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by Archaeology Newsroom

Byzantine Painting

The Byzantine painting is the natural evolutionary product of the painting of the Roman Empire, which has preserved in principle the main characteristics of this art form of the Hellenistic period. The development of these characteristics has been affected not only by the various civilizations, which subdued by the Empire, were influenced by its culture; but also by the social, cultural and financial restructuring, which added a new social function and content to art. During the almost twelve centuries of existance of th Byzantine Empire, the two sources of inspiration of painting, that is the classical Hellenistic tradition an the representational heritage of the Near and Middle East civilizations, have played alternating roles a regards the formation of the artistic style of each period. The firm predilection for the human figure, which had remained the essential subject of each depiction fron the beginning to the end of the Empire, is the mair principle that the Byzantine painting has preserver from its Classical background. In the works of the Byzantine painting of the 5th century the effect of the Hellenistic tradition is more than obvious, while the painting of the Justinian era clearly mirrors the influence of the art of the East. The medieval character of the Byzantine painting is crystallized after the end of Iconoclasm (843). The pictorial representation of space is now purely conventional and the gold background has become the rule in the mosaics. The human figures and their garments are represented extremely stylized, the proportions and structure of the human body are usually completely ignored, the movements are inflexible. In Constantinople the memories of the Classical past remain alive in the cycles of the court intellectuals, a reality verified by the manuscript illuminations of the 9th and 10th century, works which have been commissioned either by the emperors themselves or by their court officials. A host of subjects and iconographic types of Classical antiquity appears in these miniatures, their artistic handling, however, shows that they have not been organically assimilated by the artists or their social environment. The typical features of the 11th-century painting are summarized in the mosaic decoration of Hosios Loukas in Phokis, mainland Greece, Ayia Sophia in Kiev and Nea Moni on Chios. The indication of space is rudimentary and the figures appear isolated due to the gold background. The drawing is composed by marked outlines, the objects and attires are depicted with great abstruction as are also the faces with the wide-open, staring eyes, the psychological depth of which must be sought in a transcendental space outside the representation. In the mosaics of the Daphni Monastery there is an obvious difference: space is indicated in a naturalistic manner, the figures have a strong classicizing character, the faces are expressive and convey the psychology of the figures, the drapery of the garments is natural and creates the impression that they cover bodies with corporeal substance. The balanced monumental composition of human figures, which serves the expression of the dramatic and symbolic content of the representation and is typical of the iconography of the Daphni mosaics, represents a general characteristic of the art of the Comnenean era. In many monuments dating from this period the forementioned artistic elements have been developed in a refined mannerism, the main features of which are the siender human figures who pose elegantly or move dramatically. These movements are often intensified by a strongly decorative drapery, which adds a dancing character to the figures. The painting of the Palaeologan period seeks the harmony between drawing, colour, composition and expression. The human figures and the natural or architectural environment, in the middle of which they are represented, are in a mutual organic relation. The style of the Palaeologan painting is also characterized by a feeling for naturalism in the pictorial representation of figures, objects, landscape and psychological situations, which are thus inevitably combined with elements from the everyday life and an intensity in the narration of the various episodes. During the same years an art of courtly character is developed, which uses an elaborate pictorial language of symbols and forms in order to serve the ideological and theological currents deriving from the atmosphere and the spirit of the period.