The timeline of Byzantine art encompasses more than a thousand years of history and different types of artistic production. With thousands of works of architecture, sculpture, frescos, mosaics, and illumination, as well as its constant transformation throughout the centuries to consider, presenting a unique timeline of Byzantine art is an ungrateful task. It always ends up with an imbalanced idea of Byzantine art as a whole, even more so if we take into account that this art goes beyond Constantinople and even beyond the borders of the Byzantine Empire. Examples and the influence of Byzantine art can be seen all over the Medieval world, even influencing art long after the Empire faded into history.
Beginnings of Byzantine Art
It is agreed among scholars that Byzantine art is a continuation of the art of the Roman Empire and not a radical break from it. A key difference that makes this art Byzantine and not Roman is its Christianization after Emperor Constantine stopped the prosecution of Christians in 313 CE.
His building campaign raised Christian art from the catacombs and private houses to public buildings and monumental proportions. Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome and the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem are some of its early examples, leading to the masterpiece of early Byzantine architecture. Hagia Sophia was built between 532 and 537, during the reign of Emperor Justinian. The Great Church of Constantinople was furnished with marble of various colors and columns taken from ancient buildings. A part of this original decoration survived to this day.
From this period, there remain other works of art beyond the capital. Mosaics of Saint Vitale and San Apollinaire in Classe in Ravenna, Euphrasian Basilica in Poreč, Hosios David in Thessaloniki, and icons of the Sinai monastery hold particular artistic importance.
Iconoclasm and Byzantine Art
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The emergence of Iconoclasm and its acceptance by the State and Church in the 8th century shook Byzantine art to its core. Iconoclasm, or in literal translation, “destruction of images,” is based on multiple philosophical and theological arguments. The Ten Commandments of the Old Testament, Plotinus Neoplatonism, monophysitism, and the writings of Eusebius of Caesarea all played a crucial role in the rise of the iconoclasm.
This had catastrophic consequences for the existing art and its production. By 730, Emperor Leo III signed a series of edicts and ordered the removal of the image of Christ above the entrance to the Imperial Palace. The reaction of the people of Constantinople was not positive. Outraged, a mob of citizens killed the man who took it down. In a period that lasted more than a century, with brief pauses, many churches lost their original decoration. Hagia Sophia was redecorated with mosaics representing only a plain cross, some of them surviving to this day. The motif of a cross is one of the rare representations allowed by the Iconoclasts.
The opposition to this essentially imperial movement was loud, with many learned men and women writing in defense of icons, many of them later canonized. Their triumph finally came in 843, during the reign of Michael III, and the icons were carried in a procession through the streets of Constantinople.
The Triumph of Orthodoxy
Soon after the triumph of icon veneration, a new dynasty was rising to the Byzantine throne. Basil I, crowned in 866, was the first ruler of the Macedonian dynasty, which ruled until the 11th century. This period marked a cultural rebirth and a renewed production of Byzantine art. One of the first significant mosaics was probably made around 867 in the apse of Hagia Sophia. It stands to this day and represents Virgin Mary holding the Christ-child. Tenth-century Byzantium saw a rise in interest in classical scholarship and artistic style. The works of the time show a varying degree of antique features.
Dated to the 10th century, the Joshua Roll is a prime, albeit uncommon, example of Byzantine art. It represents the scenes from the Old Testament Book of Joshua, mainly Joshua’s military victories. A military leader probably commissioned it, or it was made as a gift for one. Illustrations belong to the classicizing style, with line and composition holding more importance than color. Another significant aspect is the neutrality of emotions and the idealization of figures.
After the death of the last Macedonian emperor Basil II in 1025, Byzantium began receding due to internal power struggles. Despite this, a new group of private patrons founded the building of smaller but lavishly decorated churches. Monumental depictions of Christ and the Virgin, biblical events, and saints adorned church interiors, as seen in the monastery churches of Hosios Loukas, Nea Moni, and Daphni in Greece.
