It is somewhat clear that popular culture has pushed the Byzantine Empire off to the side. We get endless documentaries on the pyramids of Giza, Rome, and the Vikings, but rarely anything in-depth about one of the mightiest empires of the Mediterranean. That seems strange, considering the Empire existed for over a thousand years and deeply influenced every other person it interacted with. In talking about Medieval Byzantine art, we’ll be looking into the importance Byzantines held for the development of the states with which they came into contact.
Medieval Byzantine Art
As the Byzantine Empire is the continuation of the Roman Empire, Medieval Byzantine art is a continuation of ancient Roman art that has been entirely Christianized. Like all aspects of Byzantine life and culture, its art is bound to its religion. Manuscript production, sculpture, fresco, mosaic decoration, and architecture are tied to the symbolism of the Christian faith (from 1054 Orthodox Christian faith). Unlike many churches and monasteries filled with frescoes and mosaics, there aren’t as many examples of profane Byzantine architecture. Byzantine sculpture is even rarer.
Another aspect of Byzantine art is its relation to ancient Greek culture. Long before the Italian Renaissance, Byzantines had different phases of reviving antiquity. Art historians and historians termed these periods based on the dynasties that ruled over the Empire, such as the Macedonian Renaissance, Komnenos Renaissance, and Palaeologan Renaissance. The use of scrolls like the Joshua Roll, reliefs made of ivory, like the portrait of Constantine VII, and frescos and mosaics all point to the importance of ancient Greek art.
From its beginnings, the Medieval state of Bulgaria had been at odds with the Byzantine Empire. In alliance and war, the Byzantine influence on Bulgarian culture was always ongoing. This included the adaptation of Medieval Byzantine art into the political ideology of Bulgarian rulers. During the Middle ages, Bulgaria established its own Empire in two distinct periods. First, during the 10th and 11th centuries, ended by Basil II The Bulgar Slayer, and second from the 12th and 15th centuries, when it fell under the wave of Ottoman conquest. Emperor Ivan Alexander rose to the Bulgarian throne in 1331. His 40-year rule over the Empire was marked by a cultural renaissance, sometimes referred to as the “Second Golden Age of Bulgarian culture.”
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The Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander, a manuscript produced between 1355 and 1356 at the request of the emperor, is clearly Byzantine. The Gospels manuscript plays a key role in developing Byzantine imperial imagery suited to the needs of the Bulgarian political agenda. A similar portrait of Ivan Alexander dressed as a Byzantine emperor can be found in the Bachkovo Monastery, a 12th-century monastery he renewed.
Medieval Serbia had a long-lasting relationship with the Byzantine Empire. Since its foundation in the late 12th century, the Serbian Nemanjić dynasty was bound to the faith of the Empire. All Serbian monarchs from the 12th to the 15th century based their identity on the political ideology of Byzantium. This included using already established models of Medieval Byzantine art. King Milutin Namanjić was tied to the Byzantine Empire in the most personal way. In 1299, he married Byzantine princess Simonis, the daughter of emperor Andronikos II Palailogos. That is when King Milutin became perhaps one of the greatest patrons of Medieval art. During his reign, he supposedly financed the building and rebuilding of 40 churches, decorated by some of the best painters in the Greek world. Most notably, he built the church of Our Lady of Ljeviš and the Gračanica Monastery dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
Both of these churches were painted by Greek painters led by Michael Astrapas. This group is closely related to the main developments of Byzantine fresco painting. In their frescos, the composition of scenes and individual figures of saints retain the monumentality of earlier Byzantine paintings. However, the scenes are now composed of a densely packed group of characters, undivided architectural scenery, and widely executed fragments of landscapes.
Further to the west, in the middle of the Mediterranean, Normans took over Sicily and Southern Italy during the latter half of the 11th century. Since medieval Sicily was a multicultural society, the new monarchs needed a suitable integration process. Contacts between Normans in Sicily and Byzantium were intensified after the Hauteville dynasty of Norman rulers continually attacked and conquered some of the Byzantine-held territories in South Italy and the Balkans in the latter half of the 12th century. Churches built by the Norman dynasty show images of the rulers with Catholic, Byzantine, and Moor elements.
The Church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio in Palermo was built by the admiral of Sicily, George of Antioch, during the reign of Sicilian King Roger II. Testimony of Roger’s relationship with the Byzantine Empire can be seen in his portrait in this church. Art historians have noted a similarity of this portrait with an ivory portrait of Byzantine emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus. Same as Constantine, Roger II is being crowned and blessed by Christ. The king himself is Christ-like in appearance and is clothed as a Byzantine emperor. The scene of Christ crowning the emperor is one of the most common representations of Medieval Byzantine art.
