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Definition: Byzantine from The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Art Terms

Of the art of the East Roman Empire, from the 5th c.  AD to the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Such art is usually hieratic and other-worldly.

Summary Article: Byzantine
From The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Style in the visual arts and architecture that originated in the 4th–5th centuries in Byzantium (capital of the Eastern Roman Empire; renamed Constantinople in 330; now Istanbul). It spread to Italy, throughout the Balkans, and to Russia, where it survived for many centuries. The term Byzantine refers now to a specific style rather than a geographic place. It is characterized by rich use of colour such as gold, rigid artistic stereotypes, and stylized figures composed of strong lines, giving a flat appearance. Byzantine artists excelled in mosaic work, manuscript painting, and religious icon painting. The simplicity and stylization of such religious works made them useful teaching aids, and Byzantine art is often called Christian art. In Byzantine architecture, the dome supported on pendentives (supportive structures at the intersection of arch and dome) was in widespread use.

Classical examples of Byzantine architecture are the churches of Hagia Sophia, Istanbul (537–52), and St Mark's, Venice (11th century). Medieval painting styles were influenced by Byzantine art; a more naturalistic style emerged from the 13th century onwards in the West. See also medieval art.

Early history Having reunited the Eastern and Western Roman Empire under his single rule, Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor of Rome, transferred his capital from Rome to Byzantium in 330. The city was renamed Constantinople (modern Istanbul), and it was here that the visual arts flourished, expressing the faith, ritual, and dogma of the early Christian church.

In the 6th century the Emperor Justinian (reigned 527–565) built and commissioned great artworks on a huge scale. The use of mosaic associated with Byzantine art also appeared in church decoration in the West. In Ravenna, for example, churches of the 6th century present powerful religious images on walls and vaults in brilliant, glittering colour and a bold, linear style.

Iconoclasm In the 8th and 9th centuries, the flourishing art of Byzantium was halted and even destroyed, as theological debates raged over whether the use of images in religious art was equal to idolatry and should be banned. In 725 the iconoclasts, those who believed religious artworks were ‘graven images’, condemned in the Bible, gained victory over the iconodules, who thought images were justifiable. Religious images were banned and art production declined until 843 when the ban was lifted. However, although art returned to the churches, it was controlled by a set iconography.

New mosaics were created according to strict, codified directions: Jesus had to appear in the centre of the domed section of the church, with the Virgin Mary and child in the apse. Below Jesus were the main events of the Christian year, including the annunciation, crucifixion, and the resurrection, while beneath these were the saints, martyrs, and bishops, ranked in order. Byzantine style continued for many centuries in icon painting in Greece and Russia.


Basilica of Sant'Angelo, Formis

Byzantine fresco, Formia

Byzantine fresco, Formia

St Mark's Cathedral, Venice

© RM, 2018. All rights reserved.

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