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Byzantine Art › Ancient History

Definition and Origins

by Mark Cartwright
published on 22 June 2018
The Vladimir Icon (by Unknown Artist)


Byzantine art (4th - 15th century CE) is generally characterised by a move away from the naturalism of the Classical tradition towards the more abstract and universal, there is a definite preference for two-dimensional representations, and those artworks which contain a religious message predominate. However, by the 12th century CE Byzantine art has become much more expressive and imaginative, and although many subjects are endlessly recycled, there are differences in details throughout the period. Whilst it is true that the vast majority of surviving artworks are religious in subject, this may be a result of selection in subsequent centuries as there are abundant references to secular art in Byzantine sources and pagan subjects with classical iconography continued to be produced well into the 10th century CE and beyond. Using bright stones, goldmosaics, lively wall paintings, intricately carved ivory, and precious metals in general, Byzantine artists beautified everything from buildings to books, and their greatest and most lasting legacy is undoubtedly the icons which continue to decorate Christian churches around the world.

INFLUENCES

As Byzantium was the eastern branch of the Roman Empire in its earliest phase, it is not surprising that a strong Roman, or more precisely, Classical influence predominates Byzantine output. The Roman tradition of collecting, appreciating, and privately displaying antique art also continued amongst the wealthier classes of Byzantium. Byzantine art is at once both unchanging and evolutionary, themes such as the Classical traditions and conventional religious scenes were reworked for century after century, but at the same time, a closer examination of individual works reveals the details of an ever-changing approach to art. As with modern cinema that regularly remakes a familiar story with the same settings and the same characters, Byzantine artists worked within the limits of the practical end function of their work to make choices on how best to present a subject, what to add and omit from those new influences which came along, and, by the end of the period, to personalize their work as never before.
IN THE BYZANTINE EMPIRE, THERE WAS LITTLE OR NO DISTINCTION BETWEEN ARTIST & CRAFTSPERSON, BOTH CREATED BEAUTIFUL OBJECTS FOR A SPECIFIC PURPOSE.
It is perhaps important to remember that the Byzantine Empire was much more Greek than Roman in many aspects and Hellenistic art continued to be influential, especially the idea of naturalism. At the same time, the geographical extent of the empire also had its implications for art. In Alexandria the more rigid (and for some, less elegant) Coptic style took off from the 6th century CE, replacing the predominant Hellenistic style. Half-tone colours were avoided and brighter ones were favoured while figures are squatter and less realistic. Another area of artistic influence was Antioch where the 'orientalizing' style was adopted, that is the assimilation of motifs from Persian and central Asian art such as ribbons, the Tree of Life, ram's heads, and double-winged creatures, as well as the full frontal portraits which appear in the art of Syria. In turn, the art of these great cities would influence that produced in Constantinople, which became the focal point of an art industry that spread its works, methods, and ideas throughout the Empire.



Byzantine Chalice

Byzantine Chalice

The Byzantine Empire was continuously expanding and shrinking over the centuries, and this geography influenced art as new ideas became more readily accessible over time. Ideas and art objects were continuously spread between cultures through the medium of royal gifts to fellow rulers, diplomatic embassies, religious missions, and souvenir-buying wealthy travellers, not to mention the movement of artists themselves. From the early 13th century CE, for example, Byzantium was influenced by much greater contact with western Europe, just as it had been when the Byzantines were more present in Italy during the 9th century CE. The influence went in the other direction, too, of course, so that Byzantine artistic ideas spread, notably outwards from such outposts as Sicily and Crete from where Byzantine iconography would go on to influence Italian Renaissance art.So, too, in the north-east, Byzantine art influenced such places as Armenia, Georgia, and Russia. Finally, Byzantine art is still very much alive as a strong tradition within Orthodox art.

ARTISTS

In the Byzantine Empire, there was little or no distinction between artist and craftsperson, both created beautiful objects for a specific purpose, whether it be a box to keep a precious belonging or an icon to stir feelings of piety and reverence. Some job titles we know are zographos and historiographos (painter), maistor (master) and ktistes (creator). In addition, many artists, notably those who created illustrated manuscripts, were priests or monks. There is no evidence that artists were not women, although it is likely they specialised in textiles and printed silks. Sculptors, ivory workers, and enamelists were specialists who had acquired years of training, but in other art forms, it was common for the same artist to produce manuscripts, icons, mosaics, and wall paintings.