The Period of the Komnenos Dynasty
The internal instability of the empire ended with the rise of emperor Alexios I and the establishment of the Komnenos dynasty. The empire was recovering economically and militarily, which meant a new great period for Byzantine art. Returning to the Hagia Sophia, a new mosaic of the imperial family was added, probably around 1220. In the south gallery, we now have John II Komnenos, his wife Irene, and their son Alexios. The realism of the imperial couple moves away from earlier idealized figures of the 10th century. With her red hair, red cheeks, and light skin, Empress Irene is presented as a Hungarian princess. John has tanned skin, as described in contemporary written sources.
An important piece of Komnenian architecture and art is the monastery of Christ Pantocrator, funded by emperor John II and his wife Irene of Hungary and later added on by their son Manuel I. It consisted of three internally connected churches dedicated to Christ Pantokrator, Virgin Eleousa, and archangel Michael. The first two were built between 1118 and 1136. Writings of pilgrims and the founding charter are the only sources of our knowledge on its interior decoration. The churches were paneled with marble and golden mosaics in the upper zones.
Latin Rule & the Art of a New Capital
The beginning of the 13th century brought radical changes to the Byzantine Empire. Surviving factions of the Byzantine Empire after the Crusaders sacked Constantinople in 1204 created their own rump states. For a little less than 50 years, these states carried the development of Byzantine art. Theodore Laskaris founded the Nicaean Empire in Asia Minor, and the Angelos dynasty established the Despotate of Epirus in the Balkans. The capital of the Despotate of Epirus was the city of Arta, an important center even before 1204.
The churches of Panagia Parigoritissa, Panagia Blacherna, and Saint Theodora hold particular importance for the Byzantine art of the 13th century. Panagia Blacherna was especially important for it functioned as a mausoleum of rulers of the Despotate. Parigoritissa church, like in the Hagia Sophia, visualized Heaven on earth, the fusion of Heaven and Earth, and an image of the cosmos. The cult of the Virgin Mary was woven into the art of Arta, symbolizing it as a new “chosen” city under divine protection.
Returning to Constantinople
From the point of territorial and political significance, Byzantium never recovered even after the reclaiming of Constantinople in 1261. On the other side, the spiritual and intellectual life was as rich as ever under the Paleologus Dynasty. The triumphal entrance procession of Michael VIII Paleologus was led by the icon of Virgin Hodegetria, symbolizing the return of divine protection over the imperial city. Many of the buildings were rebuilt and redecorated. In the south gallery of Hagia Sophia, a new golden mosaic was paneled. Though heavily damaged, it shows the Deesis scene with Virgin Mary and John the Baptist flanking Christ enthroned. Based on one reconstruction, the mosaic also depicted Emperor Michael VIII. For a long time, this mosaic was covered by whitewash.
The most complex artistic enterprise during the Paleologus period was the Chora monastery, renovated by grand logothete Theodore Metochites between 1315 and 1318. Once more, the focus of the visual program is set on the Deesis scene near the entrance to the church. To the left of Christ and Mary is sebastokrator Isaac Komnenos, who renovated the church in the Komnenos period. On the other side of Christ is a kneeling figure of a nun labeled “Melanie, the Lady of the Mongols,” who may be the daughter of emperor Michael VIII. By presenting two of the previous imperial patrons of the monastery, Theodore Metochites legitimizes his own position in the Empire.
Byzantine Art After the Fall of the Empire
On the 29th of May, 1453, the final Fall of Constantinople occurred, and thus the reign of the Byzantine Empire came to an end. However, that didn’t necessarily mean the end of Byzantine art. People who created this art moved to different parts of Europe, where it continued to have an important influence on Christian art. Byzantine tradition in icon-painting and other small-scale arts carried on in the Venetian-ruled Crete and Rhodes.
These islands developed a “post-Byzantine” style of art which survived for another two centuries with ever-increasing Western influences. The Cretan School especially became influential in the history of art since it schooled El Greco. It was also the most conservative, wanting to stay true to its original tradition and identity. Many painters of the Cretan School were educated in both Byzantine and Renaissance styles of icon painting. After the fall of Candia in 1669, the artists of the Cretan School moved to the Ionian Islands, where they moved on from the idealistic style of Byzantine art to the more realistic style of Western art.