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Byzantine Art and Architecture
(c. 450 - 1450)

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Byzantine Art and Architecture is the art of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire. It originated chiefly in Constantinople, the ancient Greek town of Byzantium, which the Roman emperor Constantine chose in AD 330 as his new capital and named after himself. The Byzantine Empire continued for almost 1,000 years after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476. Byzantine art eventually spread throughout most of the Mediterranean world and eastwards to Armenia. Although the conquering Turks destroyed much in Constantinople in the 15th century, sufficient material survives elsewhere to permit an appreciative understanding of Byzantine art.

Byzantine art and architecture arose in part as a response to the needs of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Unlike the Western Church, in which the popular veneration of the relics of saints continued unabated from early Christian times throughout the later Middle Ages, the Eastern Church preferred a more contemplative form of popular worship focused on the veneration of icons. 

These were portraits of religious figures, often depicted frontally and rendered in a highly stylized manner. Although any type of pictorial representation -- a wall painting or a mosaic, for instance -- could serve as an icon, it generally took the form of a small painted panel.

  • Russia 1992.  Virgin with the Child.

Russia 1992. Byzantine Art. Virgin with the Child. Icon.

UAR 1968. Byzantine Art. The Millennium of the Evangelist St. Marc.

  • UAR 1968.  The Millennium of the evangelist St. Marc.

Much of Byzantine art is imbued with something of the abstract quality of icons. The artistic antecedents of the iconic mode can be traced back to Mesopotamia and the hinterlands of Syria and Egypt, where, since the 3rd century AD, the rigid and hieratic (strictly ritualized) art of the ancient Orient was revived in the Jewish and pagan wall paintings of the remote Roman outpost of Dura Europos on the Euphrates and in the Christian frescoes of the early monasteries in Upper Egypt. In the two major cities of these regions, Antioch and Alexandria, however, the more naturalistic (Hellenistic) phase of Greek art also survived right through the reign of Constantine. In Italy, Roman painting, as practised at Pompeii and in Rome itself, was also influenced by Hellenistic art.

Byzantine art never entirely lost its Hellenistic heritage but continued to draw upon it as a source of inspiration and renewal. In this process, however, the Classical idiom was drastically modified in order to express the transcendental character of the Orthodox faith. Early Christian art of the 3rd and 4th centuries had simply taken over the style and forms of Classical paganism. The most typical form of Classical art was the free-standing statue, which emphasized a tangible physical presence. With the triumph of Christianity, artists sought to evoke the spiritual character of sacred figures rather than their bodily substance. Painters and mosaicists often avoided any modelling of the figures in order to eliminate any suggestion of a tangible human form, and the production of statuary was almost completely abandoned after the 5th century. Sculpture was largely confined to ivory plaques (called diptychs) carved in low relief, which minimized sculptural effects.

Mosaics were the favoured medium for the interior adornment of Byzantine churches. Consisting of small cubes, or tesserae, made of coloured glass or glass overlaid with gold leaf, and spread over the walls and vaults of interiors, mosaics produced a luminous effect, well suited to expressing the mystic character of Orthodox Christianity. At the same time their rich, jewel-like surfaces were also in keeping with the magnificence of the imperial court, presided over by the emperor, the de facto head of the Orthodox Church. 

Greece 1970. Byzantine Art. Mosaic. Fragment of "The Angel of Annunciation". Daphni Monastery, Athens. Greece 1970. Byzantine Art. Mosaic. Fragment of "Chrit", Monastery Nea Moni, Chios. Greece 1970. Byzantine Art. Fragment of "Saint Dimitrios with Two Children". Thessaloniki.

In the early Byzantine period, as wide a diversity of styles is seen in ecclesiastical architecture as in art. Two major types of churches, however, can be distinguished: the basilica type, with a nave flanked by colonnades terminating in a semicircular apse and covered by a timber roof; and the stone-vaulted centralized church, with its separate components gathered under a central dome. The second type—the stone-vaulted centralized church—was dominant throughout the Byzantine period. 

Italy and San Marino 1994. Joint issue. St. Marc Cathedral in Venice. Cyprus 1967. Byzantine Art. St. Andrew's Church. USSR 1978. Byzantine Art. "Our Saviour's Church" in Nerl.

St. George -- The Byzantine Martyr
Saint George was born in Cappadocia (in eastern Asia Minor) and died about 303 as a Christian Martyr.  His life is obscured by legend, but his martyrdom at Lydda, Palestine, is generally considered a matter of historical fact, testified to by two early Syrian church inscriptions and by a canon of Pope Gelasius I, dated 494, in which St. George is mentioned as one whose name was held in reverence.   The most popular of the legends that have grown up around him relates his encounter with the dragon. A pagan town in Libya was victimized by a dragon (representing the devil), which the inhabitants first attempted to calm down by offerings of sheep, and then by the sacrifice of various members of their community.   The daughter of the king (representing the Church) was chosen by lot and was taken out to await the coming of the monster, but George arrived, killed the dragon, and converted the community to Christianity.   Saint George has been adapted world wide as the saint fighting the evil and defending the good, in the end slaying the dragon (representing the evil).  The stamps on these pages all show the traditional legend, featured by both the Orthodox world, the Roman Catholic world, and the Muslim world. 

Crete 1900. Byzantine Art. St. George slaying the dragon. Greece 1964. Byzantine Arts. Arms of the island Leukas. Saint George. Sweden 1962. Byzantine Art. Uppsala Cathedral and a sculpture of St. George. Lithuania 1999. Byzantine Arts. City arms of Mariampole. St. George slaying the dragon.
Romania 1971. Byzantine Art. Arborea Monastery. St. George appearing before Czar Diocletian.

Danzig 1921. Byzantine Art. St. eorge slaying the dragon.

Deutsches Reich 1943. Byzantine Art. German Goldsmith Art. St. George slaying the dragon. Romania 1971. Byzantine Art. Moldovita Monastery. St. George slaying the dragon.

Russia. Byzantine Art. Postcard. Icon of Saint George. 850th anniversary of Moscow.

Russia 1978. Byzantine Art. First Day Cover. St. George slaying the dragon.

Russia 1997. Byzantine Art. St. George. 850th anniversary of Moscow. Russia 1992. Byzantine Art. St. George slaying the dragon. Russia 1914. Byzantine Art. War Charity. St. George slaying the dragon.

There are hundreds of stamps depicting St. George issued world wide.  In 2003 his 17th centenary was celebrated by the Vatican.  

Sources and links: 

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Revised 24-jul-2006. Ann Mette Heindorff
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