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Byzantine Art & Architecture

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  • 0:01 The Byzantine Empire
  • 1:20 Byzantine Art
  • 3:10 Byzantine Architecture
  • 5:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the rich art and architecture of the powerful Byzantine Empire, centered in Constantinople. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

The Byzantine Empire

Imagine if the United States split in two. I know, it would be tragic, but just imagine it for a second. In the New England area, you have the traditional center of American culture. Way over on the other side of the continent is California, another cultural center. After the United States splits, California becomes the capital of the western half, and over time, develops styles of art and culture that are very different from the eastern half. They are related, connected, but still unique. This is sort of what happened in the Roman Empire. Rome's power stretched all the way across the Mediterranean region, and in modern-day Istanbul, another powerful cultural center developed called Constantinople, or Byzantium, as it was originally known.

As Rome became weaker, Constantinople grew stronger, even to the point that the Roman emperors moved their capital there in the 4th century. The Roman Empire formally collapsed in the 5th century, but Constantinople was able to survive, forming its own empire. The Byzantine Empire inherited the role of Rome not only as a dominant power but also as a center of the Christian religion. Byzantine culture, including their art and architecture, stayed connected to its Roman heritage, but also developed unique characteristics of its own.

Byzantine Art

Art in the Byzantine Empire was centered around two central themes: religion and the power of the ruling class. Both of these stem from the fact that it took money to commission art, and only the state and church had that kind of cash. Additionally, religion was a major part of Byzantine life. One of the major forms of Byzantine art was the icon, a flat panel depicting Jesus, Mary, saints, or angels that were considered sacred. These panels, which could be found anywhere from churches to private homes of the wealthy, were believed to be conduits through which God would perform miracles.

Byzantine icons, as well as other painted objects, like books or murals, shared stylistic elements. On one hand, they maintained symbols from the Roman Empire, things like the use of gold to represent divine presence. On the other hand, Byzantine art developed very unique traits. The most notable of these is a style of abstraction, simply meaning that art was not entirely representative of visible reality. In Byzantine art, many figures appeared somewhat elongated or disproportionate. Some of them had greenish tints to their skin. The paintings often had simple or empty backgrounds and no sense of realistic space.

Critics in Rome thought that the Byzantines simply forgot how to make real art, but that does not seem to be the case. By relying on abstract rather than realistic styles, the Byzantines emphasized the symbolism of the art. This is especially true of religious paintings, where the scenes represented the divine, sacred nature of events and people rather than the realities of their earthly appearances. By creating figures that sometimes looked almost otherworldly, Byzantine artists celebrated their divinity.

Byzantine Architecture

As with their art, most of Byzantine architecture was focused on religion. In the Christian tradition, churches are designed in the shape of a cross. This practice began in Rome, and the Byzantines continued it. However, they used a Greek cross as the basis for their churches rather than a Roman cross. While the Roman cross has a long vertical base, looking sort of like a lower case t, the Greek cross has four arms of the same length, like a plus sign. This made the church slightly different in shape and presented unique architectural challenges. In order to cover the square center of the church with a circular, domed roof, Byzantine architects developed the pendentive, triangle bases of a sphere that taper off into the four corners of a square.

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