Byzantine Book Cover with Icon

Byzantine Book Cover with Icon

It was rare for an artist to sign their work prior to the 13th century CE, and this may reflect a lack of social status for the artist, or that works were created by teams of artists, or that such personalization of the artwork was considered to detract from its purpose, especially in religious art. Artists were supported by patrons who commissioned their work, notably the emperors and monasteries but also many private individuals, including women, especially widows.

FRESCOS & PAINTINGS

Byzantine Christian art had the triple purpose of beautifying a building, instructing the illiterate on matters vital for the welfare of their soul, and encouraging the faithful that they were on the correct path to salvation. For this reason, the interiors of Byzantine churches were covered with paintings and mosaics. The large Christian basilica building, with its high ceilings and long side walls, provided an ideal medium to send visual messages to the congregation, but even the most humble shrines were often decorated with an abundance of frescoes. The subjects were necessarily limited - those key events and figures of the Bible - and even their positioning became conventional. A depiction of Jesus Christ usually occupied the central dome, the barrel of the dome had the prophets, the evangelists appear on the joins between vault and dome, in the sanctuary is the Virgin and child, and the walls have scenes from the New Testament and the lives of the saints.



The Virgin and Child Mosaic, Hagia Sophia

The Virgin and Child Mosaic, Hagia Sophia

Besides walls and domes, small painted wooden panels were another popular medium, especially in the late-Empire period.Literary sources describe small portable portrait paintings which were commissioned by a wide range of people from bishops to actresses. Paintings for manuscripts were also a valued outlet for painting skills, and these cover both religious subjects and historical events such as coronations and famous battles.
ICONS - REPRESENTATIONS OF HOLY FIGURES - WERE CREATED FOR VENERATION BY BYZANTINE CHRISTIANS FROM THE 3RD CENTURY CE.
Fine examples of the more expressive and humanistic style prevalent from the 12th century CE are the 1164 CE wall paintings in Nerezi, Macedonia. Showing scenes from the cross, they capture the despair of the protagonists. From the 13th century CE, individuals are painted with personality and there is more attention to detail. The Hagia Sophia in Trabzon (Trebizond) has whole galleries of such paintings, dated to c. 1260 CE, where the subjects seem to have been inspired by real-life models.There is also a more daring use of colour for effect. A good example is the use of blues in The Transfiguration, a manuscript painting in the theological works of John VI Cantacuzenus, produced 1370-1375 CE and now in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. On a larger scale, this combination of bold colours and fine details is best seen in the wall paintings of the various Byzantine churches of Mistra in Greece.

ICONS

Icons - representations of holy figures - were created for veneration by Byzantine Christians from the 3rd century CE. They are most often seen in mosaics, wall paintings, and as small artworks made from wood, metal, gemstones, enamel, or ivory. The most common form was small painted wooden panels which could be carried or hung on walls. Such panels were made using the encaustic technique where coloured pigments were mixed with wax and burned into the wood as an inlay.



Jesus Christ Pantokrator

Jesus Christ Pantokrator

The subject in icons is typically portrayed full frontal, with either the full figure shown or the head and shoulders only. They stare directly at the viewer as they are designed to facilitate communication with the divine. Figures often have a nimbus or halo around them to emphasise their holiness. More rarely, icons are composed of a narrative scene. The artistic approach to icons was remarkably stable over the centuries, but this should not perhaps be surprising as their very subjects were meant to present a timeless quality and instil a reverence on generation after generation of worshippers - the people and fashions might change but the message did not.
Some of the oldest surviving Byzantine icons are to be found in the Monastery of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai. Dating to the 6th century CE and saved from the wave of iconoclasm which spread through the Byzantine Empire during the 8th and 9th century CE, the finest show Christ Pantokrator and the Virgin and Child. The Pantokrator image - where Christ is in the classic full frontal pose and is holding a Gospel book in his left hand and performing a blessing with his right - was probably donated by Justinian I (r. 527-565 CE) to mark the monastery's foundation.
By the 12th century CE, painters were producing much more intimate portraits with more expression and individuality. The icon known as the Virgin of Vladimir, now in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, was painted in Constantinople c. 1125 CE and is an excellent example of this new style with its tender representation of the child pressing his cheek against his mother.



