A brief reference to the Byzantine History
Constantine the Roman Emperor from 324 to 337 decided to found a new Rome, and in
324 AD he moved the
capital to the East, to the Greek city Byzantium on the Bosporus. He
named the city Constantinople after himself. The empire was still Rome,
though, and the inhabitants called themselves Romans or Romei in Greek.
Constantine inaugurated the fortified city of Constantinople on the site
of Byzantium on the Bosporos in 330. Soon called New Rome, the city
became capital of the Roman world after the fall of 'old Rome' in 476.
The modern name for this empire is 'Byzantine', after the city it
superseded, but it described itself, in Greek, as Empire of the Romans
or Romania . After the reforms of Constantine, the Greek East
gradually evolved into a separate political and cultural entity with
Greek as its main language and Latin an official entirely replaced Latin
as the language of law and administration.
The Byzantine, or East Roman, Empire covered today's Balkan Peninsula,
plus western Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Cyprus, Egypt and
east Libya. Most people spoke Greek, but other languages such as Latin,
Armenian and Coptic were also spoken.
There was a close relationship between the emperor and the church, and
it was during the Byzantine period that many standards were set for the
Orthodox Church. Most land was owned by the emperor and the church, and
the empires major economical factor was agriculture but also trade.
In the 5th and 6th century the Byzantine armies had to fight both the
invading Huns and Goths, but managed to secure the Empire.
Of the most famous Byzantine rulers was Justinian I and his wife
Theodora. They wanted to restore the Roman empire in all aspects,
including the geographical borders and intellectual spheres. For 31
years, starting in 534, Justinian took back North Africa, Italy, Sicily,
Sardinia and parts of Spain. This, of course, put great strain on the
empire, plus the fact that many public buildings such as the Hagia Sofia
were built, and plagues were tormenting the people. The reign of
Justinian marked the end of an era of confidence and expansion. Plague
decimated the population of Byzantium, Slays overran the Balkans,
Lombards captured Italy, Persians invaded from the east. The rise of
Islam in the seventh century changed the power profile of the Middle
East, and Egypt, the Holy Land and Syria moved out of the sphere of
Byzantium suffered invasions from the Germanic Lombards and Turkish
Avars, and during the 7th century huge areas of the Balkans had been
lost to the Turks and the Slavs.
The Emperor Maurice was assassinated in 602 after twenty years of rule,
and this led to both civil war and war with external factors. In 610
Heracilus came to the throne, and he managed to defeat the Persians in
628 after years of wars. Although this was an important victory,
returning Syria, Palestine and Egypt to Byzantium, the Empire was
seriously weakened. Internally it suffered conflicts between different
Christian fractions, and together with the weakened economy after so
many wars, the Byzantine empire was to suffer many setbacks from the
The Arabs were now Muslim, and the new religion had given them
inspiration to expand, and they took large parts of the Byzantine
empire, including Palestine, Syria, Egypt, Mesopotamia and large parts
of Asia Minor.
The Byzantine armies were reorganized in order to control the empires
financial doings, with one general per district that would control his
area. The infrastructure was losing ground fast, and almost everywhere
the commercial market degenerated. Education and agriculture declined,
and people left the cities.
Sometime around 730 the iconoclastic dispute started when Leo III
forbade the use of icons in worship. This conflict was to go on for a
span of a century, and set many rules for art in Orthodox Christianity.
The Byzantine empire was to regain strength from the 9th to the 11th
century, getting back areas in Asia Minor as well as in Greece and
Basil I was the founder of the Macedonian dynasty, which was to rule in
Byzantium for 214 years. The dynasty strengthened the empire, and gave
emphasis to classical Greek aspects of Art and Literature.
Unfortunately, the empire's land was gradually coming into the exclusive
hands of a few noble families and the church.
Basil II both expanded the empire and crushed a Bulgarian rebellion, but
did not manage to do anything about the way the land was distributed.
