The three ‘Golden Ages’ of Eastern Roman (‘Byzantine’) Art and its widespread influence over time

by Charles Diehl

The church of St. Sophia in Constantinople is the masterpiece of Byzantine art, and it is at the same time one of those monuments where some of the most characteristic features of that art appear most clearly. Thus if one would understand the nature of the Christian art of the East and in what its originality consisted, one must go first of all to this essential building-to this “Great Church” as it was called throughout the East during the Middle Ages.


When, in 532, the Emperor Justinian decided to rebuild the church which Constantine had formerly erected and dedicated to the Holy Wisdom-for this is the meaning of St. Sophia-he was determined that the new sanctuary should surpass all others in splendour. Ιn the words of a Byzantine chronicler, it was “a church, the like of which has never been seen since Adam, nor ever will be”. Α circular was issued to all the provincial governors, instructing them to send to Constantinople the richest spoils in ancient monuments and the most beautiful marbles from the most famous quarries in the Empire. Το add to the magnificence of the building and dazzle the eye of the beholder by a display of unrivalled wealth Justinian determined to make a lavish use of costly materials, gold, silver, ivory, and precious stones. Α taste for the sumptuous in all its forms -a passion for splendour- is indeed one of the foremost characteristics of Byzantine art.


For the execution of his design and the realization of his dream the Emperor was fortunate enough to discover two architects of genius, Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus, both of whom, it must be borne in mind, came from Asia. Contemporary writers are unanimous in praise of their knowledge, skill, daring, and inventive power; and, since Justinian grudged neither money nor labour, the work progressed at an amazing speed. Ιn less than five years St. Sophia was completed, and οn 27 December 537 it was solemnly consecrated by the Emperor.


It has been truly said that the Great Church is “one of the mightiest creations in all architecture”, a statement the truth of which is clearly shown by a close study of this famous monument. The impression given by the exterior is, it is true, by no means striking; a sixth-century Byzantine building, with its bare walls of brick, always presents a somewhat poor and monotonous aspect from without. But before entering the basilica, when one has crossed the space formerly occupied by the great atrium, surrounded by porticoes, and the narthex which opens into the church by nine doors, the effect produced by the interior is in truth incomparable. Α vast rectangle, 77 metres by 71.70 in area, forms a broad nave flanked by aisles with galleries above them which pass over the narthex and extend all round the church. At a height of 55 metres from the ground this central nave is crowned by an enormous dome, 31 metres across, which rests upon four great arches supported by four massive piers. Whereas the arches οn the north and south sides of the nave are filled by solid walls pierced with windows and carried on two tiers of pillars, those the east and west are buttressed by two semi-domes, each of which in its turn is supported by two great semicircular niches and in this way strength and balance are given to this astonishing central dome. An apse projects from the middle of the hemicycle which is covered by the eastern semi-dome; exedrae, embellished with columns, together with the arcades on the right and left serve to connect the nave with the aisles. But what most impresses the beholder is the dome – henceforth a characteristic feature of Byzantine architecture- which has truly been described by a sixth-centuy writer as “a work at once marvellous and terrifying”, seeming, so light and airy it was, “rather to hang by a golden chain from heaven than to be supported οn solid masonry”.


There was doubtless nothing new in such a plan. St. Sophia is related to the type of building, familiar in Asia Μinοr since the fifth century, known as the domed basilica. But, in virtue of its great size, harmony of line, boldness οf conception, and constructive skill, it appears none the less as a true creation -“a marvel of stability, daring, fearless logic, and science”, as Choisy puts it. When on the day of its inauguration Justinian saw the fulfilment of his dream, one can well imagine that in a transport of enthusiasm he did indeed exclaim: “Glory be to God who hath deemed me worthy to complete so great a work. Ι have outdone thee, Ο Solomon!”


