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The Byzantine Style

Byzantine Columnscopyright

Example of Byzantine style painting and architecture (click to Enlarge)


The Byzantine Era Started from the Age of Justinian (527-565) and lasted until 1453

The Byzantine is a very easy style to identify, because of the stylized, rigid formality of the figures as well as the symmetrical folds of the draperies, which often show a sort of antiquated charm. The Byzantine style is not so much accurate representation but as a suggestion and symbolism. According to "It is noticeable in these Byzantine pictures that while the figure-painting is often really excellent, the design skilful, and the pose natural, the landscape, trees, etc., are quite symbolic and fanciful. The painters seem to have been utterly ignorant of perspective. Buildings, too, without any regard to relative proportion, are colored merely as parts of a colour scheme. They are pink, pale green, yellow, violet, blue, just to please the eye. That the painter had a system of colour-harmony is plain, but he paid no regard to the facts of city life, unless, indeed, it was the practice of the medieval Byzantines to paint the outside of their houses in this truly brilliant style. "

The Byzantine period was tremendously culturally productive, in painting, sculpture, architecture and illuminated manuscripts. Artists emphasized transcendent time and place; the only worldly concern was with how one must behave in order to get into heaven. Thus the figures in Byzantine art tend to "hover" in space without weight and solidness, without inhabiting a three-dimensional space.

The monasteries owned vast libraries and engaged in the copying of manuscripts. Manuscript paintings were generally styled after classical paintings of late antiquity.


Byzantine mosaics are bedecked with gold leaf and iridescent glass tiles, radiating a shimmering, heavenly light. The effect of the composition together with the precious materials, lift the holy figures into a divine spiritual place. The figures themselves are symmetrical, repetitive, and little emotion or individualism is expressed in their calm faces.

Byzantine sovereigns adored gold in a sumptuous way, and on a grand scale. They had no use for simple, plain jewelry or furnishings. The royal thrones were made of solid gold; even their battle gear was festooned with jewels and gilded with gold and silver. Households of the upper class possessed a immense silver table, and solid silver tableware.

Throughout the life of the Byzantine Empire, the Eastern Orthodox Church also played an important social role. Sacred images, commissioned by the church acted as moral instruction to the illiterate peasants who clamored for enlightenment of the holy scriptures.



Until the twelfth century it had been the custom to adorn the alters with costly religious reliquaries wrought in metal; partly to preserve the metallic sheen of the decoration, partly because of the contiguity of mosaics or stained glass, the paintings had to make the most glittering impression possible. The figures, therefore, are raised like mosaics from a gold background. Red, blue , and gold are the prevailing colors. The figures also have the solemnity of Byzantine types. The head of the Madonna, with the large almond eyes and long, pointed nose, and the indifferent manner in which she holds the Christ Child with her elongated, bony hands.


With the triumph of Christianity, Byzantine artists aspired to reawaken the divine spirit of holy figures rather than depict their physical qualities. Their luminous paintings captured the spirit of the Bible and helped to popularize Christianity.
Their unique style is a combination of depicting frontal simplicity, sacred images, harmonious unity, together with precision in details. The use of costly materials such as gold, precious stones and ivory indicates the degree of wealth that was common during this period, and attests to the sophistication of the Byzantine Society.

Not until the thirteenth century, in the works of Florentine master Cimabue, is a change perceptible. He looked to nature for inspiration rather than intuition or mysticism. The Christ-child becomes more childish and tender; and a soft inclination of the head of the Madonna shows that she hears the prayers of men and can bring help and gracious forgiveness. The hard, sullen features are animated by softness and charm, by human sentiment; and it is in this sense that Vasari wrote that through Cimabue more love had come into art.

Byzantine style represented early Christian culture and values as well as courtly splendor. The paintings are complex; fraught with religious fervor and symbolism. Most prominently featured are the holy symbols of the Christian faith--Christ, The Apostles, Saints, The Cross, Virgin Mary, Chalice, Keys, The Anchor, Wheat , The Good Shepherd, Animals, Fish, Angels, Birds, Insects and Satan


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