An Introduction to East Roman Civilization

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  Charles Diehl  An Introduction to East Roman Civilization Byzantine Art From N.H.Baynes & H.St.L.B. Moss eds! Byzantium #$%ord niv. 'ress #$%ord ()*+. 'u,lis-ed ,y  ermission THE CHURCH of St. Sophia in Constantinople is the masterpiece of Byzantine art, and it is at the same time one of those monuments here some of the most characteristic features of that art appear most clearly. Thus if one ould understand the nature of the Christian art of the East and in hat its ori!inality consisted, one must !o first of all to this essential uildin!#to this $%reat Church$ as it as called throu!hout the East durin! the &iddle A!es. 'hen, in ()*, the Emperor +ustinian decided to re uild the church hich Constantine had formerly erected and dedicated to the Holy 'isdom#for this is the meanin! of St. Sophia#he as determined that the ne sanctuary should surpass all others in splendour. n the ords of a Byzantine chronicler, it as $achurch, the li-e of hich has neer een seen since Adam, nor eer ill e$. / circular as issued to all the proincial !oernors, instructin! them to send to Constantinople the richest spoils in ancient monuments and the most eautiful mar les from the most famous 0uarries in the Empire. 12 add to the ma!nificence of the uildin! and dazzle the eye of the eholder y a display of unrialled ealth +ustiniandetermined to ma-e a laish use of costly materials, !old, siler, iory, and precious stones. / taste for thesumptuous in all its forms #a passion for splendour# is indeed one of the foremost characteristics of Byzantine art. 3or the e4ecution of his desi!n and the realization of his dream the Emperor as fortunate enou!h to discoer to architects of !enius, Anthemius of Tralles and 5sidore of &iletus, oth of hom, it must e orne in mind, came from Asia. Contemporary riters are unanimous in praise of their -noled!e, s-ill, darin!, and inentie poer6 and, since +ustinian !rud!ed neither money nor la our, the or- pro!ressed at an amazin! speed. n less than fie years St. Sophia as completed, and 2n *7 Decem er ()7 it as solemnly consecrated y the Emperor  . 5t has een truly said that the %reat Church is $one of the mi!htiest creations in all architecture$, a statement the truth of hich is clearly shon y a close study of this famous monument. The impression !ien y the e4terior is, it is true, y no means stri-in!6 a si4th#century Byzantine uildin!, ith its are alls of ric-, alays presents a somehat poor and monotonous aspect from ithout. But efore enterin! the asilica, hen one has crossed the space formerly occupied y the !reat atrium, surrounded y porticoes, and the narthe4 hich opens into the church y nine doors, the effect produced y the interior is in truth incompara le. Α vast rectangle, 77 metres by 71.70 in area, forms a broad nave flanked by aisles with galleries above them which pass over the narthex and extend all round the church. At a height of 55 metres from the ground this central nave is crowned by an enormous dome, 1 metres across, which rests upon four great arches supported by four massive piers. !hereas the arches n the north and south sides of the nave are filled  by solid walls pierced with windows and carried on two tiers of pillars, those the east and west are buttressed by twosemi#domes, each of which in its turn is supported by two great semicircular niches and in this way strength and  balance are given to this astonishing central dome. An apse pro$ects from the middle of the hemicycle which is covered by the eastern semi#dome% exedrae, embellished with columns, together with the arcades on the right and left serve to connect the nave with the aisles. &ut what most impresses the beholder is the dome # henceforth a characteristic feature of &y'antine architecture# which has truly been described by a sixth#centuy writer as (a work at once marvellous and terrifying(, seeming, so light and airy it was, (rather to hang by a golden chain from heaven than to be supported n solid masonry(. )here was doubtless nothing new in such a plan. *t. *ophia is related to the type of building, familiar in Asia +in r since the fifth century, known as the domed basilica. &ut, in virtue of its great si'e, harmony of line, boldness f conception, and constructive skill, it appears none the less as a true creation #(a marvel of stability, daring, fearless logic, and science(, as hoisy puts it. !hen on the day o f its inau!uration +ustinian sa the fulfilment of his dream, one can ell ima!ine that in a transport of enthusiasm he did indeed e4claim8 $%lory e to %od ho hath deemed me orthy to complete so !reat a or-.  