1. The Passage from Paganism

The pre-eminent achievements of Byzantine civilization were governmental administration and decorative art: a state that survived eleven centuries, a St. Sophia that stands today.

By Justinian’s time pagan art was finished, and half of its works had been mutilated or destroyed. Barbarian ravages, imperial robbery, and pious destruction had began a process of ruination and neglect that continued till Petrarch in the fourteenth century pled, so to speak, for the lives of the survivors. A factor in the devastation was the popular belief that the pagan gods were demons, and that the temples were their resorts; in any case, it was felt, the material could be put to better use in Christian churches or domestic walls. Pagans themselves often joined in the spoliation. Several Christian emperors, notably Honorius and Theodosius II, did their best to protect the old structures,34 and enlightened clergymen preserved the Parthenon, the temple of Theseus, the Pantheon, and other structures by rededicating them as Christian shrines.

Christianity at first suspected art as a support of paganism, idolatry, and immorality; these nude statues hardly comported with esteem for virginity and celibacy. When the body seemed an instrument of Satan, and the monk replaced the athlete as ideal, the study of anatomy disappeared from art, leaving a sculpture and painting of gloomy faces and shapeless drapery. But when Christianity had triumphed, and great basilicas were needed to house its swelling congregations, the local and national traditions of art reasserted themselves, and architecture lifted itself out of the ruins. Moreover, these spacious edifices cried out for decoration; the worshipers needed statues of Christ and Mary to help the imagination, and pictures to tell to the simple letterless the story of their crucified God. Sculpture, mosaic, and painting were reborn.

In Rome the new art differed little from the old. Strength of construction, simplicity of form, columnar basilican styles, were carried down from paganism to Christianity. Near Nero’s Circus on the Vatican hill Constantine’s architects had designed the first St. Peter’s, with an awesome length of 380 feet and breadth of 212; for twelve centuries this remained the pontifical shrine of Latin Christendom, until Bramante tore it down to raise upon its site the still vaster St. Peter’s of today. The church that Constantine built for St. Paul Outside the Walls—San Paolo fuori le mura—on the reputed site of the Apostle’s martyrdom, was rebuilt by Valentinian II and Theodosius I on a scale quite as immense—400 by 200 feet.* Santa Costanza, raised by Constantine as a mausoleum for his sister Constantia, remains substantially as erected in 326–30. San Giovanni in Laterano, Santa Maria in Trastevere, San Lorenzo fuori le mura were rebuilt within a century after Constantine began them, and have since been many times repaired. Santa Maria Maggiore was adapted from a pagan temple in 432, and the nave remains essentially as then save for Renaissance decorations.

From that time to our own the basilican plan has been a favorite design for Christian churches; its modest cost, its majestic simplicity, its structural logic and sturdy strength have recommended it in every generation. But it did not lend itself readily to variation and development. European builders began to look about them for new ideas, and found them in the East—even at Spalato, the Adriatic outpost of the Orient. There on the Dalmatian coast Diocletian, at the opening of the fourth century, had given his artists free play to experiment in raising a palace for his retirement; and they accomplished a revolution in European architecture. Arches were there sprung directly from column capitals, with no intervening entablature; so at one stroke were prepared the Byzantine, Romanesque, and Gothic styles. And instead of figured friezes came, in this palace, a strange decoration of zigzag lines, offensive to the classic eye, but long familiar to the Orient. Spalato was the first sign that Europe was to be conquered not only by an Oriental religion, but, at least in the Byzantine world, by Oriental art.

