9.2: Middle Byzantine Art
Architecture and mosaic decoration thrived during the Middle Byzantine period that followed Iconoclasm&rsquos stifling of the arts.
Describe the characteristics and innovations of Byzantine religious art that followed the end of the Iconoclasm controversy
- Two periods of state-sanctioned iconoclasm in the eighth and ninth centuries ended the Early Byzantine period that led to the prohibition and destruction of religious images. Iconoclasm ended in 843, leading to the renewal of churches through decorative and figurative mosaics and frescos . New elements and styles began to emerge during the Middle Byzantine period under the rule of the Macedonian emperors.
- The Theotokos mosaic of the Virgin and Child, in the central apse of the Hagia Sophia, is believed to reconstruct an earlier sixth century mosaic destroyed during Iconoclasm. It combines the Early Byzantine style with the new development of softer folds, increased modeling, and the addition of perspective .
- At the Hosios Loukas monastery in Greece are two connected churches that combine the older use of pendentives and the newer use of squinches beneath their domes . The monastery&rsquos mosaics depict figures in a more schematic manner and on flat, gold backgrounds with little hints about the setting.
- Saint Mark&rsquos Basilica in Venice , Italy, is a Greek cross-plan church richly decorated in marble revetment , pattern stone floors, and a detailed and extensive program of mosaics.
- squinch: A structure constructed between two adjacent walls to aid in the transition from a polygonal to a circular structure as when a dome is constructed on top of a square room.
- aniconic: Opposed to the use and veneration of images, especially religious images.
- pendentive: The concave triangular section of vaulting that provides transition between a dome and the square base on which it is set, and transfers the weight of the dome.
- Katholikon: The major temple or church building of a monastery or diocese in an Eastern Orthodox Church.
- Pantocrator: The ruler of everything, especially as an epithet for Jesus Christ an artistic depiction of Jesus in this aspect.
- iconoclasm: The belief in, participation in, or sanction of destroying religious icons and other symbols or monuments, usually with religious or political motives.
The First and Second Iconoclasms
Broadly defined, iconoclasm is defined as the destruction of images. In Christianity, iconoclasm has generally been motivated by people who adopt a literal interpretation of the Ten Commandments, which forbid the making and worshipping of graven images . The period after the reign of Justinian I (527&ndash565) witnessed a significant increase in the use and veneration of images, which helped to trigger a religious and political crisis in the empire. As a result, aniconic sentiment grew, culminating in two periods of iconoclasm&mdashthe First Iconoclasm (726&ndash87) and the Second Iconoclasm (814&ndash42)&mdashwhich brought the Early Byzantine period to an end.
Byzantine Iconoclasm constituted a ban on religious images by Emperor Leo III and continued under his successors. It was accompanied by the widespread destruction of images and persecution of supporters of the veneration of images. The goal of the iconoclasts was to restore the church to a strict opposition to images in worship that they believed characterized at the least some parts of the early church.
The Feast of Orthodoxy
After the death of the last Iconoclast emperor Theophilos, his young son Michael III, with his mother the regent Theodora and Patriarch Methodios, summoned the Synod of Constantinople in 843 to bring peace to the Church. At the end of the first session, on the first day of Lent, all made a triumphal procession from the Church of Blachernae to Hagia Sophiato to restore the icons to the church in an event called the Feast of Orthodoxy.
Imagery , it was decided, is an integral part of faith and devotion, making present to the believer the person or event depicted on them. However, the Orthodox makes a clear doctrinal distinction between the veneration paid to icons and the worship which is due to God alone.
Since Iconoclasm was the last of the great Christological controversies to trouble the Church, its defeat is considered to be the final triumph of the Church over heresy. When the Iconoclasm controversy came to an end in 843, Byzantine religious art underwent a renewal.
A series of naturalistic innovations can be seen in examples from the Hagia Sophia, the monastery of Hosios Loukas, and Saint Mark&rsquos Basilica. This revival of a classical style of art was partly due to a renewed interest in classical culture , which accompanied a period of military successes, during the Macedonian Renaissance (867&ndash1056).
