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Chapter 9 - The Byzantine Art

Mosaic of Christ Pantokrator, in Hosios Loukas. The monastery, located in Phocis near the site of ancient Delphi, and was built in the 11th century CE in honor of Saint Luke of Steiri (896-953)

Archetypal Gothic Lady of Sorrows from a triptych by the Master of the Stauffenberg Altarpiece, Alsace, circa 1455

There is a great deal of affinity between the modern graphic design and the Byzantine art. Like the modern graphic design the Byzantine art’s main concern was to convey its messages to its audiences in the most effective and efficient way. The Byzantine artists used various signs, stylized images and calligraphy to convey the messages of their faith. Like any other artists in any other periods these artists were influenced by the art of their predecessors. Many of their images and symbols were directly borrowed from the Mithraic pagans of Rome who were dominating the cultural scene of the empire during the early centuries of Christianity. In those early periods, due to the animosity of the Roman Mithraist establishment towards Christianity, the church had to adopt numerous concealed signs that were discernible only by the loyal affiliates of the church. Among such signs, for instance, was fish which was used as a symbol of Christ. The Greek word for fish was formed by the juxtaposition of the initial Greek letters for Jesus Christ, Son of God, and Savior (Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter = ICHTHYS, the fish). But also the artists portrayed Christ in the guise of various heroes of the Mithraic mysteries which were worshiped by many Roman legionnaires, senators and even emperors like Julian .

Good-shepherd-fresco in The Crypts of Lucina, ceiling of the Cubiculum of a catacomb of Callixtus in Rome mid-third century. Such Mithraic images were freely adopted by the Byzantine artists.

Perhaps the first scholar who discovered this fact was Franz Cumont who ascertained that the images of the Heavens, Earth, Ocean, Sun, Moon, Zodiac planets, Seasons, and Four elements depicted on Christian mosaics and other art forms of the third to the fifth centuries are indeed Mithraic symbols. Cumont, was aware of the fact that despite the Church’s opposition to the Mithraist’s celebration of the cosmic cycle, these signs were nevertheless integrated into Christian imagery, in which

"a few alterations in costume and attitude transformed a pagan scene into a Christian picture."
An example of such Mithraic depictions was a water spring gushing out of rocks which was emanating from him shooting of his arrows at those rocks. According to Cumont , this image was the source of the early Christian image of Moses striking Mount Horeb with his cane to release water.

Sol Invictus had been adopted by the Church of Rome as evidenced by Christ as Mithra-Helios in a mausoleum discovered under St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City and dated to 250. From the beginning of the third century "Sun of Justice" was used as a title of Christ.

Another researcher, M.J. Vermaseren, has argued that Christian portrayals on sarcophagi of the soul’s ascension into heaven, though apparently referencing the biblical scene of Elijah being led into heaven by fiery chariots and horses, were in fact inspired by representations of Mithras' ascent into the heavens in Helios’ chariot. He identified the sun god, as the source of inspiration for the flames on Elijah’s chariot and the god Oceanus as the inspiration for the Jordan River.

Robin Jensen has argued that the early Christian art depicted Christ as the sun, in virtually the same way as the sun was depicted in the Mithraism iconography. Jensen argues:

In the famous early fourth century mosaic said to be of Christi Helios in the dome of the mausoleum of the Julii in the excavations under Saint Peter’s on the Vatican, we see a figure that may have been meant to represent Christ as Sol or perhaps as a rival to Sol riding in a chariot, surrounded by a golden sky, and adorned with a radiate halo. This rather glorious image corresponds with biblical language about Christ as the light (for example, John 1:1-5 and Eph 5:14) and with some textual references to Christ that employed solar imagery, including Clement of Alexandria’s description of Christ as the “Sun of Righteousness” who rides in his chariot over all creation and “who has changed sunset into sunrise and crucified death into life.”