Man Feeding Mule, Byzantine Mosaic

Man Feeding Mule, Byzantine Mosaic

MOSAICS

The majority of surviving wall and ceiling mosaics depict religious subjects and are to be found in many Byzantine churches.One of their characteristics is the use of gold tiles to create a shimmering background to the figures of Christ, the Virgin Mary and saints. As with icons and paintings, the portraiture follows certain conventions such as a full frontal view, halo, and general lack of suggested movement. The Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (Istanbul) contains the most celebrated examples of such mosaics while one of the most unusually striking portraits in the medium is that of Jesus Christ in the dome of Daphni in Greece. Produced around 1100 CE, it shows Christ with a rather fierce expression which is in contrast to the usual expressionless representation.
The mosaics of the Great Palace of Constantinople, which date to the 6th century CE, are an interesting mix of scenes from daily life (especially hunting) with pagan gods and mythical creatures, highlighting, once again, that pagan themes were not wholly replaced by Christian ones in Byzantine art. Another secular subject for mosaic artists was emperors and their consorts, although these are often portrayed in their role as head of the Eastern Church. Some of the most celebrated mosaics are those in the church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, which date to the 540s CE. Two glittering panels show Emperor Justinian I and his consort Empress Theodora with their respective entourages.



Byzantine Empress Zoe

Byzantine Empress Zoe

Byzantine mosaic artists were so famous for their work that the Arab Umayyad Caliphate (661-750 CE) employed them to decorate the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Great Mosque of Damascus. Finally, just as in painting, in the 13th and 14th century CE, the subjects in mosaics become more natural, expressive and individualised. Excellent examples of this style can be seen in the mosaics of the Church of the Saviour, Chora, Constantinople.

SCULPTURE

Realistic portrait sculpture was a characteristic of later Roman art, and the trend continues in early Byzantium. The Hippodrome of Constantinople was known to have bronze and marble sculptures of emperors and popular charioteers, for example. Ivory was used for figure sculpture, too, although only a single free-standing example survives, the Virgin and Child, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Marble and limestone sarcophagi were another outlet for the sculptor's craft.After the 6th century CE, though, three-dimensional portraits are rare, even for emperors, and sculpture reached nowhere near the popularity it had in antiquity.



Ivory Pyxis Depicting Saint Menas

Ivory Pyxis Depicting Saint Menas

MINOR ARTS

Byzantine artists were accomplished metalsmiths, while enamelling was another area of high technical expertise. A superb example of the use of both skills combined is the c. 1070 CE chalice in the Treasury of Saint Mark's, Venice. Made with a semi-precious stone body and gold stem, the cup is decorated with enamel plaques. Cloisonné enamels (objects with multiple metal-bordered compartments filled with vitreous enamel) were extremely popular, a technique probably acquired from Italy in the 9th century CE. Silver plates stamped with Christian images were produced in large numbers and used as a domestic dinner service. A final use of metals is coinage, which was a medium for imperial portraiture and, from the 8th century CE, images of Jesus Christ.
Bibles were made with beautifully written text in gold and silver ink on pages dyed with Tyrian purple and beautifully illustrated. One of the best surviving examples of an illustrated manuscript is the Homilies of Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, produced 867-886 CE and now in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. Books, in general, were often given exquisite covers using gold, silver, semi-precious stones, and enamels. Reliquaries - containers for holy relics - were another avenue for the decorative arts.



Byzantine Jeweled Bracelet

Byzantine Jeweled Bracelet

Portable objects were very often decorated with Christian images, and these include such everyday items as jewellery boxes, ivories, jewellery pieces, and pilgrim tokens. Objects made from ivory such as panels and boxes were a particular speciality of Alexandria. Panels were used to decorate almost anything but especially furniture. One of the most celebrated examples is the throne of Maximian, Archbishop of Ravenna (545-553 CE), which is covered in ivory panels showing scenes from the lives of Joseph, Jesus Christ and the Evangelists. Textiles - of wool, linen, cotton, and silk - was another medium for artistic expression, where designs were woven into the fabric or printed by dipping the cloth in dyes with some parts of the cloth covered in a resistor to create the design.
Finally, Byzantine pottery has largely escaped public notice, but potters were accomplished in such techniques as polychrome (coloured scenes painted on a white background and then given a transparent glaze) - a technique passed on to Italy in the 9th century CE. Designs were sometimes incised and given coloured glazes, as in the 13th-14th century CE fine plate showing two doves, now in the Collection David Talbot Rice at the University of Edinburgh. Common shapes included plates, dishes, bowls, and single-handled cups. Tiles were often painted with representations of holy figures and emperors, sometimes several tiles making up a composite image.