Theotokos Mosaic at the Hagia Sophia
The Hagia Sophia is a former Greek Orthodox patriarchal basilica (church), constructed from 537 until 1453. A combination of a centrally planned and basilican building, it is considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture.
After the end of iconoclasm, a new mosaic was dedicated in the Hagia Sophia under the Patriarch Photius and the Macedonian emperors Michael III and Basil I. The mosaic is located in the apse over the main alter and depicts the Theotokos, or the Mother of God. The image, in which the Virgin Mary sits on a throne with the Christ child on her lap, is believed to be a reconstruction of a sixth-century mosaic that was destroyed during the Iconoclasm.
An inscription reads: &ldquoThe images which the impostors had cast down here, pious emperors (Michael and Basil) have again set up.&rdquo This inscription refers to the recent past and the renewal of Byzantine art under the Macedonian emperors.
Theokotos and Child: This image, in which the Virgin Mary sits on a throne with the Christ Child, is believed to be a reconstruction of a sixth-century mosaic that was destroyed during the Iconoclasm.
The image of the Virgin and Child is a common Christian image, and the mosaic depicts Byzantine innovations and the standard style of the period. The Virgin&rsquos lap is large. Christ sits nestled between her two legs. The figures&rsquo faces are depicted with gradual shading and modeling that provides a sense of realism that contradicts the schematic folding of their drapery.
Their drapery is defined by thick, harsh folds delineated by contrasting colors: the Virgin in blue and Christ in gold. The two frontal figures sit on an embellished gold throne that is tilted to imply perspective. This attempt is a new addition in Byzantine art during this period. The space given to the chair contradicts the frontality of the figures, but it provides a sense of realism previously unseen in Byzantine mosaics.
Hosios Loukas, Greece
The monastery of Hosios Loukas (St. Luke) in Greece was founded in the early tenth century to host the relics of St. Luke. Located on the slope of Mount Helicon, the monastery is known for its two churches, the Church of the Theotokos (tenth century) and the main building called the Katholikon (eleventh century).
The churches were decorated in mosaics, frescoes , and marble revetment. The two churches are connected together by the narthex of the Theotokos and an arm of the Katholikon. The churches demonstrate two different styles of architecture.
Plan of Hosios Loukas: Top (1 on diagram): Plan of the Church of the Theotokos. Bottom (2): Plan of Katholikon.
Church of the Theotokos and the Katholikon
The Church of the Theokotos represents a Greek cross-plan style church. It has a large central dome that rests on a series of pendentives. The Katholikon is also a Greek cross-plan style church but instead of the dome resting on pendentives, the dome of the Katholikon rests on squinches, which create an octagonal transition between the square plan of the church and the circular plan of the dome.
The difference in style between the pendentives and the squinches allow for different relationships between the architecture and the decoration and different play of light and darkness in the shapes the squinches provided.
The Katholikon&rsquos dome: Unlike the Church of the Theokotos, the dome of the Katholikon rests on squinches.
The mosaics found in the Katholikon were created in an early Byzantine style commonly seen in the centuries before Iconoclasm. The scenes depicted are flat with little architecture or props to provide a setting. Instead, the background is covered in brilliant gold mosaics.
The figures in the scenes, such as those seen in the apse mosaic of Christ washing the feet of his disciples, are depicted with naturalistic faces that are modeled with long, narrow noses and small mouths. The clothing of the figures is represented through schematic folds and contrasting colors. While the folds of the drapery represent a body underneath, there appears to be no actual mass to the body.
These characteristics of Byzantine mosaics began to change in the following century, partially through the addition of perspective in the Theokotos of the Hagia Sophia.
Christ Washing the Feet of His Disciples: In the Katholikon, the figures in these scenes are depicted with naturalistic faces that are modeled with long, narrow noses and small mouths.
Saint Mark&rsquos Basilica, Venice
Saint Mark&rsquos Basilica in Venice, Italy, was first built in the ninth century and rebuilt in the eleventh century in its current form following a fire. The basilica is a grand building, built next to the Doge&rsquos Palace. It initially functioned as the doge&rsquos private chapel, then a state church, and in 1806 became the city&rsquos cathedral . The basilica houses the remains of Saint Mark, which the Venetians looted from Alexandria in 828 and prompted the building of the basilica.
