What was naturalistic and inspired by human life in the Greco-Roman period was now replaced with ideas of heaven and spirituality in the Byzantine Period. Christianity was spreading quickly, influencing many on the way. Art in the Early Byzantine period focused on churches and icons, which “served as tools for the faithful to access the spiritual world” (Hurst). However, the iconoclasts (those who believed any and all icons were not part of the Christian way) wanted to destroy these pieces of artwork containing icons. Iconoclasm took down many pieces of artwork in its path. Luckily, there were some pieces of art that survived the Early Byzantine icon debate. The Bible was a source behind the reason why Iconoclasm became significant to the art of the newly-developing Christian world. Saints, martyrs, the Holy Family, and other holy figures were the most important in art and introduced by the Bible. People became upset that holy figures were being portrayed as possible idols (which is against one of the Ten Commandments) and wanted the artwork gone. Designs, patterns, and animals were okay, but any holy figure in human form was not.
I believe there is a difference between simply looking at holy figures in artwork and worshipping them. Idolatry is definitely a sin, but appreciating the different interpretations of characters from the Bible is not. I can understand why iconoclasts were worried about the possible idolatry that could happen with the Early Byzantine art, but now we see plenty of images regarding Christ, heaven, etc., and we have the self-control to not view the artwork itself as an idol. In 843 A.D., the edict against graven images was lifted and artistic image-making was back in full swing. I enjoy looking at different depictions of Jesus Christ in artwork; I find it very interesting. For example, below I have an image of 4 different depictions of Christ, all by different artists. Because of Iconoclasm, artists are aware of sin that could arise from putting icons in their artwork, but the resolution in 843 A.D. allowed artists to express their spirituality without intentions of idolatry by using altered styles (like distinct portrait types, more standardized wall decorations, and certain subjects about Christ).
The mosaic I chose to analyze shows Christ in the center with angels at both of his sides. San Vitale is next to the angel on his right and Bishop Ecclesius is next to the angel on his left. There is a cross inside of the halo around Christ’s head and he appears to be handing a jeweled crown to San Vitale, who’s arm is in the position of receiving the crown. Bishop Ecclesius is holding a model of the church. Christ is wearing a purple robe (to symbolize royalty) and he is seated on a circular globe. Above the five figures’ heads are thin clouds of red and blue. This mosaic is from A.D. 547 and remains on the inside of San Vitale, which was an important Justinian church in Ravenna. This church was dedicated to Saint Vitalis (San Vitale in Italian) who was a “Christian martyr who became the object of a growing cult” (Adams, 157). To make this mosaic, tesserae (squares or groupings of four of colored glass/stone) was embedded into wet cement or plaster. The mosaic is very large (see below).
(Above the windows closest to the floor)
What’s interesting about this mosaic is that it shows dimension in the fabric and shading, yet appears to be two-dimensional. The naturalistic textures and shadows trace back to the techniques of the Hellenistic and Roman artworks. The lines used are mostly curved to outline the human shapes and clothing articles. Linear shapes can be seen in the green grass below their feet and in the church model being held by the bishop, but most shapes in this mosaic are curved. However, the figures are frontal and the movement seen in the body postures and draperies is not completely natural. While the facial expressions are not all exactly the same, there is little variety or personality seen in each figure. The globe that Jesus is seated on is two-dimensional and he is not logically supported by it. As a whole, the mosaic is well-balanced with five figures and Christ being the focal point in the center. All of the figures are about the same size, but the curve of the ceiling gives Christ the center-stage appearance and makes him look larger than the others. Also, he is the only one seated and is wearing a darker robe which calls all attention to him.
The colors seen are very vibrant which makes the scene aesthetic to the eye. The big globe in the middle of the mosaic is a bright blue outlined in black which draws attention to it. As mentioned before, Jesus is wearing a purple robe of royalty and the angels are wearing white robes. The ground they stand on is green and blooming with flowers and life while the “sky” above them is decorated with red and blue clouds. Repetition is seen in San Vitale’s robe pattern. While there is some overlapping seen in hand positions and body gestures, there is an absence of perspective. This piece of art fits in to the Byzantine Era because it shows holy figures and is found in a church. Martyrs, bishops, and members of the Holy Family were popular figures in Byzantine art and all three of these are found in this mosaic.
At first, I was not necessarily impressed by this mosaic because it lacked the dimension previously seen in Hellenistic and Roman art, but after learning about the whole mosaic technique, my opinion changed. It’s amazing that an artist was able to create faces, the texture of draped fabric, and a balanced proportion of figures using thousands of small squares of colored squares and a huge slab of wet plaster or cement. A tedious task, I’m sure. I think it’s interesting that the artist had Jesus handing a crown to San Vitale because it seems anti-Christian to believe that Christ would hand his crown to a mortal man. This mosaic shows heavy religious meaning because it clearly includes angels, Christ, and a bishop while also being located in a church. After reading about this mosaic I found out that the outside of San Vitale (the church) is covered in plain brick while the inside is filled with vibrant, rich mosaics and marble. That’s just another lesson that you can’t judge a book by its cover, right?
Adams, L. S. (2001). A History of Western Art (3rd Edition ed.). New York , New York: McGraw Hill.
Brooks, S. (2001). “Icons and iconoclasm in Byzantium”. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/icon/hd_icon.htm
Hurst, E. (2014). “A beginner’s guide to Byzantine art”. Smarthistory. Khan Academy. www.khanacademy.org/humanities/medieval-world/byzantine1/beginners-guide-byzantine/a/byzantine-artintro