Byzantine Art. By "Byzantine art" is meant the art of Constantinople (sometimes called Byzantium in the middle ages as in antiquity), and of the Byzantine empire; it represents the form of art which followed the classical, after the transitional interval of the early Christian period. It reached maturity under Justinian (527-565), declined and revived with the fortunes of the empire, and attained a second culmination from the 10th to the 12th centuries. Continuing in existence throughout the later middle ages, it is hardly yet extinct in the lands of the Greek Church. It had enormous influence over the art of Europe and the East during the early middle ages, not only through the distribution of minor works from Constantinople but by the reputation of its architecture and painting. Several buildings in Italy are truly Byzantine. It is difficult to set a time for the origin of the style. When Constantine founded new Rome the art was still classical, although it had even then gathered up many of the elements which were to transform its aspect.
Just two hundred years later some of the most characteristic works of this style of art were being produced, such as the churches of St Sergius, the Holy Wisdom (St Sophia), and the Holy Apostles at Constantinople, and San Vitale at Ravenna. We may best set an arbitrary point for the demarcation of the new style midway between these two dates, with the practical separation of the eastern and western empires.
The style may be said to have arisen from the orientalization of Roman art, and itself largely contributed to the formation of the Saracenic or Mahommedan styles. As Choisy well says, "The history of art in the Roman epoch presents two currents, one with its source in Rome, the other in Hellenic Asia. When Rome fell the Orient returned to itself and to the freedom of exploring new ways. There was now a new form of society, the Christian civilization, and, in art, an original type of architecture, the Byzantine." It has hardly been sufficiently emphasized how closely the art was identified with the outward expression of the Christian church; in fact, the Christian element in late classical art is the chief root of the new style, and it was the moral and intellectual criticism that was brought to bear on the old material, which really marked off Byzantine art from being merely a late form of classic.
Hardly any distinction can be set up in the material contents of the art; it was at least for a period only simplified and sweetened, and it is this freshening which prepared the way for future development. It must be confessed, however, that certain influences darkened the style even before it had reached maturity; chief among these was a gloomy hierarchical splendour, and a ritual rigidity, which to-day we yet refer to, quite properly, as Byzantinism. Choisy sees a distinction in the constructive types of Roman and Byzantine architecture, in that the former covered spaces by concreted vaults built on centres, which approximated to a sort of "monolithic" formation, whereas in the Byzantine style the vaults were built of brick and drawn forward in space without the help of preparatory support. Building in this way, it became of the greatest importance that the vaults should be so arranged as to bring about an equilibrium of thrusts. The distinction holds as between Rome in the 4th century and Constantinople in the 6th, but we are not sufficiently sure that the concreted construction did not depend on merely local circumstances, and it is possible, in other centres of the empire where strong cement was not so readily obtainable, and wood was scarce, that the Byzantine constructive method was already known in classical times.
Choisy, following Dieulafoy, would derive the Byzantine system of construction from Persia, but this proposition seems to depend on a mistaken chronology of the monuments as shown by Perrot and Chipiez in their History of Art in Persia. It seems probable that the erection of brick vaulting was indigenous in Egypt as a building method. Strzygowski, in his recent elaborate examination of the art-types found at the palace of Mashita (Mschatta), a remarkable ruin discovered by Canon Tristram in Moab, of which the most important parts have now been brought to the new Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin, shows that there are Persian ideas intermixed with Byzantine in its decoration, and there are also brick arches of high elliptical form in the structure. He seems disposed to date this work rather in the 5th than in the 6th century, and to see in it an intermediate step between the Byzantine work of the west and a Mesopotamian style, which he postulates as probably having its centre at Seleucia-Ctesiphon. From the examples brought forward by the learned author himself, it is safer as yet to look on the work as in the main Byzantine, with many Egyptian and Syrian elements, and an admixture, as has been said, of Persian ideas in the ornamentation.
Egypt was certainly an important centre in the development of the Byzantine style.
The course of the transition to Byzantine, the first mature Christian style, cannot be satisfactorily traced while, guided by Roman archaeologists, we continue to regard Rome as a source of Christian art apart from the rest of the world. Christianity itself was not of Rome, it was an eastern leaven in Roman society. Christian art even in that capital was, we may say, an eastern leaven in Roman art. If we set the year 450 for the beginning of Byzantine art, counting all that went before as early Christian, we get one thousand years to the Moslem conquest of Constantinople (1453). This millennium is broken into three well-marked periods by the great iconoclastic schism (726-842) and the taking of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204. The first we may call the classical epoch of Byzantine art; it includes the mature period under Justinian (the central year of which we may put as 550), from which it declined until the settlement of the quarrel about images, 400 years in all, to, say, 850. The second period, to which we may assign the limits 850-1200, is, in the main, one of orientalizing influences, especially in architecture, although in MSS. and paintings there was, at one time, a distinct and successful classical revival.
The interregnum had caused almost complete isolation from the West, and inspiration was only to be found either by casting back on its own course, or by borrowing from the East. This period is best represented by the splendid works undertaken by Basil the Macedonian (867-886) and his immediate successors, in the imperial palace, Constantinople. The third period is marked by the return of western influence, of which the chief agency was probably the establishment of Cistercian monasteries. This western influence, although it may be traced here and there, was not sufficient, however, to change the essentially oriental character of the art, which from first to last may be described as Oriental-Christian.