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Iconography: a review of early Byzantine Christian period (330-843)

Byzantium was the name of the Greek city on the Bosphorous to which Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor, transferred the seat of the Roman government. Rebuilt by him, rechristened Constantinople in his honor, and formally dedicated in 320 fl.D., the city became the capital of an empire. There was a profound transformation in Christian sacred arts between the second and the fourth centuries.

In the third century the philosopher Plotinus (c205-270) proposed that art should not merely be an imitation of material nature but should be a point of departure for metaphysical experience and should enable the spectator to come closer to the Divine Mind. By the time Constantinople was founded these first decisive moves had already been made toward mediaeval abstraction. Christian subject matter and symbolism overlapped, superceded, and was often adapted from pagan images. Sharp regional distinctions had emerged as provinces drifted away from central control and indigenous aesthetic attitudes came to the fore, often in the service of new spiritual concerns. Hellenistic traditions were still apparent and were compounded with influences from Asia to produce an art as unmistakably regional as Coptic Christian art, for example.

In the third and fourth centuries the influence of these new forms injected into Byzantine art a presence that no longer centered on the glorification of the body as was done in ancient Greece, but led to an intensity of expression as in the encaustic (wax) portraits in Fayum and Palmyra, which stand as the beginnings of iconography.

In 402 Ravenna, Italy, was chosen as the seat of the Western emperor, and within a few years it became a magnificant city of art. Here was an unfolding of the Byzantine synthesis where one sees "spherical" architecture such as Diocletian's palace at Split (Yugoslavia). Rome was sacked by the Goths in 410 and the barbarians were supreme in Western Europe, thus disrupting Byzantine influence for a time.

The function of the painter in the early Christian Byzantine world was to decorate the walls of the churches with mosaics and frescoes, to paint panels for the iconostases of private chapels and to paint miniatures for illuminated manuscript books. In a Syriac hymn of the seventh century there is a description of the Church of Hagia Sophia at Edessa in terms partly symbolic of the Cosmos. It reflects the teaching of the mystic known as Pseudo-Dionysius, who identified church building with the cosmos. Moreover, this development of mosaic decoration coincides with the lifetime of Cosmos Indicopleustes, who for the first time, attempted to create a complete and systematic cosmography on a purely Christian basis. The Christian Topography of Cosmos Indicopleustes was written between 543 and 552 at Alexandria, Egypt.

There was a strong desire in the sixth century to bring the physical world within the confines of the church. A copy of The Christian Topography of Cosmos Indicopleustes (Vatican gr. 699) would prove to be of cardinal importance for our understanding of the Byzantine style in the second half of the ninth century.

Throughout the span of Byzantine history there is a continuity of central control and a preservation of artistic traditions and standardizations which were largely the result of imperial interest and impulses from the court. There is a recurrent awareness of the Greco-Roman inheritance present in this art. In many ways the reactions were quite mathematical, with a constant stress on exact symmetry, harmony, eury[t? - PB]hmos (characterized by perfect proportion and harmony, or by movement in rhythm) and balanced movements.

The Byzantine artist had an absorbed interest in optics which led, not only to experiments in perspective but to a concentration of light, conceived as itself incorporeal, though finding expression in contrasting colors. Glinting icons of Christ and the saints (certain pieces had to be seen from a great distance) bathed in light, light reflecting and with harmony. Proportions and color conceived as light materialized were essential to this Byzantine art expression. They believed in an invisible world in which the material is the shadow, so that it presupposes the Image just as the shadow presupposes the human body that casts it, and is closely linked with it.

Byzantine descriptions of its buildings emphasize repeatedly that the eyes should not rest on the decoration but should wander. The Byzantine artist could never be satisfied with a single system of perspective which presupposes that the human eye is a flat object gazing immobile at a vertical plane.

After the trend away from Greco-Roman naturalism, a highly abstract expression of the landscape developed. There was little use of shadow. The complete reduction into one plane and to abstract form is found in the mosaics of the apses of St. Apollinare and San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy. In the oratory of Hosios David, at Salonika, is the oldest apsical mosaic that has a Byzantine landscape with abstract rocks.

The sixth and seventh centuries were the Golden Age of Byzantine Art, under Emperor Justinian. The Church of Hagia Sophia at Constantinople is perfection in the art of this period. Ravenna, in Italy, became the seat of the Byzantine Exarchate in the sixth century. The mosaics at Ravenna have a golden background. This golden dematerialized light replaces the starry firmament or the picturesque landscape. The human figure acquires a dominant position in the composition, attitudes become frontal and are subordinated to the laws of a composition conceived in rhythmic terms, and the idea of space tends to disappear completely. These characteristics represent a progress toward transcendental painting.

