof vaulting, are depictions of the Apostles and Archangels, with either Christ, the Deësis, or the Theotokos depicted in the apse above the main altar. The central dome, the highest point in the church, was reserved for the image of Christ, reflecting His preeminence in the celestial hierarchy. In the Byzantine church, individual scenes and portraits served as images for prayerful contemplation, while the decorative program in its entirety displayed for the faithful the theological framework promising their ultimate salvation.
Christ was depicted in many different guises in Byzantine art but one representation became particularly popular in the Middle Byzantine period, Christ as Pantokrator, or Ruler of the World. A famous Pantokrator image dating to the late 11th or early 12th century survives in the dome of the monastery church at Daphni, near Athens. The Christ at Daphni, as with all Pantokrators, is a bearded mature man with lines of care on His brow who displays a sternness not found in other portrait types of Christ. The Daphni Pantokrator, depicted in mosaic in the apex of the dome, is shown in half-length, encircled in a brilliant triple border. His left hand holds a jeweled and gilt Bible decorated with a cross, the symbol and proof of His death and resurrection. In His role of ruler and judge His right hand is raised, as if arrested in the act of bestowing a blessing approval has neither been granted nor forbidden. Robed in garments of deep purple and blue the Daphni Pantokrator is set against a shimmering gold background, interrupted only by the Greek abbreviations for Jesus Christ written to the left and right of the silver cruciform halo. Byzantine mosaicists set each individual mosaic tessera, or cube, into the plaster bedding at slightly different angles. The resulting variation in light gives Byzantine mosaics a dynamic quality that is often lost in modern restorations or in photographic reproductions. This dynamic effect was increased by the artist's awareness of the curve of the dome, evident in the foreshortening of Christ's arms, which also take into account the effects of viewing the mosaic from the floor below. The artist also manipulated the pictorial space, arranging Christ's left hand as if it is resting on the border. Visually, the Pantokrator looms over the church as if peering through a hole in the dome, ready to judge those inside.
Donors could insert themselves into this hierarchical framework of church decoration. While most donors appear with patron or namesake saints in the narthex, or entrance hall of Byzantine churches, some are depicted in the church interior, and a few bold or important donors had their portraits placed above the apse, kneeling at the feet of Christ or the Theotokos. Donors thus gave visual expression to their piety and ensured that, after their death, those who gazed on their images would pray for their souls. Some donors of modest means could fund only limited programs, perhaps a single painted panel in a rock-cut church. But we also retain portraits of imperial donors, including representations of several imperial families in the south gallery of Hagia Sophia, the Church of the Holy Wisdom, in Constantinople.
hagia sophia was in many ways as symbolic of Byzantium as was the Great Palace complex. It was the showpiece of the empire, proudly displayed to every foreign diplomat, and was equally the object of devout pilgrims and gawking tourists. It served as the primary church of the patriarch, the head of the Orthodox church, and was the site of many of the empire's most important celebrations, including the investiture of new emperors. The scale of the building reflects it importance; throughout the Middle Ages it was the largest church in Christendom. Begun by the emperor Justinian I in 532, the great central dome rises to a staggering height of 180 feet, the largest vaulted space of any ancient or medieval building. The extent of the decoration of the building prior to Iconoclasm is unclear, but we know that there were figural images for documents attest to their removal. In 867, after the triumph of Orthodoxy, Hagia Sophia was the first church to undergo official redecoration.
The importance of Hagia Sophia to Constantinople and the greater empire also ensured that rulers would desire to leave some visible expression of their own contributions to the great church. The south gallery, on the second floor of the building, was reserved for imperial use, equipped with its own staircase. The east wall of the gallery displays a mosaic panel erected in the first half of the 11th century. It shows the enthroned Christ flanked by the emperor Constantine IX Monomachus (r. 1042–55) and the empress Zoë (c. 978–1050). Both emperor and empress are swathed in sumptuous jeweled regalia. Both are also equipped with haloes. This does not indicate that during their lives they were seen as saints, or even as being particularly holy. It instead reflects the carefully formulated relationship believed to exist between God and the Byzantine emperors.
