In 330 CE, Constantine the Great as leader of the Roman Empire, moved the capital of Rome to Byzantine, which he renamed Constantinople after himself. The new “Roman Capital” signified the beginning of the Byzantine period extending from 330 CE as Christianity grew and replacing the Roman Empire until the fall of Constantinople in 1453 CE. Some eastern orthodox religions still use Byzantine art forms, and excellent examples remain today across Europe and into Western Asia.
The artistic influence of this period extended around the Mediterranean Sea through Egypt and North Africa until the 7th century. Many examples of architecture survive, some of the ancient buildings including part of the Great Palace in Constantinople and the church of Hagia Sophia. Byzantine art was almost all based on religious expression and provided magnificent mosaic work for worshipers to gaze upon.
Architecture and art flourished in this period as the empire’s wealth grew. One of the most important aspects of Byzantine art was the use of the icon, images of holy figures made for veneration. The architects of the Byzantine era moved from flat or “A” shaped roofs to the doomed, interior design of the cross-in-square plan. The curved and vaulted ceilings made outstanding places for fresco and mosaic decorations in an iconographic scheme. The entire church became a labyrinth of art, including a stern father figure portrayed as the center of the ceiling (and life) supported by angels and saints with ordinary people in the lower parts. Saint Mark’s Basilica (6.4) in Venice, Italy, has multiple small domes instead of one large dome, incorporating many mosaics into the gilded ceilings (6.5). Hierarchy in art illustrated the supreme being as the highest or tallest person represented in the art, remaining a prevalent concept for thousands of years.
Byzantine art became the standard of early Christian art, underemphasizing individual features, and standardizing facial features. Most arts lacked any dimension, and this gave figures a flattened look. Even draperies displayed painted flat lines with areas of no color or little color rendering them formless. (6.6). The three-dimensional form of a figure was shaped into a spiritual, ethereal look, enhanced by brilliant color. Faces had huge eyes and a penetrating gaze giving a stern look to the images. Byzantine art moved from the appearance and reality of classical arts to a more abstract or caricature expression. In the Byzantine era, the use of large sculptures diminished downsizing to small, personal pieces. Paintings and mosaics were not limited to churches, and small representations made for wealthy individuals.
Clinging to the cliffs on the outskirts of the empire in Greece was the Hosios Loukas Monastery (6.7), a perfect example of the middle Byzantine era when the monks used money donated by wealthy patrons to build ancient churches. The stone and tile domed roofs created a spiritual ladder to heaven; the ceilings soaring upwards in the church are covered with iconic mosaics. Faces on the people have wide staring eyes expressing a spiritual connection, giving a sense of the highpoint of austerity. The mosaics in Hosios Loukas (6.8) were innovative and contributed to future mosaic designs. The use of space and tiny pieces of mosaic created beautiful, almost painter-like quality. The scenes are illustrated with few props, merely covering the religious with draped clothing and surrounded them with dazzling gold mosaics.
Previously, scrolls recorded and documented religious and civil information. Bound manuscripts were a significant innovation of the period. Many documents still survive, including copies of Aeneid and the Iliad, medical treatises, and old and new testaments of the bible. Manuscripts (6.9) illuminated with icons illustrating the text usable for devotion or study by the priests or wealthy. In the 13th century, the Crusade invasions disrupted the flow of government and finished the Roman Empire. The Ottoman Turks contributed to the final collapse of the Roman Empire when they invaded Europe.