Artistic creativity in Byzantium evolved with the changing times. It was heavily influenced by the dominant religion of Christianity, which used to be forbidden at that time. Byzantine art went on through hardships and moments of glory, it adapted to its social setting like water that takes the shape of the container that it is poured in. We as the generation that is lucky enough to view these majestic artworks and buildings, have to only take care of these monuments and ensure their wellbeing. This paper will examine the chronological transformation of Byzantine art, and explore the actual time that these artworks and building came to life.
As mentioned before, Christianity used to be illegal, thus its worshippers needed to practice their religion in secret. Still, Christianity influenced people and brought about a new form of art in Byzantium. However because of the fear of being called a heretic, Christian art was confined to private worship places. Dura Europos was one of those cities; it used to exist in Syria in 256, and is one of the first private worship places. Christian art was also incorporated into houses; a typical middle-class house, for example, had a baptism basin in a room. The basin could contain frescoes with the images from Jesus’ miracles. Around 6 th century the first icon appeared. The icon could have narrative properties, it would often show a scene and tell of a Biblical event that had a story. Sometimes the icon could be allegorical; these images are different than narrative images because they do not show a specific scene in motion, but they illustrate a Christian idea, like that of The Good Shepherd. Allegories could also contain traces of Greek imagery, for example Hercules could be likened to Christ, and so on.
In 313 with the edict of Milan Christianity became free to worship publicly. After years of being considered illegal worshippers, Christians started to build churches in the places of private worshipping houses. Inıtially, Christians would take the pagan temple form as an example. Structures like Parthenon would serve as models; they were secular places in pagan times. They were simple and spacious places that were able to host large crowds; plus they were easy and cheap to build. Continuing with theme of Christianity being a ship that contains the believers, the basilica also resembles the construction of a ship. Later Christians improved on the construction of this basilica type; they added an extra aisle that would make a five aisled basilica. The Saint Peter Basilica is one of the precursors of this novel structure. The extra aisle would be a vertical place that would be later called the narthex; it would serve as a preparation place for the people who were not yet Christians, to master the Katechumens, which would guide them in their religious journey.
With the reign of Justinian I Byzantium’s architecture flourished greatly. He had a renovation in his mind and started to transform the city according to his building plan. He used architecture to show the glory of his city and to emphasize his military power and authority. He renovated Hagia Sophia, which was damaged during the Nika riots, the most famous of Byzantine structures. The artwork contained in Hagia Sophia complies with the Christian representation program. This program set out some standards that regulated the representations; still there are some artistic and stylistic differences between artworks that create a pleasant variety. For example, Christ is usually represented in a mandorla, but the stylization of this mandorla can change. It could be blue, surrounded by golden light, or contain a ray of rainbow. He is typically blessing with his right hand and holding the scripture in his other hand; signifying that the Holy Book needed to be spread to people, so manuscripts appeared. They improved and became more embellished over time. However they could only be acquired by the wealthy, as they were expensive because of their arduous and pricy production. They contain both a textual and a visual part that is why they are called “illuminated manuscripts”. There would be spaces left for the painter to paint on by the writer, because the picture was the most valuable part of the manuscript they could not risk spoiling it. The Vienna Dioscorides is a famous scientific manuscript. This book represents medical plants and the properties of them, including how they could be used. The mandrake illustration stands out the most in this manuscript. The root of it has the shape of a human body and therefore it was considered to be a medical plant. The setting of the image refers to the Ancient Greek aesthetics. The dress looks more like an Ancient Greek dress. The use of personification is also an element coming from Greek antiquity.
As we enter 8th century, we see that iconoclasm is on the rise. The fear of practicing idolatry was terrifying everyone; even the emperor Leo III interpreted an earthquake as a bad omen, as if their usage of icons angered God. Iconoclasm lasted nearly until 9 th century and it brought along the white washing of a lot faces from the icons. As sad as this loss sounds, the iconoclasm period did not destroy every work of art. Secular art was still being produces, such as scenes of hunting or horse races. During this period Hagia Eirene was built; so it is not a totally unfortunate era.
In conclusion, Byzantine art withstood the test of time and evolved, but also stayed true to itself by having qualities that preserved over time. It is so enjoyable to see that art and artists have always existed and gifted us with artworks that captured the zeitgeist of their time. If it was not for painters, architects, writers, sculptors, and for the people who were kind enough to support them, we would lack so much information about the past. We would not know that the Hippodrome was for horse races, if we did not have that image on the obelisk.