2. The Byzantine Artist

Whence came to Constantinople that uniquely colorful, somberly brilliant art known as Byzantine? It is a question over which archaeologists have fought with almost the ferocity of Christian soldiers; and by and large the victory has gone to the East. As Syria and Asia Minor grew stronger with industry, and Rome weaker with invasion, the Hellenistic tide that had rushed in with Alexander ebbed back from Asia to Europe. From Sasanian Persia, from Nestorian Syria, from Coptic Egypt, Eastern art influences poured into Byzantium and reached to Italy, even to Gaul; and the Greek art of naturalistic representation gave place to an Oriental art of symbolic decoration. The East preferred color to line, the vault and dome to the timbered roof, rich ornament to stern simplicity, gorgeous silks to shapeless togas. Just as Diocletian and Constantine had adopted the forms of Persian monarchy, so the art of Constantinople looked less and less to the now barbarized West, increasingly to Asia Minor, Armenia, Persia, Syria, and Egypt. Perhaps the victory of Persian arms under Shapur II and Khosru Anushirvan quickened the westward march of Eastern motives and forms. Edessa and Nisibis were in this period flourishing centers of a Mesopotamian culture that mingled Iranian, Armenian, Cappadocian, and Syrian elements,35 and transmitted them, through merchants, monks and artisans, to Antioch, Alexandria, Ephesus, Constantinople, at last to Ravenna and Rome. The old classic orders—Doric, Ionian, Corinthian—became almost meaningless in an architectural world of arches, vaults, pendentives, and domes.

Byzantine art, so generated, dedicated itself to expounding the doctrines of Christianity, and displaying the glory of the state. It recounted on vestments and tapestries, in mosaics and murals, the life of Christ, the sorrows of Mary, the career of the apostle or martyr whose bones were enshrined in the church. Or it entered the court, decorated the palace of the sovereign, covered his official robes with symbolic emblems or historical designs, dazzled his subjects with flamboyant pageantry, and ended by representing Christ and Mary as an emperor and a queen. The Byzantine artist had small choice of patron, and therefore of subject or style; monarch or patriarch told him what to do, and how. He worked in a group, and seldom left an individual name to history. He achieved miracles of brilliance, he exalted and humbled the people with the splendor of his creations; but his art paid in formalism, narrowness, and stagnation for serving an absolute monarch and a changeless creed.

He commanded abundant materials: marble quarries in the Proconnesus, Attica, Italy; spoliable columns and capitals wherever a pagan temple survived; and bricks almost growing in the sun-dried earth. Usually he worked with mortared brick; it lent itself well to the curved forms imposed upon him by Oriental styles. Often he contented himself with the cruciform plan—a basilica crossed with a transept and prolonged to an apse; sometimes he broke the basilica into an octagon, as in Sts. Sergius and Bacchus’ at Constantinople, or in San Vitale’s at Ravenna. But his distinctive skill, in which he surpassed all artists before him or since, lay in raising a circular dome over a polygonal frame. His favorite means to this end was the pendentive: i.e., he built an arch or semicircle of bricks over each side of the polygon, raised a spherical triangle of bricks upward and inward between each semicircle, and laid a dome upon the resultant circular ring. The spherical triangles were the pendentives, “hanging” from the rim of the dome to the top of the polygon. In architectural effect the circle was squared. Thereafter the basilican style almost disappeared from the East.

Within the edifice the Byzantine builder lavished all the skills of a dozen arts. He rarely used statuary; he sought not so much to represent figures of men and women as to create an abstract beauty of symbolic form. Even so the Byzantine sculptors were artisans of ability, patience, and resource. They carved the “Theodosian” capital by combining the “ears” of the Ionic with the leaves of the Corinthian order; and to make profusion more confounded, they cut into this composite capital a very jungle of animals and plants. Since the result was not too well adapted to sustain a wall or an arch, they inserted between these and the capital an impost or “pulvino,” square and broad at the top, round and narrower at the base; and then, in the course of time, they carved this too with flowers. Here again, as in the domed square, Persia conquered Greece.—But further, painters were assigned to adorn the walls with edifying or terrifying pictures; mosaicists laid their cubes of brightly colored stone or glass, in backgrounds of blue or gold, upon the floors or walls, or over the altar, or in the spandrels of the arches, or wherever an empty surface challenged the Oriental eye. Jewelers set gems into vestments, altars, columns, walls; metalworkers inserted gold or silver plates; woodworkers carved the pulpit or chancel rails; weavers hung tapestries, laid rugs, and covered altar and pulpit with embroidery and silk. Never before had an art been so rich in color, so subtle in symbolism, so exuberant in decoration, so well adapted to quiet the intellect and stir the soul.

