Just as the Byzantine empire represented the political continuation of the Roman Empire,
Byzantine art developed out of the art of the Roman empire, which was itself profoundly
influenced by ancient Greek art. Byzantine art never lost sight of this classical heritage. The
Byzantine capital, Constantinople, was adorned with a large number of classical sculptures,
although they eventually became an object of some puzzlement for its inhabitants. And
indeed, the art produced during the Byzantine empire, although marked by periodic revivals of a
classical aesthetic, was above all marked by the development of a new aesthetic.
The most salient feature of this new aesthetic was its “abstract,” or anti-naturalistic character. If
classical art was marked by the attempt to create representations that mimicked reality as closely
as possible, Byzantine art seems to have abandoned this attempt in favor of a more symbolic
Miniatures of the 6th-century Rabula Gospel display the more abstract and symbolic nature of
The nature and causes of this transformation, which largely took place during late antiquity, have
been a subject of scholarly debate for centuries. Giorgio Vasari attributed it to a decline in
artistic skills and standards, which had in turn been revived by his contemporaries in the Italian
Renaissance. Although this point of view has been occasionally revived, most notably by Bernard
Berenson, modern scholars tend to take a more positive view of the Byzantine aesthetic. Alois
Riegl and Josef Strzygowski, writing in the early 20th century, were above all responsible for the
revaluation of late antique art. Riegl saw it as a natural development of pre-existing tendencies
in Roman art, whereas Strzygowski viewed it as a product of “oriental” influences. Notable recent
contributions to the debate include those of Ernst Kitzinger, who traced a “dialectic” between
“abstract" and "Hellenistic” tendencies in late antiquity, and John Onians, who saw an
“increase in visual response” in late antiquity, through which a viewer “could look at something
which was in twentieth-century terms purely abstract and find it representational.”
In any case, the debate is purely modern: it is clear that most Byzantine viewers did not consider
their art to be abstract or unnaturalistic. As Cyril Mango has observed, “our own appreciation of
Byzantine art stems largely from the fact that this art is not naturalistic; yet the Byzantines
themselves, judging by their extant statements, regarded it as being highly naturalistic and as
being directly in the tradition of Phidias, Apelles, and Zeuxis.”
Frescoes in Nerezi near Skopje (1164), with their unique blend of high tragedy, gentle humanity,
and homespun realism, anticipate the approach of Giotto and other proto-Renaissance Italian
The subject matter of monumental Byzantine art was primarily religious and imperial: the two
themes are often combined, as in the portraits of later Byzantine emperors that decorated the
interior of the sixth-century church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. These preoccupations are
partly a result of the pious and autocratic nature of Byzantine society, and partly a result of its
economic structure: the wealth of the empire was concentrated in the hands of the church and the
imperial office, which therefore had the greatest opportunity to undertake monumental artistic
Religious art was not, however, limited to the monumental decoration of church interiors. One of
the most important genres of Byzantine art was the icon, an image of Christ, the Virgin, or a saint,
used as an object of veneration in Orthodox churches and private homes alike. Icons were more
religious than aesthetic in nature: especially after the end of iconoclasm, they were understood to
manifest the unique “presence” of the figure depicted by means of a “likeness” to that figure
maintained through carefully maintained canons of representation.
The illumination of manuscripts was another major genre of Byzantine art. The most commonly
illustrated texts were religious, both scripture itself (particularly the Psalms) and devotional or
theological texts (such as the Ladder of Divine Ascent of John Climacus or the homilies of
Gregory of Nazianzus). Secular texts were also illuminated: important examples include the
Alexander Romance and the history of John Skylitzes.
“Minor” or “luxury” arts (i.e. ivories, steatites, enamels, jewelry, metalwork, ceramics, etc.) were
produced in large number throughout the Byzantine era. Many of these were also religious in
nature, although a large number of objects with secular or non-representational decoration were
produced: for example, ivories representing themes from classical mythology, and ceramics
decorated with figures that may derive from the Akritic epics.
 Early Byzantine art
Leaf from an ivory diptych of Areobindus Dagalaiphus Areobindus, consul in Constantinople, 506.
Areobindus is shown above, presiding over the games in the Hippodrome, depicted beneath.
Two events were of fundamental importance to the development of a unique, Byzantine art. First,
the Edict of Milan, issued by the emperors Constantine I and Licinius in 313, allowed for public
Christian worship, and led to the development of a monumental, Christian art. Second, the
dedication of Constantinople in 330 created a great new artistic centre for the eastern half of the
Empire, and a specifically Christian one. Other artistic traditions flourished in rival cities such as
Alexandria, Antioch, and Rome, but it was not until all of these cities had fallen - the first two to
the Arabs and Rome to the Goths - that Constantinople established its supremacy.