The decoration which covers the interior of St. Sophia is of equal significance in the history of Byzantine art, the splendour of its ornament designed to dazzle the beholder being no less characteristic than its masterly use of architectural forms. Τall columns of porphyry, white marble, and verd antique, crowned by marble capitals, wrought like goldsmith”s work and often picked out by touches of blue and gold, rise from the pavement of mosaic and marble, which has been likened to a garden where the rich lawns are strewn with purple flowers. Ιn the spandrels and round the soffits of the arches, delicate decorative carvings of an unmistakably oriental style, stand out around disks of porphyry and verd antique, like lacework against a dark ground. The walls are sheeted over with marbles of many colours, their tones blended as if by the most skilful of painters, giving the effect of rich and velvety oriental carpets. And above, on the curves of the vaults, on the pendentives, on the conch of the apse, the crown of the dome, and on the walls that fill the great lateral arches, brilliant mosaics shone out from the dark blue and silver backgrounds that the new art -and this was one of its most essential innovations- was beginning to substitute for the light backgrounds of Alexandrian painting.


When St. Sophia had been converted into a mosque the Turks covered every representation of the human figure in these mosaics with a coating of whitewash or paint. Of recent years the process of uncovering the mosaics has been conducted under the authority of the Turkish Government; when the whole work is finished the church will recover still more completely its marvellous splendour. It must, however, be noted that most of the mosaics in Justinian”s church were of a purely ornamental character and that the majority of the figure subjects date from the tenth and eleventh centuries. But from the first the whole decorative scheme showed a wonderful sense of colour, which delighted in skilful combinations of tints and play of light; scorning simplicity, it aimed rather at a dazzling magnificence. Το this wonderful decoration, which fortunately still exists, must be added the lost splendours of the pulpit or ambo -the dull gleam of its silver mingling with the glitter of precious stones and the radiance of rare marbles- of the iconostasis in chased silver that enclosed the sanctuary, of the altar in solid gold, shining with rare jewels and enamels; and of the silver canopy or ciborium over the altar, enriched with silk and gold embroideries between its columns. Add to that the beauty of the lighting which at night made the church shine with a fiery splendour and proclaimed to sailors from afar the glory of Justinian and the end of their voyage. Contemporaries, one can well understand, could not sufficiently admire this St. Sophia, “the marvellous unique building which words are powerless to describe”. Procopius records in moving language its effect upon the visitor. “Οn entering the church to pray”, he says, “one feels at once that it is the work, not of man’s effort or industry, but in truth the work of the Divine Power; and the spirit, mounting to heaven, realizes that here God is very near and that He delights in this dwelling that He has chosen for Himself.” And one can understand that the popular imagination, which had attached a whole cycle of picturesque legends to the dome of St. Sophia, should, even several centuries later, have easily believed that God in His mercy had received Justinian into Paradise for the sole reason that he had built the Great Church.


Neither the striking success of St. Sophia nor the characteristic features of its style could, however, be understood or explained without presupposing a long period of patient research and resourceful experiment. From the day at the beginning of the fourth century, when by the will of Constantine Christianity became a State religion -and perhaps even before this splendid triumph- a great and fruitful artistic movement had developed during the course of two centuries and spread throughout the East, in Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, Armenia, and elsewhere. This movement, which was to culminate in the triumph of the new style in the sixth century, naturally took a different form in different places; there was a Christian art peculiar to Egypt, one to Mesopotamia, and another to Αsia Minor, each of which had its own character. But beneath this diversity of form a few general principles can be traced which show themselves in certain essential features.

Christian art, as it took form in the East at the beginning of the fourth century, was faced by a twofold source of inspiration. On the one hand there was the classical tradition of Hellenistic culture still living and brilliantly fostered in the large cities, such as Alexandria, Antioch, and Ephesus; and οn the other, there was the oriental tradition, that of the old Iranian or Semitic East. Christianity though unable to cut itself off completely from the splendour of classic antiquity, gladly adopted the methods of these indigenous arts and willingly set itself to learn from the East. Hence was to arise this dualism of two opposing influences which would endure as long as Byzantine art itself; indeed it is the combination of these two influences which gives to Byzantine art its peculiar character.