3. St. Sophia

Not till Justinian did the Greek, Roman, Oriental, and Christian factors complete their fusion into Byzantine art. The Nika revolt gave him, like another Nero, an opportunity to rebuild his capital. In the ecstasy of a moment’s freedom the mob had burned down the Senate House, the Baths of Zeuxippus, the porticoes of the Augusteum, a wing of the imperial palace, and St. Sophia, cathedral of the patriarch. Justinian might have rebuilt these on their old plans, and within a year or two; instead he resolved to spend more time, money, and men, make his capital more beautiful than Rome, and raise a church that would outshine all other edifices on the earth. He began now one of the most ambitious building programs in history: fortresses, palaces, monasteries, churches, porticoes, and gates rose throughout the Empire. In Constantinople he rebuilt the Senate House in white marble, and the Baths of Zeuxippus in polychrome marble; raised a marble portico and promenade in the-Augusteum; and brought fresh water to the city in a new aqueduct that rivaled Italy’s best. He made his own palace the acme of splendor and luxury: its floors and walls were of marble; its ceilings recounted in mosaic brilliance the triumphs of his reign, and showed the senators “in festal mood, bestowing upon the Emperor honors almost divine.”36 And across the Bosporus, near Chalcedon, he built, as a summer residence for Theodora and her court, the palatial villa of Herion, equipped with its own harbor, forum, church, and baths.

Forty days after the Nika revolt had subsided, he began a new St. Sophia-dedicated not to any saint of that name, but to the Hagia Sophia, the Holy Wisdom, or Creative Logos, of God Himself. From Tralles in Asia Minor, and from Ionian Miletus, he summoned Anthemius and Isidore, the most famous of living architects, to plan and superintend the work. Abandoning the traditional basilican form, they conceived a design whose center would be a spacious dome resting not on walls but on massive piers, and buttressed by a half dome at either end. Ten thousand workmen were engaged, 320,000 pounds of gold ($134,000,000) were spent, on the enterprise, quite emptying the treasury. Provincial governors were directed to send to the new shrine the finest relics of ancient monuments; marbles of a dozen kinds and tints were imported from a dozen areas; gold, silver, ivory, and precious stones were poured into the decoration. Justinian himself shared busily in the design and the construction, and took no small part (his scornful adulator tells us) in solving technical problems. Dressed in white linen, with a staff in his hand and a kerchief on his head, he haunted the operation day after day, encouraging the workers to complete their tasks competently and on time. In five years and ten months the edifice was complete; and on December 26, 537, the Emperor and the Patriarch Menas led a solemn inaugural procession to the resplendent cathedral. Justinian walked alone to the pulpit, and lifting up his hands, cried out: “Glory be to God who has thought me worthy to accomplish so great a work! O Solomon! I have vanquished you!”

The ground plan was a Greek cross 250 by 225 feet; each end of the cross was covered by a minor dome; the central dome rose over the square (100 by 100 feet) formed by the intersecting arms; the apex of the dome was 180 feet above the ground; its diameter was 100 feet—32 less than the dome of the Pantheon in Rome. The latter had been poured in concrete in one solid piece; St. Sophia’s dome was made of brick in thirty converging panels—a much weaker construction.* The distinction of this dome was not in size but in support: it rested not on a circular structure, as in the Pantheon, but on pendentives and arches that mediated between the circular rim and the square base; never has this architectural problem been more satisfactorily solved. Procopius described the dome as “a work admirable and terrifying … seeming not to rest on the masonry below it, but to be suspended by a chain of gold from the height of the sky.”37