Constantine devoted great effort to the decoration of Constantinople, adorning its public spaces
with ancient statuary, and building a forum dominated by a porphyry column that carried a
statue of himself. Major Constantinopolitan churches built under Constantine and his son,
Constantius II, included the original foundations of Hagia Sophia and the Church of the Holy
The next major building campaign in Constantinople was sponsored by Theodosius I. The most
important surviving monument of this period is the obelisk and base erected by Theodosius in the
Hippodrome. The earliest surviving church in Constantinople is the Basilica of St. John at the
Stoudios Monastery, built in the fifth century.
Due to subsequent rebuilding and destruction, relatively few Constantinopolitan monuments of
this early period survive. However, the development of monumental early Byzantine art can still
be traced through surviving structures in other cities. For example, important early churches are
found in Rome (including Santa Sabina and Santa Maria Maggiore), and in Thessaloniki (the
Rotunda and the Acheiropoietos Basilica).
A number of important illuminated manuscripts, both sacred and secular, survive from this early
period. Classical authors, including Virgil (represented by the Vergilius Vaticanus and the
Vergilius Romanus) and Homer (represented by the Ambrosian Iliad), were illustrated with
narrative paintings. Illuminated biblical manuscripts of this period survive only in fragments: for
example, the Quedlinburg Itala fragment is a small portion of what must have been a lavishly
illustrated copy of 1 Kings.
Early Byzantine art was also marked by the cultivation of ivory carving. Ivory diptychs, often
elaborately decorated, were issued as gifts by newly appointed consuls. Silver plates were
another important form of luxury art: among the most lavish from this period is the Missorium
of Theodosius I. Sarcophagi continued to be produced in great numbers.
 The Age of Justinian
Significant changes in Byzantine art coincided with the reign of Justinian I (527-565). Justinian
devoted much of his reign to reconquering Italy, North Africa and Spain. He also laid the
foundations of the imperial absolutism of the Byzantine state, codifying its laws and imposing his
religious views on all his subjects by law.
Mosaic from San Vitale in Ravenna, showing the Emperor Justinian and Bishop Maximian of
Ravenna surrounded by clerics and soldiers.
A significant component of Justinian's project of imperial renovation was a massive building
program, which was described in a book, the Buildings, written by Justinian's court historian,
Procopius. Justinian renovated, rebuilt, or founded anew countless churches within
Constantinople, including Hagia Sophia, which had been destroyed during the Nika riots, the
Church of the Holy Apostles, and the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus. Justinian
also built a number of churches and fortifications outside of the imperial capital, including the
Monastery of St. Catherine on the Sinai Peninsula, and the Basilica of St. John in Ephesus.
Several major churches of this period were built in the provinces by local bishops in imitation of
the new Constantinopolitan foundations. The Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, was built by
Bishop Maximianus. The decoration of San Vitale includes important mosaics of Justinian and his
empress, Theodora, although neither ever visited the church. Also of note is the Euphrasian
Basilica in Poreč.
19-20th century archeological discoveries unearthed a large group of Early Byzantine mosaics in
the Middle East. The eastern provinces of the Eastern Roman and later the Byzantine Empires
inherited a strong artistic tradition from the Late Antiquity. Christian mosaic art flourished in this
area from the 4th century onwards. The tradition of making mosaics was carried on in the
Umayyad era until the end of the 8th century. The most important surviving examples are the
Madaba Map, the mosaics of Mount Nebo, Saint Catherine's Monastery on Mount Sinai and the
Church of St Stephen in ancient Kastron Mefaa (now Umm ar-Rasas).
The first fully-preserved illuminated biblical manuscripts date to the first half of the sixth century,
most notably the Vienna Genesis, the Rossano Gospels, and the Sinope Gospels.
The Vienna Dioscurides is a lavishly illustrated botanical treatise, presented as a gift to the
Byzantine aristocrat Julia Anicia.
Important ivory sculptures of this period include the Barberini ivory, which probably depicts
Justinian himself,  and the Archangel ivory in the British Museum. Silver plate continued to
be decorated with scenes drawn from classical mythology; for example, a plate preserved in the
Cabinet des Médailles, Paris, depicts Hercules wrestling the Nemean lion.
 The seventh-century crisis
Mosaic from the church of Hagios Demetrios in Thessaloniki, late 7th or early 8th century,
showing St. Demetrios with donors.
The Age of Justinian was followed by a political decline, since most of Justinian's conquests were
lost and the Empire faced acute crisis with the invasions of the Avars, Slavs, Persians and Arabs
in the 7th century. Constantinople was also wracked by religious and political conflict.