Byzantium continued to grow economically even after he died, but the
internal development was obstructed by the new emperors neglect of new
technologies and economical developments that happened around the
empire, both in Europe and Turkey, and the Byzantine army was getting
From the Turkish victory at the Battle of Manzikert on, the Byzantine
empire was to lose ground totally. The Turks conquered more and more of
the empire, and the West distanced itself because of the Christian
schism of 1054 resulting in the western church becoming the Catholic and
the Eastern the Orthodox.
The continuous Turkish invasions forced the emperor Alexius I Comnemus
to beg the Pope for help, and the First Crusade was set in 1096 against
the Turks. This seemed at first to help, but when the Italian merchant
cities got special privileges, they slowly took control of the Byzantine
Even though the empire was coming up a little bit during these times,
the benefit mainly came to the Venetians and crusaders.
Constantinople was sacked by the crusaders in 1204 during the Fourth
Crusade. A Latin Empire of the East was established, only to fall when
the Byzantine emperor Michael VIII Palaeologus seized power in 1261. The
Palaeologan house was to rule for almost 200 years, but the empire was
basically on the verge of total bankruptcy by this time. The Ottoman
Turks invaded parts of the empire, and in 1453 they conquered
Constantinople, thus ending what we call the Byzantine period.
Byzantium was a superpower of the Middle Ages and its art was seen as
the gold standard of the pictorial presentation of faith and authority.
The Great Palace of the Byzantine emperors, with its golden throne-room
(the Chrysotriklinos), and the church of St Sophia, with its mosaic
images (cat.268) and collection of famous relics, conveyed an
overwhelming impression of legitimate supremacy and prestige. Seen as
the representative of Christ on earth, the emperor was a charismatic
figure. The Church promoted itself as the guardian of Orthodoxy, the
True Faith. Ambassadors from Kiev who visited St Sophia in 987 famously
said: We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth.'
Byzantine superiority brought about the emulation, appropriation and
rivalry of neighbouring societies. The Byzantine tradition was copied in
Moscow, suiting its claim to be the Third Rome after 1453. The emerging
kingdoms in the Balkans copied Byzantine art and ceremonial.
The eastern Orthodox churches showed their kinship with Byzantium by
accepting its pictorial conventions, while the non-Orthodox churches of
the East were profoundly influenced by Byzantium, but developed their
own identity by subtle changes of style and subjects. One of the most
successful artists from Armenia was Toros Roslin, who combined pictorial
elements from Byzantium, Armenia and the West into his own original
national style .
Byzantium and Islam came to admire the qualities of each other's art,
leading to a cross-fertilisation between two different faiths. The
period of Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos (913-59) is notable for its
classicising art, its encyclopaedic books and the collection and
re-copying of the famous Greek books of antiquity. Some of the crowns,
the gilded glass bowl and the enamel icons once kept in the Great
Palace are now in the Treasury of San Marco at Venice. The Great Palace
at Constantinople was accessible mostly to the elite. In 949 the Western
ambassador Liudprand of Cremona was granted an audience with Constantine
Porphyrogennetos at court: 'Before the emperor's throne stood a tree,
made of gilded bronze, its branches filled with birds also gold,
uttering different cries,depending on their species. The throne was so
marvellously fashioned that at one moment it seemed a low structure, and
at another it rose high into the air. It was immense and guarded by
lions made of bronze or of wood covered over with gold who beat the
ground with their tails and gave a dreadful roar with open mouths and
quivering tongue ... I three times made obeisance to the emperor with my
face upon the ground.'
The luxury of the court is revealed in its treasures, sometimes deeply
spiritual in their subjects, like the ivory triptychs, sometimes
subversive in their parodies of pagan images, like the Veroli casket,
and sometimes imperious in their expression of power, like the Troyes
The atmosphere of fear and crisis saw the growing popularity of devotional
icons, the emergence of miraculous icons not made by human hands' and
the appearance of the face of Christ on gold coins. All these
developments were halted in 730 when Leo III (717-41) passed an edict
banning the use of images showing Christ, Mary or the saints. Such
images were mutilated or whitewashed. Iconoclasm was maintained (with an
intermission from 787 to 814) until its final collapse in 843.
