Byzantine Art

Author: Norman H. Baynes


By Norman H. Baynes

Christian art was born in the catacombs; driven underground by the pagan state, it was a symbolic art: its frescoes never sought to depict historical events, but through the mystic signs which the Greek cities of the Near East had created--the East whence Christianity had sprung--it interpreted to itself its message of cheer, its "good spell" of salvation. Thus from this present evil world the despised sect turned for confidence and encouragement to the world of the spirit. The Alexandrian motives of the anchor and the dove received a new meaning. Hermes with the ram on his shoulder became the Good Shepherd bearing the lost sheep, while Psyche and Orantes praying amidst the flowers of Paradise were figures of the sure and certain hope of the soul's immortality. With the victory of the persecuted Galilaeans in the fourth century art rose, like Demeter, from the underworld to deck the triumph of Christianity. Everywhere under royal favor churches came into being, as though by magic, and for their embellishment the old symbolism seemed too slight, too wistful. The winter was past, and spring called for pageantry.

In the first centuries of our era pagan Rome had created out of Hellenistic art an imperial art, realistic and monumental, stamped with the Roman mark, spreading through the provinces with the universalism of her Empire: and as the City of Rome decayed in the third century, and the East, as we have seen, reasserted its supremacy, this imperial tradition found in the East the color and the decorative skill in which to clothe imperial pomp. To the fresco was added an extended use of the wall-mosaic, an art working for broader and larger effects, with sharper outlines, an art to be viewed at a distance, a spacious art, needing for its development the cooperation of the architect. But the new capital was set in Greek-speaking lands, and alongside of this Oriental art of decoration and of color, Greek humanism and the great types of human beauty which Hellenism had created still exercised a mighty influence. Constantinople might be an upstart city without traditions, but it claimed for itself thesplendor of the classical past: into it were collected not only the sacred relics of the Christian faith, but also the masterpieces of the pagan world. New Rome became a museum, an unmatched school of art.


At the same time the Church had a great story to tell: she wished to record with pride the heroism of the faithful departed and the loyalty of the martyrs in face of torture and death. Not only so: the walls of her sanctuaries should become for the illiterate converts an illustrated Bible, a pictured history of redemption. Just when in East and West alike a purely ornamental and decorative art seemed about to triumph, the Christian Church, dropping her early prejudices, joined with the state in accepting the legacy of Hellas, and by her influence preserved for the world an art which could still express human personality with its depth of religious and emotional sentiment. The Savior had assumed the form and nature of man, and by so doing had given an untold value to human individuality. The Church refused to rest content with ornament alone. In that complex art of New Rome there was indeed room for all: for the picturesque motives of the school of Alexandria--for nature with her vine tendrils and her acanthus leaves, for pagan scenes of sport and country-side, for animals and the games of naked children by the river, for all the play of Hellenistic fancy: there was room for the Roman tradition of processional pageantry, of pomp and power: room for the lavish color and magnificence of Persian decoration and arabesque, and room too for those types of human nobility that Greece had created, while in architecture the Empire took what the East could give and raised it to a new potency, until it flowered in the world wonder of Justinian's church of the Holy Wisdom....

The Byzantine world drew from many wells, and at times it seems to the historical student that art critics have hardly realized how many-sided was the receptivity of theEastern Empire; New Rome borrowed freely from other peoples, but yet, nowhere truer to the traditions of old Rome than in this, set her own impress on that which she had borrowed, until it took new form and shape under her hand.

Sancta Sophia, consecrated in 537, was five years in building, and the whole Empire was put under contribution for Justinian's masterpiece. Its architects Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus both came from Asia Minor, and while from the East Constantinople might derive the cupola and the decorative scheme of multi-colored marble, yet we may surely trace Greek subtlety in the masterly use of the pendentive, whereby on a rectangular basis the circular cupola might rise with such grace that it appeared rather to be suspended from Heaven. God and man, contemporaries felt, had cooperated in this marvellous building, for if from God came the skill of the architects, it was the Emperor who had chosen them for the creation of this building, alive in all its parts: for here Byzantine art, scorning the dead weight of sheer mass, "sought in the play of thrusts a new equilibrium."