Black Death › Ancient History

Definition and Origins

by Mark Cartwright
published on 20 June 2018
The Plague by Arnold Bocklin (by Arnold Böcklin)


The Black Death was a plague pandemic which devastated Europe from 1347 to 1352 CE, killing an estimated 25-30 million people. The disease, carried by fleas on rodents, originated in central Asia and was taken from there to the Crimea by Mongol warriors and traders. The plague entered Europe via Italy, carried by rats on Genoese trading ships sailing from the Black Sea. With up to two-thirds of sufferers dying from the disease, it is estimated that between 30% and 50% of the population of those places affected died from the Black Death. The death toll was so high that it had significant consequences on European medieval society as a whole, with a shortage of farmers resulting in demands for an end to serfdom, a general questioning of authority and rebellions, and the entire abandonment of many towns and villages. It would take 200 years for the population of Europe to recover to the level seen prior to the Black Death.

CAUSE & SYMPTOMS

The plague is a disease caused by a bacillus bacteria which is carried and spread by parasitic fleas on rodents, notably the brown rat. There are three types of plague, and all three were likely present in the Black Death pandemic. Bubonic plague, the most common during the 14th century CE outbreak, causes severe swelling in the groin and armpits (the lymph nodes) which take on a sickening black colour, hence the name the Black Death. The black sores which can cover the body in general, caused by internal haemorrhages, were known as buboes, from which bubonic plague takes its name. Other symptoms are a raging fever and joint pains. If untreated, bubonic plague is fatal in between 30 and 75% of infections, often within 72 hours.The other two types of plague - pneumonic (or pulmonary) and septicaemic - are usually fatal in all cases.
The terrible symptoms of the disease were described by writers of the time, notably by the Italian writer Boccaccio in the preface to his 1358 CE Decameron. One writer, the Welsh poet Ieuan Gethin made perhaps the best attempt at describing the black sores which he saw first-hand in 1349 CE:
We see death coming into our midst like black smoke, a plague which cuts off the young, a rootless phantom which has no mercy for fair countenance. Woe is me of the shilling of the armpit…It is of the form of an apple, like the head of an onion, a small boil that spares no-one. Great is its seething, like a burning cinder, a grievous thing of ashy colour…They are similar to the seeds of the black peas, broken fragments of brittle sea-coal…cinders of the peelings of the cockle weed, a mixed multitude, a black plague like half pence, like berries…(Davies, 411).

SPREAD

The 14th-century CE in Europe had already proven to be something of a disaster even before the Black Death arrived. An earlier plague had hit livestock, and there had been crop failures from overexploitation of the land, which led to two major Europe-wide famines in 1316 CE and 1317 CE. There was, too, the turbulence of wars, especially the Hundred Years War(1337-1453 CE) between England and France. Even the weather was getting worse as the unusually temperate cycle of 1000-1300 CE now gave way to the beginnings of a “little ice age ” where winters were steadily colder and longer, reducing the growing season and, consequently, the harvest.



Spread of the Black Death

Spread of the Black Death

A devastating plague affecting humans was not a new phenomenon, with a serious outbreak having occurred in the mid-5th century CE which ravaged the Mediterranean area and Constantinople, in particular. The Black Death of 1347 CE entered Europe, probably via Sicily, when it was carried there by four Genoese rat-infested grain ships sailing from Caffa, on the Black Sea. The port city had been under siege by Tartar-Mongolians who had catapulted infected corpses into the city, and it was there the Italians had picked up the plague. Another origin was Mongolian traders using the Silk Road who had brought the disease from its source in central Asia, with China specifically being identified following genetic studies in 2011 CE (although South East Asia has been proposed as an alternative source and actual historical evidence of an epidemic caused by plague in China during the 14th century CE is weak). From Sicily, it was but a short step to the Italian mainland, although one of the ships from Caffa had reached Genoa, been refused entry, and docked in Marseilles, and then Valencia. Thus, by the end of 1349 CE, the disease had been carried along trade routes into France, Spain, Britain, and Ireland, which all witnessed its awful effects. Spreading like wildfire, it hit Germany, Scandinavia, the Baltic states, and Russia through 1350-1352 CE.
ALTHOUGH IT SPREAD UNCHECKED, THE BLACK DEATH HIT SOME AREAS MUCH MORE SEVERELY THAN OTHERS.
Medieval doctors had no idea about such microscopic organisms as bacteria, and so they were helpless in terms of treatment, and where they might have had the best chance of helping people, in prevention, they were hampered by the level of sanitation which was appalling compared to modern standards. Another helpful strategy would have been to quarantine areas but, as people fled in panic whenever a case of plague broke out, they unknowingly carried the disease with them and spread it even further afield; the rats did the rest.
There were so many deaths and so many bodies that the authorities did not know what to do with them, and carts piled high with corpses became a common sight across Europe. It seemed the only course of action was to stay put, avoid people, and pray. The disease finally ran its course by 1352 CE but would recur again, in less severe outbreaks, throughout the rest of the medieval period.

