What Is Byzantine Art?

Dan Cavallari
Dan Cavallari
Woman painting
Woman painting

Byzantine art encompasses the visual expressions of the Byzantine Empire from about 330 to 1450 CE. As the capital of Byzantium and the Eastern Roman Empire, Constantinople was the center for much of artistic development of this period. Much Byzantine art sought to capture themes of the Christian faith and was used to facilitate worship. Today, the Byzantine aesthetic can be found in the design of churches from that era, religious iconography, paintings, and decorative mosaics.

The most famous church of the Byzantine era is probably the Hagia Sophia, now a museum located in Istanbul (formerly Constantinople). Built by the Emperor Justinian, the Hagia Sophia stood as the largest church in the world for 1,000 years until the Cathedral in Seville, Spain was built. Impressive for its size, the church was also noted for its huge dome standing on four pendentives, triangular shapes cut from a sphere, which help distribute the weight of a dome. The form of the Hagia Sophia was repeated in other churches built throughout Byzantium.

Inside and out, the church was decorated with mosaics, frescoes and paintings to tell the story of Jesus to a largely illiterate population. These artworks, once covered by plaster when the church became a mosque, were uncovered and restored when President Ataturk decided to turn the religious site into a museum in 1934. The frescoes and mosaics found in the Hagia Sophia showcase many of the characteristics of Byzantine art.

Byzantine paintings and icons are often recognized for their relatively two-dimensional representations. The emphasis of the artists was not on realism but on forms that could be easily identified to transmit stories from the Bible and Christian history. In this style, painted figures often look stiff and awkward. In some paintings, the subjects appear to be weightless, floating in golden ether.

Typically rich in color, Byzantine artists often used deep golds, blues and greens. The use of gold expressed the glory and richness of the faith. Bright colors helped make figures in paintings and mosaics identifiable from a distance. In secular art, those colors helped to distinguish the ranks of the subjects being depicted. For many Byzantine pieces, those colors have withstood centuries of exposure and remain vibrant today.

Byzantine art was largely created by craftsmen who left their works unsigned. As with other professions of the time, the artists’ trade was typically a family one. A father would teach his son the craft of painting frescoes and installing mosaics. This continuity in artistic expression led to conservatism. Despite 1,000 years passing, Byzantine art remained largely unchanged until the Turks conquered the empire in the 1400s.

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      Woman painting