Tag Archives: byzantine art

The danger of the “Byzantine”

I’ve already commented on this blog about the pitfalls of the word Byzantine, especially in relation to the mosaic art of Late Antique and Early Mediaeval Rome. I stand by that perspective. Indeed, after a conference I was at earlier this year, I am even more deeply entrenched in my anti-Byzantine position.

One of the many difficulties besetting the use of this word is its strong association with Greek and the Eastern Mediterranean (indeed, I think of Byzantine as Greek mediaeval, or mediaeval Greek, personally). This is combined with the fact that, despite the great cultural and political ruptures of the seventh century, historians of ‘Byzantium’ and the ‘Byzantine’ Empire like to start their story with Constantine or something like that (in which case we are far enough back in time to be clearly in the Late Roman East).

Why are these two things problems?


I haven’t dealt with him in my ‘Discover Late Antiquity‘ series yet — not properly. Nevertheless, Justinian reconquers North Africa, a bit of Spain, and Italy. His (re)conquest of Italy ran from 536 to 554. As a result, the heartland of the Roman West was reunited with the Roman East. This increases the cross-cultural exchange between East and West — traditional Italian artwork of Late Antiquity thus maintains ties with the traditional Hellenic artwork of Late Antiquity (that is, the ‘Byzantine’). Eastern craftsmen can make their way West within a united empire.

Let me now circle back to how the Hellenic, eastern-focussed use of this word and its application to art can cause problems.

In 553, the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of St Mary — the Basilica Eufrasiana — was rebuilt in Porec, Croatia. As Wikipedia will tell you, this basilica ‘is an excellent example of early Byzantine architecture’. Having observed lovely photos of this basilica, it strikes me as an excellent example of early Christian architecture. Indeed, a basilica of similar style to its comrades in Rome:

Photo by Wikimedia user JoJan

Photo by Wikimedia user JoJan

Central apse, by Wikimedia user JoJan

Central apse, by Wikimedia user JoJan

Nevertheless, Wikipedia is not the only source that will tell you that the Basilica Eufrasiana is ‘Byzantine’. At the aforementioned conference, one of the papers discussed the basilica’s images of female saints — all well and good. Indeed, given the fact that the Istrian Peninsula was part of the Byzantine world, I’d even be willing to grant limited use of the word Byzantine to the artistic style.

However, from being used of the art, this word began to applied to the cultural context and worldview of the people who commissioned it and used the basilica. And this simply will not do. Istria is not Greek. Istria was not Greek. The cultural worldview of the sixth-century, Late Antique people of Istria was not Byzantine.

Female Martyrs on triumphal arch, photo by Wikimedia user JoJan

Female Martyrs on triumphal arch, photo by Wikimedia user JoJan

The reason this is a problem is because the presenter kept on finding Greek sources to corroborate her interpretation of the mosaics and the artistic scheme of the basilica. However, one glance at those same mosaics will show the viewer quite a lot of Latin — because that is the language of the Late Antique Istrians.

Ecclesiastically, in fact, the Istrian Peninsula was under the archiepiscopal oversight of the Bishop of Aquileia. And, along with that bishop and some others, was among the places that, around this time, entered into schism with the Bishop of Rome over the Three Chapters (on which I’ve blogged here). Therefore, Greek canon law is not germane to any discussion of how Istrians viewed women; Latin canon law, however, is. As are the writings of the ecclesiastics of Aquileia. Nonetheless, the paper to which I am referring continually resorted to Greek, ‘Byzantine’ sources.

I can only guess that the reason was because of the overuse of this word to refer to all Late Antique art of a certain style, and a confusion between politics (yes, this was then part of the Eastern Roman Empire) and culture (but it was not, therefore, Greek).

Byzantine is a word that can be very useful. But I find that the earlier it is applied, or the farther West it journeys, the more it simply confuses matters.

Roman — not Byzantine

Although this title looks the sort of thing you’d expect from continuist Byzantinists, I’m actually arguing about Rome in what follows — that early mediaeval art in Rome is not Byzantine.

Apsis_mosaic_San_ClementeWhen I first visited San Clemente in 2014, there was a group of people looking at the magnificent apsidal mosaic. One of them remarked, ‘This is Byzantine’, in as natural a way as possible. I recommend you click on that image to the left to get a taste of San Clemente’s apsidal mosaic. It is a remarkable piece of craftsmanship, and I would never speak ill of it. People in the Middle Ages were great workers of beauty, and Roman mosaics are among those works of beauty.

But I was annoyed at the person saying that San Clemente’s mosaic was Byzantine. For one thing, it was built c. 1099-1125. I don’t think it’s very precise to call Roman art in the twelfth century ‘Byzantine’ — the papacy was already into its schism with the East, and the city was largely a papal city, although the Normans sacked it in 1084 due to papal-imperial politics, including the destruction of the fourth-century San Clemente, leading to the creation of the new one. The emperor in these politics was not in Constantinople but in the Holy Roman Empire. Crusading zeal aside, the outlook of Rome in this period was decidedly western.

