The Divine Art of Austerity and Piety in the Byzantine Empire (330-1453 AD)

The culture and art of the Byzantine Empire were profoundly influenced by the Christian religion. Church and State firmly intertwined under the rule of the emperor hailed as “Christ’s Vice-Regent.”

Aug 5, 2020By Maria Dragatakis, BA Classics, Classical Languages and Literature
byzantine temple icon
The Presentation in the Temple by the Byzantine Painter, 15th century AD, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (left); with Medallion with Christ from an Icon Frame, 1100, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (right)


The Byzantine Empire, also known as Byzantium, was a cultural and political powerhouse during Late Antiquity and into the Middle Ages. Its ideology and culture were heavily permeated by Christianity and it produced enormous artistic output focused on piety and religious virtuosity. Read on to learn more about how religion influenced the society of the Byzantine Empire. 


History Of The Byzantine Empire

Map of the Roman Empire from 300 AD till 600 AD illustrating the gradual Christianization of the Empire, via Utah State University


In 306 AD., Emperor Constantinus Augustus took the reign of the Roman Empire, who would be later known as Constantinus Magnus, or Constantine the Great (273-337 AD).  A great warrior and general of his armies, he expanded and united the vast geographical realm of the Empire. One of his initial imperial decrees and an effective unification tool for the empire was his decree that all people are free to practice their own religion. This secularism put an end to the persecution of the Christians. 


The Roman Empire changed under his rule. The year 330 AD marks the commencement of the Byzantine era that lasted until 1453 AD when the Ottomans conquered the last remnants of the empire and the only Byzantine city remaining, Constantinople.


Marble portrait head of the Emperor Constantine, 320-75 AD, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Constantinople: Where East Met West


Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

To ensure effective geographical control of the empire, Constantine transferred the imperial capital from Rome to the ancient Greek city of Byzantium, situated at the major intersection between Europe and Asia, a stronghold and important trade point. In 330 AD he converted to Christianity and renamed the city to Constantinople – the City of Constantine, now known as Istanbul.


Constantinople view of Holy Palace by Antoine Helbert, via


The city was built as the City of God-on-Earth; all its art and architecture were centered around religious elements. As the new capital of the empire, it was also called ‘New Rome,’ but maintained Greek as its official language and the language of the Church. Plus, its administration was purely theocratic


Other than the Holy Palace built as the imperial residence and the Hippodrome, the horse racetrack that was also used for civic gatherings, most of the city landmarks are churches. The most majestic architectural feat and center to the newfound religion was the Cathedral of Divine Wisdom, the church of Hagia Sophia.


The Cathedral of Divine Wisdom – Hagia Sophia, via the Catholic Education Resource Centre 


Hagia Sophia remains the symbol of the Byzantine Empire, the spiritual center of the Orthodox Church which survived a turbulent history. Under Ottoman rule, it was converted to a mosque until 1937 when the secular reformer Kemal Ataturk changed it into a museum. As a museum, the monument was restored structurally, and the original wall paintings revealed and declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site of Historic Istanbul. Only recently the revived Islamic identity of Turkey declared it a place of Muslim worship. As of July 24, 2020, Hagia Sophia is designated as a mosque.


Southwestern entrance mosaic of the Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople featuring the Virgin Mary, the Child Christ and emperor Justinian I, via the Hagia Sophia website 


Byzantine Art: The Icons As Objects Of Worship


The word icon derives from the Greek word eikon that means image, and in this case, it is the divine image of Christ, Virgin Mary, or other Saints. It is not a painting or the work of an artist; it has divine properties and is an object of ritual veneration. The Church had decreed according to the Council of Nicaea in 787 AD that worshippers can freely adore icons, as “the honor which is paid to the image passes on to that which the image represents, and he who does worship to the image does worship to the person represented in it.”  


The Saints Constantine the Great and Helena by Athanasie Wallachia, 1699, via the National Museum of Art of Romania, Bucharest


“embrace icons with the eyes, the lips, the heart, bow before them, love them . . .”, John of Damascus, eighth-century theologian urging the faithful to worship icons.


The Byzantines venerated icons excessively. Icons adorned special shrine-like corners of their homes, were in churches, and were even attributed with miraculous powers to answer prayers, heal the sick, and provide protection.  Icons were carried into the battle and in public processions along streets on special holidays. Veneration of icons has remained a strong expression of Eastern Orthodox faith and is actively practiced to date. 


