On Byzantine Art & Symbolism

Sumptuous and rich in color and detail, the art of the Byzantine has transcended the centuries and continues to inspire today.  At Gallery Byzantium, our pieces are inspired by the art, jewelry, and architecture of this historic empire.

In an earlier blog series, we looked at various symbols of faith found throughout art.  Today, we’re delving deeper into this symbolism by looking specifically at Byzantine art.

The Byzantine Style

St. Sophia and her daughters. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

“Byzantine art is a combination of Eastern and classical Western art.”  It is inspired by the classical art of Greece and Rome, but also the art of the Near East.  As the Empire expanded and formed relationships (be it through trade or otherwise) across the globe, not only did the influence of Byzantium spread (as can be seen in our Scandinavian Birka Cross), but foreign motifs and styles made their way back to the Empire.

For the first 200 years of the Byzantine Empire, artists worked in the same style as the artists of ancient Greece and Rome.”  However, as time went on, Byzantium developed its own, unique style which eschewed the realism of Greek and Roman art in favor of a flatter, stiffer style.

Figures are flat and their “[…] magnificent robes do not seem to cover any solid shapes. The feet point downward on the flat ground, giving the illusion that the bodies are floating in air.”  It was almost a paint-by-numbers style where artists did not conjure up images from their imagination, but rather followed rules from manuals.  “Byzantine artists were not supposed to invent new compositions but to repeat as closely as possible the shapes of famous images. The Church wanted the representations of religious figures always to look the same.”

What Byzantine art lacked in creativity, it more than made up for in splendor.  Gold, ivory, and precious stones were used in the mosaics of great churches, like the Hagia Sophia, representing not only the wealth of the Empire but the importance and value they put on religion and the Church.

Hagia Sophia interior. Photo by Alireza Shakernia, via Wikimedia Commons.

This grandeur ended when the iconoclasts gained power and believed that this ornate art and architecture detracted from the their initial purpose: religion.  After the iconoclasts fell out of power, the ornate came back into favor; just on a smaller scale (an Eastern influence).  “Religious art was made to appeal to the worshiper in much more human terms. Instead of the solemn grandeur that made Christ unapproachable, there was a new emphasis on his sufferings as a man.”

Art and Faith

Photo by Nicolaos Tzafouris. Via Wikimedia Commons.

As faith was central to Byzantine life, “[t]he purpose of Byzantine art was to glorify the Christian religion and to express its mystery. All of Byzantine art is filled with a kind of spiritual symbolism–things on earth are meant to stand for the order of heaven.”

Looking at the figures in Byzantine art, one notices that they tend to simply exist in space, almost hovering.  This is no accident; Byzantine artists wanted to show these saints and deities not belonging to a time and place, but existing in a higher realm.  Byzantine art, as mentioned above, did not seek to depict a physical perfection (like Greek or Roman art) but to evoke the spirit of holy figures.  “Their luminous paintings captured the spirit of the Bible and helped to popularize Christianity.”

Christian symbols are a staple of Byzantine art.  Prominently featured are symbols such as the Cross, keys, wheat, keys,  chalices, animals, etc., each having a special meaning to faith.  A man holding a key[s], for example, would be depicting St. Peter holding the key[s] to heaven.  Wheat represents not only harvest and fertility, but the bread of the sacrament at the Last Supper.

Color was also an important symbol in Byzantine art.  Gold, which was commonly used as a background in mosaics, represents the divine light and glory of God.  It is also “[…] associated with wealth,  royalty and heavenly rewards and riches.”  Purple represents royalty but is also used in the robes of important religious figures (these robes are commonly outlined in red).

There was a brief time, though, when this religious influence was nearly erased.  During the Period of Iconoclasm (726-843) the beautiful early Byzantine mosaics were painted over and sculptures destroyed.  Iconoclasts were against depictions of religious figures and believed that the grandiose art itself was worshiped instead of the figure it depicted.

It is interesting to note that “[t]he Byzantine Church did not approve of sculpture in the round–sculpture that can be seen from all sides. The Church feared that it would recall the idols of the Greek and Roman religions. However, small carvings in relief (raised from a flat surface), especially in ivory, were allowed as church decoration.”

Main image: Justinian mosaic at San Vitale. © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / CC BY-SA 4.0
The Symbolism of the Golden Background in Byzantine Mosaics – https://www.archaeology.wiki/blog/issue/the-symbolism-of-the-golden-background-in-byzantine-mosaics/
Byzantine (330-1453) – http://www.scholastic.com/browse/article.jsp?id=3753901
The Byzantine Style – http://www.historyofpainters.com/byzantine.htm
The Meaning of a Key or Keys in Western Painting – http://www.historyofpainters.com/key.htm
The Symbolic Meaning of Wheat – http://www.historyofpainters.com/wheat.htm
Hidden Symbols of Color in Western Art – http://www.historyofpainters.com/colors.htm



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