The Fall of the Empire in 1204
In April of 1204, Constantinople fell under the rule of Crusaders, led under the Frankish and Venetian flags. The deposed parts of the royal family and Byzantine nobles fled the city and founded rump states in Asia Minor and the Balkans. The main goal of all these states was reestablishing the Empire and reclaiming Constantinople. This was the foundation upon which these Byzantine nobles built their identity. The heirs of the Komnenos dynasty, Alexios and David, established the Empire of Trebizond just a few months before the fall of Constantinople in 1204.
As descendants of deposed emperor Andronikos I Komnenos, they proclaimed themselves “Roman emperors.” Claiming the identity of a Byzantine Emperor meant following a pre-established ideological formula of representation. The church of Hagia Sophia in Trebizond follows the tradition of Medieval Byzantine art and the fulfillment of the new political agenda. By dedicating their main church to the Hagia Sophia, they made a clear link between Constantinople and Trebizond as the new capital of the Empire. The two other Byzantine states, the Nicene Empire and Despotate of Epirus, followed the same path and built their identities by making connections to the fallen capital.
Christianity reached Russia from Byzantium in the late 9th century. Olga of Kyiv converted to Christianity in Constantinople around the middle of the 10th century. But only after the conversion of Vladimir the Great in 989 was the Byzantine influence on the rising Russian rulers sealed. From that point, Russian rulers commissioned buildings, manuscripts, and art clearly related to Medieval Byzantine art.
The capital city of Kyiv was also Christianized. During the rule of Yaroslav the Wise, Kyiv was furnished with the Golden Gate and the cathedral of Hagia Sophia with frescoes similar to that of Hagia Sophia in Ohrid. Other cities, like Novgorod and Vladimir, were also filled with churches. When Moscow became the new capital, one of the most important events was the transfer of the Virgin of Vladimir icon from the city of Vladimir in 1395. The icon was made in Constantinople in the 12th century and sent as a gift to Duke Yuri Dolgorukiy. Throughout history, this icon has been considered national palladium and has had many reproductions since its creation. It is also worth noting that Theophanes the Greek and Andrei Rublev had also been influenced by the tradition of Medieval Byzantine art.
Venetian Doge Enrico Dandolo was one of the leaders of the Sack of Constantinople in 1204. During the subsequent 57 years, many pieces of Medieval Byzantine art were transferred to Venice and other great cities of Europe. Most important art pieces can still be found inside and outside of the Basilica of Saint Mark. The Basilica has already been decorated with mosaics typical of 11th-century Byzantine churches, probably during the rule of Doge Dominico Selvo. The Triumphal Quadriga from Hippodrome was held above the main entrance to the church before being moved inside in the 1980s. Columns from the church of Saint Polyeuktos, marble icons, and portraits of the Four Tetrarchs in porphyry were laid into the construction of the Basilica.
Probably most importantly, the enamel plaques from the Monastery of Christ Pantocrator are laid into the altarpiece titled Pala d’Oro. The value of these pieces of Byzantine art lay in their symbolism. In Constantinople, they were a crucial part of Constantinople’s identity as a city chosen by God and under His protection. Through them, Venice is transformed into a great city of universal value.
During the Middle ages, the island of Cyprus was ruled by various states, from Byzantines and Arabs to the Frankish Lusignan dynasty and the Venetian republic. Despite foreign rule, Cypriots held to their own independent identity, which was tied to the beginnings of the Byzantine Empire in the 4th century with Constantine the Great and his mother, Helena. According to tradition, during Saint Helena’s travel to the Holy Land, she found the True Cross. On her return trip, her boat was stranded in Cyprus. Wanting to strengthen Christianity on the island, she left particles of the True Cross in many churches and monasteries.
One of the most robust centers of Christianity in Cyprus is the Stavrovouni Monastery (known as The Mountain of the Cross), which was, according to legend, founded by Saint Helena. This event remained one of the founding pillars of Cypriot Orthodox identity. Churches built in the period of the second Byzantine rule from 965 to 1191 are similar in architecture, dimensions, and painted decoration. An unavoidable part of these churches, as well as most other churches in Cyprus, is a representation of the True Cross, Empress Helena, and Emperor Constantine. The veneration of these two saints remains as strong as ever in Cyprus.