Byzantine & Romanesque Design

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

What was art and architecture like in Europe during the time of castles, knights and the Crusades? Design elements included massive domed churches and shimmering gold mosaics. In this lesson, we'll explore elements of two major styles of the Middle Ages, Byzantine and the Romanesque.

Art Evolves in the Middle Ages

The Middle Ages were a time of change in Europe. Christianity was growing in power and spreading beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire on the eastern edge of Europe (around what is today Greece and Turkey). Two influential styles of design, Byzantine and Romanesque, emerged from these changes and greatly impacted art and architecture. This phase of history between the 5th and 15th century is also referred to as the medieval period.

Byzantine and Romanesque design are similar in several ways. Both use religious imagery and ideas, and portray them in hierarchical terms, where God is at the top, and average men and women are at the very bottom. In both styles, churches were designed and their interior space planned with careful deliberation to reinforce the teachings of the Church and spread Church doctrine, the official rules and guiding ideas of the Christian religion. Now let's examine these styles, beginning with Byzantine design.

Byzantine Design

Byzantine design originated in the Byzantine Empire and developed into one of the most influential styles of the Middle Ages. The Byzantine Empire was concentrated around Constantinople (today known as Istanbul). All elements of Byzantine design reflect Christian ideas and symbolism. Churches had large central domes to represent the domain of God in heaven. These central domes were surrounded by a varying arrangement of smaller domes and spaces with vaulted ceilings.

Illustration of the basic form of a Byzantine church, showing the central dome and surrounding smaller domes and vaults
byzantine church

Byzantine churches were ornate with rich decorative design. They were covered in frescos, pictures painted directly into wet plaster. Mosaics, images made of many small pieces of materials such as tile or colored glass, were also very prominent. The standard iconography, or regularly used visual elements of Byzantine style, is meant to represent the message of the Church and its power. Jesus, known as Christ Pantocrator or the universal ruler, is at the top, followed by saints and angels, and then emperors and other important political leaders. Their hierarchy clearly reflects in how they are positioned within the design. Many images are high on ceilings and walls, so churchgoers had to look up to see them. This further emphasized the importance of humility and proper ranking according to the world view of the period.

Human figures in Byzantine art stare straight ahead with expressionless faces. The space around them is flattened. Lines and colors are emphasized, but there's no shading or any attempt to give them a sense of three dimensions. Even the drapery is rendered as repeated curving geometric pattern lacking shade or form. Figures are often posed against a glittering gold background. It doesn't look realistic, and its not meant to be. Everything was designed to signify God's realm as separate from that of man.

A good example of Byzantine style is the following mosaic from one of the entrances to Hagia Sophia (originally a Christian church) in Istanbul, Turkey. It was created in the late 9th or early 10th century.

Mosaic of Christ Pantocrator from Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey
mosaic from Hagia Sophia

In the image, Emperor Leo VI, the Wise bows to Christ Pantocrator. Both the human figures and the jeweled chair in which Christ sits are flattened. The main figures stare ahead, accompanied by small circular medallions of Mary, Mother of God and the Archangel Gabriel. A abstract, gold background and ornamented curving border above the figures further emphasize their separateness from the people coming to worship. This mosaic, specifically planned to echo the domed ceiling, was installed over an entrance reserved for the emperors. It's clear from the image that God (and hence the Church) was in charge. Note the emperor's kneeling position!

Romanesque Design

Romanesque design grew out of Byzantine design. It developed around 1000 in what is today France, Germany and Western Europe from a fusion of Byzantine, Roman and Islamic styles as well as vernacular (everyday) Northern European forms. During this time, the Church has become extremely prosperous as its power continued to grow. The Church influenced all areas of life, including arts and architecture. One of the results of the increasing power and influence was the widespread movement of monasticism, a practice where groups of people left everyday life to devote themselves to God, choosing to live in religious communities governed by written rules. These groups needed larger structures as they grew.

Romanesque churches were huge structures, larger and longer than Byzantine churches. Instead of a massive dome as the central focus, they were often more horizontal with towers and arched forms. St. Stephen's Church, ca. 1050, in Waha, Belgium, is an example of a Romanesque structure.

St. Stephens Church in Waha, Belgium, is an example of Romanesque architecture
romanesque church

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