Byzantine art from the sixth century to the twelfth century can be located around the Mediterranean and can be recognized by its conception and treatment of the atmosphere of the environment. This is a qualitative art conception as opposed to the Greek art which was quantitative in conception. Byzantine church decorations are related to each other and weld into a unified whole, not only by theological and iconographical concepts alone but also by formal means which create an all-embracing and homogeneous optical unity. The optical principle used for this is elimination of the diminution and deformation of perspective. The most obvious of these optical principles is the use of "staggering" in the size of the images and figures according to their height or distance from the viewer - the spell of "magical reality" in perceiving this "reversed" perspective.

An end to this period of Byzantine art came with the Iconoclastic Period when the Church forbade the painting of human images (725-843). Western Christendom began to drift away from the influence of Constantinople during this Iconoclastic Period, and it continued to do so even when the use of images was restored in 843. The Iconoclastic Period does not concern us here except to say that there were pockets of painters and artists who continued to work and during this time their art changed somewhat due to their isolation.


Iconography; A review of the Mid-Byzantine Christian Period (643-12C4)

The Seventh Oecumenical Council restored icons in 643. The art that followed had a rigid iconography, materials rich in color, texture and gold; impersonal form far removed from an illusion of the actual world; abstract representations of this world and symbol of another world - all these combined to produce mosaics and frescoes which were monumentally austere but quite definite in their objective.

Now, a second Golden Age of Byzantine Art began where a golden background became general, naturalism disappeared and graphic values were accentuated. From the welter of cross-currents the classic style of Mid-Byzantine art emerged. Taking slow shape during the earlier centuries, it attained maturity with the restoration of the Holy Images after 843. The period from the ninth to the twelfth centuries, when the Macedonian and Comnenian Dynasties ruled Constantinople, marks the full flowering of Byzantine art until the Crusaders stormed Byzantium in 1204.

The tenth century was a formative period during which iconography and style itself tended toward standard conventions. Near the tenth century manifestations of the style of the classical era began to appear in miniatures such as the Gospels at Paris, Athens, Sinai and the Convent of Stavronikita on Mt. Athos. By the end of the century variants were beginning to disappear. The position and movement of Byzantine representation stands in relation to the gold background which for many constitutes a void. The figures never appear in profile but in three-quarters so that they appear to advance into the real space of the church where they are equally in motion. The pictorial space is not behind the picture but in front of it.

Depictions of saints were so rigidly characterized that the slightest variation in the treatment of hair or beard was enough to make clear which particular saint was intended. The ribbons we see flowing from the angels' heads were from the Sassanian (Persian) tradition. Sassanian ribbons bedecked their monarchs. The square haloes belonged to the Roman tradition.

In 1080 Greek mosaicists were sent from the Monastery of Blachernae in Constantinople to decorate the Church of the Dormition in the Perchersky Monastery in Kiev, Russia (also known as the Kievian Caves Lavra).

Icon painting on panels again came into prominence in the Comnene Age (1081-1165), due to economic reasons. There was a rise of a new merchant and landouning class which commissioned private works of art and endowed churches. This was the birth of a more personal, intimate style of art since much of what was commissioned was on a smaller, less monolithic scale.

Painting in the twelfth century developed a series of regional styles more-or-less connected by the dominating force of Byzantine art. The authority and traditions of the Byzantine workshops were unaffected by the palace intrigues and the tortuous policies of the palace bureaucracy. It is only at the very end of the twelfth century that the Byzantine conventions softened or were replaced. The use by the workshop artists of the calculated disproportion of the elongated figures with their tiny hands and feet stressed the remoteness of the imperial image. This style is quite different from the Serbian Studite (Yugoslavia) group dating from the mid-eleventh century.

The twelfth century was one of peculiarly brilliant initial decoration, some entirely original experiments were made, in England particularity, in the Byzantine "damp-fold" drapery style. This "damp-fold" style is so-called because of the clinging, damp appearance of the drapery. It provided a method of distinguishing the substance of the body beneath the material without losing the decorative character of the surface, and the finished effect was one of smooth areas of surface surrounded by decorative lines. These conventions were shared by both painters and sculptors alike.

Recent research has demonstrated that the icon was often chosen as the means of launching new ideas in art. In the first decades of the thirteenth century Serbia (now Yugoslavia) became a kingdom with an autonomous church under its own head. The finest and most artistically significant icon, from the late thirteenth century, is at Ochrid. It is a large image of the Evangelist Matthew done shortly before 1300 and was strongly inspired by the classical Byzantine style of the tenth century.


Iconography: A review of a period of transition (1204 -1500)

The years from 1204 to 1500 were years of turmoil due to the Crusades and the contrasting lines of development taken in the East and West around 1300 were distinct. The East remained true to an ethereal, transcendental, other worldly approach to sacred arts, concentrating primarily on the spiritual. In the West, Giotto, for example, sought for realism, solidity, actuality and normal, true perspective. Meanwhile in other areas of the Byzantine Empire there were a series of regional styles developed more-or-less connected with Byzantinism. Thus at the Monastery of Kariye Djami, in Constantinople, the artists still retained the old system of perspective where the picture was conceived from within rather than from without. This style was part of a spiritual intermediary between the human and the Divine, between this world and the next, and the artist's personality was not allowed to play any part.

