The Byzantine Empire is the conventional name of a medieval Christian and Greek-speaking state. The Byzantine people themselves referred to their state as the Roman Empire and Byzantium was just the city name of Constantinople.
This is era is commonly known as the Dark Ages; but most of the art created was quite luminous and anything but dark. In fact, many refer to this as a Second Golden Age.
To appreciate the developments of the Middle period it is necessary to consider what came before. Under Emperor Justinian, the monuments of Constantinople justify the claim of a First Golden Age. Byzantine culture and art gradually came under more Christian and Greek influence.
The early and middle periods of Byzantine Art are divided by the Iconoclast Controversy. This was a religious and political conflict that raged over the interpretation of a few biblical words. It was seen as vitally important to prevent worship of images as idols.
Strict prohibition of idolatry is one of the most distinctive features of Israelite religion: Yahweh, the God of Israel, could not be represented in physical form and would not tolerate the idols of any other gods. This aniconic principle is articulated in the Ten Commandments.
In the Byzantine early period the rules on idolic images were less strict. In 695 CE, Emperor Justinian II put a full-face image of Christ on the obverse of his gold coins. On the other hand, much of the empire was being lost to the new Muslim religion and the new rulers of those lands were hardly as tolerant about such imagery. Some have said that this Muslim push sparked the Emperor Leo III and the image destroyers, who were known as Iconoclasts; but the origins of their actions are obscure.
In 726 CE Leo III ordered the removal of an image of Jesus from over the ceremonial entrance to the Great Palace of Constantinople. Some of those assigned to the task were murdered by a band of image lovers who were known as Iconophiles.
The Iconoclasts insisted on a literal interpretation of the biblical ban. “They wanted to restrict religious art to abstract symbols and plant or animal forms.” Their opponents, the Iconophiles, were lead by the monks. “The strongest argument in favour of the icons was Neo-Platonic. Because Christ and his image are inseparable, the honor given to the image is transferred to him.”
Besides being a theological controversy over “the relationship of the human and the divine in the person of Christ … the conflict was a power struggle between Church and State, which in theory were united in the figure of the emperor.”
Political affairs reached a low point after iconophile Irene—the wife of Emperor Leo IV and the mother of Constantine VI—ordered iconoclast writings destroyed and the icons restored. She was in such conflict with her iconoclast son that in 797 CE she had him blinded and ruled herself as Emperor for 5 years.
A synod in 809 declared that the Emperor was above the law of the church and excommunicated anyone who disagreed. One emperor would declare himself devoted to icons while his successor would fight for iconoclasm. Finally in March 843, Patriarch John the Grammarian was replaced when he refused to preside over a church council to rehabilitate icon worship.
The edict barring images had not been enforced throughout the Empire. It was far less strict in Greece and Bulgaria. “It did succeed in greatly reducing the production of sacred images, but it failed to wipe it out entirely, so there was a fairly rapid recovery after the victory of the Iconophiles.”
Icons were now produced to be “venerated” but not “worshipped”. As sacred objects they had to conform to strict rules, with fixed patterns repeated over and over again. Most icons are therefore noteworthy more for their exacting craftsmanship than artistic inventiveness.
Iconoclasm brought about a renewed interest in secular art, which was not affected by the edicts.
In the Middle Byzantine period Islamic and classical themes were apparent in the secular art of emperors and in many aspects of material culture.
There was a revival of Byzantine artistic traditions, as well as classical learning and literature.
The Joshua Roll of ca. 950 CE showed its classical style in the form of a scroll, an archaic type of manuscript which had been replaced by the codex a full eight centuries earlier.
The Paris Psalter of the same era had a free-flowing consciously classical style. Despite that, its style qualities, such as the crowded composition of space-consuming figures indicate its later date.
While large scale statuary had died out, small-scale objects especially made in ivory and metal, were made in large numbers “with a variety of content, style, and purpose.”
In The Harbaville Triptych it appears that there is a continuation of the style “whereby different figure types require different representational modes.” Figures have an attitude of refinement and control.
Religious construction after the Iconoclastic Controversy was initially monastic and modest in scale. Later, much larger monasteries were erected in Constantinople under imperial patronage. They served social purposes such as schools and hospitals.
The interiors of later churches were emblazoned with mosaics such as had been done in the early period; but now, as seen at the church at Daphni they showed a “classicism that merges harmoniously with the spiritualized ideal of human beauty that we encountered in Justinian’s reign.” Creating a realistic spatial setting was not important, but the compositions had a monumental balance and clarity.
Just as in Early Byzantine architecture, the material structure was less important than “the creation of immaterial space … the glitter of the mosaics must have completed the illusion of unreality, fitting the spirit of these interiors to perfection.”
In a similar way, exact human physical depiction was less important than emotional depiction. Scenes of the Passion of Christ became common.
To have introduced this compassionate view of Christ into sacred depiction was perhaps the greatest achievement of Middle Byzantine art. Early Christian art lacked this quality entirely. … Early Christian artists depicted the Crucifixion only rarely and without pathos, though with a similar simplicity.
The Second Golden Age also gave emphasis to Christ the Pantocrator. This is a depiction of Christ as both Judge and Ruler of the Universe, the All-Holder who contains everything. The bearded images of Christ resembled those of a Roman Zeus.
Middle period Byzantine churches have been described as having a depiction of cosmos in the great domes, with the Holy Land seen in the vaults and in the squinches. The earthly world is depicted in the walls and supports below. As the viewer moves around the building to witness the events of Christ’s life, the viewer becomes a symbolic pilgrim to the Holy Land. This is combined with a virtual vertical journey heavenward.
Conflicts between the Eastern Byzantine and Western Catholic churches lead to a split known as the Great Schism. On the surface the dispute was over a single Latin word, filioque, meaning “and from the Son,” as inserted into the creed of Nicaea-Constantinople. This was a short brief exposition of the principles of Christian belief expressing the hierarchy between the Holy Trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. (Hollingsworth, "Filioque") The dispute was also about determining the more earthly power hierarchy of the Pope, the Eastern patriarch and the Byzantine Emperors.
Finally in July 1054, Cardinal Humbert of the Papal delegation lost patience, and laid a excommunication edict against Patriarch Michael. Michael and his synod retaliated by doing the same against Humbert. (
After the schism Venice was brought forcefully back to the Western camp, but when the Venetians started on a new St. Mark’s church they looked to the culture and art of Byzantium, and Constantinople for inspiration. The church’s Greek-cross plan is emphasized with a separate dome on each arm of the cross. The spacious interior was decorated by visiting Byzantine artists and locals trained by them.
“Oriental influence may be attributed the taste for costly and many-coloured stones and woven fabrics, for goldsmith-work, and enamel.” The “church of the eleventh century was transformed into a veritable treasure-house.”
The Byzantine manner was also popular in Sicily after that island was taken from the Muslims and united with southern Italy in 1091. The mosaics of the Cathedral of Monreale cover vast wall surfaces. The Pantocrator of a Byzantine domed church now controls the space
Within a structure displaying Romanesque characteristics, the nave at Monreale flaunts a Byzantine trademark—an interior as elegant and as costly as the throne room of an emperor. The art of the eastern empire traveled to every corner of Christendom—in textiles and mosaics, in paintings, in objects of gold, silver, and carved ivory.
The Christian Crusades, which started in 1095, changed Byzantine art by bringing Western influences. The soldiers of the Fourth Crusade sacked Constantinople in 1204. This led to the establishment of the Latin Empire throughout the Greek Byzantine Empire. This signalled the end of Byzantine art’s Middle period.