The most significant surviving monumental projects of this period were undertaken outside of the
imperial capital. The church of Hagios Demetrios in Thessaloniki was rebuilt after a fire in the
mid-seventh century. The new sections include mosaics executed in a remarkably abstract style.
 The church of the Koimesis in Nicaea (present-day Iznik), destroyed in the early 20th century
but documented through photographs, demonstrates the simultaneous survival of a more
classical style of church decoration. The churches of Rome, still a Byzantine territory in this
period, also include important surviving decorative programs, especially Santa Maria Antiqua,
Sant'Agnese fuori le mura, and the Chapel of San Venanzio in San Giovanni in Laterano.
Byzantine mosaicists probably also contributed to the decoration of the early Umayyad
monuments, including the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Great Mosque of Damascus.
Important works of luxury art from this period include the silver David Plates, produced during the
reign of Heraclius, and depicting scenes from the life of the Hebrew king David. The most
notable surviving manuscripts are Syriac gospel books, such as the so-called Syriac Bible of
Paris. However, the London Canon Tables bear witness to the continuing production of lavish
gospel books in Greek.
The period between Justinian and iconoclasm saw major changes in the social and religious roles
of images within Byzantium. The veneration of acheiropoieta, or holy images "not made by
human hands," became a significant phenomenon, and in some instances these images were
credited with saving cities from military assault. By the end of the seventh century, certain images
of saints had come to be viewed as "windows" through which one could communicate with the
figure depicted. Proskynesis before images is also attested in texts from the late seventh century.
These developments mark the beginnings of a theology of icons.
At the same time, the debate over the proper role of art in the decoration of churches intensified.
Three canons of the Quinisext Council of 692 addressed controversies in this area: prohibition of
the representation of the cross on church pavements (Canon 73), prohibition of the
representation of Christ as a lamb (Canon 82), and a general injunction against "pictures, whether
they are in paintings or in what way so ever, which attract the eye and corrupt the mind, and incite
it to the enkindling of base pleasures" (Canon 100).
Helios in his chariot, surrounded by symbols of the months and of the zodiac. From Vat. Gr. 1291,
the "Handy Tables" of Ptolemy, produced during the reign of Constantine V.
Intense debate over the role of art in worship led eventually to the period of "Byzantine
iconoclasm." Sporadic outbreaks of iconoclasm on the part of local bishops are attested in
Asia Minor during the 720s. In 726, an underwater earthquake between the islands of Thera and
Therasia was interpreted by Emperor Leo III as a sign of God's anger, and may have led Leo to
remove a famous icon of Christ from the Chalke Gate outside the imperial palace. However,
iconoclasm probably did not become imperial policy until the reign of Leo's son, Constantine V.
The Council of Hieria, convened under Constantine in 754, proscribed the manufacture of icons
of Christ. This inaugurated the Iconoclastic period, which lasted, with interruptions, until 843.
While iconoclasm severely restricted the role of religious art, and led to the removal of some
earlier apse mosaics and (possibly) the sporadic destruction of portable icons, it never constituted
a total ban on the production of figural art. Ample literary sources indicate that secular art (i.e.
hunting scenes and depictions of the games in the hippodrome) continued to be produced,
and the few monuments that can be securely dated to the period (most notably the manuscript of
Ptolemy's "Handy Tables" today held by the Vatican) demonstrate that metropolitan artists
maintained a high quality of production.
Major churches dating to this period include Hagia Eirene in Constantinople, which was rebuilt in
the 760s following its destruction by an earthquake in 740. The interior of Hagia Eirene, which is
dominated by a large mosaic cross in the apse, is one of the best-preserved examples of
iconoclastic church decoration. The church of Hagia Sophia in Thessaloniki was also rebuilt in
the late 8th century.
Certain churches built outside of the empire during this period, but decorated in a figural,
"Byzantine," style, may also bear witness to the continuing activities of Byzantine artists.
Particularly important in this regard are the original mosaics of the Palatine Chapel in Aachen
(since either destroyed or heavily restored) and the frescoes in the Church of Maria foris portas in
 Macedonian Art
Main article: Macedonian art (Byzantine)
An example of Macedonian ivorywork: the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste, now in the Bode Museum,
The rulings of the Council of Hieria were reversed by a new church council in 843, celebrated to
this day in the Eastern Orthodox Church as the "Triumph of Orthodoxy." In 867, the installation of
a new apse mosaic in Hagia Sophia depicting the Virgin and Child was celebrated by the
Patriarch Photios in a famous homily as a victory over the evils of iconoclasm. Later in the same
year, the Emperor Basil I, called "the Macedonian," acceded to the throne; as a result the
following period of Byzantine art has sometimes been called the "Macedonian Renaissance,"
although the term is doubly problematic (it was neither "Macedonian," nor, strictly speaking, a
In the 9th and 10th centuries the Empire's military situation improved, and patronage of art and
architecture increased. New churches were commissioned, and the standard architectural form
(the "cross-in-square") and decorative scheme of the Middle Byzantine church were
standardised. Major surviving examples include Hosios Loukas in Boeotia, the Daphni Monastery
near Athens and Nea Moni on Chios.