In this First Golden Age of East Roman artistic achievement by the side of a majestic symbolism which had replaced the simple imagery of the catacombs (cf. S. Apollinare in Classe at Ravenna) mosaic elaborated the splendor of a new historical realism, as in S. Vitale at Ravenna, and, greatly daring, introduced new themes, such as the passion of Christ, which an earlier age had hesitated to portray. At this period are formed the types of sacred iconography, of Christ and the Virgin, of prophets and apostles....


The fire of persecution [of Iconoclasm] awoke the monks to fresh vigor in religious painting. The miniature artists gained a new freedom: they too became realists, and, interpreting biblical metaphors with a literalism which is at times humorous, they appealed to the people with a vigorous pictured polemic against the Iconoclasts. But the triumph of the monk and of the sacred image had a double effect on Byzantine sacred art: it tended to hallow those traditional forms which had been attacked, and thus to perpetuate a fixed iconography, and it also strengthened monastic influences: the monastery of Studius became the vigorous center of a cloistral art....

But the outstanding feature of the period is the elaboration of that iconography which from henceforth was to dominate Byzantine sacred art. The issue of the Iconoclast controversy had been the triumph of dogma, and the decoration of the Churches now became a systematic exposition of the orthodox creed. In the narthex and the nave is pictured the cycle of the great Christian festivals, and here are ranged the armies of the faithful, victorycrowned--saints, monks, martyrs and bishops. From the world of sense one passes into the sanctuary, where the institution of the Eucharist typifies the greatest mystery of the Church Terrestrial: thence the artist ascends to the apse figuring the celestial church, where is enthroned the Mother of God "higher than the Heavens": finally, far above in the main cupola of the church, the whole is dominated by the Incarnate image of God, Christ the Lord of all, combining in his Consubstantial Person the Divine Son and the Ancient of Days Who, as even iconodules were prepared to allow, could not be represented by the hands of mortals. Such is the supreme expression of the heart of the Church of the Seven Councils....


The civil art of East Rome is almost entirely lost to us, but much of what was most characteristic of the Byzantine Empire--the art of the Church--remains. The supreme artistic achievement of Constantinople is its architecture with its glorious sense of color in wall mosaic and marble revetment, and next to this its exquisite technical perfection in what must be called the "minor" arts: ivory-- carving and miniature painting, enamel work and the production of fabric designs. Byzantine art has often been scorned as decadent and lifeless; but of recent years there has been manifest a growing appreciation of its permanent value and significance.

Why does the beauty of this art still move us? How came it to transcend the limitations of its ancestry--the somewhat pompous heaviness of Roman imperial art, the triviality of Hellenistic art, the monotony of the art of the East? The secret surely lies in a religious enthusiasm which did not exhaust itself either in asceticism or dogma, but spent its reserves of energy in the expression of beauty--in the purity of line and color. Retaining his Hellenic legacy of an art that was not confined to a decorative symbolism, inheriting those majestic types which had early become traditional in the iconography of the Eastern Church, the Byzantine was never distracted by his search for originality of theme, never tempted to think that in mere verisimilitude lay the artist's goal--he was free to create the imperishable forms of his ecstatic vision. And thus before the masterpieces of that creative genius we today are conscious not primarily of any technical achievement, but rather of a religious emotion which art has immortalized. The East Roman ascetic, driven by his enthusiasm into the wilderness, craved a calm of soul which was not of this world's giving; its fruits: joy, courage, power; that which the anchorite often failed to win from his desert solitude the artist found in beauty, for at the heart of that passion which inspired Byzantine art there is peace.

from The Byzantine Empire (1925), Ch XI.

Taken from the Fall 1993 issue of "The Dawson Newsletter." For subscriptions send $8.00 to "The Dawson Newsletter", P.O. Box 332, Fayetteville, AR 72702. John J. Mulloy, Editor