During the years 726-787 AD and later in 815-843 AD imperial legislation barred the reproduction and depiction of human figures in images. This is known as the Iconoclastic controversy. Icons were deemed as objects bordering idolatry, and the cross was promoted as the most acceptable decorative form for Byzantine churches. Archaeological evidence suggests that in certain regions of Byzantium, including Constantinople and Nicaea, existing icons were destroyed or plastered over and very few survived scattered around the realm. Alas, very few early Byzantine icons survived the Iconoclastic vehemence. Significant exceptions are those preserved at the Monastery of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai, Egypt, some fabric woven icons, and the miniature depictions carved on early Byzantine coins.


Late Byzantine Icon with Triumph of the Orthodoxy, 1400, via The British Museum, London


The above icon depicts the Triumph of Orthodoxy, the end of the iconoclastic period, and the restoration of icons in 843. In the upper center is the icon of the Virgin Hodegetria icon, a miraculous icon by the Evangelist Lucas that was kept in the Hodegon Monastery in Constantinople. 


Detail of the Icon with Triumph of the Orthodoxy: the wood surface and the layers of material and paint, via The British Museum, London


Icons were made in different media, but most were painted on wood, with egg tempera and gold leaf surfaced with gesso (white paint mixture consisting of a binder mixed with chalk, gypsum, pigment) and linen. The back is mostly bare wood, with two horizontal panels. Their size varied from miniatures to large wooden panels covering the walls of churches. The importation of Byzantine icons would trigger a demand in the West for works ‘alla greca’ and spurred the revival of panel painting in Europe.


The Icon of the Virgin Mary/Hodegetria by Berlinghiero, 12th century AD, via The Metropolitan Museum, New York


The wooden panel image of the Virgin Hodegetria (“the one who shows the way”), attributed to the evangelist Saint Lucas, is an emblematic icon, one of the most famous Byzantine icons of all time. It is a prototype that was copied widely in Byzantium in all media and influenced all future images of the Virgin and Christ Child in western Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance


Byzantine Art In Religious Books And Parchments


Constantine the Great established the first Imperial Library in Constantinople and through the centuries many libraries were established throughout the Empire, mostly in monasteries where works were copied and saved throughout the millennia.


Education and literacy were highly prized in the Byzantine state. An aristocratic elite, secular and clerical, were great patrons and supporters of the book arts. The development of the codex, the earliest type of manuscript in the form of a modern book (i.e., a collection of written pages stitched together along one side) was a major innovation of the early Byzantine era. 


Four-Gospel Codex from Saint Athanasius church in Thessaloniki, originally from Constantinople, 11th-12th century AD, via The Byzantine Museum of Thessaloniki


The four-gospel codex illustrated above contains excerpts that were read on Sundays, Saturdays, and weekdays in the church. It consists of 325 parchment leaves and is abbreviated. The text is developed in two columns, with notation, written in an upright, rounded, meticulous minuscule script that echoes the style of the second half of the 11th and early 12th century. This codex is among the most densely decorated Byzantine four-gospel codices. It is illustrated with full-page portraits of the evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Lucas (John’s image has been detached) depicting them as Christian scribes and philosophers on a throne. 


Libraries of Byzantine and post-Byzantine books and manuscripts survive till today on Mount Athos, the Monastery Community in the Athos peninsula in Greece, an Orthodox landmark of Divinity where till today women and children are not allowed to visit and congregate in the region. The entire community is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List as a protected community.


Mount Athos and its twenty Monasteries, remain to this day under the spiritual jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. In their vaults and churches, rich collections of artifacts, rare books, ancient documents, and artworks of immense artistic and historical value have survived through the centuries. 


A large collection of manuscripts also lives in the renowned Eastern Orthodox Monastery of St. Catherine’s on Mt. Sinai, in the Sinai peninsula in Egypt one of the earliest surviving monasteries constructed by the Byzantine Emperor, Justinian I.


Book of Psalms – Illuminated Psalter, late 1100s AD, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Psalters, Hymn books, were popular books and a part of the liturgical rituals in churches. The semantics of the illustration is important as in all forms of iconography subjects are depicted under strict rules set by the church. In the above illustration Christ at the center, as ‘universal leader’ (Pantokrator), represents God. The pairs of birds over the headpiece and in the ornate incipit letter of the text signify the dual nature of Christ, equally man and god.


