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What characterized art during the last centuries of the Byzantine Empire? Find out as you explore artistic styles and trends and then test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Late Byzantium

Hey there, you night owls. This is DJ Study, and I’ll be burning the midnight oil with you during the late shift tonight. The hour is late and so is the art here in Byzantium, center of the Byzantine Empire that’s stretched across the Mediterranean world since 527 CE.

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Byzantine art has already been through an early Period from 527-726 and a middle period from 848-1204, but I’m here to accompany you through Late Byzantine art, keeping us up from 1261-1453.This is an interesting time for us in Byzantium. In 1204, crusaders from Western Europe sacked our capital city of Constantinople, but our ruler, Michael VIII Paleaologus, retook the city in 1261 and kicked off this last era of great Byzantine art. Now sit back and relax and let the smooth sounds of Byzantine art keep you company in these late, late hours.

Late Byzantine Painting

Just as in the early and middle period, late Byzantine art is really focused around religious themes and is mostly found in churches. While mosaics were still around, by the 13th century, more and more churches were being painted with frescoes, murals painted directly onto the plaster of walls or ceilings. Not only was the medium slightly changing, but the styles of Byzantine art began changing in the 13th century as well. Slowly but surely, Byzantine artists moved away from the abstracted, flattened figures and settings that really characterized early Byzantine art, and actually embraced some of the illusionistic depth and realistic backgrounds of Western art.

A fresco from the Church of Christ in Chora
Fresco of Christ triumphing over death

Let’s check out a great example – an apse fresco from the Church of Christ in Chora of Constantinople. This fresco was painted around 1320 and depicts an anastasis scene, which is the triumph of Christ over death.

So there’s Christ in the middle, stamping on Satan and the locks that held shut the gates of Hell. He is also raising Adam and Eve from their tombs, representing the perpetual forgiveness of sins that resulted from the death and resurrection of Christ. Although this fresco still has those strong, solid lines that are characteristic of earlier Byzantine art, they feel more fluid and naturalistic. Also, the saints and Biblical figures surrounding the scene still retain that Byzantine sense of being almost otherworldly, since they don’t cast shadows or really seem connected to the ground at all. But, there is a ground. Earlier Byzantine art usually had flat, gold backgrounds, but this fresco actually has a setting with those rocky hills. The later we get into these last hours of Byzantine power, the more and more defined these Classical-style illusions will become.

Late Byzantine Icons

While some styles of art changed during the Late Byzantine period, the function of art was pretty much the same. Icons, portable panels painted with religious figures, returned as a major art form and reached the peak of their importance to Byzantine society in this period. Churches collected many of these icons, displaying them on high screens with tiers of icons called the iconostasis.

Icons were produced at an incredible rate, most of them being made in Constantinople, but then spreading across the Byzantine world from Greece to Russia. Icons were so important in the last centuries of the Byzantine Empire that many were painted on both sides, so they carried multiple images.Icons varied in style, reflecting the changes of the late period of Byzantine art. Some, like this, still have that traditionally flat background, but have figures with more realistic drapery.

Some icons kept the more traditional Byzantine style
Icon example

Others had more complex settings, like this one which actually strives to show realistic spatial depth in the chair and other architectural features.

This is an annunciation scene, when the archangel Gabriel tells Mary that she is pregnant. Despite these new styles, this is still a very traditional Byzantine Mary. Her skin is slightly green, indicating that her significance is heavenly, beyond the physical world.

Her nose is also long and thin, which was just the traditional way that Byzantine artists drew the Virgin Mary.

Some icons chose to incorporate other artistic styles
Modernized icon

Both of these icons were painted in Constantinople, but this next one was painted in Russia around 1410. Russia was big on Byzantine art and even started to rival Constantinople as an artistic and religious center in the 15th century. When Constantinople fell in 1453, Russia kept the Byzantine style going strong.

A Russian icon
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