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Byzantine Art: Mosaics, History & Characteristics

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  • 0:05 Byzantine Art: A…
  • 3:04 Imperial Religious Propaganda
  • 6:47 Byzantine Iconography
  • 9:06 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten
This lesson covers Byzantine art and explains the difficulties of imposing artistic periods. Justinian is introduced as the man behind the Byzantine Golden Age. We explore the interesting dynamic between Byzantine imperialism and Christian religion. Finally, we take a brief look at eastern religious icons.

Byzantine Art: A Muddled Picture

In the 6th century CE, the western half of the Roman Empire was slowly collapsing. Classical culture was constantly being interrupted by invading German tribes. Rome had long since ceased to hold any real political power; its authority was now purely religious. By contrast, the eastern, or Byzantine, half of the empire held together. In the Byzantine Empire, classical culture carried on uninterrupted for almost a thousand years until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. So as the West descended into the Dark Ages and Rome struggled to teach morals and manners to barbarians, Eastern civilization continued to flourish, and Constantinople became the cultural and artistic center of the early Christian world. This Byzantine cultural dominance makes it difficult for art historians to determine where early Christian art ends and Byzantine art begins.

Many of the trends we saw in early Christian art find full expression in Byzantine art. For example, early Christians loved mosaics, so did the Byzantines. Early Christians built their mosaics out of pieces of colored glass, making their mosaics brightly colored, translucent and somewhat glittery in effect. The Byzantines didn't just follow this trend, they refined it even further, creating some of the most beautiful mosaics in Western civilization. These similarities make it hard to tell whether the early Christians were following the lead of Constantinople, or if Constantinople was simply the place where these arts and techniques were unified into a coherent style.

The Byzantines improved upon the Christan mosaics found in churches.
Christian and Byzantine Church Mosaics

Yet similarity to early Christian Art is not the only difficulty facing art historians. Providing a clear history of Byzantine art is especially challenging because so little Byzantine art survived to the present day. The Byzantine Empire went through several periods of iconoclasm, or the destruction of religious images. During these bouts of iconoclasm, countless mosaics and paintings were defaced or destroyed. To make matters worse, many of the images that managed to survive Christian iconoclasm were later covered up or destroyed by the Turks, whose Islamic faith forbade any image of man or animal. Thus, ironically, the best examples of Byzantine art can be found not in the East, where the empire had its seat, but in the cities of the West, where iconoclasm never really took off and Islam never managed to take hold. Despite these limitations, art historians have managed to piece together a coherent description of the Byzantine style.

Imperial Religious Propaganda

One of the clearest distinctions between early Christian art and Byzantine art is the insidious insertion of imperial propaganda into religious images. To understand where this propaganda came from and what it was trying to say, we need to take a look at the man who financed so much of this art: the Byzantine emperor Justinian. Where the church in Rome was a purely religious body (at least for the moment), the church in Constantinople was bound tightly to the political structure of the empire. The emperor was both the head of the state and head of the church. This combination of religious and political authority gave the emperor unprecedented power over the art and architecture of the Byzantine Empire. And no emperor exercised this power more than Justinian. Justinian constructed new churches all over his empire and decorated those churches with symbols of religious inspiration and imperial power.

As we move through our examples of Byzantine art, keep an eye out for traces of imperial propaganda hidden among religious imagery. Nowhere is this religious propaganda more clear than in the altar of the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna. Let us compare this Byzantine mosaic with one of its early Christian predecessors. This early Christian mosaic from Santa Maria Maggiore is a Biblical scene. It depicts Abraham and Lot parting ways - a fateful moment in which Lot chooses the comforts of the city life of Sodom and Gomorrah, while Abraham chooses communion with God out in the wild. This is a clear-cut religious tale, drawn directly from the Bible.

The Byzantine mosaic mixes the political imagery of Justinian with religious symbolism.
Byzantine Mosaic More Political

Let's compare that to the Byzantine mosaic of Saint Vitale. This mosaic isn't displaying a scene from the Bible but rather a scene from the imperial court of the Byzantine Empire. Here we see Justinian, flanked by his retinue. Yet while Justinian is not a part of the Bible, it kind of seems like he'd like to be. Justinian is flanked by religious leaders of his empire, demonstrating his religious authority. To the side stand his soldiers, representing his earthly, imperial authority. Yet even the secular power of the military has been Christianized. His soldiers bear a shield with Christ's initials, Chi Rho. A century earlier, Constantine had ordered his soldiers to paint the same symbol on their shields to mark their devotion to the Christian God. And when we count these people up, we'll see that he's got 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12 attendants in his retinue. Wasn't there another guy with 12 guys who followed him around? Oh right, Jesus. Justinian's 12 attendants are probably a subtle reference to the 12 apostles. In this light, Justinian is equating himself to Jesus and his authority over the state to Jesus' authority over the soul. Heck, he's even got a halo!

Though both of these images are full of allegory and symbolism, the meaning behind the early Christian mosaic is purely religious, whereas the imagery of the Byzantine mosaic conveys political authority as well as religious meaning. This blending of imperial symbolism with religious iconography is but one of the things that distinguishes Byzantine art from its early Christian predecessors.

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