The Evangelist Lucas writing the Gospel by the Kokkinobaphos Painter, 10th-12th centuries AD, via The British Library, London


Byzantine Gold For Emperors And Bishops


Gold and precious stones were abundant in the Byzantine Empire due to its strategic location and the power it exerted in the region.


Jewelry like all art forms had to observe strict religious rules and standards. The cross was the ultimate jewel that people wore to profess their faith. Gold and silver coins were mint to commemorate the rule of each Emperor. Gold and precious stones were used to adorn the clothes of the Emperor, the elite of the Imperial Court, and the echelons of the Church Hierarchy.


Sakkos Prelatical Vestment for Bishop Melenikon, 18th century AD, via The Byzantine Museum of Thessaloniki


Official liturgical vestments (Sakkos in Greek) were worn by Bishop Melenikon, representative of Church vestments worn during the Byzantine era, and are still in use by the Orthodox Church. The two-headed eagle, emblem of the Church and the Empire, and the Apostles and Virgin Mary seated on a throne, holding in her arms the infant Christ, are depicted on the garment. 


When Constantine became the Emperor of the Roman Empire, he abolished the punishment of crucifixion to appease the sentiments of the Christian citizens. When he converted to Christianity and laid a claim to have unearthed the original Cross of Christ’s crucifixion in Jerusalem, he adopted the Cross as the symbol of his empire.


The symbol of the Holy Cross ever since was deeply embedded in Byzantine Art and is found in abundance to adorn architectural structures. It was also a venerated item that every Christian must own, in Orthodox tradition, the first cross was gifted to a person the day of his/her Baptism to remain in their possession for the rest of their lives. 


Gold cross-reliquary, 10th century AD, via The Byzantine Museum of Thessaloniki


Byzantine coins were widely used for commercial transactions but also served as the basic tool of imperial propaganda. The images stamped on them—the emperor, members of his family, Christ, angels, saints, and the cross—promoted the idea that the Byzantine state existed by divine right and under God’s protection. Coins in gold, silver, and copper were mint under the strict control of the imperial authority.


This gold girdle, probably worn as an insignia of office, is composed of gold coins and medallions. The emperor Maurice Tiberius (582–602) appears on the medallions, probably minted on his ascension to the throne in 583.  All the coins are stamped CONOB (pure gold of Constantinople), indicating that they were minted in the capital city. 


Girdle with Coins and Medallions, 583 AD, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


The Decline And Legacy Of The Byzantine Empire


In 1453, the Byzantine Empire ceased to exist. The Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople, the last and most emblematic stronghold of the Empire.


The Fall of Constantinople came at a time when various Italian city-states were experiencing a cultural revival, later referred to as the Renaissance. In 1453 the capital of Byzantium fell to the Ottoman Turkish army and this was the effective end of the Byzantine Empire that had endured for almost 1000 years. Greek scholars and artists fled to Italy where they influenced the direction and the course of the Renaissance. Greek education, the spread of the Ancient Greek language and the revival of the Classical and Hellenistic cultures positively contributed to the revival of arts, literature and sciences.    


The Fall of Constantinople and the consequent Ottoman presence on European lands also changed the geopolitics of the Mediterranean region and the continent by large.


Entry of Mehmed II into Constantinople on the Twenty-Ninth of May 1453 by Benjamin Constant, 1876, via Musée des Augustins, Toulouse


The Byzantine legacy remains until today to remind us that the Byzantine Empire was a potent blend of ancient Greek, Roman, and Christian culture that flourished for ten centuries in Eastern Europe. It spanned diverse lands and peoples, the vast expanse of Russia, from Armenia to Persia, and from Coptic Egypt throughout the Islamic world.


The legacy of the Divine Art that Byzantine Empire endowed the world can be glimpsed in two relevant exhibitions: Heaven and Earth: The Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections is a comprehensive exhibition organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum in conjunction with the exhibition organized by the Greek Ministry of Culture,  Heaven and Earth: Byzantine Illumination at the Cultural Crossroads.

Author Image

By Maria DragatakisBA Classics, Classical Languages and LiteratureMaria Dragatakis lives and works in Athens, Greece as an International Productions Coordinator for a local theater company. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Classics and Classical Languages and Literatures from Ohio University. Art is her passion which she is been blessed to relish in her daily tasks, in the world of the theater, and the city she lives in with its rich cultural heritage. Her work has taken her around the world in a never-ending journey, always seeking the finer sentiment of euphoria that only art can produce.