Early Christian Byzantine Art History


Early Christian and Byzantine art refers to a body of work produced by or for the Christian Empire for the first five centuries A.C.E., or After the Common Era. When Emperor Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire to Byzantium (later Constantinople) the city was in the heart of a heavily influenced Greek culture. Byzantium also symbolized the growing importance of and fascination with the Eastern world and remained a gateway between Eastern and Western cultures until the city fell in 1453 to the invading Turks. The move from Rome to Byzantium sharply divided the Christian Empire between East and West. Early Christian art is more associated with the Western or Catholic Church. Byzantium art is qualified as the art of the Eastern or Orthodox Church.


  • The largest and most dependable bodies of early Christian and Byzantium art are the images that have been collected from the tombs and underground burial places of the early first centuries. Symbols characteristic of early Christian art include geometric shapes such as circles or domes to signify heaven. The symbol of the cross was used as a fundamental symbol of the Christian faith, but also present were representations of Christ as the Good Shepherd, as well as panels that reflected various Old and New Testament scenes.


  • Up until the rise of the Holy Roman Empire, Christians didn't worship openly in pagan society, so with the conversion of the Emperor came the commission of buildings of worship. Based on the pagan models of basilicas, Byzantine architecture was expanded to include a focus on the altar, an essential part of Christian ritual.

    The Hagia Sophia, or the Church of Holy Wisdom, is considered the architectural masterpiece of this time. Built between 532 and 537, the Hagia Sophia features a large dome that rests on pendentives (spherical triangles). This permits the construction of taller, lighter and more economical domes than the previous method of placing domes on an octagonal base. Because of its revolutionary pendentive construction, the Hagia Sophia became a model on which Byzantium architecture was based.

    The use of light provided by the placement of windows set close together let in sunlight which glittered off the gold decorative work. This created an illusory otherworldly effect. Because of these techniques and the Hagia's position in Constantinople itself, the Hagia Sophia is considered a bridge between the two cultures of the East and West, and its innovative design a bridge between past and future.


  • Mosaics were traditionally made in the Greco-Roman style of using colored materials set in plaster; most Roman mosaics were rendered in marble. Early Christian mosaics absorbed the Greco-Roman culture by replacing the older more outdated use of mural paintings, and, instead of using marble, early Christian mosaic makers made their art with pieces of colored glass, which offered colors in greater range and intensity, but lacked a natural-looking tone more present in mosaics that were meant to mirror the subtleties of gradations in mural paintings. Instead, these mosaic makers created their own new aesthetic by using the irregular and shiny surfaces as reflectors creating an "otherworldly" effect not seen in art until this time.


  • Sculpture during this time started on a small scale, mostly in sarcophagal depictions on the graves of wealthy church members. These sculptures concentrated on the divine aspect rather than the human nature of Christ. Often these sculptures were in panels, as seen in the mosaics of the time, depicting different Bible scenes portraying passive figures in dramatic situations.


  • Icons in early Christian art were portrait images derived primarily from the New Testament and largely reflected the Greco-Roman portrait panels seen in the catacombs and churches.

    Many theologians of the time debated the issue of portraying the image of Christ. Some theologians believed icons were necessary tools of worship while other theologians believed icons were blasphemous. This debate was a reflection of the power struggle between the Church and the State, since much of the money that funded artwork came from the government.

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  • A History of Art; H.W. Janson; 2004
  • Photo Credit saint mark"s basilica image by citylights from Fotolia.com
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