Early Byzantine Art: Techniques, Styles & Culture

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  • 0:00 Early Byzantine Art
  • 0:55 Context and Culture
  • 2:35 Techniques and Styles
  • 4:30 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 first period of truly Byzantine art, a style based out of Constantinople. Afterward, you can test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Early Byzantine Art

So, I assume you've heard the latest gossip? Rome fell! Yeah, I couldn't believe it either. Of course that happened like a century ago, but over here in Constantinople, eastern capital of the former Roman Empire, we've been pretty detached from Rome for quite a while. But now that Rome is gone, it's really just us: our empire, our culture, our art. And with the rise of Emperor Justinian, who ruled from 527-565 CE, Byzantine power has never been stronger, stretching almost as far as the previous Roman Empire. And just look at all of this art we're making. I guess you could call this the period of Early Byzantine art, the period from 527-726 CE when Byzantine artists defined a unique style based out of Constantinople. Early Byzantine art: Yeah, I like the sound of that!

An example of Byzantine art
Example of Byzantine art

Context and Culture

So, how did we get here? Well, like I mentioned, the rise of the Byzantine Empire really relates back to Emperor Justinian. Constantinople was a major power since 324, but Justinian made this the great power of the Western world in the 6th century. Our empire stretched across the entire Mediterranean coast, from Northern Africa to Southern Spain. Justinian's generals even captured Ravenna, capital of the Roman Empire in the 5th century. But, we're not Rome. Rome was the center of the Roman Catholic faith, but in Constantinople we follow the Eastern Orthodox Church, which, at this time, is pretty much the Byzantine version of Catholicism.

Justinian, who was not only rich and powerful, but wanted to be respected, put his money and efforts into an incredible building program that rivaled even the Romans. In Constantinople alone, Justinian had more than 30 Orthodox churches built. Now, these aren't little chapels we're talking about. They are things like this: the Hagia Sophia, which incredibly was built in only five years from 532- 537 CE.

The Hagia Sophia
The Hagia Sophia

When it was first built, the Hagia Sophia was 270 feet long and 240 feet wide, with a 108-foot dome that was more than 100 feet high. It is one of the great architectural wonders of the world, using innovative architecture to make the dome appear as if it floats on light. And that's just one church, in one city. Justinian architects built churches across the empire, especially in major cities like Ravenna. These churches served to help spread Byzantine art and culture across the Mediterranean world.

Techniques and Styles

So, as you can see, we Byzantines have got some pretty sweet architecture. Not only are these huge and impressive buildings, they're also pretty uniquely designed. Roman Catholic churches are on a basilica cruciform plan, based on the shape of a cross, sort of like a lower case 't.' Orthodox churches are less strict about this. Most are still based on a cross-shaped, or cruciform, plan, but we tend to use the Greek cross as the model, in which all four arms of the cross are the same length. But even this can be changed. The major church in Ravenna is based on a circular plan. And as far as techniques go, here in Constantinople, we can make huge domes, like the one covering the Hagia Sophia, using pendentives, the use of arches to make a sphere, upon which rests the actual dome.

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