In 1261 a distinctive new style in art came into being, marked by a multiplication of figures and scenes, by a new interest in perspective (however strangely rendered) and a return to earlier models of the tenth century, especially in illuminated manuscripts.

The expulsion of the Crusaders from Constantinople in 1262 and the advent of the Palaeologue Dynasty (13th to 15th centuries) exerted a strong influence over the development of art in the Balkan interior. An important center of artistic development occured at Salonika, whose contribution is becoming increasingly clear in modern times. There was an icon school on the island of Cyprus and also one on Crete.

At about this time, in Yugoslavia, artists began to sign their work as evidenced by the signatures of the brothers Michael and Eutychios in 1321 on their work, in the church of Gracanica Monastery, done for its founding by King Milutin.

In 1345 some artists returned to the severe, withdrawn, traditional images of the eleventh century. The tenderness of the early Comnene style of the twelfth century is present, but without the drama. The forms are solidly delineated, the drapery falls in heavy folds, occasionally caught up at the knee. The protagonists stand or hang suspended in air like a demonstration in belief. This epic quality was to continue in all of the Serbian (Yugoslavian) paintings of the thirteenth century.

About 1351 icons in the Decani Monastery (Yugoslavia) were painted by artists from the coastal town of Kotor. An icon of the Eleousa Virgin in the Decani Monastery is an exact copy of the fresco of its prototype in the parecclesion of the Church of Kariye Djami, in Constantinople. Every gesture of its prototype is repeated but it is reinterpreted according to its own style. A refinement of a mid-fourteenth century Byzantine painting is revealed in an icon of The Baptism of Christ now in the National Museum in Belgrade, Yugoslavia.

In about l400 a new stage was reached in painting at Mistra, Greece, near Sparta. In the representation of The Nativity in the Prebleptos Church at Ochrid, there is a strange, jagged landscape in which the slight, dark blue form of the Virgin sleeps. It is one of the most beautiful paintings of the time.

In Russia, painting was primarily an ecclesiastical art. The style in the work of Novgorod and Pskov, in northern Russia, is dynamic in feeling, and startling in its angularity and contrasts. These elements contribute to an abstract pattern of brusque forcefulness and vigorous movement that is little concerned with a representation of visual perception. Under Prince Dimitri Donskoi (1356-1389), Moscow became the center of resistance to the Ottoman Turk armies [? - PB]. Following the great Battle of Kulikovo in 1380, when the Russian armies inflicted a crushing defect on the Tatars, the Princes of Moscow began to see themselves as the Christian inheritors of the beleaguered Byzantine Empire - the "Third Rome."

It is not suprising that one of their chief artists working at Moscow in the 1390's should be the Greek monk, Theophanes, who, twenty years before had left Constantinople for Novgorod, in northern Russia. There Theophanes the Greek produced the superb frescoes in the Church of the Transfiguration in 1376. Between 1395 and 1405 he decorated three churches in Moscow: The Church of the Nativity of the Virgin, the Cathedral of the Annunciation, and the Church of the Archangels. It is known that he worked with Andrei Rublev, the greatest Russian icon-writer (cl370-1430), although Rublev was never Theophanes the Greek's direct pupil.

In the fifteenth century classical mathematical knowledge came to Florence, Italy, in the form it had assumed in Byzantium, evolving out of the science of late antiquity and of the Islamic-Persian world. The first use of the vanishing-point in painting in Florence was in 1420 by Masaccio and was described in a treatise by Leon Battiste Alberti for the first time in 1435.

The artistic center had now shifted to the island of Crete and to the island came painters from Constantinople, such as Nicholas Philanthropinos in 1419, and Alexios Apokavkos in 1421. The best features of this art are found in the icon of The Nativity now in the Hellenic Institute in Venice, Italy.

The sixteenth century perpetuated the traditions of the preceding periods with a fidelity that was comprised of only copying without training or understanding; and that type of icon work today confuses even the art specialists.

In Russia, also, iconographic composition was declining. The former sharply delineated icon-mountains began to look like strange foliage or fantastic shrubs. Icons that were formerly derived from Greek or Greco-Russian prototypes began to be copied from the new German or Dutch westem artworks that were gaining popularity in Russia at that time.

In general, Russian icons seemed to become crude, tasteless works without artistic virtue or aesthetic quality. Many of today's popular icon compositions can be traced to their origin in the era of the Byzantine Empire. I believe that it is possible that this same dynamic symmetry proportional system and reverse perspective was used by the icon painters of Byzantium and carried into Russia by the Greek monks who came to Novgorod, Kiev and Moscom to decorate the great Russian churches and that this system is probably responsible for some of the great fourteenth to sixteenth century icon compositions we have today that we admire for their aesthetic beauty and timeless quality.


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Map showing probable spread of dynamic symmetry