Saint Mark&rsquos Basilica was built in the Byzantine Greek-cross plan. Each arm is divided into three naves and topped by a dome. At the crossing is a large central dome. The main apse is flanked by two smaller chapels. The narthex of the basilica is U-shaped and wraps around the western transept . It is decorated with scenes from the lives of Old Testament prophets.
Plan of St. Mark&rsquos Basilica: The circles mark the location of each dome.
The entirety of the basilica is richly decorated. The floor is covered in geometric patterns and designs that use the Roman decoration techniques known as opus sectile and opus tessellatum.
The lower walls and pillars are covered in marble polychromatic panels, and the upper walls and the domes are decorated with twelfth- and thirteenth-century mosaics. The central dome depicts an image of Christ Pantocrator , and the overall decorative program depicts scenes from the life of Christ and images of salvation from both the Old and New Testament.
The interior of St. Mark&rsquos Basilica in Venice, Italy: A view from the clerestory-level walkway shows its richly decorated mosaics and marble, polychrome panels.
What Are Byzantine Mosaics? (with picture)
The first mosaics were created around 4,000 years ago. They originally were primitive, consisting of terra cotta cones depressed into a background to serve as decorations. The Greeks later turned mosaics into an art form, using colored stones and glass to create geometric patterns and intricate scenes depicting animals and people. Between the fifth and fifteenth centuries, Byzantine mosaics were created that took the art form to a new level. These Byzantine mosaics introduced the use of gold and silver to create a glittering effect and incorporated a new type of tesserae, called smalti.
Tesserae were typically pieces of rock or ceramic made specifically for mosaics. The smalti tesserae used in Byzantine mosaics were manufactured from panels of opaque, colored glass made in Ravenna, Italy. Sometimes these smalti were backed with silver or gold to reflect the light. Mosaics were originally created on panels, but Byzantine artists blended mosaics with architecture by covering the walls and ceilings inside Byzantine churches with the small tiles.
In addition to smalti, Byzantine mosaics incorporated marble, colored stones, terra cotta, and semiprecious gemstones. Different sizes were used, and the mosaics had irregular shapes. The smallest tesserae were used to create faces.
Before applying the mosaics, the surface was covered with plaster followed by a layer of mortar to create a setting bed for the mosaic tiles. The mosaic pieces were then pressed into the mortar and set at oblique angles so that their glassy surfaces would glitter when struck by light. Smalti backed with gold foil were often used to depict halos which seemed to glow with an unearthly radiance.
Most of the artwork created with early Byzantine mosaics was destroyed in the eighth century after the church decreed that icons violated the Ten Commandments. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople contained intricate mosaics that were destroyed during this iconoclastic destruction period. Some notable fragments of early Byzantine mosaics that remain are remnants from the floor of the Great Palace of Constantinople and a piece that was sequestered behind the mortar in the apse of the Church of Santa Maria Formosa.
After the church reversed its position against the use of icons, artwork incorporating Byzantine mosaics became even more intricate and beautiful than before. Western countries also began to practice the artform, but they were never able to achieve the high standard of beauty. After the sacking of Constantinople in the early 13th century, the Byzantine Empire couldn’t afford the high costs of mosaics to decorate its churches and started using paintings instead.
Great Palace Mosaic Museum
Once located in today’s Sultan Ahmet District, the Great Palace of Constantinople was built by Constantine the Great. The Palace area extended from Hippodrome to the coastline. Destroyed in Nika Riot in the 6th century, the Great Palace was rebuilt by Justinian I. The mosaics, decorating the floors of the museum today date back to that restoration time. The mosaics are just one seventh of the original work.
The Great Palace was a complex with libraries, churches, meeting halls and even a stadium. It was also the administration building of Constantinople and surrounded by churches and palaces like Daphne and Kathisma Palaces. The Palace was entered by the Bronze Gate, aka Chalke. The building went under restorations under Basil I and Justinian II. After the conquest of the city, the Palace was used as a prison.