Nonetheless, I can imagine someone saying that the current mosaic is a replacement of the fourth- (or ninth-?) century mosaic lost in the fire of 1084. And surely that mosaic would count as Byzantine. Therefore, this mosaic is an imitation Byzantine mosaic.

I guess here’s where I get properly controversial, since there are mediaevalists and art historians who would argue for the use of the word Byzantine in relation to early mediaeval Roman art. Nonetheless, two days ago I visited Santa Prassede with Rosamond McKitterick, and she argues strongly for the Romanness of Santa Prassede’s mosaics. So I’m in good company. Here are a few of my photos of Santa Prassede’s mosaics to give you the flavour:

First of all, I can see immediately why we want to call early mediaeval Roman art Byzantine. Just look at it! And then, just look at Byzantine art, like the famous Christ Pantokrator from Ayia Sophia:

Jesus-Christ-from-Hagia-SophiaThat one from 1261, of course, is much more naturalistic than these ninth-century mosaics. What people usually have in mind is more the sixth-century apsidal mosaic at St Catherine’s in Sinai:

transfiguration-st-catherines-monasteryOr the sixth-century mosaics at Ravenna:

Pendentive_(San_Vitale_in_Ravenna)There is certainly a visual continuity running across these sixth-century mosaics from the edges of the ‘Byzantine’/Justinianic world into the Roman mosaics of the ninth century sponsored by Pope Paschal I. However, this same visual continuity also strikes the heart of sixth-century Rome, as Santi Cosma e Damiano, at the edge of the Roman Forum and built by Felix IV c. 524, as seen in my photos below:

Rome in 524 is living under the rule of Ostrogothic king Theoderic. They are only newly reunited ecclesially with Constantinople. Is it really accurate to say that this kind of art is ‘Byzantine’ in this case? Indeed, is it not visually united with the fifth-century mosaics of Santa Maria Maggiore?

IMG_1613 IMG_1606Finally, why don’t we step back and see the visual continuity that runs from the Constantinian age and the Mausoleo di ‘Santa’ Costanza? (My photo)

IMG_1569This is Roman-style Late Antique and Early Mediaeval art, and it exists in mosaic and fresco, although mosaics are more durable. I have given examples from the fifth and sixth centuries as well as the ninth (see also the apsidal mosaics at Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, also commissioned by Paschal I), but I could have added the late sixth (San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, c. 580) and seventh as well (Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura and San Teodoro for mosaics and the remnants of the diaconia in the curia, now in Cripta Balbi, for frescoes). I do not know my eight-century Roman churches at all — apologies there.

Christian Roman art and architecture are habitually traditionalist. Their style remains Late Antique and persists with a certain degree of Classicism in architecture combined with a visual abstraction that we consider ‘Byzantine’ while northern Europe and Spain go through Romanesque and Gothic. This ‘Byzantine’ style of Roman art, indeed, continues well beyond definitively traceable Byzantine cultural influence in Rome, such as this 14th-century mosaic at Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome’s only Gothic church (my blurry photo; apologies):


Or what about the Dormition of the Virgin, a thirteenth-century mosaic in Santa Maria Maggiore? (My pic.)

IMG_1609None of this is to say that ‘Byzantine’ forces were never at work in Rome during the Middle Ages. Eastern Christian influences were certainly present in Rome after the Fall of the Western Roman Empire, such as through ongoing contacts with the Emperor in Constantinople, especially after Justinian’s Reconquest, and then through the arrival of eastern clerics. In the seventh century, many ‘Greek’ (that is, Greek-speaking) clerics came to Rome, such as the circle of St Maximus the Confessor. The Roman liturgy adapted some Greek/Eastern liturgical practices to her own use, and the papacy may even have taken on some Greek bureaucratic ideals. St Gregory the Great, in fact, even spent time in Constantinople before becoming Bishop of Rome! So, yes, there is cultural exchange. But it also goes both ways — Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care is very popular in Eastern Christianity, for example.

All this to say — since words matter, we should be precise. Early mediaeval art in Rome is not Byzantine. It stands in its own strong Roman tradition, a tradition that persists in mosaics, at least, up to the High Middle Ages, and also has ties with its sister art in the Easter Mediterranean (‘Byzantine’ art).


Everywhere I go on research trips in Europe, there is some art or architecture that grabs me. In Milan, the Gothic Duomo and Romanesque Sant’Ambrogio; in Paris, the Gothic Everything-Omygosh; in Florence, early Renaissance painting (esp. Fra Angelico); in much of Germany, the mediaeval houses and Baroque churches and palaces (both exemplified in Wolfenbüttel, as I’ve noted).

