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Byzantine Art: Mysticism and Spirituality!

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Byzantine art develeped over about a thousand years,between V and XV century at first during Roman Empire and later in byzantine one which actually it would be in every way Roman Empire even though Eastern Empire. Byzantine art was extremely innovative for the period in fact we can dare define it in a certain sense almost modern since it was a kind of art that represented human figure in a pretty original way,so much that byzantine figures are easily recognizable even by those who are not art experts. Stylization of human figure in a frontal way,flattening of the volumes and the lack of plasticity,the neglet of naturalism,had the purpose to bring human figure to a higher level almost supernatural trying to get close to divine level. In fact all byzantine art is fucused on religious and spiritual themes although it has had stylistic expression pretty different from each other during its long life. Byzantine art has fully represented the thought of its time which was deeply influenced by Neoplatonism and among its several features the lack of space plan aimed to project human being on a mistic,spiritual and almost divine level.

We can divide the long history of byzantine art as follow:

  • Early byzantine period from the founding of Constantinople to 6th century;
  • Period called”first golden age”in which artistic expression reach high levels;
  • Period of involution that start from 6th century untill iconoclastic struggle(726-843);
  • Period of Macedonian Renaissance(from 9th to 11th century) where is recovered part of expressiveness of hellenistic art;
  • Period of Comnenus(12th century) that churns out a type of art straightfoward, elegant,sophisticated called also “second golden age”;
  • The last period is called Palaiologan art where is recovered again hellenistic art untill the fall of capital in 1453;

It goes without saying that byzantine art was influenced by the previous paleochristian one but diverged from it in particular for a greater monumentality of figures which lose volume, flattening to become totally bidimensional. Little by little as byzantine art developed are outlined its characteristic elements that will make it easily recognizible. As we just mentioned one of this peculiar elements is bidimensionality and flat figures but also complete frontality of characters,repetitions of the gestures,isocephaly which consists to depict all characters at the same height,the fixity of the gaze,hieratic of expressions,the preciousness of the clothing always magnificently decorated,almost monochrome backgrounds which were painted more often than not with a blinding gold; figures don’t have a surface support so much that they appear to float in the space and to top it off vegetable elements were always used just for ornamental purpose or even for filling. Oh i almost forgot there is another important element quite peculiar of byzantine art,which is almost constant presence of halos that gave to scene a further element supernatural and spiritual.

The art of mosaic was largely used during byzantine period and, as it is natural,the favorite places in which were created mosaic works were worship places like churches and basilicas in which were painted scenes of Old and New Testament. An element that characterizes byzantine mosaics is a great chromatic vivacity of figures that get lost in a unearthly space and they appear even more immaterial and spiritual thanks to a great capacity of light reflectance by the glass tesserae that make up the mosaics. In 16th century the byzantine art of mosaic evolved into even more brillant colours but with more human and delicate behaviour.

Even in painting byzantine art follow the same compositional and narrative schemes as well as the same religious themes that we can admire in various frescoes spread in churches and basilicas not just in Byzantine Empire but also in some Slavic countries.

Another building block very important in order to understand byzantine art is the icon,who has never heard about byzantine icons? These last depicted,of course, sacred images of Jesus,of the Virgin of saints of twelve feasts of orthodox Christianity and they were painted with various technique as tempera,encaustic or mosaic and on different supports as wooden boards or walls. Such sacred images have had a deep meaning in byzantine world but even nowadays they have the same important meaning in Orthodox world.According to many historians byzantine icons inspired the great altarpieces and polyptychs characteristic of sacred western painting, especially italian one, indeed many consider byzantine icons precursors of such magnificent sacred works present in several churches and basilicas in western world.We can’t avoid mentioning remarkable and precious manuscript illuminations also very popular.The most ancient miniature are influenced by Oriental trends as well as hellenism while more recent ones have features more folk and ornamental as well. The most widespread manuscripts that contain icoins are sermon books,octateuchus,psalmbooks,evangelicals and menologists.

vergine col bambino
Example of byzantine icon

Sculpture in byzantine art did not play a central role as mosaics and painting even though did not lack architectural decorative sculptures while all-round statues were very rare or perhaps it could be that have come to us very few pieces compared to those sculpted by artists of that time. Many historians have suggested that shortage of all-round statues in byzantine art was due to a certain mistrust and even repulsion to represent the sacred in three dimensions how instead was usual in the culture and pagan religions. On the other hand great importance was attached to sumptuary arts which means process precious metals and precious stones as well as ivory and crystal, in which were achieved high levels of quality.In Italy in the city of Ravenna is preserved the highest example of the art of ivory in byzantine period ; the work is the bishop’s chair of Maximian dating from the 6th century and it is considered one of the highest peak of byzantine sculpture.


Byzantine art arises during Roman empire and actually we could safely define art of Estern Roman Empire but over its long and lucky story,it has been able to create a new and original language, that although influenced by previous paleochristian art,it was able to stand out from it thanks to its own peculiarity which devoloped especially due to a great stimulus both religious and spiritual. Byzantine art tried to project human being in a trascendent and spiritual dimension and that was its primary intent; to achieve its goal it had to abandon greek classicism and even natural and rational world. In fact if we give a close look at byzantine figures we can notice that actually they do not represent at all flesh and blood people but rather they try to evoke spirits and souls of them. In order to do so were no longer needed volumes, perspectives or exact proportions but simply a new stylistic and ornamental research that would give some kind of immortality to such bidimensional characters which still float in a perpetual reality with no time and no space.

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