The fist thing to say about Byzantine art is that it is the quintessential expression of the Oriental aesthetic sense. It evolved out of Iranian, Syrian, Armenian and Cappadocian styles.
Whereas the Greeks loved naturalistic expression and the Romans were obsessed with practical functionality, the Byzantines perfected the art of symbolic decoration. They forsake pure lines and stark simplicity in favor of rich colors and ornamentation. They encouraged morning sunlight to flood in from the East, rather than create the tenebrous twilight that was later thought to improve worship. They almost always worked in groups, and thus rarely will you find a signature on even the most breathtaking masterpiece. They relied extravagantly on gold, precious gems, silks and tapestries. Because of these costly embellishments their work had to be commissioned by extremely wealthy patrons who, in those days, were usually potentates, kings, even emperors. As a result, their works always bedazzled the masses but were rarely inventive or expressive. Facial features were standardized to avoid the embarrassment - or life-threatening danger - of portraying royal flaws.
The nameless Oriental masters loved to carve wood, weave and embroider fabrics, and fashion jewelry of gold, silver and gems, but in Italy, the two major manifestations of their genius are architecture and mosaics. The two go hand-in-hand, actually, because the Byzantines were the first to consider mosaics as an architectural feature, not simply as an embellishment. Mosaics are of course one of the oldest forms of art, found in almost every culture in the ancient world. But the Byzantine artisans took them to a higher level, mixing pure gold leaf and precious stones in with the millions of tiny glass and stone tiles (tesserae) they pressed into a cement-lined surface.
Another innovation of theirs was to curve that surface: they understood that a round or multi-faceted surface reflected the moving rays of the sun in thousands of different ways each twenty-four hours. This realization led them to perform their most amazing feat: placing a round dome atop a polygonal frame. In order to make the two parts fit, they invented the pendentive, which later became such an integral part of Gothic architecture. This triangle's flat side rests below the dome and points down between two of the building's many walls. Like every other available inch of surface in a Byzantine structure, it is intricately decorated with symbolic motifs. This technique reached its apex in the sixth century; probably its most perfect example is San Vitale, the church we visit this month in Ravenna.
After 600 AD, Italy's priceless Byzantine masterpieces were singled out for plunder by marauding northern invaders. The artisans were killed, kidnapped or, if lucky, escaped to the relative safety of Constantinople. In 1204 the Fourth Crusade reverted the city to the West. Many of the mosaic artists returned with the Crusaders to Venice and set up shop there. A vaporetto ride down the Grand Canal will show you the last great outpouring of Byzantine genius in Europe, culminating in the unparalleled grandeur of St. Mark's Basilica. Many of the artisan industries for which Venice is famous today - glassblowing, gilding and weaving among them - owe their very existence to the city's "Oriental Golden Age."
by Kristin Jarratt
A Byzantine Pictorial Glossary
When you walk into most Byzantine churches, you are likely to see at least one group of visitors clustered around a tour guide who's gamely explaining the meaning of all the mosaics. Nobody needed that in the old days, of course. Back then most people couldn't read but they knew the stories of the Bible and of their rulers' conquests through pictures. They also knew how to interpret the countless symbols used in Byzantine art. Here are a few you can have fun identifying:
Lion: St. Mark
Ox: St. Luke
Eagle: St. John
Winged man: St. Matthew
Man holding a key: St. Peter
Doves or sheep: Christian souls
Anyone drinking: A soul being saved
Flying doves: Heavenly peace
Grapevine: Christ's union with Christians
Deer: Baptized souls
Peacock: Resurrection, immortality
Finger held near the mouth: Awe
Globe: God's kingdom
Purple, halo: Heavenly-appointed ruler
Snake: Forces of evil
Dove spraying water: Holy Spirit
Throne: Emperor or Christ
Pigs: Evil spirits
Spotted goats: Sinners
Date palms in fruit: Martyrs, life
The letter "alpha": Beginning, Christ
The letter "omega": End
Book: The Word of God