+
4 Tutorials that teach Byzantine Art and Architecture
Take your pick:
Byzantine Art and Architecture

Byzantine Art and Architecture

Author: Ian McConnell
Description:

This lesson will provide an introduction to the art and architecture of the Byzantine Empire.

(more)
See More

Try Sophia’s Art History Course. For Free.

Our self-paced online courses are a great way to save time and money as you earn credits eligible for transfer to over 2,000 colleges and universities.*

Begin Free Trial
No credit card required

25 Sophia partners guarantee credit transfer.

221 Institutions have accepted or given pre-approval for credit transfer.

* The American Council on Education's College Credit Recommendation Service (ACE Credit®) has evaluated and recommended college credit for 20 of Sophia’s online courses. More than 2,000 colleges and universities consider ACE CREDIT recommendations in determining the applicability to their course and degree programs.

Tutorial

Exploring Byzantine art and architecture.

Video Transcription

Download PDF

[MUSIC PLAYING] Hello. I'd like to welcome you to this episode of Exploring Art History with Ian. My name is Ian McConnell. And today's lesson is about Byzantine art and architecture.

As you're watching the video, feel free to pause, move forward, or rewind as many times as you feel is necessary. And as soon as you're ready, we can begin.

Today's objectives, or the things we're going to learn today, are listed below. By the end of the lesson today, you will be able to identify and define today's key terms, explain the events that led to the establishment of Constantinople and the consolidation of the eastern Roman Empire, and describe some elements of the Byzantine style.

Key terms, as always, are listed in yellow throughout the lesson. First key term is Byzantine-- a term referencing the Byzantine Empire, a style of art developed during the Byzantine Empire characterized by religious iconography, very formal, shallow pictorial space, and rich colors. Byzantium-- a Greek city rebuilt by Constantine in 330 AD and renamed Constantinople. Pantocrator-- refers to a specific Christian iconography, icon image of Christ understood in Greek as rule of all. Pendentive-- an architectural term, a construction that allows the placement of a circular dome over a rectangular room.

Continuing with key terms-- squinch is an architecture term, small arch or corbeling built across the interior between two walls as a support in a square tower. Reverse perspective, also called Byzantine perspective-- where lines of vanishing points diverge outside the picture plane or outside a painting. And picture plane-- the invisible plane that corresponds to the surface of the painting. The picture plane is like a window opening out onto another world.

The big idea for today is that the establishment of the new capital in Constantinople moved the focus of the Roman Empire east and facilitated a new artistic style that combined eastern and western conventions. There are required works of art today so keep your eyes peeled for those. Page titles will be in purple.

So the time frame that we're looking at-- Byzantine Empire-- is broken into three main areas. It begins with the early period-- establishment of Constantinople as the new capital of the eastern Roman Empire-- middle Byzantium covers the years from 843 to 1204 AD, and late Byzantium covers the years from 1204 to 1453 AD, when Constantinople is finally overrun by the Ottoman Turks.

So now that we're dealing with essentially two empires-- Western and Eastern-- let's take a moment to look at our maps. Historically, Rome was the capital of the Western Empire. Now, it's important to know that it did move twice. At the time that Rome was sacked by the barbarians in 410 AD, the capital had already moved to Ravenna, Italy, from its former location in present-day Milan.

The new capital of the Eastern Empire, established under the emperor Constantine, was the city of Constantinople, which was originally the Greek city of Byzantium. And after the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, it was renamed Istanbul. This is where it's located in modern-day Turkey.

So who's this Constantine character? Well, Constantine was a major figure in the political shakeup and subsequent religious changes that occurred during the fourth century AD. Constantine is often credited with splitting the empire of Rome but this is incorrect.

The empire had been broken up into Eastern and Western Empires by the emperor Diocletian who preceded Constantine. Now, the Roman Empire had become so huge, it had become a bureaucratic nightmare to run. So Constantine moved the capital to Byzantium, renamed it Constantinople, and ran his empire from there.