There was a revival of interest in the depiction of subjects from classical mythology (as on the
Veroli Casket) and in the use of a "classical" style to depict religious, and particularly Old
Testament, subjects (of which the Paris Psalter and the Joshua Roll are important examples)
The Macedonian period also saw a revival of the late antique technique of ivory carving. Many
ornate ivory triptychs and diptychs survive, such as the Harbaville Triptych and a triptych at Luton
Hoo, dating from the reign of Nicephorus Phocas).
 Comnenian Age
The Macedonian emperors were followed by the Komnenian dynasty, beginning with the reign of
Alexios I Komnenos in 1081. Byzantium had recently suffered a period of severe dislocation
following the battle of Manzikert in 1071 and the subsequent loss of Asia Minor to the Turks.
However, the Komnenoi brought stability to the empire, (1081-1185), and during the course of the
twelfth century their energetic campaigning did much to restore the fortunes of the empire. The
Komnenoi were great patrons of the arts, and with their support Byzantine artists continued to
move in the direction of greater humanism and emotion, of which the Theotokos of Vladimir, the
cycle of mosaics at Daphni, and the murals at Nerezi yield important examples. Ivory sculpture
and other expensive mediums of art gradually gave way to frescoes and icons, which for the first
time gained widespread popularity across the Empire. Apart from painted icons, there were other
varieties - notably the mosaic and ceramic ones.
The Annunciation from Ohrid, one of the most admired icons of the Paleologan Mannerism, bears
comparison with the finest contemporary works by Italian artists.
Some of the finest Byzantine work of this period may be found outside the Empire: in the mosaics
of Gelati, Kiev, Torcello, Venice, Monreale, Cefalù and Palermo. For instance, Venice's Basilica
of St Mark, begun in 1063, was based on the great Church of the Holy Apostles in
Constantinople, now destroyed, and is thus an echo of the age of Justinian. The acquisitive habits
of the Venetians mean that the basilica is also a great museum of Byzantine artworks of all kinds
(e.g., Pala d'Oro).
 Palaeologan Age
Eight hundred years of continuous Byzantine culture were brought to an abrupt end in 1204 with
the sacking of Constantinople by the knights of the Fourth Crusade, a disaster from which the
Empire never recovered. Although the Byzantines regained the city in 1261, the Empire was
thereafter a small and weak state confined to the Greek peninsula and the islands of the Aegean.
Nevertheless the Palaeologan Dynasty, beginning with Michael VIII Palaeologus in 1259, was a
last golden age of Byzantine art, partly because of the increasing cultural exchange between
Byzantine and Italian artists. Byzantine artists developed a new interest in landscapes and
pastoral scenes, and the traditional mosaic-work (of which the Chora Church in Constantinople is
the finest extant example) gradually gave way to detailed cycles of narrative frescoes (as
evidenced in a large group of Mystras churches). The icons, which became a favoured medium
for artistic expression, were characterized by a less austere attitude, new appreciation for purely
decorative qualities of painting and meticulous attention to details, earning the popular name of
the Paleologan Mannerism for the period in general.
Crete had been ruled by the Venetians since 1211, and the Cretan school of icon-painting
gradually introduced Western elements into its style, and exported large numbers of icons to the
West. After the fall of the Empire, Crete became the centre of Greek art, until it too fell to the
Turks in 1669.
The Byzantine era properly defined came to an end with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman
Turks in 1453, but by this time the Byzantine cultural heritage had been widely diffused, carried
by the spread of Orthodox Christianity, to Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania and, most importantly, to
Russia, which became the centre of the Orthodox world following the Ottoman conquest of the
Balkans. Even under Ottoman rule, Byzantine traditions in icon-painting and other small-scale
arts survived, especially in the Venetian-ruled Crete and Rhodes, where a "post-Byzantine" style
under increasing Western influence survived for a further two centuries, producing El Greco and
other significant artists.
The influence of Byzantine art in western Europe, particularly Italy was seen in ecclesiastical
architecture, through the development of the Romanesque style in the 10th century and 11th
centuries. This influence was transmitted through the Frankish and Salic emperors, primarily
Charlemagne, who had close relations with Byzantium. The contribution of the migrated
Byzantine scholars in Renaissance is also very important.