Byzantine Art

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2015-06-26 11:21:31

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Byzantine art is a term used to describe the artistic output of the Byzantine Empire (the Eastern Roman Empire during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, from around the 5th century until the Fall of their capital, Constantinople, in 1453).

Description and History

The term Byzantine art also refers to the artwork of states which whilst not being a part of the empire, were however culturally influenced by it, such as Eastern ‘Byzantine commonwealth’ regions such as Serbia and Bulgaria, as well as the Kingdom of Sicily and the Republic of Venice, which had strong ties to the Byzantine Empire whilst in many other respects being part of western Europe.

Byzantine art developed out of the art of the Roman Empire, which was itself heavily influenced by the artwork of Ancient Greece. Byzantine art, whilst being marked by revivals of classical representation, is above all characterized by the notable development of a new and somewhat revolutionary aesthetic. The cause for this transformation, into a more abstract character, has been the cause of great debate amongst scholars for centuries. It has alternately been credited as representational of a decline in artistic standards and skill (a method revived during the Italian Renaissance), and seen in a more flattering light, where oriental influences have been sighted, and as a natural progression of pre-existing artistic Roman tendencies.

Contemporary Byzantine viewers, however, did not consider their art to by abstract, and seem instead to have considered it extremely naturalistic. Byzantine subject matter is primarily religious in nature, as well as imperial, with the two concepts frequently being combined in any given artwork. These themes are the result of both Byzantine preoccupations and their economic structure, where those in the church or imperial office had ample opportunity to undertake artistic endeavours.

Guide for Collectors

Byzantine art, being largely concerned with religion, included the decoration of church interiors. One of the most important forms of Byzantine art was the ‘icon’, an image of the Virgin Mary, a saint, or Jesus Christ. These icons were used as an aid to prayer and as an object of veneration, both in churches and Byzantine homes. Illuminated manuscripts were another major aspect of Byzantine art. The Byzantines had inherited a distrust of large sculpture from the Early Christian movement, and therefore produced primarily only small reliefs (of which hardly any survive on a life-size scale.) This is in great contrast to medieval Western art, where monumental artwork became normal.

Metalwork, jewellery, enamels and ceramics were also produced in large quantities during the Byzantine era. Many of these carried religious themes as well, though others were merely decorative. Given the approximate age of Byzantine artwork, coupled with the fact that much of it exists on the walls of buildings, it is extremely hard to find at auction. Though some major auction houses occasionally showcase rare finds of Byzantine art, for the most part Byzantine art is only avalable in the form of art prints and reproductions which range between $20-$50.

When art from this era is auctioned, it tends to be primarily metalwork and small portable objects; In 2011, Christies auctioned a Byzantine bronze candlestick from the 6th/7th century, with a pre-sale estimate of £600-£1000 at auction, as well as an illuminated piece of manuscript containing an image of the ascension of Christ, with a pre-sale estimate of between £8,000 - £12,000. The same auction house has also previously sold similar items, including a Byzantine bronze cross, for $3, 525.

Notable Artists

A notable characteristic of Byzantine-era art is that most of it remained unsigned, making it difficult to pinpoint prominent figures in the movement. Margaritone d'Arezzo was a Byzantine era artist; little is known of his life other than that he lived in Arezzo in 1262. Several of his works have survived, however, and unusually for the time they were signed. The distribution and characteristics of his work suggest it was much sought after during his lifetime; remaining works include his rendering of Francis of Assisi and his Madonna and Child, dated from 1270.

List of Notable Works

The Annunciation, an icon taken from Ohrid, is one of the most admired pieces of Byzantine art. St Mark’s Basillica in Venice features imported Byzantine mosaics on its walls.

The mosaics of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople is perhaps the most famous of Byzantine artworks, including, on the walls of the upper southern gallery, the image of Christ Pantocrator.

The most famous Byzantine items, including these listed above, have not been available at auction due to their rarity and nature, often being images imprinted or engraved on walls and buildings.

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