6: Rome and Byzantium, Fifth to the Thirteenth century 

6: Rome and Byzantium, Fifth to the Thirteenth century 

Rome and Byzantium History of Art 

When in the year, AD 311, the Emperor Constantine  Christian Church as a power in the State, the problems with which it saw itself confronted were enormous. During the periods of persecution there had been no need, and indeed no possibility, of building public places of worship. The churches and assembly halls that did exist were small and inconspicuous. But once the Church had become the greatest power in the realm, its whole relationship to art had to be reconsidered. The places of worship could not be modeled on the ancient temples, for their function was entirely different.

Fig (2.1) Early Christian Basilica, Ravenna, Built about AD 350

The interior of the temple was usually only a small shrine for the statue of the god. Processions and sacrifices took place outside. The church, on the other hand, had to find room for the whole congregation that assembled for service when the priest read Mass at the high altar or delivered his sermon. Thus it can about that churches were not modeled on pagan temples, ou type of large assembly halls which had been known in classes under the name of ‘basilicas’, which means roughly ‘royal halls buildings were used as covered market-halls and public law court, and mainly consisted of large, oblong halls with narrower, lower compartments on the longer sides, divided from the main hall by rows of columns. At the far end, there was often room for a semicircular dais (or apse), where the chairman of the meeting, or the judge, could take his seat.

The mother of Emperor Constantine erected such a basilica to serve as a church, and so the term established itself for churches of this type. the semicircular niche or apse would be used for the high altar, towards which the eyes of the worshippers were directed.


This part of the building, where the altar stood, came to be known as the choir. The main central hall, where the congregation assembled, was known later as the nave, which really means ‘ship’, while the lower compartments at the side were called side-aisles, which means ‘wings’. In most of the basilicas, the lofty nave was simply roofed with timber, and the beams of the loft were visible. The side-aisles were often flat-roofed. The columns, which separated the nave from the aisles, were often sumptuously decorated. None of the earliest basilicas has remained quite unchanged, but despite the alterations and renovations made in the course of the 1,500 years since that time, we can still form an idea of what these buildings generally looked like (Fig. 2.1).

The question of how to decorate these basilicas was a much difficult and serious one because here the whole issue of the image and its use in religion came up again and caused very violent disputes. On one thing nearly all early Christians were agreed: there must be no statues in the House of God. Statues were too much like those graven images Cand heathen idols that were condemned in the Bible. To place a figure of God, or of one of His saints, on the altar seemed altogether out of the question.

For how would the poor pagans who had just been converted to the new faith grasp the difference between their old beliefs and the new message, if they saw such statues in churches? They might too easily have thought that such a statue really “represents’ God, just as a statue by Pheidias was thought to represent Zeus. Thus they might have found it even more difficult to grasp the message of the one Almighty and Invisible God, in whose semblance we are made. But, although all devout Christians objected to large lifelike statues, their ideas about paintings differed a good deal. Some thought them useful because they helped to remind the congregation of the teachings they had received and kept the memory of these sacred episodes alive.

This view was mainly taken in the Latin, western part of the Roman Empire. Pope Gregory the Great, who lived at the end of the sixth century AD, took this line. He reminded the people who were against all paintings that many members of the Church could neither read nor write, and that, for the purpose Of teaching them, these images were as useful as the pictures in a picture-book are for children. ‘Painting can do for the illiterate what writing does for those who can read,’ he said. It was of immense importance for the history of art that such a great authority had come out in favour of painting. His saying was to be quoted again and again whenever people attacked the use of images in churches.

But it is clear that the type of art which was thus admitted was of a rather restricted kind. If Gregory’s purpose was to be served, the story had to be told as clearly and simply as possible, and anything that might divert attention from this main and sacred aim should be omitted. At first, artists still used the methods of story-telling that had been developed by  – Roman art, but gradually they came to concentrate more and more on what was strictly essential. (Fig. 2.2) shows a work in which these principles have been applied with the greatest consistency.

(Fig 2.2) The miracle of the Loaves and Fishes, Mosaic

It comes from a basilica in  Ravenna, then, roundabout AD 500, a great seaport and the capital city on Italy’s east coast. It illustrates the story from the Gospels in which Christ fed five thousand people on five loaves and two fishes A Hellenistic artist might have seized the opportunity to portray a larger crowd of people in a gay and dramatic scene. But the masters of these days choose a very different method. His work is not a painting done with deft strokes of the brush-it is a mosaic, laboriously put together, of stone or glass cubes which yield deep, full colors and give to the church interior: covered with such mosaics, an appearance of solemn splendor The way in which the story is told shows the spectator that something miraculous and sacred is happening.


The background is laid out with fragments of golden glass and on this gold background, no natural or realistic scene is enacted. The still and calm figure of Christ occupies the center of the picture. It is not the bearded Christ known to us, but the long-haired young man as He lived in the imagination of the early Christians. He wears a purple robe and stretches out His arms in blessing on both sides, where stand two apostles offering him the bread and fishes in order that the miracle may be accomplished.

They carry the food with covered hands, as subjects bringing tribute for their rulers used to do at that time. Indeed, the scene looks like a solemn ceremony. We see that the artist attached a deep significance to what he represented. To him, it was not only a strange miracle that had happened a few hundred years before in Palestine. It was the symbol and token of Christ’s abiding power which was embodied in the Church. That explains, or helps to explain, the way in which Christ looks steadfastly at the beholder: it is he whom christ will feed.

At first glance, such a picture looks rather stiff and rigid. The nothing of the mastery of movement and expression which was the pride of  Geek art, and which persisted until Roman times. The way the figures are planted in a strict frontal view may almost remind us of certain children’s drawings. And yet the artist must have been very well acquainted with Greek art. He knew exactly how to drape a cloak around a body so that the main joints should remain visible through the folds. He knew how to mix stones of different shades to convey the colors of flesh or of the rocks.

