We are apt to speak of the rigidity and fixity of Byzantine work, but the method is germane in the strictest sense to the result desired, and we should ask ourselves how far it is possible to represent such a serious and moving drama except by dealing with more or less unchangeable types. It could be no otherwise. This art was not a matter of taste, it was a growth of thought, cast into an historical mould. Again, the artists had an extraordinary power of concentrating and abstracting the great things of a story into a few elements or symbols. For example, the seven days of creation are each figured by some simple detail, such as a tree, or a flight of birds, or symbolically, as seven spirits; the flood by an ark on the waters. What the capabilities of such a method are, where invention is not allowed to wander into variety, but may only add intensity, may, for instance, be seen in representations of the Agony in the Garden. This subject is usually divided into three sections, each consecutive one showing, with the same general scene, greater darkness, an advance up the hill, and the figure of Christ more bowed. Another composition, the "Sleep (death) of the Virgin," is all sweetness and peace, but no less powerful.
A remarkable invention is the etomasia, a splendid empty throne prepared for the Second Advent. The stories of the Old Testament are put into relation with the Gospel by way of type and anti-type. There are allegories: the anchorite life contrasted with the mad life of the world, the celestial ladder, etc., and fine impersonations, such as night and dawn, mercy and truth, cities and rivers, are frequently found, especially in MS. pictures.
A few general schemes may be briefly summarized. St Sophia has the Pantocrator in the middle of the dome, and four cherubim of colossal size at the four corners; on the walls below were angels, prophets, saints and doctors. On the circle of the apse was enthroned the Virgin. To the right and left, high above the altar, were two archangels holding banners inscribed "Holy, Holy, Holy." These last are also found at Nicaea, and at the monastery of St Luke. The church of the Holy Apostles had the Ascension in the central dome, and below, the Life of Christ. St Sophia, Salonica, also has the Ascension, a composition which is repeated on the central dome of St Mark's, Venice. In the eastern dome of the Venetian church is Christ surrounded by prophets, and, in the western dome, the Descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles. A Pentecost similar to the last occupies the dome over the Bema of St Luke's monastery in Phocis; in the central dome of this church is the Pantocrator, while in a zone below stand, the Virgin to the east, St John Baptist to the west, and the four archangels, Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and Uriel, to the north and south.
A better example of grandeur of treatment can hardly be cited than the paintings of the now destroyed dome of the little church of Megale Panagia at Athens, a dome which was only about 12 ft. across. At the centre was Christ enthroned, next came a series of nine semicircles containing the orders of the angels, seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominations, virtues, powers, principalities, archangels and angels. Below these came a wide blue belt set with stars and the signs of the zodiac; to the east the sun, to the west the moon. Still below these were the winds, hail and snow; and still lower mountains and trees and the life on the earth, with all of which were interwoven passages from the last three Psalms, forming a Benedicite. After St Mark's, Venice, the completest existing scheme of mosaics is that of the church of St Luke; those of Daphne, Athens, are the most beautiful. A complete series of paintings exists in one of the monastic churches on Mount Athos. The Pantocrator is at the centre of the dome, then comes a zone with the Virgin, St John Baptist and the orders of the angels. Then the prophets between the windows of the dome and the four evangelists in the pendentives.
On the rest of the vaults is the life of Christ, ending at the Bema with the Ascension; in the apse is the Virgin above, the Divine Liturgy lower, and the four doctors of the church below. All the walls are painted as well as the vaults. The mosaics overflowed from the interiors on to the external walls of buildings even in Roman days, and the same practice was continued on churches. The remains of an external mosaic of the 6th century exist on the west façade of the basilica at Parenzo. Christ is there seated amongst the seven candlesticks, and adored by saints. At the basilica at Bethlehem the gable end was appropriately covered with a mosaic of the Nativity, also a work of the age of Justinian. In Rome, St Peter's and other churches had mosaics on the façades; a tradition represented, in a small way, at San Miniato, Florence. At Constantinople, according to Clavigo, the Spanish ambassador who visited that city about 1400, the church of St Mary of the Fountain had its exterior richly worked in gold, azure and other colours; and it seems almost necessary to believe that the bare front of the narthex of St Sophia was intended to be decorated in a similar manner.
In Damascus the courtyard of the Great Mosque seems to have been adorned with mosaics; photographs taken before the fire in 1893 show patches on the central gable in some of the spandrels of the side colonnade and on the walls of the isolated octagonal treasury. The mosaics here were of Byzantine workmanship, and their effect, used in such abundance, must have been of great splendour. In Jerusalem the mosque of Omar also had portions of the exterior covered with mosaics. We may imagine that such external decorations of the churches, where a few solemn figures told almost as shadows on the golden background brightly reflecting the sun, must have been even more glorious than the imagery of their interiors.
Painted books were hardly different in their style from the paintings on the walls. Of the MSS. the Cottonian Genesis, now only a collection of charred fragments, was an early example. The great Natural History of Dioscorides of Vienna (c. 500) and the Joshua Roll of the Vatican, which have both been lately published in perfect facsimile, are magnificent works. In the former the plants are drawn with an accuracy of observation which was to disappear for a thousand years. The latter shows a series of drawings delicately tinted in pinks and blues. Many of the compositions contain classical survivals, like personified rivers.
In some of the miniatures of the later school of the art the classical revival of the 10th century was especially marked. Still later others show a very definite Persian influence in their ornamentation, where intricate arabesques almost of the style of eastern rugs are found.