Byzantium

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In 330 A.D., the Emperor Constantine founded on his own city, Constantinople, on the site of the Greek cultural capital, Byzantium. It was to become the centre of the eastern Roman Empire, which had been separated from the western Empire to ease administration, which, due to the enormous size of the territory, was getting held up. The eastern Empire occupied the old area of Greek cultural influence, which had held an enormous intellectual weight during the height of the Hellenistic period, tipping the scales of civilization and knowledge towards the far eastern Mediterranean. Byzantium was in a privileged location, permitting the city to control trade routes with Eastern Europe, the Balkans, the Aegean, north Africa (including Egypt) and Asia Minor, the gateway to India and Tang China. Byzantium hardly inherited any Roman artESTILOS and tradition. This implied correct anatomical proportions, naturalism, dynamism, pastoral themes, and so on. Its high point was during the reign of Justinian, who was responsible for the building of the church of Saint Sophia in Constantinople, and ordering the restoration of old temples, including those in the flourishing Italian colonies of Ravenna and Sicily. The most popular artistic technique during this era was the mosaic, and unique masterpieces were created. The mosaics of the church of San Vitale and the basilica of Sant' Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, representing the Emperor and his wife (a high class prostitute who became a powerful woman in the Empire) are very famous. These mosaics illustrate how the realism of Greek and Roman painting of the Hellenistic period was progressively abandoned with the intellectualisation of Christianity. Space was lost; it became unreal with figures that moved against a gleaming golden background. The figures' feet did not touch the ground, but instead floated above it. A sense of solemnity, eternity and idealism were imposed in the search for a sober and symbolic representation of Christian mysteries. A primitive size hierarchy was re-established, whereby the figure's size reflected their social standing. The end result was an extremely decorative panel, full of light and colour. At the same time as the mosaics, two other techniques were developed: the miniature and the icon. Illuminated manuscripts came to replace rolls of parchment, which had the disadvantage of deteriorating quickly. The first codices were Byzantine, dating from the 4th century. They were called illuminated manuscripts because they were written by hand by scribes or monks and were adorned or illuminated with drawings using red minium based pigments. The icon was a painting done in tempera on a wooden panel, decorated with gold leaf or even sheets of embossed silver, gold or bronze. They were small in size and therefore transportable, with two doors that were usually only opened at the time of prayer. They reproduced images of the Virgin, favourite saints or of Christ. They were very successful during the 6th and 7th centuries, thanks to the enormous emotional appeal they held for the most uneducated believers, as opposed to the intellectual Christianity with Hellenistic roots that had been dominant up until then. This almost philosophical intellectual Christianity preferred symbolic representation to verisimilar images, which sowed the seed of discord between the iconoclasts (who rejected religious images) and iconodulists (who venerated such images), and constituted the first religious war of the Christian era. In 730 the Emperor proclaimed an edict that ordered the destruction of all images that reproduced saints and divine figures with human appearance. The possessor or worshipper of such an icon was accused of a serious crime against the Emperor, and could be mutilated, whipped, stoned or even blinded for idolatry. However, the cult of religious images was so powerful among believers, who after all were in the majority, that it had to be re-established. Furthermore, the veneration of images created solid pilgrim route networks that favoured the trading of relics, the construction of monasteries and so on. During the iconoclastic period, many icons were destroyed, and very few images from the 7th and 8th centuries have survived. In 843 images were declared to be orthodox, and the Empire recognised their doctrinal value, as they enlightened the population and facilitated the control of the ecclesiastical class. This coincided with a period of intellectual stability, which encouraged certain representational stereotypes to be established to prevent artists from depicting images in an inappropriate way. A dozen representational models of the Virgin Mary were created. This was also applied to certain scenes, such as the Anastasis, and to other sacred figures, like the Pantocrator, the Almighty God of the Universe, who was depicted as bearded, frowning and with a mighty countenance, as can be seen in the Athenian monastery of Daphne. Inside Byzantine churches there was always the same iconographic scheme: scenes from the celestial and earthly worlds in the lower part, scenes from the life of Christ and Christian festivities at the top, the Virgin was depicted in the apse and the Pantocrator in the cupola. As with Egyptian art, the strict rules imposed by beliefs meant that the aesthetic remained unchanged for centuries. It spread to Russia (the best Russian Byzantine painter unquestionably being Andrey Rublev), Bulgaria, Rumania, Greece and the Balkans.


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