11 Feb

The subject matter of monumental Byzantine art was primarily religious and imperial: the two themes are often combined. Byzantine paintings are identified by their rich colors and flat, large-eyed figures. Backgrounds were typically painted gold. The intention of Byzantine artists was to teach the viewer religious lessons, therefore the images were clear and easily understood.


Hagia Sophia

The portraits of later Byzantine emperors that decorated the interior of the sixth-century church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople were a result of the imperial nature of the society. The preoccupations with creating portraits of themselves are partly a result of the pious and autocratic nature of Byzantine society, and partly a result of its economic structure: the wealth of the empire was concentrated in the hands of the church and the imperial office, which therefore had the greatest opportunity to undertake monumental artistic commissions.

Imperial Portrait, Justinian

Religious art was not, however, limited to the monumental decoration of church interiors. One of the most important genres of Byzantine art was the icon, an image of Christ, the Virgin, or a saint, used as an object of veneration in Orthodox churches and private homes alike. Icons were more religious than aesthetic in nature: especially after the end of iconoclasm, they were understood to manifest the unique “presence” of the figure depicted by means of a “likeness” to that figure maintained through carefully maintained canons of representation.


The illumination of manuscripts was another major genre of Byzantine art. The most commonly illustrated texts were religious, both scripture itself (particularly the Psalms) and devotional or theological texts. Secular texts were also illuminated: important examples include the Alexander Romance and the history of John Skylitzes.

Illuminated Manuscript

Church Interior

Chests were also used by the common people, and were often fitted with locks and keys. Folding stools were popular. These could be build entirely of wood, a combination of wood and fabric or, occasionally, from metal. Folding tables were also much used as they were portable and easily moved out of the way when not in use. Beds could be folding stretchers, simple sleeping platforms, frames strung with cords – or just a mattress on the ground.

Bishop Maximiam’s Throne

In Byzantine heraldry, the heads represent the dual sovereignty of the Emperor (secular and religious) and/or dominance of the Roman Emperors over both East and West.

The deeply carved decoration on this fragment resembles that on the door and window frames of early monumental churches in Syria. The symbol that divides the central roundel was understood as both a cross and a Christogram, the monogram for Christ’s name formed from the first two letters of his name in Greek, chi (X) and rho (
r). The alpha (A) and omega (w) that flank the cross, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, were widely used by Christians as symbols of the eternal nature of God. 
Lion, Symbol of St. Mark the Evangilist 

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