In Venice, it’s Veneto-Byzantine.

And I don’t mean ‘Byzantine stuff looted in 1204 and after.’

That’s here, too. It’s worth looking at.

Veneto-Byzantine is Venice’s answer to the rest of western Europe’s Romanesque. It was popular in Venice throughout the Middle Ages, right up into the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Although you’ll find a few Gothic things in Venice, they’re usually isolated architectural elements — even in the altarpieces. Mostly, things move into Early Renaissance, even the altarpieces (okay, maybe some of that qualifies as Late Gothic).

What makes it Byzantine? Well, just take a look at it:

The image pictured above, one of the mosaics in San Marco basilica, is not a western Romanesque motif. My guidebook to San Marco says it is of Christ in Limbo, but the title gives it away, ‘? ???? ???C??C?C’ — The Holy Resurrection.

What we westerners call ‘The Harrowing of Hell’ is the Byzantine representation of the Resurrection, and this mosaicist knows it.

And you can’t go telling me this is a typical western Blessed Virgin Mary:

This mosaic, from the apsidal dome of the cathedral on the island of Torcello is of Maria Theotokos — the inscriptions on either side of her head say so.

Of course, beneath Theotokos you see some bits of Latin. But the artistic style is decidedly Byzantine.

Both times I’ve gone into San Marco, I’ve been stunned almost to stumbling by the Veneto-Byzantine mosaics therein. They are stunning. They are more powerful than any of the beautiful frescoes I saw in the painted churches of Cyprus. They are worth a visit.

Little bits of Byzantine and Veneto-Byzantine religious artwork and devotion are scattered about Venice if you know what you’re looking for. And even if you don’t, this icon of Cypriot bishop St Spyridon, in Museo Correr, requires no training to identify.

Of course, some Byzantine nods are harder to spot. For example, if you visit the church of Vivaldi’s baptism, San Giovanni Battista in Bragora, you are unlikely to realise that the little side chapel dedicated to San Giovanni Elemosinario is not only adorned by modern Byzantine-style icons and what looks to be an altar-cloth embroidered with Armenian is, in fact, dedicated to a seventh-century Byzantine saint, St John the Almsgiver, Chalcedonian Patriarch of Alexandria. That same church also has a Veneto-Cretan icon in it — the result of Crete remaining a Venetian possession after the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire in 1453.

In the Galerie dell’Accademia — which I recommend — you will find some very lovely examples of Veneto-Byzantine icons, including the Madonna and Child to the left, by Veneziano (c. 1325). This piece is strikingly Byzantine — however, some aspects feel distinctly western. The Theotokos is not gesturing at the Christ Child, and he is leaning out quite dramatically to bless the viewer. Yet the flatness, if you will, and the perspective, and the colouring, and the inclusion of the rosettes on the Theotokos’ garment, all resonated more with the Byzantine than the Gothic.

And even when Veneziano painted Gothic, there were traces of Byzantine in him. In the Accademia, further along, there is a polittico or polyptych (in this case, looks to be a Gothic altarpiece) by him — the ‘Lion Polyptych’. The figures all have that airy quality associated with the Gothic, and Sts Dominic and Francis are there to greet you. But then you are struck by the miniatures along the bottom — Sts Savvas, Macarius, Paul of Thebes, Ilarius (Hilarion?), Teodorus. And St Antony in the large figures. Not as western as first glance would have you believe …

Why does Venice have such strong eastern ties? Much of the Veneto-Byzantine art, indeed the greatest of it (San Marco’s mosaics, the Last Judgement in the cathedral on Torcello) pre-dates the 1204 sacking of Constantinople, after all.

Well, by 1204 Venice was already thoroughly ensconced in a literal and mercantile empire that was primarily focussed on the eastern Mediterranean. As a result, easterners and their goods were constantly coming through Venice. There was bound to be some impact on the place as a result.

But that clearly isn’t a good enough explanation, given that other cities and countries did similar things without developing their own version of Byzantine art. Venice, you see, has been a fiercely independent city for her whole history. She resisted the onset of Ostrogoths, Lombards, and Franks who came through northern Italy. And part of this was done by allying herself with the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, who viewed herself as the rightful ruler of Italy.

This alliance meant that from the outset, Venice’s vision turned East to the Adriatic coast and beyond for trading opportunities — to the Byzantine Empire and those within her sphere of influence.

As a result of this two-pronged political and mercantile focus on the Byzantine East, Venice’s art was drawn East as well — or rather, stayed that way. Given what we see much earlier in Ravenna, it is safe to say that Byzantine was the style for northeastern Italian cities at the time. And given what we see around the same time in Milan, Byzantine and Romanesque are not so far off.



It is glorious and beautiful. You can’t miss it if you go to Venice, unless you neglect to visit the Basilica, in which case you are a fool.