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How Byzantine Art Influenced Europe

El Greco: Byzantine art at its height
El Greco: The Disrobing of Christ (cropped) is a prime example of Byzantine art after the fall of Constantinople. Public Domain

The Byzantine contribution to art, and especially to painting, was original and reached a degree of expressiveness that can rarely be compared with any other.

Byzantine art continues to be influential and is still discussed today mainly because of its abstract character and rich, earthy colors. Its influence is most evident in Italy.

Byzantine art
A great example of Byzantine art is the Nave Mosaic of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna, Italy. Credit: Zairon/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

It is not an exaggeration to say that from the sixth to thirteenth centuries, Italy was a sort of artistic province for Byzantium.

In many Italian paintings and mosaics, the unique characteristics of Byzantine art are evident. Its power, mysticism, color, and lines were more than simple depictions of nature, evoking otherworldly emotions.

Byzantine art and mosaics

The Byzantine mosaics of Ravenna, especially the portraits of Justinian, his wife Theodora, and the imperial court are a good example. The shining tessera of colored glass and stone, placed at various angles, reflects the light in such a way so as to hint at the heavenly reaches of God overseeing the court on earth.

Byzantine Emperor Justinian and his court
Court of Emperor Justinian with (right) Archbishop Maximian and (left) court officials and Praetorian Guards; Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. Credit: Bender235. Public Domain

In these mosaics, much like the frescoes of the churches of Ravenna and certain ones of Rome, the eastern tradition is evident. This is also the case further north in Venice, which was practically a Byzantine city, or “another Byzantium,” as Bessarion declared.

Yet another example of Byzantine art is the mosaics of the Church of Saint Mark in Venice. The building itself is a close approximation of the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople.

Further west, the dome of Saint Fran in Paris, France was certainly modeled after the dome of Saint Mark. Even further north in Charlemagne’s capital of Aachen, Germany, Charlemagne’s chapel was constructed as a model of San Vitale in Ravenna, while this too was modeled after the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus in Constantinople.

Byzantine crafts

While being admirers of the great monuments of Byzantine art, medieval Westerners also  valued the smaller but likewise valuable works of Byzantine craftsmen. A few carved ivories sent as gifts to Western princes or prelates still exist, and the French monastery of Saint Denis possesses textiles decorated with Eastern-type figures.

Byzantine craftsmen frequently traveled West, carrying their crafts along with them and introducing new ideas and methods which were adopted by local artists. Thus, in the seventh century, when the Greek monk and later Archbishop of Canterbury Theodore of Tarsus arrived in Britain, his circle may have included Orientals skilled in the techniques

of sculpture.

Similarly, the religious figures of the evangelists in the Lindisfarne gospels were basically modeled after Byzantine originals, and there is evidence of Byzantine crafts in Northumbria and Mercia, as well as in first and eleventh century Wessex.

The Renaissance and Byzantine art

Some scholars believe that the principles of realism in Western painting should be attributed to the influence of Byzantine art. Instead, they are mostly attributed to Italian painter Giotto.

It seems more likely that this was the result of a parallel though independent development of Western and Byzantine art, which in both cases go back to ancient Hellenistic standards. There is no doubt that in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries a large number of Byzantine artists became more and more interested in depicting emotion. In short, their work was more personal, individualistic, realistic, and human.

According to art critics Caroline Diehl and Andre Grabard, Italian painting, through the Byzantine influence on Duccio and Giotto, benefitted from the renewed contact of the Byzantines with the Hellenistic spirit. This was because Byzantine painters who were inspired by the realistic aesthetics of Hellenistic models remained in the minority.

During the fourteenth century, when their Italian counterparts were moving towards the freer forms of art that would become characteristic of the Italian Renaissance, Byzantine painting generally reverted to more conventional Byzantine forms.

Nevertheless, for all the return to older, more traditional methods, some paintings of the time were similar to or even surpassed in radiance and aesthetic sense the best works of the earlier Byzantine periods.

What is particularly surprising is that these fourteenth century works exhibit a new kind of experimental boldness, which, with their thin faces and extraordinary variety in color, seem to anticipate El Greco’s work in some ways.

Art critics named these developments in Byzantine artwork the Macedonian and Cretan School of painting. The former generally refers to the shorter-lived, more realistic art which radiated primarily from Thessaloniki and defined the end of the thirteenth and beginning of the fourteenth centuries.

Cretanism refers to the return (or in some cases the continuation) of the more traditional ways of painting and is found especially on Mount Athos or on Crete itself. The movement especially defined the sixteenth century.

Domenikos Theotokopoulos

Following the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Greek artists continued to paint in a more or less traditional Byzantine manner as late as the seventeenth century. A group of artists who lived in the Greek neighborhood of Venice produced some remarkable works.

According to contemporary Greek art historians as well as Western critics, the famous El Greco, Domenikos Theotokopoulos, who was born on Crete under Venetian occupation four or five decades after the fall of Constantinople, can be referred to as one of the last “Byzantine painters.”

El Greco studied for four years in Venice and later adopted the Castilian city of Toledo as his permanent residence. However, despite all the undeniable influence that these two places had on his technique, it seems that he never forgot his Byzantine heritage.

It is quite possible that this greatest of all Greek painters may have been much more deeply influenced in his early years by the Cretan Byzantine painting of the island where he was born than most Western scholars like to admit.

In this period, painters began their studies rather early. Hence, at the age of twenty-five, the “Maestro” El Greco should have already had about ten years of experience in the Byzantine way of expression.

It is, in conclusion, safe to say that Italy was the country that was most influenced by Byzantine art. This was not only in painting but, most importantly, in church architecture and decoration, as well as religious figures and motifs.

Throughout the medieval period from the sixth century and perhaps until the beginning of the Renaissance in the fourteenth century, Byzantine art deeply influenced Italian and, in turn, Western European art movements.

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