Icon of Archangel Gabriel, tempera and gold on wood panel with raised borders, Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine, Sinai, Egypt, second half of the 13th century. This masterpieces of Byzantine art depicts the archangel Gabriel wearing a light green tunic and a himation covered with golden highlights over a golden background. A series of concentric circles lead the the observer's eyes to the eyes of the figure.Icon of Archangel Gabriel, tempera and gold on wood panel with raised borders, Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine, Sinai, Egypt, second half of the 13th century. This masterpieces of Byzantine art depicts the archangel Gabriel wearing a light green tunic and a himation covered with golden highlights over a golden background. A series of concentric circles lead the the observer's eyes to the eyes of the figure.

In this regard, A. Deman has suggested that rather than attempting to find individual references from Mithraic art in Christian iconography, it would be more accurate to look for more general patterns of comparison so that pure coincidences can no longer be used to identify Mithra as the privileged pagan inspirer of medieval Christian iconography. Deman put side by side what he calls the "creative sacrifice" of Mithra with the creative sacrifice of Christ. In both cases the sacrifice associated with the timing of the vernal equinox is critical to the representation, with sun and the moon symmetrically placed above the image. The images of the twins, Cautes and Cautopates, who are also symmetrically placed underneath of the Mithraic sacrifice scenes, with the former raising his torch above his head and the latter lowering his torch towards his feet were replicated in the Christian depictions with two characters that were generally Mary and John, or two Roman soldiers armed with lances, or Longinus holding a spear and Stephaton offering Jesus vinegar from a sponge. At times even the clothes of these Christian figures appeared the same as of those of Cautes and Cautopates. Moreover, Deman also were able to identify the twelve apostles shown in Christian crucifixion scenes with the twelve signs of the zodiac common in the Mithraic scenes, as well as identifying a cross-legged posture commonly found in figures in both sets of iconography.

The Cambrai Madonna (Notre-Dame de Grace), Italo-Byzantine, tempera on cedar panel (backed by a modern panel), circa 1340, 14 by 10 3/8 inches, Cathedrale de Cambrai, France

The Vision of St Sergius, Tempera on panel and gilding. Russia. Early 17th century, State Hermitage Museum. 1959

This work was painted at the Trinity Monastery of St Sergius, near Moscow. The artist tries to communicate the truth of the appearance of the Virgin , the apostles Peter and John ( all three are depicted in the left) to the Venerable St Sergius of Radonezh, in the presence of his pupil Micah (both are depicted in the right). At the top of the scene, in a semicircle, the evidence is presented by the eye witness account of the Old Testament Trinity - three Angels seated at repast.
With Constantine’s proclamation of Christianity as the official religion of Rome the church did not need anymore to resort to secretive signs. Constantine moved the capital of the state to the ancient city of Byzantium (later Constantinople) and during the early third century to the end of the fifth century, Christian art went through a drastic transformation. The new Byzantine art was somewhat exclusively concentrated on religious themes. Its aesthetic forms nurtured from its concerns over accurate liturgical representations of church’s doctrine of salvation. However, still the oriental tradition of stylized forms depicted over highly ornamental flat surfaces, which were adopted from Mithrists, dominated the iconic approach that stressed on spirituality and mysticism. Now, the figure of Christ crowned with a nimbus and sitting or standing in the attitude of authority, was even more clearly reminiscent of the image of Mithra. The nimbus was also extended to the virgin and other disciples. These icons, usually made of mosaic, were placed in an hierarchical format inside Byzantine churches. At the top of this hierarchy was the figure of God the father (the Pantocrator), Angels and archangels were depicted at a lower level, and below them were the figures of the saints, again this was a hierarchy that could closely be associated with the Mithraic cosmology.

Mosaic from Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, 6th century, showing the Emperor Justinian and Bishop Maximian of Ravenna surrounded by clerics and soldiers. Here the graphic statement conveys the unification of the church and state.

The subject matter of Byzantine art was primarily religious and imperial. Justinian's religious policy reflected the imperial conviction that the unity of the Empire unconditionally presupposed unity of faith. According to the contemporary writers such as John Malalas, Theophanes, and John of Ephesus Pagan Mithraists, even men of high positions, were severely persecuted to abandon their faith. In in 529 AD the Neoplatonic Academy of Athens was placed under state control by order of Justinian effectively terminating the last bastion of the Mithraist thought.

