History: Byzantine

Preview of version: 1


We have gone through many civilizations and centuries, but none like what we like to call "the dark ages." Are the dark ages really "dark?" Let us look to the Byzantine and Medieval Europe to find out!


It is the goal of this lesson to:

  • Have a contextual understanding of the early Medieval Europe and Byzantine art.
  • Have a formal understanding of various styles, media, and methods of artistic and architectural production.
  • Gain an understanding of various art historical themes that are present within these cultures.



Byzantium and Early Medieval Eras

Following the death of Constantine and reconnection of the entire Roman empire, the empire soon slipped back into strife and was split once again between east and west by Theodosius in the fifth century as the capitol was moved to Ravenna. The eastern Roman empire was unified under similar religious beliefs and the defence of common enemies such as the Ottoman Turks. The eastern empire is known as Byzantium, named after the original name of the area that Constantine renamed Constantinople when he laid claim. Though the Roman empire was in collapse, these new emperors did not call themselves "Byzantine," but instead still insisted that they were Roman with all earlier Roman traditions, though they spoke Greek and not Latin. This empire lasted nearly 1000 years as the rest of Europe broke apart through conquests, though remained unified under the Roman Catholic Church.

The western, European empires were constantly in flux. Early in the Fifth century, the warrior lords held claim over most of Europe. Although militaristic, the Celts, Vikings, and other cultures demonstrated specific cultural styles. These cultures quickly formed into empires of their own including the Hiberno-Saxons of Britain and Ireland and the Carolingian Empire, both unified under the Roman Catholic church and the Pope.

Following the death of Charlemagne in 814 and the death of his son Louis in 840, the Carolingian Empire was split between Chrarlemagne's three grandsons in the Treaty at Berdun in 843. The breakup made the kingdom weak against the constant attacks and the empire finally consolidated itself in 936 under the first Otto to become the Ottonian Empire. Otto was crowned by the Pope and became "Emperor of Rome" as he cemented the ties between the Roman Catholic church and the future of the empire. The Ottonian line ended in the 11th century with the death of Henry II. For more on the context of this time, please refer to the following:


In this section, we will discuss more of the specific stylistic elements found in the artifacts from the various periods of the early Christian and Byzantine Art. It is important to form a strong understanding of the themes within Christian mythology in order to fully understand the symbolism contained in any of these images.


Byzantine art is separated into three chronological categories, Early, Middle, and Late. Much of the Byzantine era artifacts were destroyed during several iconoclasms, but what remains are amazing artifacts demonstrating the poer of religious symbolism, mosaic, manuscripts, and innovations in architectural production.


The "golden age" of Byzantine art is exactly that, dominated by gold and rich media. The early years are dominated by the artistic production under Justinian including Hagia Sophia, and monuments dedicated to them as far as Ravenna. The style continues with similar image stylization as late Roman imagery, dominated by Christian themes. Justinian's power is demonstrated throughout and is further demonstrated by the monumental structure of Hagia Sophia, now a secular structure after being both a church and a mosque. The wealth contained in the artistic imagery demonstrates a desire to both demonstrate the power of the early empire, but also to sacrifice wealth to their dedication toward the Christian God. Monuments such as San Vitale in Ravenna also demonstrate the extent of the empire at the time as Justinian and Empress Theodora never actually visited the location.

Icons, paintings of Christ and the Virgin painted for private devotion or within church altars, were a flourishing artistic theme until Leo III bans picturing the divine in 726. Below are a list of iconic artifacts representing the early Byzantine era:

Saint Michael the Archangel (early 6th Century): This ivory demonstrates evidence of the persistence of Classical art. Saint Michael the Archangel is the patron saint of Hagia Sophia, the jewel of the churches created during Justinian's reign to spread the power of the Christian religion. It is inscribed, “receive these gifts,” a dedication to the sacrifices made in the artistic creation and the wealth represented in the ivory. The angelic form is modelled after the winged victory of classical art, a tradition that persists throughout Christian imagery for the depiction of angelic forms. The ivory also disregard proportion as it seems that he is floating from an architectural kingdom of heaven.

Hagia Sophia (532-537): The church was designed by mathematicians and physicists rather than architects as its monumental proportions required feats of engineering to blend the symbolic importance of the structure with the scale. The nave, enclosed under a massive dome measures 270 ft x 240 ft, rectangular, not square as the dome suggests. The dome itself is 108 ft in diameter and 180 ft. above the ground. And had to be rebuilt a few times since its original completion. The exterior has changed much since its rededications. Minarets were added when it was converted to a mosque and now it is a secular building and is used as a museum. The exterior is also plane and free of decoration in the way of Byzantine custom.