The interior was a panorama of luminous decoration. Marble of many colors—white, green, red, yellow, purple, gold—made the pavement, walls, and two-storied colonnades look like a field of flowers. Delicate stone carvings covered capitals, arches, spandrels, moldings, and cornices with classic leaves of acanthus and vine. Mosaics of unprecedented scope and splendor looked down from walls and vaults. Forty silver chandeliers, hanging from the rim of the dome, helped as many windows to illuminate the church. The sense of spaciousness left by the long nave and aisles, and by the pillarless space under the central dome; the metal lacework of the silver railing before the apse, and of the iron railing in the upper gallery; the pulpit inset with ivory, silver, and precious stones; the solid silver throne of the patriarch; the silk-and-gold curtain that rose over the altar with figures of the Emperor and the Empress receiving the benedictions of Christ and Mary; the golden altar itself, of rare marbles, and bearing sacred vessels of silver and gold: this lavish ornamentation might have warranted Justinian in anticipating the boast of the Mogul shahs—that they built like giants and finished like jewelers.

St. Sophia was at once the inauguration and the culmination of the Byzantine style. Men everywhere spoke of it as “the Great Church,” and even the skeptical Procopius wrote of it with awe. “When one enters this building to pray, he feels that it is not the work of human power. … The soul, lifting itself to the sky, realizes that here God is close by, and that He takes delight in this, His chosen home.”38

4. From Constantinople to Ravenna

St. Sophia was Justinian’s supreme achievement, more lasting than his conquests or his laws. But Procopius describes twenty-four other churches built or rebuilt by him in the capital, and remarks: “If you should see one of them by itself you would suppose that the Emperor had built this work only, and had spent the whole time of his reign on this one alone.”39 Throughout the Empire this fury of construction raged till Justinian’s death; and that sixth century which marked the beginning of the Dark Ages in the West was in the East one of the richest epochs in architectural history. In Ephesus, Antioch, Gaza, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Salonika, Ravenna, Rome, and from Crimean Kerch to African Sfax, a thousand churches celebrated the triumph both of Christianity over paganism and of the Oriental-Byzantine over the Greco-Roman style. External columns, architraves, pediments; and friezes made way for the vault, the pendentive, and the dome. Syria had a veritable renaissance in the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries; her schools at Antioch, Berytus (Beirut), Edessa, and Nisibis poured forth orators, lawyers, historians, and heretics; her artisans excelled in mosaics, textiles, and all decorative arts; her architects raised a hundred churches; her sculptors adorned them with lavish reliefs.

Alexandria was the one city in the Empire that never ceased to prosper. Her founder had chosen for her a site that almost forced the Mediterranean world to use her ports and enhance her trade. None of her ancient or early medieval architecture has survived; but the scattered relics of her work in metal, ivory, wood, and portraiture suggest a people as rich in art as in sensuality and bigotry. Coptic architecture, which had begun with the Roman basilica, became under Justinian predominantly Oriental.

The architectural splendor of Ravenna began soon after Honorius made it the seat of the Western Empire in 404. The city prospered in the long regency of Galla Placidia; and the close relations maintained with Constantinople brought Eastern artists and styles to mingle with Italian architects and forms. The typical Oriental plan of a dome placed with pendentives over the transept of a cruciform base appeared there as early as 450 in the Mausoleum where Placidia at last found tranquillity; within it one may still see the famous mosaic of Christ as the Good Shepherd. In 458 Bishop Neon added to the domed baptistery of the Basilica Ursiana a series of mosaics that included remarkably individual portraits of the Apostles. About 500 Theodoric built for his Arian bishop a cathedral named after St. Apollinaris, the reputed founder of the Christian community in Ravenna; here, in world-renowned mosaics, the white-robed saints bear themselves with a stiff solemnity that already suggests the Byzantine style.

The conquest of Ravenna by Belisarius advanced the victory of Byzantine art in Italy. The church of San Vitale was completed (547) under Justinian and Theodora, who financed its decoration, and lent their unseductive features to its adornment. There is every indication that these mosaics are realistic portraits; and emperor and empress must be credited with courage in permitting their likenesses to be transmitted to posterity. The attitudes of these rulers, ecclesiastics, and eunuchs are hard and angular; their stiff frontality is a reversion to preclassical forms; the robes of the women are a mosaic triumph, but we miss here the happy grace of the Parthenon procession, or the Ara pacis of Augustus, or the nobility and tenderness of the figures on the portals of Chartres or Reims.