hae outdone thee, 9 Solomon :$ The decoration hich coers the interior of St. Sophia is of e0ual si!nificance in the history of Byzantine art, the splendour of its ornament desi!ned to dazzle the eholder ein! no less characteristic than its masterly use of architectural forms. 1all columns of porphyry, hite mar le, and erd anti0ue, croned ymar le capitals, rou!ht li-e !oldsmith$s or- and often pic-ed out y touches of lue and !old, rise fromthe paement of mosaic and mar le, hich has een li-ened to a !arden here the rich lans are stren  ith purple floers. n the spandrels and round the soffits of the arches, delicate decoratie carin!s of anunmista-a ly oriental style, stand out around dis-s of porphyry and erd anti0ue, li-e laceor- a!ainst a dar- !round. The alls are sheeted oer ith mar les of many colours, their tones lended as if y the most s-ilful of painters, !iin! the effect of rich and elety oriental carpets. And a oe, on the cures of the aults, on the pendenties, on the conch of the apse, the cron of the dome, and on the alls that fill the !reat lateral arches, rilliant mosaics shone out from the dar- lue and siler ac-!rounds that the ne art #and this as one of its most essential innoations# as e!innin! to su stitute for the li!ht ac-!rounds of Ale4andrian paintin!. 'hen St. Sophia had een conerted into a mos0ue the Tur-s coered eery representation of the human fi!ure in these mosaics ith a coatin! of hiteash or paint. ;f recent years the process of uncoerin! the mosaics has een conducted under the authority of the Tur-ish %oernment6< hen the hole or- is finished the church ill recoer still more completely its marellous splendour. 5t must, hoeer, e noted that most of the mosaics in +ustinian$s church ere of apurely ornamental character and that the ma=ority of the fi!ure su =ects date from the tenth and eleenth centuries. But from the first the hole decoratie scheme shoed a onderful sense of colour, hich deli!hted in s-ilful com inations of tints and play of li!ht6 scornin! simplicity, it aimed rather at a dazzlin! ma!nificence. 12 this onderful decoration, hich fortunately still e4ists, must e added the lost splendours of the pulpit or am o #the dull !leam of its siler min!lin! ith the !litter of precious stones and the radiance of rare mar les# of the iconostasis in chased siler that enclosed the sanctuary, of the altar in solid !old, shinin! ith rare =eels and enamels6 and of the siler canopy or ci orium oer the altar, enriched ith sil- and !old em roideries eteen its columns. Add to that the eauty of the li!htin! hich at ni!ht made the church shine ith a fiery splendour and proclaimed to sailors from afar the !lory of +ustinian and the end of their oya!e. Contemporaries, one can ell understand, could not sufficiently admire this St. Sophia, $the marellous uni0ue uildin! hich ords are poerless to descri e$. >rocopius records in moin! lan!ua!e its effect upon the isitor. $9n enterin! the church to pray$, he says, $one feels at once that it is the or-, not of man?s effort or industry, ut in truth the or- of the Diine >oer6 and the spirit, mountin! to heaen, realizes that here %od is ery near and that He deli!hts in this dellin! that He has chosen for Himself.$ And one can understand that the popular ima!ination, hich had attached a hole cycle of pictures0ue le!ends to the dome of St. Sophia, should, een seeral centuries later, hae easily elieed that %od in His mercy had receied +ustinian into >aradise for the sole reason that he had uilt the %reat Church. @either the stri-in! success of St. Sophia nor the characteristic features of its style could, hoeer, e understood or e4plained ithout presupposin! a lon! period of patient research and resourceful e4periment. 3rom the day at the e!innin! of the fourth century, hen y the ill of Constantine Christianity ecame a State reli!ion #and perhaps een efore this splendid triumph# a !reat and fruitful artistic moement had deeloped durin! the course of to centuries and spread throu!hout the East, in E!ypt, Syria, &esopotamia, Asia &inor, Armenia, and elsehere. This moement, hich as to culminatein the triumph of the ne style in the si4th century, naturally too- a different form in different places6 there as a Christian art peculiar to E!ypt, one to &esopotamia, and another to /sia &inor, each of hich had its on character. But eneath this diersity of form a fe !eneral principles can e traced hich sho themseles in certain essential