Political disorganization of the time left major parts of the Western Empire vulnerable to the continued barbarian attacks. Eventually, Rome was sacked by the Visigoths, a barbarian tribe, in 410 AD. And the Western Empire, itself, officially ended after the conquest of Ravenna by barbarians in 479 AD.

Now, this image is of the approximate borders of the Western and Eastern Empires of Rome at the time of the conquest of Ravenna, Italy, in 476 AD. Now, the other big to-do in the empire, at the time, was the rise of Christianity. The emperor Constantine is largely responsible for later adoption of Christianity as the official state religion replacing centuries of polytheism. The Edict of Milan-- Milan was the capital of the empire at the time-- declared religious tolerance to Christians and others. By the end of the fourth century, Christianity was officially declared the state religion many years after Constantine's death in 337 AD.

So the Byzantine Empire, as it came to be known, developed its own unique style that was a blending of Eastern and Western stylistic convention. The Church of Hagia Sophia, in Constantinople, was designed under the reign of the emperor Justinian during the sixth century AD. It really embodies, stylistically, the architectural elements that have come to be associated with the Byzantine Empire, such as the pendentive dome, centralized plan, and the extensive detail covering every surface of the church's interior.

It was built to be a cathedral, or a church that houses the cathedra, the throne of a Christian bishop. It was the architectural masterpiece of an ambitious plan by Justinian to return the empire to its former glory. Now, the supportive pendentives, which I'll explain in a moment, are separated by a clerestory at the base of the massive dome, which creates the effect of the dome appearing to float effortlessly above the building.

Now, pendentive-- one of our key terms-- is one of two primary architectural methods of supporting a circular dome on a rectangular or polygonal base. The arrow is showing you the pendentive in yellow. Now, a squinch is another method of supporting a dome on top of a rectangular or polygonal base. In this example, here's my rectangular base. The squinches are the four blue triangles that are built in to provide a base for the circular bottom of the dome.

Here's an exterior view of the Hagia Sophia. And the minarets, which are those towers on the side-- there are four of them, you can't see one of them-- they're a later addition, when the church was converted to a Muslim mosque after the Ottoman Turks. And it's shown as being in Istanbul, Turkey, which is the modern-day city of what used to be Constantinople.

The Church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, is a centrally planned church that began to be constructed in 526 AD. The exterior brick facade, an octagonal shape, are rather constrained in comparison to the interior design of the church. Now, this is a very simplified diagram of the layout of San Vitale, a centrally planned church.

So why do we care about the Church of San Vitale? It's a fine example of classical Byzantine architectural design. But it's the interior mosaics that really capture our interests. It's literally covered in them and have remained in relatively excellent condition, considering their age. The imagery depicted is all religious in nature. It's Christian, of course.

The depiction of Christ enthroned, which is a common Christian artistic theme, can be seen here. But keep in mind, it is not a required work of art. San Vitale was completed during the reign of the emperor Justinian but it isn't known whether he actually ever saw the church. He was, however, a very religious man, as well as ambitious and sought to establish the former greatness of the Roman Empire. Now, in addition to his artistic campaign, his military campaign was successful in reclaiming large portions of the former empire that had been lost, including Italy, much of North Africa, and parts of Spain. And he's married to the empress Theodora.

Justinian saw himself as Christ's representative on earth. And this notion is evident in this depiction of Justinian and his attendants in this mosaic from the north wall from San Vitale. Now, remember the mosaic of Christ enthroned I mentioned earlier-- well, this is positioned under and perpendicular to that mosaic on the right side of Christ, which was, symbolically, a very important position.

Some of the Byzantine stylistic high points that stand out include the almond-shaped eye, the tall, elongated bodies-- roughly nine heads tall-- the flat two-dimensional rendering, and the use of overlapping to suggest space and denote importance. Notice how the emperor is the only one not overlapped.