Portable Mosaic Icon with Saint John Chrysostom. Byzantine (Constantinope), circa 1325, miniature mosaic set in wax on wood panel, with gold, gilded copper and multicolored stones, Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C.

In his Greater Apology for the Holy Images, the monk Nicephoras claimed that icons were "expressive of the silence of God, exhibiting in themselves the ineffability of a mystery that transcends being. Without ceasing and without speech, they praise the goodness of God in that venerable and thrice-illumined melody of theology." Instead of instructing the faithful in the dogmas of the Church and helping them to form lucid ideas about their faith, the icons held them in a sense of mystery. When describing the effect of these religious paintings, Nicephoras could only compare it to the effect of music, the most ineffable of the arts and possibly the most direct. Emotion and experience are conveyed by music in a way that bypasses words and concepts.
-Karen Armstrong in "The God of the Mystics," from A History of God: The 4000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (Ballentine Books, 1993)

Detail of San Vitale's apse mosaic, dating from 526-47 AD. It depicts a youthful Christ the Redeemer sitting on the sphere of the world, flanked by San Vitale (who is being handed a martyr's crown), two angels, and Bishop Ecclesius, who founded the church.

However, the church was very much concerned about the authenticity of its sacred icons, which revolved around them being faithful to the themes of Christian rites and ceremonies and their presumed fidelity with respect to historical events. This may be deducted from a seventh-century dialogue recorded in the council of Nicaea by John of Thessaloniki in which a Christian criticizes a pagan by saying: "We ... make images of men who have existed and have had bodies-the holy servants of God- so that we may remember them and reverence them, and we do nothing incongruous in depicting them such as they have been. We do not invent anything as you [pagans] do."

Painting: the Virgin implore Christ, The Church St. Saviour in Chora - 14th Cent.

The figures such as that of the Mithraic Zurvan with a lion’s head and human body were absolutely frowned upon by the church. For instance, when a passerby criticized St. Andrew the Fool who was standing in front of the great bronze doors of the Senate and looking at a relief of perhaps Zurvan, with a writhing snakes, the saint retorted by saying:"You fool in your spirit! I am looking at the visible idols, but you are a spiritual 'thong-leg,' and a serpent, and of the viper's brood, for your soul's axles and your heart's spiritual legs are crooked and going to Hades."

Enthroned Virgin and Child Between Constantine and Justinian.

Nevertheless, as Christianity spread and became less secretive the use of symbols was gradually reduced and the meaning of what remained of symbols were inscribed on the icons. This was in accordance with Council of Trullo’s proclaimation that these 'symbols and first drafts of the truth' had lost any meaning from the moment that man could depict Grace and Truth directly by representing the Christ-God-Logos 'in the human shape'. In fact, the Byzantine art adopted the Mithraic focus on mineralization of forms which was built upon a serious emphasis on the composition of lines over flat, and usually golden surfaces. The individual characteristics of figures were suppressed in favour of stylized portraits which their eyes gazed straight into the viewers’ eyes and their figures were flattened and elongated. In these icons a communicative ambiance was introduced by the overall composition and background motifs. The use of inscriptions in order to reveal the meaning of symbols, which required formalistic compositions of the icons created great opportunities for aesthetic development of graphic design concepts, as we define them today. Some of these inscriptions were just abbreviations, and were composed symmetrically as decorative seals, for example on the icons of Christ and the Virgin. In a graphic design paradigm, these were the precursors of today’s logotypes. On other icons, where the meanings were self-evident, such as the Crucifixion and the Nativity, the inscriptions still remained and finally became part of the icon itself. This helped to create a distinct calligraphy as well as an integrated approach towards the harmonious composition of images and texts. Of course, some Mithraic symbols remained in tact: for instance the sun, the moon, the death's head, Night and Dawn.

Mosaic of Zoe and Constantine IX Monomachos, Hagia Sophia - 6th Cent.
CHRIST PANTOKRATOR, Mid-12th century, mosaic Cefalu, Basilica.

