The year 330 marks the beginning of Byzantine art as emperor Constantine I moves Rome’s Empire to Constantinople, resulting in a great change for the art and architecture of the time. The new center of the Roman Empire was strategically chosen, for Constantinople was located between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, meaning it was in the commercial route between Europe and the Orient. The city quickly turns into the center for European art and culture.
The Byzantine age lasted for more than a thousand years, developing and changing throughout this time. The first period, known as the Golden Age, continued until the VIII century, followed by a period where holy images were destroyed. The Middle Ages begin later on in the year 843 and ends in 1261 when the late Byzantine era begins, bringing a new light to work being produced.
The Byzantine art was a mix of Roman art and Greek Classicism, with influence from the Oriental parables. The central theme was Christianity and its rituals, filled with symbolism and vibrant colors. These works had a mystical atmosphere using abstract and decorative figures. The artists from this period are usually anonymous and portrayed the life and teachings of Christ in paintings, frescos, sculptures, and mosaics.
The use of color was significant for the Byzantine period. The most expensive and precious pigments were used to portray more important sacred images, like the red dye used in many paintings of Christ that were the same red of the clothing worn by the Imperials. The colors were also chosen by how they reflect light since most artworks were in churches and cathedrals, the architects would carefully plan the position of the windows to illuminate the artwork. In some works, the mosaics would cover the floors and walls and were made with glass and colorful ceramic pieces, giving a mystical vibe to the ambiance as the light shines on them.
The sacred images used in the Byzantine works aimed to connect the people with the divine, as they would feel a direct contact with the portrayed subject. The gold used in the paintings had an effect of separation of the background and the figure, therefore, apparently approaching the figure and the viewer. The emperor was also seen as a personification of God on earth and art was used to show the people his theocratic power. An example of this is the mosaic Justinian I commissioned in the year 547, after freeing the city of Ravenna from the Visigoths. The mosaic shows the emperor with a halo and holding a golden bowl with bread for the Communion, next to his faithful army. This is a seamless example of how art was used as publicity for the emperor, as he joins faith, politics and the people in one work.
Mathematics was seen as the most elevated form of science at the time, and most artists had at least a practical understanding of proportion and simple geometry. It was believed that symmetry was the answer to calm a tormented spirit and using math this was done rationally and tangibly, therefore accessible to people’s spirit. The religious works being done always positions Jesus Christ in the middle, often looking directly at the viewer, and his image gradually became more mature with the development of the Byzantine movement. This reinforced the idea of an only God, as the secondary figures were positioned next to Christ in a two-dimensional way. These works were done in a variety of materials including ivory, marble, metal, mosaics, tapestry, and wood. This obsession with Christian imagery spread through Western Europe.
The Russian artist Andrei Rublev paints the Holy Trinity, a religious image with the intent of bringing contemplation to the faithful. He gives a sense of unity to the three figures as he portrays them with peaceful expressions and postures, using the same intense blue in all of their gowns. The symmetry in the composition and in between the figures give a welcoming atmosphere as if the viewer was invited to sit at the table. By the end of the movement, many painters start working in a more naturalist way, going against the pre-established guidelines of the Byzantine art. This can be seen in Madonna with Child Enthroned by Giovanni Cimabue, as he portrays the figures with more natural gestures and delicate expressions.
The Byzantine era ends in 1453, along with the downfall of Constantinople, but the history and legacy of this period are certainly interlaced with the evolution of Christianity and its imagery.