Back To CourseArt 101: Art of the Western World
23 chapters | 278 lessons
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Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
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!
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.
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.
And here's another mosaic.
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.
While Byzantine culture influenced Western Europe, it became the de facto culture of Eastern Europe. We've seen the mosaics of Greece, but now we're going to focus on another kind of art: icons. These small, portable paintings of Christ, Mary, or the saints were tremendously popular across the Byzantine commonwealth, but best preserved in Eastern Europe. Icons were very useful for missionaries. They are small, lightweight, and useful for teaching the Bible to mostly illiterate populations. In many parts of Eastern Europe, icons were believed to allow direct communication with the saints, which means these paintings could perform miracles.
Here's a great example from Macedonia. This 14th-century painting is one of the Ohrid icons, named for the church where it resides. On the front is Christ, just as he appeared in that mosaic in Sicily. And on this icon is an annunciation scene, the moment when Mary is told by the archangel Gabriel that she is pregnant with Jesus Christ.
Icons were popular items owned by churches, kings, and peasants alike. And perhaps nowhere were they more popular than in Russia. Moscow became a major center of Orthodox Christianity as Byzantine missionaries flocked to this major Eastern European city.
This is the Vladimir Virgin, an 11th century icon from Russia. This is one of the best examples of the spread of Byzantine culture. The image itself is so perfectly Byzantine, from the strong lines and flat background to the characteristic thin nose of Mary, that most scholars believe it was made in Constantinople. It then traveled to the Ukraine and finally made it to Vladimir, Russia, before going to Moscow. Due partly to the timing of its arrival, the people of Moscow believed that this icon saved them from a Mongol invasion. Remember that the belief was that saints could perform miracles through the icons. This same icon was also said to have saved Moscow from invading Poles in the 17th century. Moscow became so enmeshed in Byzantine culture that after Constantinople fell in 1453, Russia took on the mantle as leader of the Christian world and labeled itself the Third Rome.
The Byzantine Empire, which lasted from 527 to 1453, was the center of Orthodox Christianity and it took that position seriously, sending missionaries across the European world. The Byzantine Commonwealth is the term used to describe the regions that, while not part of the Byzantine Empire, were deeply committed to Byzantine culture. These areas ranged from Greece to Russia, encapsulating most of Eastern Europe, and served as gateways for Byzantine culture to enter other regions as well.
Byzantine art became especially popular, characterized by flat backgrounds, slightly abstract figures, solid lines, and a lack of spatial depth. Icons, portable panels with religious images, were one of the most popular forms of Byzantine art that spread across the commonwealth. Alright, feel like you've got a grasp on Byzantine culture now? Well, saddle up that camel and get to work. It's an important mission.
When you are finished, you should be able to:
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Back To CourseArt 101: Art of the Western World
23 chapters | 278 lessons