Two years after dedicating San Vitale the Bishop of Ravenna consecrated Sant’ Apollinare in Classe—a second church for the city’s patron saint, placed in the maritime suburb that had once been the Adriatic base of the Roman fleet (classis). Here is the old Roman basilican plan; but on the composite capitals a Byzantine touch appears in the acanthus leaves unclassically curled and twisted, as if blown by some Eastern wind. The long rows of perfect columns, the colorful (seventh-century) mosaics in the archivolts and spandrels of the colonnades, the lovely stucco plaques in the choir, the cross of gems on a bed of mosaic stars in the apse, make this one of the outstanding shrines of a peninsula that is almost a gallery of art.

5. The Byzantine Arts

Architecture was the masterpiece of the Byzantine artist, but about it or within it were a dozen other arts in which he achieved some memorable excellence. He did not care for sculpture in the round; the mood of the age preferred color to line; yet Procopius lauded the sculptors of his time—presumably the carvers of reliefs—as the equals of Pheidias and Praxiteles; and some stone sarcophagi of the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries have human figures chiseled with almost Hellenic grace, confused with an Asiatic plethora of ornament. The carving of ivory was a favorite art among the Byzantines; they used it for diptychs, triptychs, book covers, caskets, perfume boxes, statuettes, inlays, and in a hundred decorative ways; in this craft Hellenistic techniques survived unimpaired, and merely turned gods and heroes into Christ and the saints. The ivory chair of Bishop Maximian in the Basilica Ursiana at Ravenna (c. 550) is a major achievement in a minor art.

While the Far East, in the sixth century, was experimenting with oil colors,40 Byzantine painting adhered to traditional Greek methods: encaustic—colors burnt into panels of wood, canvas, or linen; fresco—colors mixed with lime and applied to wet plaster surfaces; and tempera—colors mixed with size or gum or glue and white of egg, and applied to panels or to plaster already dry. The Byzantine painter knew how to represent distance and depth, but usually shirked the difficulties of perspective by filling in the background with buildings and screens. Portraits were numerous, but few have survived. Church walls were decorated with murals; the fragments that remain show a rough realism, unshapely hands, stunted figures, sallow faces, and incredible coiffures.

The Byzantine artist excelled and reveled in the minute; his extant masterpieces of painting are not murals or panels, but the miniatures with which he literally “illuminated”—made bright with color—the publications of his age.* Books, being costly, were adorned like other precious objects. The miniaturist first sketched his design upon papyrus, parchment, or vellum with a fine brush or pen; laid down a background usually in gold or blue; filled in his colors, and decorated background and borders with graceful and delicate forms. At first he had merely elaborated the initial letter of a chapter or a page; sometimes he essayed a portrait of the author; then he illustrated the text with pictures; finally, as his art improved, he almost forgot the text, and spread himself out in luxurious ornament, taking a geometrical or floral motive, or a religious symbol, and repeating it in a maze of variations, until all the page was a glory of color and line, and the text seemed like an intrusion from a coarser world.

The illumination of manuscripts had been practiced in Pharaonic and Ptolemaic Egypt, and had passed thence to Hellenistic Greece and Rome. The Vatican treasures an Aeneid, the Ambrosian Library at Milan an Iliad, both ascribed to the fourth century, and completely classic in ornament. The transition from pagan to Christian miniatures appears in the Topographia Christiana of Cosmas Indicopleustes (c. 547), who earned his sobriquet by sailing to India, and his fame by trying to prove that the earth is flat. The oldest extant religious miniature is a fifth-century Genesis, now in the Library of Vienna; the text is written in gold and silver letters on twenty-four leaves of purple vellum; the forty-eight miniatures, in white, green, violet, red, and black, picture the story of man from Adam’s fall to Jacob’s death. Quite as beautiful are the Joshua Rotulus (Little Roll of the Book of Joshua) in the Vatican, and the Book of the Gospels illuminated by the monk Rabula in Mesopotamia in 586. From Mesopotamia and Syria came the figures and symbols that dominated the iconography, or picture-writing, of the Byzantine world; repeated in a thousand forms in the minor arts, they became stereotyped and conventional, and shared in producing the deadly immutability of Byzantine art.