The mosaics of the Palace were discovered during the excavations between - and -. Later, in a Turkey-Austria joint project, the mosaics were worked on and in 1987, they were placed in its current preservation hall.
The mosaics, covering the courtyard of the Great Palace, were removed and after a long process of restoration including the re-attachment of the mosaics with a special kind of wax and mortar. The mosaics were cleansed and polished again.
The Great Palace Mosaic Museum was inaugurated in 1987. The mosaics in the museum mostly depict the animals and humans in nature , mythological, pastoral motifs and hunting scenes.
Arian Baptistery Mosaics
Arian Baptistery Mosaics. Image Source: Wikipedia
Situated in Italy’s Ravenna, the Arian Baptistery possesses some exquisite Byzantine mosaics. Although research has suggested that the lower walls once fitted with lavish mosaics, the dome of the church still possess an assortment of mosaics. All together, they portray the scene of Jesus’s Baptism in the central medallion. Surrounding it, the twelve apostles stand carrying the martyr’s crown. They are led by St. Paul who holds a scroll and St. Peter who bears some keys. The whole scene is configured to represent Etimasia, or the throne set in heaven. Moreover, the portrayal of Jesus being immersed in water to the hips, reflect Christ’s divine and earthly nature.
Why is the double-headed eagle Russia’s national symbol?
An eagle on a country&rsquos coat of arms is quite common &ndash this bird is as popular a national symbol as the lion. &ldquoHe is the king of birds just like the lion is believed to rule all animals, and he is associated with the cult of the sun,&rdquo Georgy Vilinbakhov, head of Russia&rsquos Heraldic Council, explains.
The eagle has been emblazoned on the insignia of numerous empires. Roman legions held standards with the glorious birds when going into battle, and even today many countries have eagles on their official coats of arms. In the U.S., the Great Seal features a bald eagle holding 13 arrows and an olive branch. Meanwhile, a black eagle is on Germany&rsquos coat of arms.
Russia&rsquos eagle, however, is special &ndash it&rsquos double-headed, with each head looking in opposite directions. Still, this is not unique: Serbia, Albania and Montenegro also have coats of arms with two-headed birds. What&rsquos all this about? Isn&rsquot one head enough?
Heritage of the Hittites and Byzantium
The double-headed eagle is an old birdie, and its first images (carved in stone) are attributed to the Hittites who lived in the Middle East in the 13th century B.C. Since then, the double-headed eagle has appeared from time to time both in East and West. However, it was the Byzantine Empire (395 AD &ndash 1453) that saw this bird soar to new heights.
Historian Yevgeny Pchelov said in a lecture on the history of Russia&rsquos coat of arms that while the Byzantines didn&rsquot have an official coat of arms, the double-headed eagle appeared on the emperors&rsquo clothes and coins, symbolizing unity. &ldquoThey wanted to emphasize that the empire united both East and West under its wings,&rdquo Pchelov explained. &ldquoThe eagle has two heads, but just one body.&rdquo
Most historians believe that all the nations associating themselves with the double-headed eagle inherited this from Byzantium through dynastic marriages. &ldquoIn the Middle Ages, you couldn&rsquot just take the other country&rsquos symbol simply because you liked it it was a sign of an alliance, of good relations,&rdquo Pchelov said.
Tsars step in
That&rsquos how Serbia, Albania and Montenegro got their coats of arms, and Russia followed suit. In 1472, Ivan III, Moscow&rsquos Grand Prince, married Byzantine princess Sophia Palaiologina. Several decades later, in 1497, the first official Russian seal with the double-headed eagle appeared.
Embracing the Byzantine heritage was extremely important for Ivan. In 1453, the Turks had captured Constantinople, and so Russia became the leading Orthodox power. Thus, the wings of its own double-headed eagle began to cover both West and East.
&ldquoBefore the Byzantine Empire ceased to exist, it always was perceived as a greater power. And even after its fall, Russian rulers wanted to associate Russia with the Byzantine symbol,&rdquo Yevgeny Pchelov explained.