Christianization of the Bulgarians. Miniature 57 from the Constantine Manasses Chronicle, 14 century: Christianization of the Bulgarians.

Many icons have interesting stories behind them. For example, Saint Gregory, Bishop of Agrigentum, was born on the island of Sicily. As archbishop, he led the life of an ascetic monk, fervently observing monastic vows. While he was in church, some vicious people bribed a harlot to go to his chambers. They then led her out and accused him of fornication. The Pope, after reading the charges, did not want to see the accused, and gave orders to remand him to prison. The saint endured his humiliation humbly, dwelling in constant prayer. After two years, a clairvoyant Elder named Mark who did not believe the charges, persuaded the Pope to convene a Council to decide Gregory's case. At the invitation of the Pope, many clergy from the city of Agrigentum came to the Council. At the Council the woman came to her senses and told the Council the whole truth. St Gregory returned in honor to his own cathedral, and surrounded by the love of his flock, he guided the Church until his own peaceful demise.

Saint Venerable-Martyr Hegumen Pajsije, Saint Venerable-Martyr Deacon Avakum and Saint Venerable-Martyr Jovan of Stjenik

Saint Venerable-Martyr Deacon Avakum of Belgrade

Saint Newmartyress by NATO, Militza The Child (Rade M. Pavlovich)

Lazasrus Saturday, Serbia

The Iconoclasts Controversy

In the early 8th century the iconoclasts (those who wanted to destroy religious images) . pointed to the clear language of the Second Commandment, which condemns idolatry, and demanded that all the figurative representations to be destroyed. Both iconoclasts and their opponents, iconodules, were of the opinion that Christianity could not flourish unless it settled the question of figurative representations. As an iconodule, St. John of Damascus resorted to the Neoplatonic-Mithraist doctrine, and argued that since God had himself incarnated into the image of Christ, the creation of the figurative icons was permissible. The iconoclasts, on the other hand, by using the Monophysitism doctrine, argued that since the nature of Christ is identical and indistinguishable from the essence of God, any figurative representations would be culpable of blasphemy. Finally, Emperor Leo III, the Isaurian (c. 680–741), promulgated a diktat against the idolization of icons. Although Leo’s decision was chastised by the pope, the emperor strictly enforced iconoclasm at Constantinople and this policy was reinforced by his son Constantine V (718–75). The policy was halted during the reign of Empress Irene, when the iconodules at the second Council of Nicaea, in 787 condemned the iconoclasts. Nevertheless, the condemnation of icons were reestablished under the last iconoclast Emperor Theophilus (829-42). At last, under the patronage of Empress Theodora II (d. 867?) the Council of Orthodoxy, held in 843 put an end to iconoclasm, although not all the iconoclast opposition disappeared overnight.


The lifting of the ban on icons was followed by the Macedonian Renaissance, beginning with the reign of Emperor Basil I at the end of the ninth century and lasted throughout the next century. During this period new churches like the Hosios Lukas Monastery in Greece and the Nea Moni Katholikon in Chios were built, and the Byzantine art flourished again. After the battle of Manzikert at the second half of the eleventh century and the subsequent loss of Asia Minor to the Turks, the Komnenoi dynasty who were great art enthusiasts revitalized the cultural life of empire. But, eight hundred years of uninterrupted Byzantine culture were brought to an abrupt end in 1204 with the sacking of Constantinople by the knights of the Fourth Crusade, a disaster from which the Empire never recovered.

St George Icon from the Museum of the Hellenic and Byzantine Institute attached to the Church of St George of the Greeks

Tsar Boris I meeting the disciples of Saints Cyril Tsar Boris I meeting the disciples of Saints Cyril and Methodius

Krum feasts with Nikephoros' scull Krum feasts with his nobles, while the servant (right) is bringing the scull of Nikephoros already made a drinking cup full of wine. Khan Krum captured the Byzantine emperor Nikephoros I, had him decapitated, and transformed the imperial skull into a drinking vessel.