From the beginning of the fourth century triumphant Christianity had covered the whole East with a wealth of sumptuous churches, and for these new churches new architectural forms were created. Alongside the Hellenistic basilica with its timber roof appeared the Eastern barrel-vaulted basilica (of which the origin, it seems, should be sought in Mesopotamia); while in addition to the plain rectilinear basilican form appeared the church of circular, octagonal, or cruciform plan. Ιn particular, the new architecture acquired from Iran the use of the dome, the model of which it found in the Persian monuments of Seleucia and Ctesiphon, and crowned with it the new types of building that it invented, such as the domed basilica, or the churches on a centralized or radiate plan. The dome was supported either by squinches (trompes d’angle) after the Eastern fashion, or, in the more scientific and more Greek manner, by pendentives.


Ιn the decoration of the churches a like development was taking place. Α rich and complicated ornamentation of a somewhat heavy and wholly oriental exuberance covered the walls with luxuriant foliage, in which a host of birds and other creatures disported themselves amongst curving arabesques. From the East came also the technique of this decoration, in which the contrasting blacks and whites alternating on the neutral background supplied by the lightly incised stone gave a charming effect of colour which is absent from the high relief and bold modelling of antique sculptured ornament. On the walls the harmony of classic proportion was replaced by the brilliant effect of polychrome marbles. From Persia came also the arts of enamel and cloisoné work, and the lavish use of sumptuous and coloured fabrics. All this gave to the new art a definitely oriental character.

But the embellishment of the new churches consisted above all in the covering of their walls and vaults with long cycles of frescoes and resplendent mosaics, in which Christian heroes and the events of sacred story stand out against a background of dark blue. Ιn representing them the simple and familiar lines which early Christian art had favoured gave place to majestic and solemn figures of a more individual and realistic type; the primitive symbolism of former times was replaced by the historical and monumental style, and a new iconography arose for the illustration of the sacred themes.

Christian art undoubtedly retained many of the customs and traditions of pagan workshops -the secular motives, rustic themes, and mythological subjects dear to Alexandrian art; and from classical tradition it further inherited a feeling for beauty of design, dignity of pose, elegance in drapery, sobriety, and clearness of treatment. But its chief aim in the decoration of its churches was the instruction and edification of the faithful. The wall-paintings and mosaics were intended to form, as it were, a vast volume open to the view of the illiterate, like a splendidly illuminated Bible in which they could learn with their eyes the great events of Christian history.

As instances of the creations of this great artistic movement, we may mention the admirable basilicas still standing in the dead cities of central Syria, namely those of Rouweiha, Mchabbak, Tourmanin, Qalb Louzé, and the monastery of St. Simeon Stylites at Kalat Seman, justly called “the archaeological gem of Central Syria”; the oldest of the Armenian churches, the originality and influence of which must not, however, be exaggerated; those of Asia Minor, particularly that at Meriamlik in Cilicia, the earliest known example of a domed basilica, which seems to have played an essential part in the transformation of Eastern elements in accordance with the spirit of Greece; at Salonica, the fine basilica of the Virgin (Eski-Djuma), the domed basilica of St. Sophia, and that of St. Demetrius, which with its five naves, lofty columns, and its walls brilliantly decorated with splendid mosaics and marble facing was, before its destructiοn by fire in 1917, one of the wonders of East Christian art; especially also at Salonica the mosaics of St. George and those of the chapel of Hosios David; and at Ravenna, the Byzantine city where Oriental influences were paramount, the mosaics of the Baptistery of the Orthodox, and, perhaps the most exquisite example that survives of the Christian art of the time, the wonderful decoration of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia.

It is primarily in the chief Hellenistic centres of the East -in “the triple constellation” of Alexandria, Antioch, and Ephesus– that we must seek the sources of the great movement from which the new art was to arise. Constantinople, though the capital of the Empire, seems to have played a far smaller part than these three cities in the development of Christian art in the fourth and fifth centuries. But if she created little herself at that time, she has the great honour of having welcomed the varied elements offered by different regions within the Empire, of having co-ordinated, transformed, and hallowed them through the construction of a great masterpiece. It was in Constantinople that an “imperial art” arose in the sixth century: an official art, the essential aim of which was the glorification of God and the Emperor, an oriental art embodying the lessons both of Greece and of the ancient Asiatic East, an art complex and manifold, secular as well as religious; and it is in Justinian’s time that this art, which may henceforth be called Byzantine, has expressed itself fully and in a definitive form. St. Sophia is by no means the only creation of what has aptly been called the First Golden Age of Byzantine art.