Specific Russian features
In Russia, the double-headed eagle was always accompanied by another national symbol: a horseman slaying a serpent with a spear, portrayed on a shield. The horseman is a symbol of Russia&rsquos capital, Moscow, and usually represents St. George the Victorious. However, since Russia is a secular state, this interpretation is unofficial.
The coat of arms has changed throughout history, with the eagle changing from gold to black, and then back to its current gold. Also, it has gained and lost the crowns over its heads. Currently, each head is topped with another crown &lsquofloating&rsquo between them, which once more symbolizes unity. In its talons, the eagle holds an orb and a scepter &ndash symbols of power and authority.
The current interpretation of the coat of arms is quite similar to those used in the Russian Empire. After the monarchy was overthrown in 1917, the eagle became white (maybe it just turned pale). With the Bolsheviks in power, the bird had a rest for about 70 years, and was replaced by the hammer and sickle. Since 1993 the eagle is back, still looking in opposite directions, and wearing three crowns on two heads.
This article is part of the "Why Russia&hellip?" series in which RBTH answers popular questions about Russia.
If using any of Russia Beyond's content, partly or in full, always provide an active hyperlink to the original material.
The origins of the Byzantine mosaic bring us back to the times of Byzantium and the Eastern Roman Empire but the first pieces have been discovered thanks to the Vatican State.
Reverenda Fabbrica di San Pietro was founded and it allowed mosaic art to have its own identity and to develop, independent of the painting.
Towards the end of , a few craftsmen left the Reverenda Fabbrica Vatican and brought the art of Mosaic Minute in Florence where it found a welcoming public and was allowed to expand.
Small workshops of mosaic craftsmen passed down the art from one generation to another and from the second half of the 800, we have the first evidence of the activity of an artisan company that in the future will be known as “Filippini & Paoletti”.
The Filippini & Paoletti is now in its fourth generation. Filippini Alfonso, skillful goldsmith, and Paoletti Vittorio, a student of mosaic artists, decided to open a laboratory located in an old wine cellar in the historic center, to produce small mosaic objects destined to the Lords of Florence and to the wealthiest tourist customers.
Their sons, Filippini Ilario and Paoletti Giovanni followed their footsteps together with their grandsons and in 1947, moved the laboratory to its current place: Piazza Santo Spirito.
Immediately after the war, began the first exports and from 1970 Fei Ascanio, grandson of the Filippini’s, and Paoletti Paolo with their sons, are the owners of the firm and they are the main producers of the Byzantine Mosaic.
Sculpture in the round, the preferred medium for images of pagan deities, disappeared in Byzantium and was replaced by its aesthetic opposite: mosaic. With figures depicted against a glimmering gold background, mosaics suggest an ethereal, heavenly realm. In antiquity, most mosaics adorned floors and so were usually made of colored stones that could withstand people walking on them. Because the Byzantines put mosaics on the walls, they could also use fragile materials: mother of pearl, gold and silver leaf, and glass of different colors. Small glass cubes, or tesserae, were placed at angles to catch and reflect the light, creating a sparkling, otherworldly atmosphere.
Portable mosaic icons are among the most luxurious works of Byzantine art. Very few examples are preserved, most of them small the icon of the Virgin featured in the slideshow above is one of fewer than a dozen large mosaic icons to survive. Despite the areas of loss where the three wooden planks join, the high quality of this icon is clear from the use of tesserae of different sizes: largest for the background, smaller for the garments, and still smaller for the flesh tones. The costly technique and delicate modulations of color suggest that this icon was made in Constantinople.
Banner Image: Mosaic icon of the Virgin Episkepsis, Constantinople, late 13th century, glass, gold, and silver tesserae, Athens, Byzantine and Christian Museum
Fragment of a mosaic with the Virgin, Constantinople, 9th–10th century, glass and marble tesserae, Athens, Benaki Museum, Gift of Stefanos and Penelope Delta
Founded before 454, the Stoudios Monastery was one of the most important in Constantinople, playing a leading role in the spiritual life of Byzantium during and after Iconoclasm. The mosaics on the walls of its church were praised by visitors in the tenth century and thereafter, but only this fragment remains. The Virgin’s green-and-gold halo is a modern restoration.
