History of Art

Christianity and Byzantine Art

In the beginning Christianity remained as an underground religion. They were hated and persecuted by others. But they gained strength while carrying their activities in underground passages and catacombs. They fought battles and at last became victorious and real successor of Rome. More than a dozen religions that were found in Rome were opposed to each other not knowing their own religion. The admirable systems of roads built by Legions proved very beneficial for the crusades that were taken under the banner of the cross. The pressure of the Barbarians from the north was increasing and the weak emperors of Rome were unable to manage the vast empire. Therefore it was divided into two halves the east and the west.

Emperor Constantine made Byzantium as his capital of the Eastern Empire in 330 AD and renamed it as Constantinople. About a century after in 402 the Emperor Honorious fled from Rome to Revenna.After his death Galla-Placidia looked after the empire during the minority of her son Valantine, the third. Due to the Barbarians the architects and the painters had fled to the east so as to build up churches in Revenna, architects were called from Constantinople and the painters to decorate them.

Christianity and Byzantine Art
Christianity and Byzantine Art

Byzantine art emerged from the assimilation of the cultures of the west i.e. Rome and Greece and east i.e. Persia, Asia Minor, Assyria and Egypt. The mystic attitude towards art of the east did not allow images of the Christ or the saints or the prophets on the walls inside the Churches while Christians in Italy wanted images to decorate walls. This became the bone of contention and both Constantinople and Rome remained at war with each other. Emperor Leo the third of Constantinople sent an armada to Italy but Pope Gregory II and III defeated them. Atlast the Greek orthodox churches came out to compromise upon the images .The power politics was also gaining ground between the emperors of the East and pope of the west. At last the compromise reached by forbidding statues but allowing the pictures of Jesus Christ and others which were called Icons to put on the walls of the churches. Constantinople remained the seat of Christian Empire up to 1415 when the Turks conquered and have remained there ever since.

Paintings under Early Christianity

Christians held their meetings in secret places because Christianity was a forbidden religion. They worked underground in catacombs that their burial places as well as chapels. They buried their dead because they believed in the doctrine of Resurrection (Life after Death). Roman law respected the graveyards so that even those of Christians had some security. Christianity in the early stages was an enemy rather than a friend of art .It was a religion of the poor and downtrodden. They hated any decoration and show and were also afraid of drawing likeness of anything. If it tolerated the art it was for devotional purposes and to convey message through symbols. It was not a painting to which the spectator looked but the symbols, the meaning and the language is conveyed. So it was the meaning that mattered much and not the method of painting. Till the Christians lived in secrecy they decorated the walls with floral designs specially containing vines that stood for Jesus Christ and the grapes for his disciples. The peacock was the symbol of immortality and the anchor, the symbol of hope. Doves represented innocence and Dolphin was a favorite symbol for Christ since the initial letters of the Greek words

Jesous Christos Theous Unious Soter means Jesus Christ the Son of God, savior of the evils. Thus art under early Christians was symbolic and simple lines were given importance more than the color. Even after compromise between the east and west churches the artist was suspicious and their paintings had no life and better suited for graveyards than the churches. When Christianity became state religion the art served the new purpose that told the power of the churches and the majesty of the Emperor. Thus the religion that began by raising poverty was won over by the riches. Traders and wealthy persons embarrassed Christianity and because they were accustomed to decorate their houses according to Roman fashion. They began to decorate their walls with Christian art. So the spiritual and the moral value were lost and since then Christian era became a pure art. Books were also illustrated. Alexandria had the greatest library of manuscripts. The artist illustrated the books with simple outline the central figure was depicted on a much larger scale than the subsidiary figures because the size served as propaganda to advance Christianity. Among the painting is the famous Joshua Roll. This manuscript was originally 32 ft. long and 1 ft. wide with the drawing in pen and ink and color. In between the pictures there is a text in Greek. It has now been divided into sections and mounted for preservation. In a picture Joshua near the wall of Jericho is prostrating before the angel. In the lower right hand corner is a female figure crowned with a tower personifying the city through the subject is Christian. The method of expression is Hellenistic i.e. the personification of the city, the naturalism of the figures, the way in which they fit into the landscape and the perspective in architecture.

Byzantine architects and decorated

Four churches of Revenna are also worth mentioning which were built by Byzantine architects and decorated with mosaic frescoes on Italian soil.

  • Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in the middle of 5th century.

  • Church of St Giovanni

  • Church of St Apollinaire Novo in late 5th century AD

  • Church of St Nitale in 526 AD

The mosaic work in these churches gave shinning effect but was costly. Fresco was used when economic conditions demanded less expensive substitute. Since the figures instead of having heavenly became humanized in the Lamentation over the body of the Christ, the subject is expressed with deep colors, the faces the garments, the body of Christ and the rocks are constructed into various patterns of light and shade. The figures are organized into the long sweeping curves and also in sharp angels.

Main Characteristics of Byzantine Style

  • Came from Byzantium

  • Controlled by Religion

  • Iconographic

  • Church prescribed rules and subjects for visual expression

  • Unreal and visionary character

  • Critics say lifeless and static as Egyptian more apparent than real based on the belief in immortality.

  • Discouraged the change in style that encouraged conservative spirit and disinclination to experiment.

  • Limited to spiritual, dematerialization

  • Lofty domes with mosaics on a gold ground

  • Different materials and techniques were used .

  • No external effect on the style but provided greater wealth for its enrichment.

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