The Byzantine Commonwealth: Famous Works

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  • 00:01 Byzantine Commonwealth
  • 1:20 Greece and Western Europe
  • 3:40 Eastern Europe
  • 6:00 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 movement of Byzantine culture across the Byzantine Commonwealth. We'll also discover how art can spread religion.

The Byzantine Commonwealth

I've got a very important mission for you. You're going to take some bibles, a few paintings, and a camel, and go spread Byzantine culture across Eastern Europe. Got it? Any questions? What's Byzantine culture? Good question!

In the Middle Ages, the period in between the fall of the Roman Empire and the start of the Renaissance, the most dominant power in the Mediterranean world was the Byzantine Empire, which lasted from 527 to 1453. Based in Constantinople (today Istanbul, Turkey), this was the center of Orthodox Christianity and saw itself as the Second Rome, meaning the center of Christian power in the world after Rome fell. And with this very important title, the Byzantines trained missionaries to go out across Europe and spread Byzantine religion and culture. Historians call the area that was most influenced by these missionaries the Byzantine Commonwealth. These regions, including places like Greece, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, and Russia, were not officially part of the Byzantine Empire, but were deeply influenced by Byzantine culture and art.

So before we send you out on your own, let's take a tour of this region together. You'll see what I mean!

Greece and Western Europe

Have you ever wondered why the art of medieval Europe looks so different from the art of the Roman Empire? A lot of that is the result of Byzantine styles working their way into Europe. Byzantine art was much less naturalistic. They associated the realism of Rome with its pagan past, so they abstracted figures and scenes to reflect the holy, otherworldly nature of religious subjects. And one of the major areas where this Byzantine style entered Europe was through Greece.

Greece has many Byzantine churches, noted for a floor plan based on a cross with four arms of equal length, but the decorations inside those churches are especially significant of changing styles. This is a mosaic, an image made of individual tiles in the Greek Church of the Dormition from the 11th century.

Byzantine mosaic

Byzantines loved their mosaics and it's not hard to see why. So, what's Byzantine about this? For one, the flat, gold background; no spatial depth, no landscape, just gold. Also, the strong, solid lines of the figures and their robes, as well as the distinctive halos. Finally, look at Christ and the cross. They are not perfectly realistic. There's a sense of abstraction, used to emphasize parts of the image like the wounds on the feet.

Greece is full of churches with these sorts of images, as is southern Italy, showing the spread of Byzantine culture into Europe. So, let's hop on over to Sicily. This is the Cathedral of Monreale.

Interior of the Cathedral of Monreale

And here's another mosaic.

Mosaic from Cathedral of Monreale

Now, this church is on the Roman Catholic plan, based on a cross in the shape of a lowercase 't', but the decorations are purely Byzantine. Once again, we see the solid gold backgrounds, reflecting the purity and holiness of heaven, and a figure outlined with strong, solid lines. Christ looks almost flat here, again rejecting that Roman sense of spatial depth. You may also notice that he is not showing much emotion; that, too, is pretty common of Byzantine art. Below Christ are Mary and the Apostles, and below them are other saints and popes. This mosaic was completed at the very end of the 12th century, when Byzantine culture and art had become pretty dominant across the eastern Mediterranean.

The interior of the Cathedral of Monreale
Mosaic in Cathedral of Monreale

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