He also wears the purple and gold imperial robes. His head is surrounded by a golden halo. And he holds a Eucharistic platter. Now, an interesting tidbit is the number of attendants, which coincidentally number 12, the same number of disciples of Jesus Christ.

Now, directly across from Justinian is his wife Theodora in a similar composition of that of Justinian. It uses the same stylistic elements. The figures are elongated, the use of overlapping, the fact that Theodore is the furthest forward. She also wears the purple and gold imperial robes but hers are trimmed with images of the Magi, or the three wise men. Her head is framed by halo.

And like her husband, she holds a Eucharistic object. She holds a Eucharistic cup of Christ. She is, however, attended by fewer people and is positioned on the less desirable left side of Christ, symbolic of her status in comparison to Justinian.

Finally, we're going to dart over to Greece and jump ahead several hundred years to take a look at this image of Christ Pantocrator from the central dome of the Church of the Dormition. Now, this image of Christ is designed in the Byzantine style. Notice the almond-shaped eyes, the sharp nose, the elongated features. Now, this almost brooding figure of Christ would actually be looking down on you from above. It's a mosaic that's situated within the dome of the church. Other images of Christ Pantocrator use a similar depiction with the right hand of Christ in a blessing gesture and the left hand is holding the New Testament.

So now that we've reached the end of the lesson, let's take a look at our objectives again to see how we did. Are you able to identify and define today's key terms? Explain the events that led to the establishment of Constantinople and the consolidation of the Eastern Roman Empire. And describe some elements of the Byzantine style. Once again, the big idea for today is that the establishment of the new capital in Constantinople moved the focus of the Roman Empire east and facilitated a new artistic style that combined eastern and western conventions.

And that's it. Thank you very much for joining me today. I'll see you next time.

Citations

Image of Rome, Creative Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Roman_Empire_Trajan_117AD.png;

Image of Italy, Creative Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:EU-Italy.svg;

Image of Turkey, Creative Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Turkey_(orthographic_projection).svg;

Image of Turkey (closeup), Creative Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Turkey_location_map.svg;

Image of Constantine, Public Domain http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Constantine_I_Hagia_Sophia.jpg;

Image of Christ, Creative Commons http://tinyurl.com/cula4dd

Image of Christ Pantokrator, Church of the Dormition, Daphni, Public Domain, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Meister_von_Daphni_002.jpg;

Hagia Sophia Interior; Creative Commons: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:HagiaSophia_DomeVerticalPano_%28pixinn.net%29.jpg

Hagia Sophia Exterior; Public Domain http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:%C4%B0stanbul-Ayasofya.JPG

Basilica of San Vitale Exterior, Creative Commons: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Basilica_of_San_Vitale,_Ravenna,_Italy.jpg

Basilica of San Vitale Interior; Creative Commons: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Emilia_Ravenna5_tango7174.jpg

Theodora; Public Domain: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Meister_von_San_Vitale_in_Ravenna_008.jpg

Mesister von San; Public Domain: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Meister_von_San_Vitale_in_Ravenna.jpg;

Image of Justinian Mosaic at San Vitale (Full View) Public Domain http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Meister_von_San_Vitale_in_Ravenna_003.jpg

TERMS TO KNOW
  • Byzantine

    A term referencing the Byzantine Empire, a style of art developed during the Byzantine Empire characterized by religious iconography, very formal, shallow pictorial space and rich colors.

  • Byzantium

    A Greek city rebuilt by Constantine in 330 AD and renamed Constantinople.

  • Pantocrator

    Refers to a specific Christian iconography; icon image of Christ understood in Greek as “ruler of all.”

  • Pendentive

    An architectural term; a construction that allows the placement of the circular dome over a rectangular room.

  • Squinch

    An architecture term; a small arch, or corbelling built across the interior between two walls as a support in a square tower.

  • Reverse Perspective

    Also called Byzantine perspective where lines of vanishing points diverge outside the picture plane or outside a painting.

  • Picture Plane

    The invisible plane that corresponds to the surface of the painting, the picture plane is like a window opening out onto another world.