The interior is what is truly magnificent. The way the light floods in through the many windows surrounding the domes allows for the illusion of heaven and that the dome is resting on light rather than being supported by the structure. “Light comes from the Good and… Light is the visual image of God;” this is presence of natural light demonstrates the symbolic purpose within the architecture of churches. Golden finish allows the light to bounce around the space in a regal, spiritual way. It is often considered the the middle ages are the "dark ages," though the presence of light within their architectural constructions demonstrates that the opposite is the case.

The dome allows light through with advances in engineering: The pendentives (square to circle) vs. Squinches (Square to octagon). Pendentives allow for the transfer of weight from the dome to the 4 piers beneath. This created a domed basilica by placing this hemispherical dome on a longitudinally oriented building rather than a central plan as would be thought. The building seems more like a central plan from the exterior due to the buttresses needed to support the weight of the dome as it is transferred to the piers. The basilica church also veers from the Roman use of concrete by emphasizing brick construction.

The interior colonnades are purely decoration and emphasize the basilica-like nature of the design. The structure further demonstrates the connection between the logic of Greek theology, Roman scale, Near Eastern Vaulting, and the mysticism of Eastern Christianity. For more information, please consult the following:

Ravenna: Ravenna at this time became an Italian extension of Constantinople. The artwork (because it has survived) shows the transition from early Christian to Byzantine art.

San Vitale (526-547): San Vitale was built using a sum of 26,000 gold pieces (350 lbs). It is unlike any other church in Italy. It is composed of a central plan of concentric octagons with traditional plain exterior. The choir area precedes the apse instead of coming after the altar. It also has an odd angle for the narthex, which coincided with the original street.

The mosaics are considered some of the crowning achievements of Byzantine art. The theme is the holy ratification of Justinian’s right to rule. Christ holds a scroll and sits on the orb of the world at the time of his Second Coming, representing the power of Christianity over the world. Christ also extends a wreath to the Martyr saint Vitalis (for whom the church is dedicated) and is presented the church through bishop Ecclesius who offered the dedication. Justinian and Maximianus are depicted on the choir wall to the left. Justinian is flanked by Bishop Maximianus who was responsible for the completion of the church. Halos unify Justinian with Christ. He is also accompanied by a dozen attendants, furthering hte symbolic connection demonstrating the dual political and religious roles. The leader of each group is symbolized by the overlapping feet. As Justinian is in procession with the Eucharist, it shows as an active procession for rituals that were to happen beyond those depicted’s death, much like votive sculpture seen in earlier cultures. Also, the mosaics demonstrate a different aesthetic than previous cultures as seen here with the fully-realized Byzantine aesthetic which deals with a heavenly space and no focus on true naturalism.

The accompanying mosaic of Empress Theodora is on the opposite wall of the choir. Theodora holds the wine, while Justinian the bread. She is depicted as if she was to follow the other procession possibly indicating the order in which things were done at the time. Despite all this focus on the rule of Justinian and Theodora, neither Justinian nor Theodora ever visited Ravenna expressing the extent of influence.

Sant' Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna: This apse mosaic demonstrates the patron saint of the region, Apollinare, who was martyred in the area. He is demonstrated as a Shephard, mimicking the symbolism of Christ along with twelve sheep, furthering the symbolism. We begin to see the stylization and the narrative symbolism used in these early Christian images.

Icons and Iconoclasm:

The devout and wealthy patrons of the arts commissioned illuminated manuscripts and Icons for their private worship. Few survive due to the Iconoclasm which soon follows this early Byzantine period. The main medium was gold, and encaustic on wood, which continues from Egyptian panel painting traditions. Saints are often present to intervene on the worshipper's behalf in prayer. They all demonstrate a frontal motif and we begin to see a standardisation of the imagined physical images of Christ, Mary, and the various saints. They are often solemn and lacking space demonstrating the typical way of addressing the figure in Byzantine art.


Middle Byzantine is marked by the repealing of Iconoclasm by Theodora in 843. The presence of gold and mosaic is still in fashion, but churches begin decorating the exterior as well as the interior. Greek cross structures become the norm as opposed to basilica designs. Also, with the end of Iconoclasm, ivory triptychs become poplear for personal devotion. Below are a few notable works from this period:

Basilica of San Marco: This Greek cross designed church demonstrates the height of Middle Byzantine style and the wealth of the Venetians. It is decorated both inside and out. To further demonstrate the wealth of the Venetian nation, the Pala d'Oro (pictured below) resides as the altar screen, fully guilded with gold and precious gems.