He marked the shadows on the ground and had no difficulty in representing foreshortening. If the pictures look rather primitive to us, it must be because the artist wanted to be simple. The Egyptian ideas about the importance of clarity in the representation of all objects had returned with great force because of stress which the church laid on clarity. But the forms which the artists used in this New attempt were not the simple forms of primitive art, but the developed forms of Greek painting. Thus Christian art of the Middle Ages became a curious mixture of primitive and sophisticated methods. The power of observation of nature, which we saw awakening in Greece about 500 BC, was put to sleep again about AD 500. Artists no longer checked their formulae against reality.

They no longer set out to make discoveries about how to represent a body, or how to create the illusion of depth. But the discoveries which had been made were never lost. Greek and Roman art provided an immense stock of figures standing, sitting, bending down or falling. All these types could prove useful in the telling of a story, and so they were assiduously copied and adapted to ever-new contexts. But the purpose for which they were used was now so radically different that we cannot be surprised that, superficially, the pictures betray little of their classical origin.

This question of the proper purpose of art in churches proved of immense importance for the whole history of Europe. For it was one of the principal issues on which the Eastern, Greek-speaking parts of the Roman Empire, whose capital was Byzantium or Constantinople, refused to accept the lead of the Latin Pope. One party was against all images of a religious nature. They were called iconoclasts or image- smashers. In 745 they gained the upper hand and all religious art was forbidden in the Eastern Church. But their opponents were even less in agreement with Pope Gregory’s ideas. To them images were not just useful, they were holy. The arguments with which they tried to justify, this point of view were as subtle as those used by the other party. 

If God in His mercy could decide to reveal Himself to mortal eyes in the human nature of Christ,’ they argued, ‘why should He not also be willing to manifest Himself in visible images? We do not worship these images themselves as the pagans did. We worship God and the Saints through or across their images.’ Whatever we may think of the logic of this plea, its importance for the history of art was tremendous. For when this party had returned to power after a century of repression the paintings in a church could no longer be regarded as mere illustrations for the use of those who could not read. They were looked upon as mysterious reflections of the supernatural world. The Eastern Church, therefore, could no longer allow the artist to follow his fancy in these works. Surely it was not any beautiful painting of a mother with her child that could be accepted as the true sacred image or ‘icon’ of the Mother of God, but only types hallowed by an age-old tradition.

Thus, the Byzantines came to insist almost as strictly as the Egyptians on the observance of traditions. But there were two sides to this question. By asking the artist who painted sacred images to keep strictly to the ancient models, the Byzantine Church helped to preserve the ideas and achievement of Greek art in the types used for drapery, faces or gestures If we look at a Byzantine altar-painting of the Holy Virgin like (Fig.2.3) it may seem very remote from the achievements of Greek art. And yet the way the folds are draped around the body and radiate around the elbowé and knees, the method of modelling the face and hands by marking the shadows, and even the sweep of the Virgin’s throne, would have been impossible without the conquests of Greek and Hellenistic painting. 

(Fig 2.3) Enthroned Madona and Child, Painted in Constantinople (Mellon Collection)

Despite a certain rigidity, Byzantine art, therefore, remained closer to nature than the art of the West in subsequent periods. On the other hand, the stress on tradition, and the necessity of keeping to certain permitted ways of representing Christ or the Holy Virgin, made it difficult for Byzantine artists to develop their personal gifts. But this conservatism developed only gradually, and it is wrong to imagine that the artists of the period had no scope whatever. It was they, in fact, who transformed the simple illustrations of early Christian art into great cycles of large and solemn images that dominate the interior of Byzantine churches.

As we look at the mosaics done by these Greek artists in the Balkans and in Italy in the Middle Ages, we see that this Oriental empire had in fact succeeded in reviving something of the grandeur and majesty of ancient oriental art, and in using it for the glorification of Christ and His power. (Fig. 2.4) gives an idea of how impressive this art could be. It shows the apse of the church of Monreale, in Sicily, which was decorated by Byzantine craftsmen shortly before 1190.

Sicily itself belonged to the western or Latin Church, which accounts for the fact that among the saints arrayed on each side of the window we find the earliest representation of St Thomas Becket, the news of whose murder some twenty years earlier had resounded throughout  Europe. But apart from this choice of Saints, the artists have kept close to their native Byzantine tradition. The faithful assemble in the church would themselves face to face with the majestic figure of Christ, represented as the ruler of the universe. His right hand raised in blessing. Below is the Holy Virgin, enthroned like an Empress, flanked by two archangels and the solemn row of Saints.


(Fig 2.4) Christ as the ruler of the universe, the virgin and the Child and saints, Mosaic bu Byzantine Artists in the Cathedral of Monreale. Sicily

Images such as these looking down on us from the golden, glimmering walls, seemed to be such perfect symbols of the Holy Truth that there appeared to be no need ever to depart from them. Thus they continued to hold their sway in all countries ruled by the Eastern Church. The holy images or ‘icons’ of the Russian’s still reflect these great creations of Byzantine Artists. 

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Art History Timeline 

1: Primitive Art; Ancient America (Paleolithic Age)- Neolithic Art

2: Mesopotamia, Crete and Egypt, History of Art

3: GREECE (Seventh to Fifth century BC) 

4: Greece (Fifth century BC to First Century AD)- History of Art

5: The World Conquerors, Jews, Christians, Romans and Buddhists (First to Fourth Century AD )

6: Rome and Byzantium, Fifth to the Thirteenth century 

7:Eastward, Islam, China, 2nd to 13th Century  

8: Europe, Sixth to Eleventh Century, History of Western Art In Melting Pot