By the end of the sixth century Christian art in the East seemed to be transformed. More and more under Oriental influence it had gradually abandoned the graces of the picturesque Alexandrian tradition for the solemn and stately grandeur of the historical style. Ιn this development it had often shown novelty, originality, and creative power. It had proved that it could embody the glories and beauties of the Christian faith in great works of art, could invent individual and expressive types for the characters of sacred history, and give living and often dramatic representations of the events of Gospel history. Α great religious art had arisen, which, while always retaining something of classic tradition, had yet been strongly marked by Eastern influence. Ιn its application to secular as well as religious subjects this art had produced not only great churches but masterpieces of civil and military architecture. And in spite of the difficult times that followed Justinian’s glorious reign, still in the seventh century it shone with unquestioned brilliance. But notwithstanding its great qualities, this art tended to become fixed in those forms which tradition had consecrated.

The epoch of the Macedonian and Comnenian Emperors (from the end of the ninth to the end of the twelfth century) was unquestionably the most brilliant , period of Byzantine miniature painting. Many fine manuscripts have come down to us from this time, several of which, illuminated expressly for Emperors, are real masterpieces, revealing the character and the dominating tastes of the age.


What strikes one most in these works is the two opposing tendencies by which they are inspired. Without dwelling on the relatively considerable part played in the art of this time by the illustration of classical works (such as the Nicander in the Bibliothèque Nationale at Paris and the Oppian in the Marcian Library at Venice), in which there is an obvious return to the traditions of Alexandrian art, we notice even in religious manuscripts the same current of antique inspiration.

Instances of this may be found in the beautiful psalters of the socalled “aristocratic” series, in illustrated manuscripts of the Gospels, and, in a whole group of manuscripts of St. Gregory of Nazianzus, in which an essential place is taken by picturesque scenes of everyday life and by episodes borrowed from mythology. The influence of this imperial and secular art is seen also in the very expressive portraits that adorn some of these manuscripts.

But this imperial art was strongly countered by the monastic tendency. Against the “aristocratic” psalter stands the psalter with marginal illustrations, in a more popular and realistic style. In contrast to the Alexandrian version of Gospel illustration, we find the Eastern version from Antioch; and side by side with the literary and secular type of the miniatures of the manuscript of Gregory of Nazianzus there is the theological type. This monastic art had assuredly no less creative power than its imperial rival.

In these miniature paintings, as in the larger works of Byzantine painting, one notes the progressive weakening of classical tradition and the increasing ascendancy of religious influences. The triumph of the monastic spirit is still more evident in twelfth-century manuscripts.

Art became more and more subject to the rule laid down by the Council of Nicaea in 787; “it is for painters to execute, for the Fathers to order and to prescribe”. Ιn the end the Church succeeded in making her doctrinal and liturgical tendencies prevail. But it is none the less a fact that the miniature painting of the Second Golden Age, as conceived by the artists of the imperial school, with their love of incident, landscape, and the picturesque, contributed largely to prepare the development from which the last renaissance of Byzantine art arose.


