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Appreciating Byzantine iconography

by malinga
November 18, 2023 1:09 am 0 comment

Existing for over a thousand years, the Byzantine Empire cultivated diverse and sumptuous arts to engage the viewers’ senses and transport them to a more spiritual plane. Byzantine emperors used art and architecture to signal their strength and importance. Often, depictions of the emperor used compositional clues such as size, placement, and color to underscore his importance. Additionally, the emperor was often visually associated with Christ, making it clear that his power was divinely ordained.

The term Byzantine is derived from the Byzantine Empire, which developed from the Roman Empire. In 330 the Roman Emperor Constantine established the city of Byzantion in modern day Turkey as the new capital of the Roman Empire and renamed it Constantinople. Byzantion was originally an ancient Greek colony, and the derivation of the name remains unknown, but under the Romans the name was Latinized to Byzantium.

 The architectural surfaces of Byzantine churches were covered in mosaics and frescoes, creating opulent and magnificent interiors that glittered in the candle and lamp light. In building such elaborate and seemingly miraculous structures, the goal was to create the sense of a heavenly realm here on earth, a goal that later Gothic architecture fully embraced.

The Byzantine Empire lasted until 1453 when Constantinople was conquered by the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Byzantine art and architecture is usually divided into three historical periods: the Early Byzantine from c. 330-730, the Middle Byzantine from c. 843-1204, and Late Byzantine from c. 1261-1453.

Hagia Sophia

In Istanbul, the Hagia Sophia’s most prominent and celebrated feature is its large dome, soaring above the city, while its square brick edifice and two massive towers, create an impression of fortress-like solidity. The interior is equally renowned for its light-filled space that creates a heavenly atmosphere.

The flowering of Byzantine architecture and art occurred in the reign of the Emperor Justinian from 527-565, as he embarked on a building campaign in Constantinople and, subsequently, Ravenna, Italy. His most notable monument was the Hagia Sophia (537), its name meaning “holy wisdom,” an immense church with a massive dome and light filled interior. The Hagia Sophia’s many windows, colored marble, bright mosaics, and gold highlights became the standard models for subsequent Byzantine architecture.

Hiring 10,000 artisans to build and decorate the Hagia Sophia, Justinian I also established innumerable workshops in icon painting, ivory carving, enamel metalwork, mosaics and fresco painting in Constantinople. As art historians H.W. Janson and Anthony F. Janson wrote, during his reign, “Constantinople became the artistic as well as political capital of the empire”.

Its origins in the Roman Empire meant that even in the face of unclassical tendencies that favored hierarchical compositions and symbolic meanings there were periods of revival that emphasized more naturalistic renderings. Many of the now-standard iconographic types, such as Christ Pantocrator and the Virgin and Child enthroned, were created and evolved during the Byzantine era.

Christ Pantocrator

This wooden panel, painted in encaustic, or colored wax, depicts Christ in a frontal view, his head framed by a halo which contains the shape of the cross. He raises his right hand in a gesture of blessing and holds a Gospel book, gilded with a jewel-inlay cross, in his left. The folds of his purple tunic and himation, a Greek garment, are modeled with darker and lighter shades of color. His figure, nearly life-size and filling the pictorial frame, combined with his calm and direct gaze, give the work a sense of immediacy that seems to impel him toward the viewer. The dark lines of his hairline, eyebrows, and eyes draw attention to his luminous face, while subtle white highlights, contrasting with deeper shadows, enliven his expression.

Creating frescoes, mosaics, and panel paintings, Early Christian art drew upon the styles and motifs of Roman art while repurposing them to Christian subjects. Works of art were created primarily in the Christian catacombs of Rome, where early depictions of Christ portrayed him as the classical “Good Shepherd,” a young man in classical dress in a pastoral setting. Because of its importance, a mural or mosaic of the Pantocrator inhabits the place of greatest prominence in Byzantine churches, typically at the apex of the highest dome or in the half dome above the apse. The Pantocrator of Byzantine art has much in common with the Christ in Majesty image often seen in western European medieval art.

Anastasis (Harrowing of Hell)

This fresco depicts the Anastasis, or harrowing of Hell, an image frequently depicted in the Late Byzantine era that drew upon the Christian tradition that on Holy Saturday, between his crucifixion and his resurrection, Christ rescued Adam and Eve from hell. Here, Christ, dressed in white and surrounded by a luminous mandorla, or full body halo, energetically grasps Adam’s and Eve’s wrists as he pulls them from their tombs on either side of him. Anastasis’ is a Greek word meaning, “Rebirth” or, “Resurrection”; a recovery from a debilitating condition. The painting was known in Western Europe as the ‘Descent into Hades’. The painting shows Christ in Hades before His resurrection releasing the Old Testament saints held captive in “Abraham’s bosom” ( Luke 16:22-23). Bound below Christ’s feet is Satan or Death.

Holy Trinity Icon

This, the most famous of all Russian icons, depicts three angels seated around a table upon which sits a chalice containing the head of a sacrificed calf. The arrangement of the winged figures, the graceful lines, and the clothing they wear create a visual circle, symbolizing their unity. Both the angel in the middle and the one on the right lift their hands in gestures of blessing over the cup as they look toward the angel on the left.

Image of Edessa

The Image of Edessa was believed to have come to the divine aid of the city of Edessa in its 593 defense against the Persians. The central image of Christ’s head, known as the Mandylion in the Byzantine tradition, recalled the image of Christ’s face imprinted on a cloth while he walked to the place of his crucifixion. Worshippers believed they were in the presence of the divine. They’re interactive images, in which the divine is present. The worship of icons became a dominant feature of Byzantine life. Byzantine art developed iconographic types that were employed in icons, mosaics, and frescoes and influenced Western depictions of sacred subjects. The early Pantocrator, meaning “all-powerful,” portrayed Christ in majesty, his right hand raised in a gesture of instruction.

The original architectural design of many Byzantine churches was a Greek cross, having four arms of equal length, placed within a square. Later, peripheral structures, like a side chapel or second narthex, were added to the more traditional church footprint. In the 11th century, the quincunx building design, which used the four corners and a fifth element elevated above it, became prominent as seen in The Holy Apostles in Thessaloniki, Athens, Greece. The long-lived Byzantine Empire was famous for its religious art, primarily monumental, glittering mosaics and small-scale, devotional panel paintings. Its capital in Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) was also the chief city of the Orthodox branch of the Christian faith, which is practiced today in parts of Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Byzantine art captivates us centuries later. May its spiritual themes promote unity and guide us in the path of peace.

Dishan Joseph

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