features. Christian art, as it too- form in the East at the e!innin! of the fourth century, as faced y a tofold source of inspiration. ;n the one hand there as the classical tradition of Hellenistic culture still liin! and rilliantly fostered in the lar!e cities, such as Ale4andria, Antioch, and Ephesus6 and 2n the other, there as the oriental tradition, that of the old 5ranian or Semitic East, hich in contact ith Sassanid >ersia at this time came to life a!ain throu!lout the interior of E!ypt, Syria, &esopotamia, and Armenia, and droe ac- the %ree- influence hich had lon! een triumphant. Christianity in its hatred of pa!anism, thou!h una le to cut itself off completely from the splendour of classic anti0uity, !ladly adopted the methods of these indi!enous arts hich had suddenly aa-ened from sleep, and illin!ly set itself to learn from the East. Hence as to arise this dualism of to opposin! influences hich ould endure as lon! as Byzantine art itself6 indeed it is the com ination of these to influences hich !ies to Byzantine art its peculiar character. The de t of the ne art to this dou le tradition e must no see- to define. 3rom the e!innin! of the fourth century triumphant Christianity had coered the hole East ith a ealth of sumptuous churches, and for these ne churches ne architectural forms ere created. Alon!side the Hellenistic asilica ith its tim er roof appeared the Eastern arrel#aulted asilica of hich the ori!in, it seems, should e sou!ht in &esopotamia6 hile in addition to the plain rectilinear asilican form appeared the church of circular, octagonal, or cruciform plan. -n particular, the new architecture acuired from /ran the use of  the dome, the model of which it found in the ersian monuments of *eleucia and tesiphon, and crowned with it thenew types of building that it invented, such as the domed basilica, or the churches on a centrali'ed or radiate plan. )he dome was supported either by suinches (trompes d'angle) after the astern fashion, or, in the more scientific and more 2reek manner, by pendentives. -n the decoration of the churches a like development was taking place. 3 rich and complicated ornamentation of a somewhat heavy and wholly oriental exuberance covered the walls with luxuriant foliage, in which a host of birds and other creatures disported themselves amongst curving arabesues. 4rom the ast came also the techniue of thisdecoration, in which the contrasting blacks and whites alternating on the neutral background supplied by the lightly incised stone gave a charming effect of colour which is absent from the high relief and bold modelling of antiue sculptured ornament. n the walls the harmony of classic proportion was replaced by the brilliant effect of  polychrome marbles. 4rom ersia came also the arts of enamel and cloison6 work, and the lavish use of sumptuous and coloured fabrics. All this gave to the new art a definitely oriental character. &ut the embellishment of the new churches consisted above all in the covering of their walls and vaults with long cycles of frescoes and resplendent mosaics, in which hristian heroes and the events of sacred story stand out  a!ainst a ac-!round of dar- lue. n representin! them the simple and familiar lines hich early Christian art had faoured !ae place to ma=estic and solemn fi!ures of a more indiidual and realistic type6 the primitie sym olism of former times as r  eplaced by the historical and monumental style, and a new iconography arose for the illustration of the sacred themes. hristian art undoubtedly retained many of the customs and traditions of pagan workshops #the secular motives, rustic themes, and mythological sub$ects dear to Alexandrian art% and from classical tradition it further inherited a feeling for beauty of design, dignity of pose, elegance in drapery, sobriety, and clearness of treatment. &ut its chief aim in the decoration of its churches was the instruction and edification of the faithful. )he wall#paintings and mosaics were intended to form, as it were, a vast volume open to the view of the illiterate, like a splendidly illuminated &ible in which they could learn with their eyes the great events of hristian history. 4rom the first we find an attempt to illustrate the *acred &ooks, and this illustration shows great differences of style in the different  places of its srcin. 4or the 2ospels there was the version of Alexandria, still entirely under the spell of ellenistic feeling and grace, and another version of Antioch, more dramatic and more faithful to realism. 