Α further noteworthy characteristic of all the works of this period is the taste for magnificence and display. With its love of luxury and passion for colour, the art of this age delighted in the production of masterpieces that spread the fame of Byzantium in the Middle Ages throughout the whole of the Christian world. Amongst these were the beautiful silks from the work-shops of Constantinople, triumphs of Byzantine industry, portraying in dazzling colour animals -lions, elephants, eagles, and griffins- confronting each other, or representing Emperors gorgeously arrayed on horseback or engaged in the chase. There were also carvings in ivory, precious caskets adorned with classical or secular motifs, or, as on the casket at Troyes, with figures of Emperors, together with diptychs, such as the tenth-century plaque in the Cabinet of Medals at Paris, on which Christ is shown crowning Romanus ΙΙ and Eudocia (tenth century). This is one of the finest achievements which Byzantine art has bequeathed to us. There were ivories carved with religious subjects, such as the Harbaville triptych in the Louvre (tenth century), the Sens casket, the Virgin from the former Stroganoff collection in Rome, now in the Cleveland (U.S.A.) Museum, and many others in which the lessons of classical tradition are combined with the inspiration of the East and with an observation of nature: there were bronze doors executed in a skilful combination of damascening with niello work, and the craftsmanship of goldsmiths and silversmiths, a fine example of which is the beautiful repoussé silver-gilt plaque in the Louvre, representing the Holy Women at the Sepulchre; and, above all, enamel-work, which Byzantium had borrowed from Persia, was specially popular in the tenth and eleventh centuries on account of its brilliant and gorgeous colouring. With a wealth of enamel the Byzantines adorned crosses, reliquaries, reredoses, icons, caskets and even crowns, rich bookbindings, and dresses for state occasions. Enamels, in fact, together with figured textiles represented the height of Byzantιne luxury. Α few beautiful examples which bear witness to the fine qualities of this art have happily survived: the reliquary at Limburg, which belonged to an Emperor of the tenth century; the twelfth-century Esztergon reliquary; the admirable figure of St. Michael in the Treasury of St. Mark’s at Venice (tenth or eleventh century); the crowns of Constantine Monomachus and St. Stephen at Budapest; the cross of Cosenza; and the dazzling Ρala d’Oro over the high altar of the basilica of Venice. As Kondakov has truly said, “nothing shows more clearly than these enamels the gross error of those who talk of the stiffness and poverty of Byzantine art”, and nothing else can so well account for its far-reaching influence.

(NovoScriptorium: As the reader may have noticed, all the works of Art mentioned in the above paragraph are now stationed in Western Europe; the explanation for this will become apparent after a brief study on the Fourth Crusade, which ended up with the merciless looting of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204 A.D.)


From the tenth to the twelfth centuries Byzantine Constantinople appeared to the whole civilized world to be a city of marvels: in the words of Villehardouin, “the city sovereign above all others”. Ιn the cold fogs of Scandinavia and beside icy Russian rivers, in Venetian counting-houses or Western castles, in Christian France and Italy as well as in the Mussulman East, all through the Middle Ages folk dreamed of Byzantium, the incomparable city, radiant in a blaze of gold. As early as the sixth century the range of its influence was already astonishing, and its art had exercised a potent influence in North Africa, in Italy, and even in Spain. From the tenth to the twelfth centuries this influence became yet greater; Byzantine art was at that time “the art which set the standard for Europe”. For any choice work, if it were difficult of execution or of rare quality, recourse was had to Constantinople. Russian princes of Kiev, Venetian doges, abbots of Monte Cassino, merchants of Amalfi, or Norman kings of Sicily- if a church had to be built, decorated with mosaics, or enriched with costly work in gold and silver, it was to the great city on the Bosphorus that they resorted for artists or works of art. Russia, Venice southern Italy and Sicily were at that time virtually provincial centres of East Christian art. The twelfth-century frescoes οf the churches οf Nereditza, near Novgorod, Pskov and Staraya Ladoga, and especially those lately discovered in St. Demetrius at Vladimir, repeat the creations of the masters of the Byzantine capital. The same may be said of the eleventh-century mosaics at Kiev in the churches of St. Sophia and St. Michael of the Golden Heads. The bronze doors preserved in the churches of Amalfi, Salerno, at Monte Sant’Angelo, and San Ρaοlο are Byzantine works, as is likewise the beautiful fresco over the entrance to Sant’ Angelo in Formis. The art which arose in the elenth century at the great Abbey of Monte Cassino and that which in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries decorated with mosaics the churches of Rome are profoundly marked by Oriental influence. By their style, arrangement, and iconography the mosaics of St. Mark’s at Venice and of the cathedral at Torcello clearly reveal their Byzantine origin. Similarly those of the Palatine Chapel, the Martorana at Palermo, and the cathedral of Cefalu, together with the vast decoration of the cathedral at Monreale, demonstrate the influence of Byzantium οn the Norman Court of Sicily in the twelfth century. Hispano-Moorish art was unquestionably derived from the Byzantine. Romanesque art owes much to the East, from which it borrowed not only its decorative forms but the plan of some of its buildings, as is proved, for instance, by the domed churches of south-western France. The Ottonian renaissance in Germany in the tenth and eleventh centuries was likewise strongly affected by Byzantine influence which lasted οn into the twelfth century. Certainly one must not exaggerate either the range or the duration of the effect of the East οn the arts of the West. The artists who sat at the feet of Byzantine masters were not entirely forgetful of their national traditions, and Byzantine models tended rather, as has been said, “to awaken in them a consciousness of their own qualities”. From the school of the Greeks they learned a feeling for colour, a higher technical accomplishment, and a greater mastery over their materials, and profiting by these lessons they were enabled to attempt works of a more individual character. It is none the less true that from the tenth to the twelfth century Byzantium was the main source of inspiration for the West. The marvellous expansion of her art during this period is one of the most remarkable facts in her history.

