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Byzantine art is known for its uniqueness and its evolution over time. As it evolved it gave rise to new kinds of art and the artists who patronized that form of art.

distinct Byzantine art periods
Distinct Byzantine art periods

We can effectively categorize this era into three Byzantine art periods. They are:

– Early Byzantine (c. 330–750)
– Middle Byzantine (c. 850–1204)
– Late Byzantine (c. 1261–1453)

As you can see from the years listed next to each period, there are gap years (751 AD – 849 AD and 1205 AD – 1260 AD). And no this is not a mistake.

The first gap period is due to Iconoclasm and the second gap period is when the sack of Constantinople happened when the fourth crusade diverted from their path to attack the capital of the byzantine empire. So there is not much scope for people to pursue art in times of peril.

There is more info on these periods below. But first, we need to understand why art from this empire is extremely varied.

Reasons for distinct Byzantine art periods

There are two main reasons – Time and Space:

– Time: The byzantine empire has been present for close to 1500 years. So naturally, the mindset and the values of people change over time.

This is very evident when you compare art from the start of the Early Byzantine period with art from the end of the same period. That period alone stretched to more than 300 years.

– Space: Along with time, this empire grew in size considerably. Their rules were great warriors and always had the hunger to become the greatest civilization on earth.

The empire included parts of the Italian peninsula, the eastern edge of the Slavic world, the Middle East, and North Africa.

As new territories were conquered, the people belonging to that area were forced to be part of the byzantine empire. As people from different countries and ethnicities conversed, their tastes and preferences also evolved.

Byzantine Empire Map
Byzantine Empire Map. Source: Britannica

This multi-cultural aspect is what I believe to be the major contributor to the evolution of Byzantine art.

What are the gap periods within the Byzantine art periods?

The two gap periods in the history of byzantine art are due to Iconoclasm and the sack of Constantinople.

Iconoclastic period or Iconoclasm

The iconoclastic period is referred to using another term, ‘Iconoclasm’ which literally means ‘breaking of images’. This might occur due to political or religious reasons.

This occurred in the Byzantine empire due to a debate between the Byzantine church and the state.

The debate was that the church wanted to prohibit the production and use of figural images of gods worshipped by the people in the empire. The church promoted the use of the cross instead.

Iconoclasm Example
Iconoclasm Example. Source: Patheos

This all started with the Old Testament which prohibited the worshipping of images. The reason behind this was that the worshipper’s vision/concentration should only be on the holy deity alone and not on the image itself.

In simple words, when you are praying to a God, your focus should only be on the image of God. If you start admiring the background or the flowers kept next to God, then it is a sin according to the Old Testament. This is why the church promoted the cross because you cannot look at anything other than the cross during the time of worship.

This controversy spanned nearly a century from 751 SD to 849 AD which led to the destruction of multiple artworks.

Some examples of iconoclasm apart from the Byzantine empire include,

  • In ancient Egypt, the carved faces of the emperors of Pharaohs were decimated by their successors as means of showing their subjects, ‘Who’s the boss?’
  • As part of the French revolution, the images of current and former kings were obliterated.

I am working on a long-form article about iconoclasm. I will update the link here so till then try this article by the Met Museum which is really good.

The Sack of Constantinople 1204

This is the story of greed. That is the reason for the crusaders to attacked the Byzantine empire.

What was the reason for the invaders to attack the Byzantine Empire?

The Fourth Crusade was put together by Pope Innocent III. Their sole purpose was to recapture the Muslim city of Jerusalem.

They were corrupt from the beginning in their purpose. A series of political and economic decisions made them turn against the Byzantine empire.

Having had to repay Venice for shipping a group of crusaders to the east, they were asked to capture Zara from Christian Hungary for Venice. At the same time, Byzantine prince Alexius offered them money if they helped him sit on the throne.

Plagued with money problems, they helped Alexius to sit on the throne. But to their bad luck, Alexius was murdered and the new emperor banished the crusaders from Constantinople.

Raged by this decision, the crusaders started attacking the holy capital and seized it in the end. The people did not like the regime and the empire began to divide.

This was the period between 1204 – 1260.

For a more in-depth article about this, try World history.

For more articles about the Byzantine empire, check out this page.

Adithya V

I have an innate interest in art and I am starting this blog to document some of the amazing things I learned. I would segregate my content in chronological order which would make sense for any beginner to read and make sense of it all.

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