Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Byzantine Art

Above is a bust of the Emporer Constantine, who ruled the Roman Empire from 306-337 AD.  During his reign, the persecution of Christians was stopped by the Edict of Milan in 313.  He also convened the Council of Nicea in 325 and Christianity became the established religion of the Empire,declaring that God is the Father and Jesus is his only begotten son.   

Constantine also established an Eastern Capitol of the Empire in Byzantium, renaming it Constantinople. 

The Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom)  in Constantinople (now Istanbul) was built as a palace church later by the Emperor Justinian, who ruled from 527-565 AD.    

The structure is an amazing architectural achievement, and Justinian is said to have claimed that he "outdid" Solomon in building it.  The huge dome is supported by four triangular pendentives that transfer the support of the circular structure to four pillars.  

Two of the pendentives are shown at the back on either side of the main arch in the picture above.  Here is a simplified version:

It is tempting to go into the history, but I am sticking with the art, which is still pretty complicated.  Sophia Hagia became a Muslim Mosque and then a  museum, which it is now.  Below is a contemporary picture of the Hagia Sophia.  During that time, the dome fell in 558, when there was an earthquake, but it was rebuilt in 563.  

The interior of Hagia Sophia  is decorated with mosaics, including one depicting Mary holding the baby Jesus, with Justinian presenting him with a model of the Hagia Sophia and Constantine presenting him with a model of the city of Constantinople.

That mosaic also demonstrates the more stylized figure representation of Medieval art, when compared the the more natural figures of the classical Roman era and the Renaissance.  In most of these medieval figures, the person looks directly at the viewer, and the image is meant to link the viewer with the holy figures.  It is also interesting to note that Justinian and Constantine have halos; they were considered to be both rulers and saints.  Of course, Mary and the baby Jesus also have halos. In 431 AD, the idea of Mary as the Mother of God, or "Theotokos," was established by the Third Ecumenical Council.  This concept was based on the idea that, since Mary was the mother of Jesus, she was also the Mother of God. The result was that images of Mary holding the infant became a common artistic theme.  Paintings of God were not considered possible, though he would appear from time to time as a hand descending from heaven, such as the detail below from a mosaic in Ravenna.

Another interesting mosaic in the Hagia Sophia is the Virgin Theotokos, from 867 AD,  which is actually a post iconoclast work.

A little history is necessary now.  Works depicting religious figures, or icons, were made unlawful by the Iconoclast Council of Hiera in 754, based on biblical teachings that there should be no making and worshiping "graven images" or idols.   So, new images were prohibited and some of the existing images were destroyed.  This is known as the Iconoclast Era.  The second council of Nicaea reinstated the use of icons in 787, stating that holy images should be seen frequently so that those who see them are drawn to remember and pay tribute to the images.  The work above was executed in that spirit.  This is an opportunity to point out how many of the images of Mary and the baby Jesus depict them seated on a throne, whether in an earthly realm or in heaven.  The image above can be considered them in heaven, primarily because of the metallic gold background.

Another important art center was Ravenna, Italy.  Ravenna was Western Capitol of the Roman Empire from 402 to 476.  There are numerous mosaics there which are very well preserved.  Ravenna had been a port city and was important in transportation between Rome and Constantinople.  However, the port silted over and so it was no longer usable.  In present day jargon--no-one went there anymore, especially during the Iconclastic era and subsequent invasions of the Roman Empire.  The result is that the outstanding mosaics are preserved.   In Ravenna's Basilica of San Vitale, there is an important mosaic depicting the Emporer Justinian.  In it, he is shown with his military officials on one side and the ecclesiastical officials on the other, showing that he had both military and religious authority.

There is also a mosaic of Justinian's wife, Theodora, that shows her with men and women of her court.  I have actually seen these mosaics and they are stunning.

There is MUCH more, but I will close and post as this particular post is much too long.  If you ever get the chance to go to Ravenna, do it.  It is beautiful and many of the streets still feel very medieval.  I have not been to the Hagia Sophia, but definitely plan to go there.  These are important artistic links.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

More From My Art History Class in Medieval Art--Early Christian Art

In the third century AD, Christians in Rome were persecuted and so had to be careful about displaying images relating to their religion.  They buried people in decorated sarcophagi in catacombs.  Since images that depicted Christian scenes and symbols would have been dangerous, they used images that would have been acceptable to non-Christians, but could be interpreted as Christian.  For example, the detail image above depicts Jonas being pulled back into a boat after escaping from the belly of the whale.  It would have been perfectly acceptable as traditional Roman art, which accepted the Old Testament, but early Christians might have used it to convey the idea of resurrection, or Christ rising from the dead.

It was a period of transition in art.  As our instructor described it, there was Christianizing of Roman Art and Romanizing of Christian Art.  Another image from about this time is bread and fish, suggesting the Sermon on the Mount. Those images could also be interpreted as a Roman symbol of bounty, which would have been perfectly acceptable in Roman culture. The fresco below is in the Catacombs of San Callisto, which were originally dug out at the end of the 2nd century.  We are free to interpret it as we want, but I gather most scholars think it is covertly an image to convey thoughts of Christ.

Another fresco depicts a group of men, who Christians might see as Jesus and the disciples at The Last Supper, but this type of scene would also have been a common Roman image of a scholar and his students.

The persecution of Christians ended with what is known as the Edict of Milan, issued by Emperor Constantine in 313 AD.  He was Roman Emperor and also a Christian,  According to the Edict, no one could be persecuted because of religion.   That meant that images of Jesus and other religious figures could be openly executed and displayed.  In 325 AD, the Nicene Creed was adopted and Jesus was deemed to be divine.  Paintings of him began to emerge with halos.

Constantine also moved the Eastern Capitol  of the Roman Empire to Byzantium in 330 AD, renaming it Constantinople.

Theological ideas were also in a transition,and Christianity became the official religion of the Romans under Emperor Theodosius in 380 AD.  Many Roman statues of gods were destroyed at that time because they were "pagan."  In 431 AD, the idea of Mary as the Mother of God, or "Theotokos," was established by the Third Ecumenical Council.  So, images of Mary holding Jesus, with both of them having halos,emerged.

As travel between the East and West developed, the Port of Ravenna became an important center.  Ravenna is known for its mosaics and the churches built there feature mosaics that tell stories from the Old and New Testaments.  One of the most well-known, and interesting, of these is "Christ in Majesty" in San Vitale (527-548 AD).

Jesus is on a "blue throne, with a halo and in a golden background rather than in a natural setting. (Apologies about the copyright notice--I am not doing this for money, so I think it is OK here) There are two angels and  and the two other figures are San Vitale, on the left, being handed a martyr's crown and Bishop Ecclesius, on the right, with a model of the church.  San Vitale was an early Christian martyr and Ecclesius is the founder of this church.  I have seen this mosaic in Ravenna and it is stunning...even when I didn't understand it.  It is high in the apse and has a golden glow because of the golden mosaic background.  I have always been intrigued by Ravenna and now I understand it a little more.  One of the reasons it survived is because it was a port that became "silted in" and wasn't used and so was kind of forgotten.