Roles of Tradition, Convention, Changing Fashions and Byzantine Art

The time period that is referred to as the one from which Byzantine art sprang is the period in Eastern Rome from the 5th Century until the Fall of Constantinople in 1453.

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Historical accounts relate that Robert of Clari, a French crusader said to have witnessed the pillage of the city in 1204in his description of Constantinople stated that:

Not since the world was made was there ever seen or won so great a treasure, or so noble or so rich, nor in the time of Alexander, nor in the time of Charlemagne, nor before, nor after, nor do I think myself that in the forty richest cities of the world had there been so much wealth as was found in Constantinople. For the Greeks say that two-thirds of the wealth of this world is in Constantinople and the other third scattered throughout the world.”

It is related in the work of L. James that there was a very complex language of color used throughout the entirety of the Byzantine Empire with other traditions relating to iconography. Art was of the religious of imperial nature in what was an abstract imagery of religious and imperial figures and events. Byzantine art of characterized by abstract symbolic representations of emperors, saints, Mary, Jesus and other religious events. The Christian Church was tremendously upset and against iconography which was held by the Christian Church to violate the 2nd of the Ten Commandments, or the command not to worship graven images. For a period of time iconography was outlawed by the Council of Niceca but iconography soon returned to the Byzantine Empire.

I. Traditions and Conventions of Art

In the work entitled: “The Aesthetics of Sacred Space: Narrative, Metaphor and Motion in Ekphraseis of Church Buildings” published in the Dumbarton Papers No. 53 Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection (1999) the question is asked: “How can one represent any in a medium that unfolds in time?” And asks as well the question of: “How can one represent in words the totality of visual experience – the infinite varieties of color, space, depth, texture, light and shade – offered by even the simplest object?” (1999) The writer states that art in the Byzantine period was just as the language of that time which the descriptions “are mirrors that must in some way ‘distort’ their subjects. At the same time, by the very act of selecting, ordering and presenting material they can act as a sort of commentary on their subjects.” Further related is that what distinguishes the words and phrases used to refer to the material appearance of buildings (often dismissed as ‘rhetorical ornamentation) that refer to other, unseen, aspects becomes less important.” (1999)

II. Semiotic Pattern in Byzantine Art

The work of Moss (1993) entitled: “A Culture Course Based on a Semiotic Pattern” published in the states that the point of the icon in Byzantine art was not “that the worshipper makes some connection between several scenes which remind him of a story, but that the icon of a saint is really connected in some mystical way to its prototype.” (1993) In other words the Byzantine theology the icon and prototype while different in nature are in actuality “identical in person.” The vertical dimension is more important that the horizontal therefore the frontal pose of the person of the icon is the assurance of “maximal contact between the worshipper and the image. ” (Ibid) There is a division existing between “expression and content” explained in the work of Moss who states: “the relation between expression and content can be viewed as the only possible one or as arbitrary and convention. ” (Ibid)

III. Art Under the Control of the Church and the State

While Byzantine art was of help in the preservation and transmittal of the “accumulated heritage of the Classical world…” Byzantine art, known to be of a conservative nature was dictated in both its themes and flavor by both Church and State evidenced in the religious and imperial imagery depicted in the art of the time period. Artistic creativity was not an issue in the Byzantine period. It was decreed of the Church Council of Nicaea in 787 that artists were not to be thought of as ‘creators’ but instead the decree stated that: “It is for painters to execute; it is for the clergy to ordain the subjects and govern the procedure.” (Ibid) The sole function of art was to “…illustrate theological truths in an orthodox manner.” (Ibid)

The work of Piotrowski (nd) entitled: “Representational Function of Daylight in the Katholikon of Hosios Loukas” states that “light related phenomena were essential to the symbolic functioning of Middle Byzantine churches like the Katholikon in the Monastery of Mosios Loukas. Yet because of the limitations of current dominant models of ‘knowing’ architecture and art, the symbolic use of light in such buildings remains practically un recognized.” (Petrowski, nd) It is held by Petrowski that the phenomena of light in the representation of the divine prescience in the Byzantine churches caused the interior of the churches to resonate “with imagination in a way specific to the Byzantine constitution of religious ideas.” (Petrowski, nd)

IV. Light, Shadows, & the Presence of the Saints

Petrowski states that Saint John of Damascus argued the even the shadows cast by religious icons were imbued with a special presence or power. Saint John is stated to have drawn an analogy between “looking directly into the light of sun through a dark glass and viewing the icon’s representation of the divine, in both cases, a limited physical or symbolic transparency mediates irreconcilable differences.” (Petrowski. Nd) In the church called Hosios Loukas the building’s use of solid matter and daylight reinforces the method of thought that was proposed by Saint John as the interior of the church is illuminated and emanates from the walls and windows.

