In 330 AD, Emperor Constantine moved the capital of the Basileia ton Rhomaion (the empire of the Romans),’ from Rome to Byzantium, renamed Constantinople, and now called Istanbul. The Byzantine Empire emerged as a distinct artistic & cultural entity, radically influencing the Medieval & Renaissance Era architecture in Europe & the Ottoman Empire. Owing to the several key events, the Byzantine Period is segmented into Early Byzantine (330-565 AD), The Dark Ages (565-867), Middle Byzantine (867-1204), and Late Byzantine Period (1204-1453).
The Early Byzantine Architecture was a continuation of Roman Architecture. The invasion of Arabs in the seventh century however, coupled with the rise of Islam, led to the ‘Iconoclastic Period,’ marked with human blasphemy. Iconoclasm is a Greek word for “image-breaking,” and therefore, the period was all about deliberately defaming important ‘Symbolic’ images (or icons), pertaining to a religion or society.
In 1204, at the beginning of the Late Byzantine Period, the crusaders of the Fourth Crusade dissolved Constantinople. This was the rudest and the most damaging shock for the Byzantine Empire. Michael VIII Palaeologus of Palaeologan Dynasty, in 1259, started working at regaining the empire. Eventually, the Empire and its churches were restored to power in 1261. The stretch now was thin and weak though, limited only to Greek Peninsula the Aegean islands. However, this restoration event catalyzed the Renaissance of art.
The Late Byzantine Period witnessed an intense equation between the complex world of Byzantium and that of Islam. The Christian codes replaced the humanist ethics of Ancient Greek. This religious strengthening of Christianity significantly influenced the themes of Late Byzantine Art. The essence of ‘Classical Art,’ glorifying man, transitioned to eulogizing God and His Son, Jesus. The artistic tradition of depicting nude figures was also banished for the sake of Christian morality. Landscapes too emerged as a new theme for the Late Byzantine Artists.
Mosaic Art in the Late Byzantine Empire, climaxed to an unparallel level of monumentality. The mosaics adorned with Jesus images, were applied to the church domes, such as at “Hosias Lukas,” near Athens. Soon, Italian style frescoes replaced the traditional mosaic work, such as in “Mystras Churches.” A distinguished aspect of the Late Byzantine Art included the icon paintings on devotional panels, usually employing the ‘Encaustic Technique.’ The art style, commonly termed as, ‘Paleologan Mannerism,’ entailed ornamental painting with attention to fine details. A large number of these icon panel paintings are preserved in the monastery of “St. Catherine,” on Mt. Sinai. The competent enamel art, ivory art, and metalwork of the Late Byzantine Period were highly valued through the Middle Ages. The illuminated manuscript, mostly carrying religious texts, was another powerful genre of the Late Byzantine Art.
The “Church of Holy Apostles” in Thessaloniki and the “Great Church of the Holy Apostles” in Constantinople (now destroyed), are often cited as a couple of the finest archetypical structures of the Late Byzantine Period. Cultural exchanges between Byzantine and Italy increased. The visible transition has been termed as the “Westernization” of Byzantium, by some scholars. The exchange also exerted a profound influence on the Early Islamic Architecture, including the “Umayyad Great Mosque of Damascus” and the “Dome of the Rock,” in Jerusalem. Byzantine artisans and mosaic artists decorated these complexes. Finally, with the fall of Constantinople, Byzantine Empire went into the hands of Ottoman Turks in 1453. Even today however, the rich Late Byzantine Art continues to reflect to a certain degree, in Russia, Greece, and other Eastern Orthodox countries.