mosaics background

At about the same time Byzantium exercised a similar influence in Asia. The churches of Armenia and Georgia, though highly original, are linked by many features to the Byzantine tradition, and there is doubtless some exaggeration in attributing to Armenia, as has lately been done, a paramount influence in the formation of Byzantine art. Eastern Europe certainly received much from Armenia, but in this exchange of influences Byzantium gave at least as much as she received. Arabian art also profited greatly by her teaching. Though Byzantium undoubtedly learnt much from the art of Arabia, in return she made the influence of her civilization felt there, as she did in the twelfth century in Latin Syria.

From the end of the twelfth century one can observe a development in Byzantine art that was to have important consequences. In the frescoes of the church of Nerez (near Skoplie in Serbia), which are dated to 1165, there appears an unexpected tendency towards dramatic or pathetic feeling in the representations of the Threnos, or the Descent from the Cross. The frescoes of the Serbian churches of Milesevo (1236) and Sopocani (about 1250), and of Boiana in Bulgaria (1259), show in the expression of the faces a remarkable sense of realism and life; and in the thirteenth-century Genesis mosaics which decorate the narthex of St. Mark’s at Venice we find landscape, architectural features, and an equally novel taste for the picturesque. These characteristic tendencies mark the beginning of a transformation in Byzantine art. Moreover the well-known intellectual movement in Constantinople of the fourteenth century brought about a revival of the classical tradition and a return to the ideas and models of Greek antiquity. These facts might lead us to expect, and do indeed explain, the new aspect which Byzantine art was to assume in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and that last brilliant renaissance in which it found its expression. It was a realistic art, in which a masterly power of composition was combined with a wonderful sense of colour, and thus in the history of Byzantine art it appears as both original and creative.


One must admit that this art was influenced to some extent by the Italian masters of Siena, Florence, and Venice; from them it learned some lessons. Nevertheless imitation of Italy was always cautious and restrained, and it cannot be doubted that this art remained essentially Byzantine alike in arrangement, in style, and in iconography. Its incontestable originality and creative power are evidenced by the altered character of its iconography, which has become richer and more complex, reviving ancient motifs and at the same time inventing new subjects; it is manifested in its incomparable colour sense, which at times suggests modern impressionist art. These new qualities are in themselves the expression of a new aesthetic by virtue of which a particular value is attached to beauty of form, to technical skill, to graceful attitudes, and tο the portrayal of facial emotions. One can therefore no longer dispute either the definitely Byzantine character or the originality of this last renaissance (from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century) which may be called a Third Golden Age of Byzantine Art.

The Byzantine buildings of this time do little more than carry οn the traditions of the preceding period, and though we find in them great variety and can even distinguish different schools of architecture, such as the Greek and Serbian schools, there are few really original creations.