A.R. Littlewood in the work entitled: “The Symbolism of the Apple: An Example of Kazantzakis’ Debt to Byzantine Erotic Imagery” states that the image of eroticism used in the apple and other fruits is “essentially a Greek literary phenomenon, of seemingly endless facets that can be traced from Heriod to the present day.” (1986) Littlewood states that imagery is of primary importance to Kazanzakis noting the use of imagery approximately sixty times in the Odyssey and even more so in his novels.

Evolution is stated by Thomas G. Whitney in the work entitled: “Evolution of Melody in Middle Byzantine Music” to have undergone several shifts. Stated is that the evolution of melodic lines in the chorales of J.S. Bach were analyzed through use of the computer program ‘Simple Language for Analyzing Music’ (SLAM) and findings state that there are “statistically significant differences in the melodies for different times periods within the Middle Byzantine period.” (Whitney, 1986)

Writers of the Byzantine era used what is called ekphrasies which is a rhetorical usage that is able to more fully provide an accurate account than to attempt to convey the perception the object worked on those viewing it. In this manner of relating the “speaker first and foremost appeal to the listener’s imagination, often through the use of generalized images that were more likely to correspond to the prior experience of the audience.” This type of “vivid language” was believed to be thought-provoking for the listener to bring the listener into a visualization of the scene in the story being told or written, or indeed to cause the listener to “feel as if in the presence of the scene.”

The ekphraseis is “by definition an account of anything – form a battle to a person to a season – that has the quality of vividness necessary to make an audience ‘see’.” (1999) Ekphraseis of the work of art has traditionally ignored “the static, spatial nature of the painting of mosaic, and to recount the events depicted as if they were unfolding in time, while imbuing the scene with human interest by expressing the describer’s emotional involvement.” (1999) Stated to be the feature that is “most striking” of the ekphraseis is:

the exploitation of the capacity of the words to evoke the absent, to express the intelligible meanings implicit in the material sights. If we treat the ekphraseis as texts, the distinction between the passages that refer to the tangible aspects of the building and those that refer to the intangible disappears. The fact that this lack of distinction was an important feature of the Byzantine conception of the “aesthetic” is suggested by the extension of the term “aijsqhtik ” in later Greek to include the intelligible in addition to the sensible. By constantly juxtaposing the intelligible and the sensible these ekphraseis unlock the inherent significance of the buildings they describe.” (1999)

V. Changing Fashions & Originality in Byzantine Art

Henry Maguire related in the work entitled: “The Iconography of Symeon with the Christ Child in Byzantine Art” that it is acknowledged in general that the twelfth century of Byzantine art was characterized by a renewal in the interest of artist in the areas of both human drama and psychology. The Byzantine artists are well-known for the icon of Symeon with the Christ Child. The icon was effectively changed by Byzantine artists toward the ending of the iconoclastic controversy in the ninth century. Originally the artistic protocol for the depiction has Symeon submissively approaching Mary who is holding the Christ child in her hands however the changes in the icon are of the nature that show Symeon holding the Christ child in the beginning. The first record of Symeon holding the Christ child is stated to be in the church of the Virgin of the Source in Constantinople during the restoration conducted by Emperor Basil I along with Leo and Constantine sometime after 869.

Clouds and sky views often used in Byzantine art are rooted in Roman art which changed from “smooth and pliable clouds” into “flattened triangles with horizontal bottoms and scalloped tops. In this odd and stylized form the y were almost universally adopted by Byzantine artists…” And weren’t dropped from use until the Renaissance. It is stated in work entitled: “The Eternal Sky: The Meaning and Beyond” that: “It is possible that these triangular clouds proved so enduring because they suggested the Trinity to the medieval mind.” (nd) It is further related in this work that the gold sky is used in Medieval art for several purposes. First it “imparted an aura of majesty” to the art and highlighted the figures against The gold skies simply emulsified any earthy reference point, disassociating the scene from the material realms of time and space and relocating it in the spiritual domain of the eternal and holy.” (The Eternal Sky: The Meaning and Beyond, nd)

In the Byzantine culture the emperors were considered to be the “earthly vicars of Jesus Christ” and it was believed as well that the emperor’s “imperial will was God’s will.” (Gardner, nd) The emperors held all authority spiritually and all temporal power as “sole executives for the church and the senate sharing no power with the council of the church or the senate but ruled as ‘theocrats…supreme….combining the functions of both pope and Caesar…” (Ibid)