4or the salter there was both an (aristocratic( version, imbued throughout with classic tradition, and a monastic or theological version, remarkable for its realistic style, search for expression, and close observation of nature. )hus can be traced side by side the two opposing traditions, which were by their combination to form &y'antine art. As instances of the creations of this great artistic movement, we may mention the admirable basilicas still standing in the dead cities of central *yria, namely those of 8ouweiha, 9chabbak, )ourmanin, :alb ;ou'6, and the monastery of *t. *imeon *tylites at <alat *eman, $ustly called (the archaeological gem of entral *yria(% the oldest of the Armenian churches, the srcinality and influence of which must not, however, be exaggerated% those of Asia 9inor, particularly that at 9eriamlik in ilicia, the earliest known example of a domed basilica, which seems to have played an essential part in the transformation of astern elements in accordance with the spirit of 2reece% at *alonica, the fine basilica of the =irgin >ski#?$uma@, the domed basilica of *t. *ophia, and that of *t. ?emetrius, which with its five naves, lofty columns, and  its alls rilliantly decorated ith splendid mosaics and mar le facin! as, efore its destructi2n y fire in <<7, one of the onders of East Christian art6 especially also at Salonica the mosaics of St. %eor!e and those of the chapel of Hosios Daid6 and at Raenna, the Byzantine city here ;riental influences ere paramount, the mosaics of the Baptistery of the ;rthodo4, and, perhaps the most e40uisite e4ample that suries of the Christian art of the time, the onderful decoration of the &ausoleum of %alla >lacidia. 5t is primarily in the chief Hellenistic centres of the East #in $the triple constellation$ of Ale4andria, Antioch, and Ephesus# that e must see- the sources of the !reat moement from hich the ne art as to arise. Constantinople, thou!h the capital of the Empire, seems to hae played a far smaller part than these three cities in the deelopment of Christian art in the fourth and fifth centuries. But if she created little herself at that time, she has the !reat honour of hain! elcomed the aried elements offered y differentre!ions ithin the Empire, of hain! co#ordinated, transformed, and halloed them throu!h the construction of a !reat masterpiece. 5t as in Constantinople that an $imperial art$ arose in the si4th century8 an official art, the essential aim of hich as the !lorification of %od and the Emperor, an orientalart em odyin! the lessons oth of %reece and of the ancient Asiatic East, an art comple4 and manifold, secular as ell as reli!ious6 and it is in +ustinian$s time that this art, hich may henceforth e called Byzantine, has e4pressed itself fully and in a definitie form. But St. Sophia is y no means the only creation of hat has aptly een called the 3irst %olden A!e of Byzantine art. At this time, ith unrialled s-ill, use as made of eery type of architectural construction8  the Hellenistic asilica at Raenna in Sant?Apollinare uoo  eteen (<( and (F( and Sant? Apollinare in Classe  eteen ()F and (F, and in the eautiful church of >arenzo in 5str  ia >between 5 and 5B@% thedomed churches built on a centrali'ed or radiate plan of *aints *ergius and &acchus >between 5C and 57@ at onstantinople and of *an =itale >between 5C and 5B7@ at 8avenna% the domed basilica type in *t. /rene >5@ at onstantinople% the five#domed cruciform church in the oly Apostles >5C#B5@ at onstantinople >destroyed by the )urks shortly after 1B5@, and in the hurch of *t. Dohn at phesus, the ruins of which have been exposed by the recent excavations. Already we may see in several buildings the plan of the 2reek cross soon to become the classic type of &y'antine churches. Eever has hristian art been at one and the same time more varied, more creative, scientific, and daring. )he characteristic features of *t. *ophia appear in a number of other buildings% for example inthe cistern of &in#bir#?irek at onstantinople, which experts are inclined to recogni'e as the work of Anthemius, or in the aueduct of Dustinian, the work of an unknown master who was undoubtedly an engineer of great ability. /n allthese buildings we find the same inventive power, the same skill in the solution of the most delicate problems of construction, the same alert activity, and in each of the churches there was, as in *t. *ophia, the same wealth of decoration in the form of carved marble capitals, polychrome marble facings#a notable example of which is the apse of the basilica in aren'o #and above all, in the