Early Christianity and Byzantium
❙ Very little Christian art or architecture survives from the first centuries of Christianity. “Early Christian art” means the earliest art having Christian subjects, not the art of Christians at the time of Jesus. The major surviving examples are frescoes in the catacombs (a series of underground tunnels used for burying deads) of Rome and marble sarcophagi (old stone coffin) depicting Old and New Testament stories.
❙ Constantine (r. 306–337) issued the Edict (officalo order) of Milan in 313 granting Christianity legal status equal or superior to the traditional Roman cults. The emperor was the first great patron of Christian art and built the first churches in Rome, including Old Saint Peter’s. In 330, he moved the capital of the Roman Empire to Constantinople (Greek Byzantium).
❙ The emperor Theodosius I (r. 379–395) proclaimed Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 and banned worship of the old Roman gods in 391. Honorius (r. 395–423) moved the capital of his Western Roman Empire to Ravenna in 404. Rome fell to the Visigoth king Alaric in 410.
❙ Mosaics became a major vehicle for the depiction of Christian themes in the naves and apses of churches, which closely resembled Roman basilicas in both plan and elevation. The first manuscripts with biblical illustrations date to the early sixth century.
❙ The reign of Justinian (r. 527–565) opened the first golden age of Byzantine art (527–726). Justinian was a great patron of the arts, and in Constantinople alone he built or restored more than 30 churches, including Hagia Sophia (Church of Holy Wisdom). A brilliant fusion of central and longitudinal plans, the church featured a 180-foot-high dome resting on pendentives, rivaling the architectural wonders of Rome.
❙ The seat of Byzantine power in Italy was Ravenna, which also prospered under Justinian. San Vitale is Ravenna’s greatest church. Its mosaics, with their weightless, hovering, frontal figures against a gold background, reveal the new Byzantine aesthetic.
❙ Justinian also rebuilt the monastery at Mount Sinai in Egypt, which boasts the finest surviving Early Byzantine icons. In 726, however, Leo III (r. 717–741) enacted a ban against picturing the divine, initiating the era of iconoclasm (726–843).
❙ Middle Byzantine (843–1204) churches, such as those at Hosios Loukas and Daphni have highly decorative exterior walls and feature domes resting on drums above the center of a Greek cross. The climax of the interior mosaic programs was often an image of Christ as Pantokrator in the dome.
❙ Middle Byzantine artists also excelled in ivory carving and manuscript illumination. The Paris Psalter is noteworthy for its revival of classical naturalism.
❙ In 1204, Latin Crusaders sacked Constantinople, bringing to an end the second golden age of
Byzantine art. In 1261, Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologus (r. 1259–1282) succeeded in recapturing the city. Constantinople remained in Byzantine hands until it was taken in 1453 by the Ottoman Turks.