There was, of course, no separation of church and state in the Middle Ages. The Byzantine emperor was believed to rule by divine right. A successful rule was the sign of divine approval, and the emperor was thus seen to have a special relationship with God, to be closer to God than his subjects. In the imperial panel the figure of Christ, larger in scale than the emperor or empress, is seated on a richly jeweled throne. He wears blue robes embellished with gold borders over an elaborately brocaded gold and scarlet tunic. He holds a richly ornamented Bible in His left hand, and raises His right hand in blessing. The emperor is shown holding a bag of coins while the empress holds a document recording an imperial donation to the church. Both the emperor and empress are shown with a relatively high degree of individuality; while these may not be portraits in the modern sense, they do attempt to convey some sense of the physical appearance of the imperial couple. At first glance this panel seems to be a straightforward image of imperial piety, but there are also messages of rank and power. The emperor's superior status vis-à-vis his wife is conveyed in several ways. He is placed on Christ's favored side, at His right hand, he is placed closer to Christ than his wife, he is larger than Zoë and he is depicted with a greater degree of frontality.
Yet the panel also displays the standardization of imperial iconography and the rather pragmatic distinction made between the title and the title-holder. Zoë was the daughter of the emperor Constantine VIII (r. 1025–28), whose dynastic legacy was imperiled by the lack of any surviving male heirs to the throne. At her father's death, Zoë thus became the conduit to imperial power. Her first husband, Romanus III Argyrus (r. 1028–34), became emperor on his wedding day. Together husband and wife made a special donation to Hagia Sophia from the imperial coffers, and it is this gift that is commemorated in the mosaic panel. Originally, the head of the emperor depicted Romanus, and the inscription above also named him. Zoë married again, to Michael IV the Paphlagonian (r. 1034–41), and on his death she adopted Michael V Calaphates (r. 1041–42) as her son and heir. He showed his gratitude by sending Zoë into exile. Michael was in turn deposed, blinded, and exiled by Constantine Monomachus, who restored Zoë to power and then became her third husband, and thus emperor. Together they gave an additional annuity to Hagia Sophia, and to commemorate this act the original donation panel was altered to its present state. The tesserae of the faces of Romanus, Zoë, and Christ were removed, as were those naming Romanus in the inscription. The new additions brought the panel up to the current standards in style, inserted Constantine's name in the inscription and replaced the head of Zoë's first husband with that of her last.
Despite the stern, even forbidding quality of the Pantokrator and the cool remoteness of the imperial portraits at Hagia Sophia, Byzantine art was also capable of representing and evoking emotion. This is particularly evident in monumental painting of the 12th century, as seen in the depiction of the Lamentation in the Church of St. Panteleimon in Nerezi, Macedonia. This church was built by Alexius Comnenus, nephew of the emperor John II Comnenus (r. 1118–43), and dedicated in September 1164. The Lamentation depicts the dead body of Christ, laid out prior to burial. His body is approached from the right by those who witnessed the crucifixion and assisted at the deposition. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea kneel in sorrow, tenderly supporting Christ's feet. In front of them is the "beloved disciple" John. His agony is given clear expression: his body is bent more than 90 degrees, his face contorted in grief as he raises Christ's right hand to his cheek. The viewer's eye is then led down the line created by the extension of Christ's right arm to the figure of the Theotokos, and to the very epicenter of grief. She holds her son awkwardly in her lap, her knees emerging on both sides of His rigid form. Her left hand reaches over His body to clasp His right arm while her right hand encircles His neck, pulling His face to meet hers. Their faces converge, hers in anguished profile, His stern but calm, shown in three-quarter view. His cruciform halo overlaps that of His mother, and their conjoined rounded contours are echoed by the forms of the hills that rise behind them. Above the scene in a brilliant blue sky angels, generally so calm and still in Byzantine art, weep and tumble in grief.
It has been suggested that this new emotionality in Byzantine art reflects the extreme changes the empire underwent in the 11th and 12th centuries. A convenient starting point for a catalog of these changes is 1054, the year of the schism of the Orthodox and Latin churches, which initiated an increasing polarization of the Christian world. This was followed in 1071 by the victory of the Seljuk Turks over Byzantium on the plains of Manzikert, in eastern Anatolia. In the wake of this defeat the emperor alexius i comnenus (r. 1081–1118) sought aid from Western European armies and from the papacy to stop the Seljuk advance. The First Crusade was motivated in part by this request, and while it did initially end the Seljuk incursions into eastern Anatolia, it also eroded Byzantium's strength and wealth.