play of light upon the mosaics. ;f many of these !reat or-s there remains, alas, nothing but a memory. -n *t. *ophia, as we have seen, only some of the mosaics of DustinianFs time survive. )he magnificent decoration of the hurch of the oly Apostles, one of the masterpieces of sixth#century art, is known to us solely from its description given by Eicholas 9esarites at the beginning of the thirteenth centuryG events in the life of hrist and in the preaching of hristianity by the Apostles were depicted in chronological order, and far above, in the height of the domes, there were represented the )ransfiguration, rucifixion, Ascension, and entecost. )his decoration must have been one of the largest and most  beautiful compositions of sixth#century &y'antine art, and it would seem that we must recogni'e in it the handiwork of an artist of genius. 3 note in the margin of 9esaritesF manuscript tells us that the artistFs name was ulalius. 4rom another source we learn that ulalius, with a $ust pride in his work, inserted his own portrait into one of the sacred scenes, namely that of the oly !omen at the )omb, (in his usual dress and looking exactly as he appeared when hewas at work on these paintings(. )his curious incident, doubtless uniue in the history of &y'antine art, recalls to mind the practice of fifteenth#century /talian artists. )he greater part of the mosaics of *t. ?emetrius at *alonica have also perished, having been destroyed by the fire of 1H17. )hey formed a series of votive offerings recalling the favours granted by the *aint#the only instance of this theme found in &y'antine art. )hree panels alone of this beautiful decoration now remain, hanging, like icons, at the opening of the apse. ne of them, which represents *t. ?emetrius standing between the founders of the church, is a masterpiece of vigorous expression and technical skill. /t dates probably from the first third of the seventh century. /tis in the !est therefore, and above all at 8avenna, that we must look for works of DustinianFs century. Three of the Raenna churches, namely Sant? Apollinare u2G2, Sant? Apollinare in Classe, and San itale, still retain an important part of their mosaics. n the first of these uildin!s there are three zones, one oer another, representin! scenes from the life of Christ, fi!ures of saints and proph e ts, and to processions, one of male and the other of female saints, adancin! toards Christ and the ir!in. n the uppermost of these zones e may note the contrast eteen the series of miracles, still eidently inspired y the art of the Catacom s, and the cycle of the >assion, hich is treated in a definitely historical style, and ith o ious an4iety to detract in no ay from the Diine &a=esty. The to sumptuous processiIns of saints =ust referred to are orthy of special attention, for they hae no parallel in Byzantine art. Their rilliantly clad fi!ures in their charmin! poses su!!est a distant memory of the >anathenaic frieze. 3rom eery point of ie these mosaics of Sant? Apollinare u2G2 hold an important place in the eolution of Byzantine ic onography. f no less historic interest is the decoration of *antF Apollinare in lasse where the curious representation of the )ransfiguration appears as a last effort #at once complicated and subtle# of the symbolism of former days. &ut the most striking of all the compositions in the three churches is undoubtedly that in the choir of *an =itale. 8ound the altar are grouped episodes foretelling and glorifying the sacrifice of the ?ivine ;amb, and the whole design is inspired and unified by this sublime ide a. Reminiscences of primitie Christian art are still lended ith the feelin! for realism and the sense of life and nature characteristic of the ne style. The mosaics of the apse, a little later in date a out (F7, sho this style in its perfection. n the conch is the imposin! fi!ure of Christ, seated 2n the !lo e of the orld, accompanied y saints and archan!els. But most remar-a le of all are the to famous scenes in hich +ustinian and Theodora appear in all the !lory of their imperial pomp, port raits full of life and expression, astonishing visions rising from a dead past. )hese magnificent decorations, amongst the most precious creations of &y'antine art which we still possess, enable us to form an idea of the nature of profane art at &y'antium, where it held an important place beside religious art. Infortunately all too few examples of it have survived. !e see, too, how powerful an effect could be obtained by
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