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Byzantine Art: The New Spirituality

Byzantine art is the art of the Eastern Roman Empire from roughly the fifth century B.C. to the fifteenth century A.D. In general, Byzantine art is characterized by the use of rich color and figures that appear flat and rigid. There is little use of perspective and the figures often appear to be floating since their feet are shown pointed downward. Shading, as a means to achieve depth, is rarely used. The use of gold and intricate design is often used to indicate the importance of religious figures. Gold as a background color serves to indicate the spirituality of the scene. Folds of drapery are used to express movement. Subtle emotions are expressed in large eyes and facial expressions as well as hands which gesture or hold symbolic objects.

By 290 B.C., the Roman Empire had split in two, the East and the West Roman Empires. The center of the Western empire was in Milan and the eastern, in Nicomedia, in what is now modern Turkey. When Constantine became emperor of both the East and West Roman Empires in 306 A.D., he introduced many significant reforms. During his reign, he made Christianity legal and he created a new capital of the East Roman Empire at Byzantium, later renamed Constantinople.

As western Roman and Greek culture began to blend with Islamic culture and as the gods of antiquity were replaced with the figures of Christianity, the art of this culturally and religiously diverse empire witnessed a transition. The most profound transition in art was that the glorification of man was replaced with the glorification of God. As a result, the depiction of the human figure as a main focus shifted to the depiction of God the Father, his son Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints and martyrs of Christianity.

In the 700s and 800s, the Eastern influence precipitated a controversy over the use of figural images which were forbidden in Islam. During this controversy, known as Iconoclasm, new figural images were banned and existing images were destroyed or covered over. The cross was heralded as the appropriate symbol of Christianity. However, the conflict resolved itself in favor of figural images and the use of icons, sacred images representing religious figures as well as narrative scenes in the life of Christ, became prominent. Art during this period flourished until Byzantium fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

It has been argued that artistic skills suffered a decline with the advent of Christianity during the Byzantine period, particularly in sculpture. But many scholars disagree, saying that the focus of these artists on the spiritual aspect of their subjects required them to develop new ways to represent the spiritual ideal. In other words, the stylistic changes that occurred in the depiction of figural images was intentional and not necessarily due to a lack of skill.

The icon is the most prominent expression of artistic endeavor in Byzantine art. While icons were often fashioned on wooden panels with paint, they were also rendered in marble, ivory, gemstones, metals and mosaics. The Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, was a central figure in Byzantine spirituality and one of the most commonly portrayed figures in icons. The role of Mary as a mother was stressed and she was often shown holding her infant son. In fact, there are a number of Byzantine poses of Mary and Jesus that became a sort of “standard.” In one popular representation of Mary, she holds Christ with her left arm and gestures toward him with her right hand, apparently indicating that the way of Christ is the way of salvation. In another pose, Mary is shown placing her cheek against the cheek of the infant and the infant places his hand around her neck. This embrace is believed to symbolize the compassion of Mary.

Theodore Teron, a warrior saint, was another popular figure on icons. He is typically shown on horseback with a dark pointed beard. The archangel Michael, a military saint, and Saint Catherine, who was beheaded in Rome for her faith, were also frequently depicted in icons. In addition to the use of icons as wall decorations, icons were also worn as pendants or displayed as battle banners. Triptychs were icons that were composed of panels that could be folded downward for safe transport. The popularity of icons as a means for illustrating religious concepts and ideals was invaluable to the major religious orders of Franciscans and Dominicans whose goal it was to spread the Christian faith throughout the world.

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Diana Blake is a professional artist and art history enthusiast. Her fascination with art history began when she encountered European art firsthand during several trips abroad as a young adult. As she began to compose a portfolio for her own art career, she called upon what she had seen in Europe and extended her knowledge to other styles of art through profuse reading and exhaustive research. As a result, Diana has written more than one hundred articles in which she delves into a variety of art history topics and she has compiled a list of links that she believes to be invaluable for art history enthusiasts. In addition, she also reviews books and movies on the topic of art history and has assembled an extensive list of online stores that sell books, movies and gift items related to art history.
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