The crusading armies captured Jerusalem from Arab forces in 1099, establishing the first of many Latin kingdoms in the east. Byzantine trade was displaced first by Norman and then Italian commercial cities, such as Venice. To the north and west, former vassal states of Byzantium, such as Hungary and Bulgaria, became increasingly independent. While all of these factors played a role in the declining political and economic stature of Byzantium on the world stage, the event that seared the empire's soul occurred in 1204. The army of the Fourth Crusade was diverted from their stated goal of liberating the Holy Lands to Constantinople by the commercial ambitions of the Norman and Venetian leaders. As they entered Constantinople the emperor fled and the city, unprepared for attacks by a Christian army, mounted little resistance. In the days that followed, Constantinople was sacked and burned. Churches were a prime target for the looters, and icons and relics were dismembered for their jewels and gold or were carried off to adorn churches in the West. Bronze sculptures were melted down or taken away. An example is a group of four bronze horses first brought to Constantinople from Rome and placed in the hippodrome. After 1204 they were taken to San Marco, Venice, where they can still be seen along with other booty from the imperial palaces and churches. In Constantinople a king was installed in the Great Palace of the Byzantine emperors, and the Latin Kingdom of Constantinople (1204–61) was established.
During this period multiple and competing centers of Byzantine power sprouted in Trebizond, on the Black Sea coast, and in the Greek cities of Nicaea and Epiros. In 1261 michael viii palaeologus (r. 1259–82) emerged from Nicaea and conducted a series of successful raids on the Latin army that culminated in the recapturing of Constantinople. He entered the city on August 15, riding behind an icon of the Theotokos, the traditional protector of Constantinople. Despite this reconquest, Byzantium never regained its stability or vigor. Geographically it was limited to the western corner of Asia Minor, northern Greece, and the southeastern edges of the Peloponnesus. Constantinople itself was mostly in ruins, and the great Orthodox churches, including Hagia Sophia, had been converted to serve the Latin liturgy. Massive rebuilding and restoration were needed. In this Late Byzantine period the patronage of significant monuments was increasingly taken over by members of wealthy aristocratic families. Theodore Metochites, a member of one such family, rebuilt what is often termed the greatest monastery of the age, the Chora monastery. Often referred to by its Turkish name, Kariye Camii, the building was transformed into a mosque during Ottoman rule and today is a museum. It contains some of the best preserved and most splendid works of Late Byzantine art.
Theodore Metochites was a scholar and statesman who held the second most powerful rank in the Byzantine court. He began work on the Chora in 1316, choosing to reconstruct a dilapidated monastery near the northern imperial palace of the Blachernai, close to the land walls of the city. From 1316 to 1321 Metochites supervised reconstruction of the vaults, the addition of an inner and outer narthex, and the construction of a parekklesion, a long chapel to the south of the building, which was to serve as a funerary chapel for its founder and his relatives. Metochites also oversaw the elaborate decorative program. In the main church today there remains only remnants of Metochites's original program. In contrast, the mosaics of the narthexes are well preserved, and display scenes from the Life and Ministry of Christ and from the Life of the Virgin.
The decorative program of the parekklesion differs in several ways from that of the main structure. Here the medium is fresco paintings, not mosaics, and the imagery reflects the funerary function of this chapel. The painted cycle of the parekklesion culminates in the eastern apse in the monumental painting of the Anastasis, the Resurrection of Christ. In this image we see the emotional style of the Lamentation at Nerezi taken to a new level. Christ is centrally positioned in the center of the apse and the center of the composition. He is enclosed in a brilliant mandorla, or body halo, which changes from pale blue to cream to white with gold stars as it emanates from Christ's body. His robes are now also pure white, indicating His resurrected state. And in contrast to representations of Christ that feature static poses, such as the Deesis or Pantokrator, the resurrected Christ at the Chora is embued with an astounding physicality. He stands atop two broken doors, representing the broken gates of Hell, around which are scattered numerous broken locks and keys. Beneath Him is a personification of Hell, a dark figure bound tightly with rope. To the left and right of Christ stand the Old Testament figures awaiting resurrection. Closest to Him are Adam, to the left and Eve, to the right, who as the first to die are the first to be resurrected. This is, however, no gentle transference to the heavenly paradise. Christ stands with feet wide apart, knees bent to brace Himself as He physically hauls Adam and Eve from their sarcophagi. Eve, presumably the lighter of the two, is shown in midair, while Adam's hair and garments flutter behind him as he too is wrenched from death into eternal life. The figures to either side are bunched together. Some look to each other in amazement while gesturing toward Christ; others are transfixed by the scene, bending eagerly toward it as they await their own resurrection. Behind them rise pale craggy mountains, set against the void of a dark blue background.
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[l. a. jones]
"Byzantine Art." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 22, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/byzantine-art
"Byzantine Art." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Retrieved March 22, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/byzantine-art
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