Many explanations are offered for the outbreak of iconoclasm. Some argue
that it was a religious reaction against the 'superstitious' faith in
icons, prompted by fear of divine retribution for Byzantine idolatry;
others that it was a political reaction to the growing power of the
Church and monasteries, and an attempt to re-establish imperial control.
Following the failure of iconoclasm the Triumph of Orthodoxy was
celebrated in pictures and with an explosion of artistic activity.
Orthodoxy was declared to be the use of icons and icons declared the
nature of Orthodoxy.
Dwellings in cities tended to be poorly constructed with small, mean
rooms, the living quarters upstairs. Houses in the country were
generally equally humble, although wealthy landowners in town and
country would have inhabited grander homes with painted walls and the
Domestic possessions are best known today through grave goods, preserved
in Egypt and including clothes, shoes and figurines, andthrough buried
hoards, like the Traprain hoard found near Edinburgh and the Krategos
Treasure from Mytilene.
The wealthy used silver dishes and spoons,decorated with Christianbut
also pagan mythological subjects, clay pottery for normal household use
and dining has also been found dating from throughout the period. Some
domestic vessels were decorated with Christian subjects, but ceramics,
which were made all around the empire, gave the opportunity for more
frivolous designs, such as floral motifs, birds, animals and figures.
Both men and women wore ostentatious golden body adornments such as
bracelets, torques, earrings, necklaces and breast chains.
Early Byzantine churches had a low chancel barrier between the laity and
the open altar. By the date of the church at Skripou (873/74), a higher
templon screen with an epistyle supported on columns made the sanctuary
more separate (cat.183). By the twelfth century, these templon screens
were adorned with icons, and by the fourteenth the screen had become the
high iconostasis, clothed with icons, and the altar behind it a place of
Processions with crosses, icons, ornamented Gospel-books and portable
textiles were a feature of the Church's year. Services were long, the
liturgy dramatic and the atmosphere full of incense. The climax was
Easter, when the Crucifixion of Christ on Good Friday and his
Resurrection on Easter Sunday were symbolically commemorated.
The Byzantine Icons
When iconoclasm was finally declared to be heresy at the Triumph of
Orthodoxy in 843, an ever-increasing production of paintings in egg
tempera on wood ensued, and the key
achievement of Byzantine art is often identified as the painted-panel
Before the twelfth century virtually no icon-painters names are
recorded. Even with the appearance of artists' signatures on icons,
particularly in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, little emerges
about their personalities. The best-known artist is Angelos Akotantos of
Crete, who signed several icons 'By the hand of Angelos'.
Icons were donated to churches 'for the remission of sins' and they
could be enhanced, as in the case of those from Ohrid , with
semi-precious stones and metal revetments. A very few, highly precious
icons were made in micromosaic , and were prized and collected in Italy.
Multiple copies were produced of miraculous icons, such as the Virgin
Hodegetria (cat.236), legendarily painted by St Luke, as the powers of
the original were believed to pass to copies.
The influence of Byzantium in the West
The view of the priority of the Greek East over the Latin West in the
development of early European art and culture is now seen as an
oversimplification. The statement of Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) in his
Life of Cimabue that 'although Cimabue imitated those Greek artists who
came to Florence, he vastly improved the art of painting and raised it
far above their level', is equally debatable.
East and West were continually in contactand learnt from each other.
Artists and diplomatic gifts moved back and forth, and Western church
treasuries received such precious donations as reliquaries of the True
Cross and silk garments. Byzantine artists worked in Italy, notably at
Venice, Torcello (cat.254) and in Norman Sicily, and on the bronze doors
of South Italy (cat.265). Western artists worked for Crusader patrons in
Relations between East and West soured after the Sack of Constantinople
by the armies of the Fourth Crusade in 1204 and the subsequent removal
to the West of many treasures and relics. The Byzantines returned to
Constantinople in 1261. The churches of Rome and Constantinople had
officially been in schism since 1054 and remained so, despite the
optimistic attempts of churchmen like Cardinal Bessarion to achieve the
Union of the Churches at the Council of Ferrara-Florence in 1439.
Although the art of Byzantium was influenced by the West, it succeeded
in maintaining its own traditions and aesthetic.