In 330 A.D., Constantine the Great moved his capital from Rome to the new city of Constantinople. This new domain was the focal point of the Byzantine Empire, which thrived as a highly organized state for more than a thousand years. Art flourished under the Byzantine Empire, forming a distinct style and aesthetic that had a profound influence on that of medieval art and Renaissance
Above all else, Byzantine art was dedicated to the service of the Church and the word of God. Art was used to express the Christian faith, the imagery of the ancient gods dissipated, and a whole new language of imagery was introduced to convey a deeply Christian perspective. The spiritual composition of Byzantine art was much more important that its technical qualities. It was a profoundly ideological and spiritually complex art, and artists depended on strategic use of color and intuitive quality of design to convey their messages.
During this period, the art of Europe leaned heavily, on imagery. Holy icons were extremely prevalent, but instead of figurative impressions of popular subjects (Christ, the apostles, saints) Byzantine artists created fully realized versions of these figures. By grounding their art in reality, they didn’t just represent the message of divinity, but actually contained the presence. Byzantine artists focused their efforts on creating pieces of “religious truth,” rather than on the craftsmanship. These works were meant to transcend any fad or trend, and the artists believed the supernatural quality would extend beyond a lifetime.
For the most part, sculpture in the round, large-scale relief style of Greek and Roman art was abandoned, in favor of painting. Perhaps the most important development was seen in their depiction of the human figure. Where Islam had been focused on calligraphy and geometry, and China had been concerned with the landscape environment of the world, Byzantine art concerned itself with the poses and forms of the human figure. Byzantine artists took the human form well beyond its classical roles and began to manipulate it into new proportions, scales, and positions. In doing this, the artists found a new primary means of expression.
Mosaics also gained popularity during the Byzantine Empire. In Roman art, the mosaic was used primarily as decorative flooring, but Byzantine artists adapted it as a new form of painting. They believed it was the ideal medium to showcase a brilliant palette of blues, greens, and golds—colors that would be highly visible from great distances. Byzantine artists also utilized mosaics to portray dramatic themes on a grand scale that were visually appealing and emotionally stirring.
Despite its abstract and ideological style, Byzantine art was a highly personal, deeply subjective art. Although it has proven nearly impossible to identify the specific artists responsible for individual works, it’s clear that these artists instilled an incredibly emotional power in their images. Byzantine artists created works full of both pity and ecstasy, empowering it with a sense of captivating intimacy. This intimacy is largely responsible for Byzantine’s longevity, which was extended over an extremely long period of time, and over a vast geographical area. And while there was a wide variation of style and character, the motivations remained the same. The spiritual and rhythmical basis of Byzantine art allowed it to transcend boundaries, and quite literally, transcend time.