The Paris Psalter: This era also demonstrates the continuation of manuscript illumination. Bibles and other texts had to be copied over by hand and often include illustrations to aid the text. The illustrations in this text further demonstrate the influence of Greco-Roman imagery in the depictions of the Psalms of David.


Late Byzantine is a time of contention as Constantinople was retaken by Michael VIII and was held until the fall to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. During this time, there was a revival of mural and icon painting, including a move toward fresco as a preferred medium of mural production over the previous mosaic production. For more images of the Byzantine era, feel free to browse the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History for a list of thematic essays and other artworks from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Early Medieval

The Medieval Era in Europe is broken into three main times, the time of the Warrior Lords, the Hiberno-Saxon and Carolingian Empires, and the Ottonian Empire. Each empire and era demonstrates the mix of regional aesthetic influences with the symbolism of Christianity. During times of peace, we find the growth of basilica church architecture, but the majority of artifacts that are of note are smaller paintings, manuscripts and portable works of art.

Art of the Warrior Lords

The artwork of the warrior lords in the early fifth century europe demonstrates the direct connection between regional styles and the growth of influence of Christianity. Smarthistory and Rebecca Mir demonstrate these influences while looking at the artistry of fibulae throughout these times. Further examples of Anglo-Saxon artifacts can be found in a ship burialfrom 700, housed at the British Museum.

Hiberno-Saxon Art

Christian monasteries began establishing themselves throughout Europe and set to reproducing the Bible and other religious texts to aid the spread of the religion. The art of the manuscript illumination becomes the main type of artistic artifact from this era. Each manuscript further demonstrates the connections of regional style to new Christian symbolism. For more information on Manuscript illumination, please refer to "Medieval Manuscripts" by Nancy Ross and "The Art of the Book in the Middle Ages" by the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. For a more specific text examples, there is the Book of DurrowLindisfarne Gospels, and the Book of Kells.

Carolingian Art

Carolingian art is produced under the empire established by Charles the Great (Charlemagne), who was king of the Franks and crowned emperor of Rome in 800 by Pope Leo III. Charlemagne cane to be known as the first Holy (Christian) Roman Emperor. The empire he established existed for a thousand years in, various forms, until it fell to Napoleon in 1806. Early on, there was considered a "Carolingian Renaissance" with a surge of art, culture, and political ideas. Manuscript illumination remained a leading artistic theme. Famous from the time are the Lindau Gospels and the Ebbo Gospels

Ottonian Art

Under relatively secure borders, church architecture began to become more immense. Churches built during this era and in this region begin to demonstrate the conventions for church architecture for years to come under the basilica format. The roof begins to be raised higher to allow cloister windows to illuminate the space, and aisles are added to allow for side chapels and movement around the space toward a focus of the altar, choir, and apse. Manuscript illumination persists, but architecture and architectural decoration becomes evident. A good example of this church design can be seen in St. Michael's Church in Hildesheim. Also, this church's doors describe the move toward naturalism and dimension in the depiction of the human form.


Information Version
2017-05-13 10:59 SCantor
Fixed type (callled) in first sentence
2017-02-12 15:28 lorena.bradford@faculty.umuc.edu 18
2017-02-12 15:17 lorena.bradford@faculty.umuc.edu 17
2017-02-12 15:04 lorena.bradford@faculty.umuc.edu 16
2017-02-12 14:29 lorena.bradford@faculty.umuc.edu 15
2017-02-12 14:21 lorena.bradford@faculty.umuc.edu 14
2017-02-12 13:59 lorena.bradford@faculty.umuc.edu 13
2016-08-20 16:47 SCantor Fixed link for Byzantine Met Timeline (under Late) 12
2016-08-20 16:40 SCantor Fixed underlining and formatting for general context links 11
2016-08-20 16:30 SCantor 10
2016-08-20 16:17 SCantor Changed format to make periods/cultures more clearly separated 9
2016-03-31 14:50 Josh Yavelberg typo 8
2016-02-23 15:01 System Administrator Fixed link and spelling 7
2016-02-23 15:01 System Administrator Fixed link and spelling 6
2015-09-21 13:24 Josh Yavelberg Spelling errors 5
2015-05-02 11:12 System Administrator Updated links 4
2015-03-15 11:46 System Administrator 3
2015-03-14 18:06 Josh Yavelberg Fixed embedded videos. 2
2015-03-14 18:05 Josh Yavelberg Creation 1
Show php error messages