Loving brilliance and permanence, the Byzantine painter made mosaic his favorite medium. For floors he chose tesserae of colored marble, as Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans had done; for other surfaces he used cubes of glass or enamel in every shade, cut in various sizes, but usually an eighth of an inch square. Precious stones were sometimes mingled with the cubes. Mosaic was often employed in making portable pictures or icons, to be set up in churches or homes, or carried on travels as aids to devotion and safety; preferably, however, the mosaicist sought the larger scope of church or palace walls. In his studio, upon a canvas bearing a colored design, he tentatively laid his cubes; and here his art was strained to produce immediately under his hand the precise gradation and melting of colors to be felt by other eyes from greater distances. Meanwhile a coat of heavy cement, and then a coat of fine cement, were laid upon the surface to be covered; into this matrix the mosaicist, following his canvas model, pressed his cubes, usually with cut edges to the front to catch the light. Curved surfaces like domes, and the conches or shell-like half domes of apses, were favored, since they would catch at different times and angles a variety of softened and shaded light. From this painstaking art Gothic would derive part of its inspiration for stained glass.

Such glass is mentioned in fifth-century texts, but no example remains, and apparently the stain was external, not fused.41 Glass-cutting and blowing were now a thousand years old, and Syria, their earliest known home, was still a center of the crafts. The art of engraving precious metals or stones had deteriorated since Aurelius; Byzantine gems, coins, and seals are of relatively poor design and workmanship. Jewelers nevertheless sold their products to nearly every class, for ornament was the soul of Byzantium. Goldsmith and silversmith studios were numerous in the capital; gold pyxes, chalices, and reliquaries adorned many altars; and silver plate oppressed the tables of moneyed homes.

Every house, almost every person, carried some textile finery. Egypt led the way here with its delicate, many-colored, figured fabrics—garments, curtains, hangings, and coverings; the Copts were the masters in these fields. Certain Egyptian tapestries of this period are almost identical in technique with the Gobelins.42 Byzantine weavers made silk brocades, embroideries, even embroidered shrouds—linens realistically painted with the features of the dead. In Constantinople a man was known by the garments he wore; each class prized and defended some distinctive refinement of dress; and a Byzantine assemblage doubtless shone like a peacock’s tail.

Among all classes music was popular. It played a rising role in the liturgy of the Church, and helped to fuse emotion into belief. In the fourth century Alypius wrote a Musical Introduction, whose extant portions are our chief guide to the musical notation of the Greeks. This representation of notes by letters was replaced, in that century, by abstract signs, neumes; Ambrose apparently introduced these to Milan, Hilary to Gaul, Jerome to Rome. About the end of the fifth century Romanus, a Greek monk, composed the words and music of hymns that still form part of the Greek liturgy, and have never been equaled in depth of feeling and power of expression. Boethius wrote an essay De Musica, summarizing the theories of Pythagoras, Aristoxenus, and Ptolemy; this little treatise was used as a text in music at Oxford and Cambridge until our times.43

One must be an Oriental to understand an Oriental art. To a Western mind the essence of Byzantinism means that the East had become supreme in the heart and head of Greece: in the autocratic government, the hierarchical stability of classes, the stagnation of science and philosophy, the state-dominated Church, the religion-dominated people, the gorgeous vestments and stately ceremonies, the sonorous and scenic ritual, the hypnotic chant of repetitious music, the overwhelming of the senses with brilliance and color, the conquest of naturalism by imagination, the submergence of representative under decorative art. The ancient Greek spirit would have found this alien and unbearable, but Greece herself was now part of the Orient. An Asiatic lassitude fell upon the Greek world precisely when it was to be challenged in its very life by the renewed vitality of Persia and the incredible energy of Islam.

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