VI. Byzantine Art – Changes in the 11th and 12th Centuries

The work of Wharton Epstein nd Aleksandr P. Kazdan entitled: “Change in Byzantine Culture in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries” states: “For want of evidence, it is impossible to trace with assurance the evolution of dress, diet, entertainment, and the like.” Nd) However, there are contrasts able to be drawn between the habits of the Byzantine in the eleventh and twelfth centuries as compared to earlier period in the Byzantine time period. The Byzantines are acknowledged as having at some point become “better dressed.” (Epstein & Kazdan, nd) Moreover, the Byzantines were not only dressed better but were also clad elaborately and in various fashions characterized by rich and bright colors with gold and silver thread and embroidered decorations, with pearls and precious stones sprinkled upon their robes.

Wool was the most utilized material although cotton, silk and linen materials were available and used for garments of a ‘finer’ nature. The Byzantines higher in the ranks had various styles which they wore with a being the traditional mode of dress complete with full caftan and wide sleeves and worn with boots. The Greek hairstyle held strong however, in the 12th centuries the Byzantines started to be clean-shaven believed to be a fad the Greeks originally introduced.

VII. Return to Classicism

The embellishment of the churches of the Byzantine time period is illustrated in St. Sophia a creation during the “First Golden Age of Byzantine art.” St. Sophia has characteristics that are seen in other churches such as the cistern of Bin-bir — Direk at Constantinople and in the aqueduct of Justinian who was an “engineer of great ability” although a “unknown master.” It is believed that the decorations of St. Sophia “must have been one of the largest and mo0st beautiful composition of , and it would seem that we must recognize in it the handiwork of an artist of genius.”

The Iconoclast controversy was the period of time lasting from 726 to 843 and had serious results for art in the Byzantine empire. The Iconoclast Emperors were quite hostile to religious art but enjoyed beautiful displays disliking bare churches or splendorless palaces. Elements sought by these emperors were decorative “picturesque motifs monumental art….landscapes full of tress and flowers, circus and hunting scenes…portraits…historical picture illustrating their victories.

This demonstrates a return to the classical tradition of art and is stated to have ‘foreshadowed the freer and more flexible imperial art of the tenth and eleventh centuries.” Iconography transitioned toward the ending of the Byzantine period in which the creation of new subjects in iconography that were more expressive and more realistic in nature. The 12th century witnessed a development in Byzantine art that held consequences of an important nature. Drama developed in the church frescoes of Nerez while the frescoes of the Serbian churches display “…a remarkable sense of realism and life…” And as well in the Genesis mosaics at St. Mark’s in Venice the art is of landscapes, features of architecture and the picturesque.

The Byzantine Empire wrought creations such as the Synagogue Mosaic located in the northern section of Jerusalem. The Synagogue is a building that was destroyed as the Byzantine period ended. The floor was rich in color and had various depictions including a zodiac and Jewish symbols such as the seven-branched Menorah. Another creation of Byzantine art is the Nile Festival Building stated to be one of the most impressive and largest of all structure that have been excavated in Zippori. Originally the entirety of the structure was “paved with colorful mosaics…” Inclusive were geometrical mosaics, figurative panels and figurative designs.

Summary & Conclusion

Strange to some one finds upon research that the state and church controlled the production of art during the Byzantine period in what can be viewed as a type of psychological operation upon the citizens of the Byzantine Empire as the church and state dictated the subject and content of art that was produced during this period of time. Toward the ending of the Byzantine period this work has shown that a falling away form the abstract and a return to classicism occurred. Iconography was highly protested by members of the Christian community and there are those who believe that a sinister level of psychological intentions are inherently linked to the icons of the Byzantine Empire and that those icons were the method used by the church and state in assuring allegiance to those in control. Just as there existed specific specialized methods of communication of stories to the listener, the art of the Byzantine period was highly symbolic and conveyed its message through use of color, angles and content. The Byzantine period declined sometime after the 12th century falling completely at the time of the Fall of Constantinople. The art of the Byzantine period returned at this point to classicism. The Byzantine artist was not expected to be talented or individualistic, the only requirement was that the artist understand what the church and state wanted art to express and that the artists abandon any ‘dreams’ of creativity in their work. This study concludes that the Byzantine Empire not only carried forward works of the Greeks but as well, after the ‘iconography’ initiative


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Assessment Of The Roles Of Tradition, Convention, Changing Fashions And Byzantine Art