In the impoverished state of the Empire, the arts of luxury began to decline. The production of works in costly material -gold and silver- or of those which needed patient or difficult technical proficiency, such as ivories and enamels, seems to have been almost abandoned. Fresco painting, οn the other hand, which more and more took the place of the too costly mosaic, was of extreme importance in the art of this period. The flexibility and the wider possibilities of this medium responded better to the new tendencies of an art that aimed at refinement of execution and delicacy of colouring in its rendering of movement, expression, and the picturesque. For this reason the period from the beginning of the fourteenth century to the middle of the sixteenth, remarkable works of which are still extant, is perhaps the finest epoch in the history of Byzantine painting.


One feels that these works are the product of an art of the utmost erudition and refinement, penetrated through and through by the influence of humanism and strongly attracted by the worldly graces that were always in the ascendant at Constantinople.

The influence of Byzantine art in the time of the Palaeologi extended beyond Serbia and its neighbour Bulgaria. In the church of St. Nicholas Domnese at Curtea de Arges in Roumania there are some admirable mid-fourteenth-century frescoes – a masterpiece of composition and tender feeling. And even after the fall of Constantinople the picturesque churches of Northern Moldavia, so curiously decorated with paintings even οn the outside walls, carried οn the remote tradition of the wonders of Byzantium until the end of the sixteenth century. Ιn Russia the churches in and around Novgorod were decorated towards the end of the fourteenth century with remarkable frescoes, attributed to an artist known as Theophanes the Greek. Here, too, the Byzantine origin of these paintings is unquestionable; they afford another instance of the astonishing vitality and prestige of Byzantine art in its last phase.

Once again it was in the capital of the Empire that this last great movement in Byzantine art seems to have originated. At that time there was a brilliant school of art in Constantinople; many of its works have survived to testify to its excellence. From it, doubtless, were derived the two great currents into which the movement diverged, which have been called the Macedonian and the Cretan schools.


There are other works from this last period of Byzantine art which still survive. First, there are the illuminated manuscripts. It is true that these miniature paintings seldom have the outstanding qualities characteristic of the preceding period. Α poverty of ideas, and these often rendered by childish daubs-such is the scornful judgement which has been passed οn them. Several works, however, such as the manuscript of John Cantacuzenus in the Bibliotheque Nationale at Paris, or the Serbian Psalter at Munich, lack neither beauty nor interest, and the vigorous and glowing colour of the latter has justly received high praise. The manuscript of the Chronicle of Skylitzes (preserved at Madrid) in its six hundred curious miniatures seems to reflect the historical wall-paintings which decorated Byzantine palaces. Ιn all these works one finds the same taste for the picturesque, power of realistic observation, and sense of colour which are found in the frescoes of that time. But apart from paintings οn a large scale it is icons and embroideries that appear to have been the favourite forms of artistic production from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century.

At this time once more, as in the sixth and as in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the influence of Byzantine art spread far and wide. We have seen how great it was throughout the Christian East, and how Russian icon painting in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries followed the teaching of Byzantium. Ιn the West, especially in Italy in the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, it was no less significant; and it has aptly been said that “the two worlds, so widely separated in language, religion, customs and ideas, seem to be in communion with each other through their art”.

Byzantine art had had a glorious existence for many centuries. It was by no means, as has often been said of it, a stagnant art, incapable of self renewal, nothing more than the imitation during a thousand years of the works of those artists of genius who in the fifth and sixth centuries had given it a new form. It was a living art and, like every living organism, it had known development and transformation. At first in Justinian’s century, then under the Macedonian and Comnenian Emperors, and again in the time of the Palaeologi, it knew successive periods of incomparable brilliance, each with its own characteristic differences. Not only so, but throughout every phase of its history it exercised a profound influence upon the world without. Such was Byzantine art, and for this reason it must always remain one of the most remarkable aspects of Byzantine civilization and one of its lasting glories.

(Source: “Byzantium, An Introduction to East Roman Civilization”, by N.H.Baynes – H.St.L.B. Moss)


Research-Selection-Comments for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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