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Byzantine art

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Art produced in or under the influence of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) empire; the empire was founded in ad 330 by Constantine (the first Christian emperor of Rome) and ended in 1453 when the capital Constantinople (originally named Byzantium) was captured by the Turks and under the name of Istanbul became the capital of the Ottoman empire. The split between the Western and Eastern empires had become permanent in 395, when each adopted a separate ruler, and after the Western empire was overrun by barbarians in the 5th century the Byzantine empire became the great upholder of Christianity and of the cultural traditions of Greece and Rome. Byzantine territories varied greatly in extent: at one time they covered almost the entire Mediterranean basin, but from the 7th century many provinces were lost, first to the Arabs and later to the Turks. However, Byzantine art extended beyond the political or geographical boundaries of the empire, penetrating, for example, into the Slav countries, and in certain areas—where the Eastern Orthodox Church flourished—its tradition continued long after the collapse of the empire.

Byzantine art was, above all, a religious art. It was serious, other-worldly, and conservative; the Byzantine artist did not aspire to freedom of individual interpretation but was the voice of orthodox dogma. The choice of subjects and the attitudes and expressions of figures were determined according to traditional schemes charged with theological meaning. In the domes of churches, for example, Christ was usually shown as ruler of the universe (the Greek term is Pantocrater, meaning ‘all-powerful’). Although Byzantine artists produced panel paintings, frescos, manuscript illuminations, ivories, enamels, textiles, jewellery, and metalwork of high quality, Byzantine art is seen at its finest and most typical in the mosaic decoration of churches. Mosaics were applied to all available surfaces of the interior, the luminous shimmering of the colours and the remote, implacably staring figures creating—in the finest works—a truly awe-inspiring effect, raising the art to unprecedented levels of grandeur and expressive power. Figures are flat and arranged frontally, occupying a spiritual dimension rather than a realistic space. Also typical of Byzantine art is the icon, which usually represented the head of Christ, the Virgin and Child, or a particular saint, although there are also much more complex figure groups of subjects such as the Crucifixion. Icons tended to become cult images, and the view that this was idolatrous led to the various outbursts of iconoclasm (‘image-breaking’), particularly in the 8th and 9th centuries, when many figurative works were destroyed and artists had to revert to ornamental forms or symbols such as the cross. The austere conventions of Byzantine art spread to Italy, where they were eventually challenged by the less ritualistic, more naturalistic ideals of artists such as Giotto and Duccio.

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