Mosaic of the apostle Andrew, late 11th–early 12th century, glass, gold, and stone tesserae, Archaeological Museum of Serres
This dynamic, striding figure is the sole survivor from a mosaic of the Communion of the Apostles in the apse of a church in northern Greece that burned in 1913. His beard and unkempt hair identify him as the apostle Andrew. Early photographs show that the full composition depicted two images of Christ behind the altar, distributing the bread and wine of the Eucharist to processions of apostles approaching from either side of the apse. The subject is the liturgical equivalent of the Last Supper.
Mosaic icon of the Virgin Episkepsis, Constantinople, late 13th century, glass, gold, and silver tesserae, Athens, Byzantine and Christian Museum
The inscription He Episkepsis refers to the Virgin’s miraculous intervention in time of need. It also appears in Byzantine hymns describing her as “the shelter [episkepsis] of the weak.” Whereas Catholics and Protestants normally refer to Mary as the Virgin, Orthodox Christians emphasize a different aspect, calling her the Theotokos (God-Bearer) or Meter Theou (Mother of God). Here, her melancholy gaze seems to forebode the fate of the infant in her arms.
The monastery of Daphni, located just northwest of Athens, was likely the last of the three churches to be built, probably constructed between 1050–1150. Little is known about the foundation of this cross-in-square church.Plan and elevation of Daphni monastery, Chaidari, c. 1050–1150, from from Robert Weir Schultz and Sidney Howard Barnsley, The Monastery of Saint Luke of Stiris, in Phocis, and the Dependent monastery of Saint Nicolas in the Fields, near Skripou in Boetia (London: Macmillan, 1901)
Here, the narthex combines scenes from the lives of Christ and the Virgin, suggesting the church may have been dedicated to Mary. Notably, the Last Supper and Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple (where she was fed with heavenly bread by an angel) both appear on the eastern wall of the narthex, where worshippers would have seen them as they entered the church.Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple mosaic, narthex, Daphni monastery, Chaidari, c. 1050–1150 (photo: Mark L. Darby, all rights reserved)
Such images were meant to connect past events from sacred history with the celebration of the Eucharist in the present: Christ sharing bread and wine with his apostles at the Last Supper and Virgin eating heavenly bread in the temple were both understood to prefigure and symbolize the Eucharist. The Eucharist was the ritual offering of bread and wine to God to be transformed into the body and blood of Christ for worshippers to eat. The appearance of the Foot Washing in the narthexes of all three of these churches may reflect the use of this part of the church for a ritual foot washing on Holy Thursday, when abbots imitated Christ by washing the feet of the monks. Holy Thursday, known as “Maundy Thursday” in the Roman Catholic church, commemorates the Last Supper during Holy Week.View of the naos looking east, Daphni monastery, Chaidari, c. 1050–1150 (photo: Ktiv, CC BY-SA 4.0)
A monumental image of the heavenly Christ Pantokrator, framed by a rainbow mandorla in the central dome, dominates the naos. Photios interprets what must have been a similar image in the Pharos church as Christ reigning from the heavens:
Christ Pantokrator mosaic, dome, Daphni monastery, Chaidari, c. 1050–1150 (photo: Mark L. Darby, all rights reserved)
You might say He is overseeing the earth, and devising its orderly arrangement and government, so accurately has the painter been inspired to represent, though only in forms and in colors, the Creator’s care for us.Photios of Constantinople, Homily 10
Scenes from the lives of Christ and the Virgin—such as the Annunciation—unfold in the squinches below and throughout the rest of the naos. The eastern apse reveals another Virgin and Child, and additional saints appear throughout the naos.Annunciation mosaic, Daphni monastery, Chaidari, c. 1050–1150 (photo: Mark L. Darby, all rights reserved)
For worshippers entering these churches, mosaics offered a vision of God reigning from on high, a reminder of salvation history, and face-to-face encounters with so many saints who had come before. No wonder Photios found himself whirling around, trying to take in the overwhelming mosaics at the Pharos church, and feeling as if he had “entered heaven itself.”