DEATH TOLL

Although it spread unchecked, the Black Death hit some areas much more severely than others. This fact, and the often exaggerated death tolls of medieval (and some modern) writers, means that is extremely difficult to accurately assess the total death toll. Sometimes entire cities, for example, Milan, managed to avoid significant effects, while others, such as Florence, were devastated - the Italian city losing 50,000 of its 85,000 population (Boccaccio claimed the impossible figure of 100,000).Paris was said to have buried 800 dead each day at its peak, but other places somehow missed the carnage. On average 30% of the population of affected areas was killed, although some historians prefer a figure closer to 50%, and this was probably the case in the worst affected cities. Figures for the death toll thus range from 25 to 30 million in Europe between 1347 and 1352 CE. The population of Europe would not return to pre-1347 CE levels until around 1550 CE.



Tournai Citizens Burying the Dead during the Black Death

Tournai Citizens Burying the Dead during the Black Death

SOCIAL CONSEQUENCES

The consequences of such a large number of deaths were severe, and in many places, the social structure of society broke down. Many smaller urban areas hit by the plague were abandoned by their residents who sought safety in the countryside.Traditional authority - both governmental and from the church - was questioned for how could such disasters befall a people?Were not governors and God in some way responsible? Where did this disaster come from and why was it so indiscriminate?At the same time, personal piety increased and charitable organisations flourished.
IN AGRICULTURE, THOSE WHO COULD WORK WERE IN A POSITION TO ASK FOR WAGES & THE INSTITUTION OF SERFDOM WAS DOOMED.
The Black Death, as its name suggests, was given a personification for people to help understand what was happening to them, usually being depicted in art as the Grim Reaper, a skeleton on horseback whose scythe indiscriminately cut down people in their prime. Many people were simply bewildered by the disaster. Some thought it a supernatural phenomenon, perhaps connected to the comet sighting of 1345 CE. Others blamed sinners, notably the Flagellants of the Rhineland who paraded through the streets whipping themselves and calling for sinners to repent so that God might lift this terrible punishment. Many thought it an unexplainable trick of the Devil. Still others blamed traditional enemies, and age-old prejudices were fed leading to attacks on, and even massacres of, specific groups, notably the Jews, thousands of whom fled to Poland.
Even when the crisis had passed, there were now practical problems to be faced. With not enough workers to meet needs, salaries and prices soared. The necessity of farming to feed people would prove a serious challenge, as would the huge fall in demand for manufactured goods as there were simply far fewer people to buy them. In agriculture specifically, those who could work were in a position to ask for wages, and the institution of serfdom where a labourer paid rent and homage to a landlord and never moved on was doomed. A more flexible, more mobile, and more independent workforce was born. Social unrest followed, and often outright rebellions broke out when the aristocracy tried to fight these new demands. Notable riots were those in Paris in 1358 CE, Florence in 1378 CE, and London in 1381 CE. The peasants did not get all they wanted by any means, and a call for lower taxes was a significant fail, but the old system of feudalism was gone.
After the major famines in 1358 and 1359 CE and the occasional resurgence, albeit less severe, of the plague in 1362-3 CE, and again in 1369, 1374 and 1390 CE, daily life for most people did gradually improve by the end of the 1300s CE. The general welfare and prosperity of the peasantry also progressed as a reduced population reduced the competition for land and resources. Land-owning aristocrats, too, were not slow to pick up the unclaimed lands of those who had perished, and even upwardly mobile peasants could consider increasing their landholdings. Women, in particular, gained some rights of property ownership they had not had before the plague. Laws varied depending on the region but, in some parts of England, for example, those women who had lost husbands were permitted to keep his land for a certain period until they remarried or, in other, more generous jurisdictions, if they did remarry then they did not lose their late husband's property, as had been the case previously. While none of these social changes can be directly linked to the Black Death itself, and indeed some were already underway even before the plague had arrived, the shock wave the Black Death dealt to European society was certainly a contributing and accelerating factor in the changes that occurred in society as the Middle Ages came to a close.

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