Ecumenical Council of Nicea.  The scroll contains the first half of the Greek text of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. During the first council of Nicaea in 325 CE, the Emperor Constantine urged the bishops to include the term homoousion — the Greek word meaning "of one substance," which was used to express the relation in the one Godhead of the Father and the Son and affirm that Jesus was fully divine. The profession of faith was solidified 56 years later at the Council of Constantinople.

At center: Emperor Constantine, who legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire and became its patron . At far left with the “beehive” hat is Spyridon of Trimythous (though his beard is somewhat darker here than usual, and his hat, though its usual shape, is made more “fancy” than the customary shepherd’s “woven basketwork” texture found in most of his images); At left beside Constantine is (with the flat-ended beard) Athanasius the Great of Alexandria; At right (beside Constantine) is Paphnutius the Confessor; At far right is Alexander, Patriarch of Constantinople.

Candlemas. Enamel. The end of XII-beginning of XIII centuries. Georgia. State Museum of Art of Georgia, Tbilisi

Byzantine icon of the XV century, tempera on the tree 44.45 x 42.2 cm. Stored in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Icona d'Emmanuel Tzanes Bounialis, del segle XVII, ( Museu de Pavlos i Alexandra Kanellopoulou, Atenes).

Duccio di Buoninsegna, Siena school, The Presentation of the Lord, XIII century 

The invention. Mosaic of the triumphal arch of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.  

The nails and spear,  which caused  Jesus' death ,  have caused intolerable pain through her mother's heart.  In this  icon of the Virgin, which  is called "Softening the Evil Hearts". The  artist depicts  Mary with seven swords stuck in  her heart.

The Virgin Mary and Joseph the Betrothed, according to the the Russian orthodox tradition, appeared together with the infant Jesus in Jerusalem. They were to bring in the Temple of the Most High God, as a token of gratitude for their first-born, a small sacrifice. This is based on the world of the Old Testament laws, in which  Jewish women  were  prohibited to visit the Temple after the birth of a boy for forty days, and after the birth of a girl  for eighty days. At the end of this period, the mother and child were to appear to the priests to offer the Lord a thanksgiving and purifying sacrifice.

The miniature of the Basilic II's Momology, the first quarter of XI in the Vatican Library (Vat. Gr., 1613)
The iconography of the Presentation was based on the narrative in  Luke 2, 22-39.  The key act is the transfer of the Infant by his mother to Simeon, while Joseph the Betrothed is depicted behind her back carrying two pigeons in his hands. Behind  Simeon is the prophetess Anna holding a scroll in her hand. 

The Holy Trinity, Greek Orthodox Byzantine Icon

Crucifixion of Christ XVI century. Byzantine Museum in Athens  

Siberian trinity icon of three-faced Jesus

Christ with Three Faces (The Trinity) / Anonymous (Netherlandish School, c 1500
The Holy Trinity, Museo Nacional del Virreinato, Tepozotlán, Edo. de México.
Go to the next chapter : Chapter 10 - The Art of Miniature  

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  • Vermaseren, M. J. , A Unique Representation of Mithras, Vigiliae Christianae, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Jul., 1950), : BRILL
  • Vermaseren, M.J., Corpus Inscriptionum et Monumentorum Religionis Mithriacae, The Hague, Martinus Nijhoff, 1956, 2 vols. The standard collection of Mithraic reliefs.
  • Jensen, Robin Margaret. Face to Face: Portraits of the Divine in Early Christianity. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005.
  • Bjørnebye , Jonas, “Hic locus est felix, sanctus, piusque benignus” The cult of Mithras in fourth century Rome, Dissertation for the degree of philosophiae doctor (PhD), Faculty of Arts, University of Bergen, Norway, 2007
  • Derman, A. (1971). Hinnells, John R.. ed. “Mithras and Christ: Some Iconographical Similarities,” in Mithraic Studies, vol. 2. Manchester University Press. pp. 510-7.
  • Henry Maguire, The Profane Aesthetic in Byzantine Art and Literature, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 53 (1999), Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University
  • Michelis, P. A. , BYZANTINE ART AS A RELIGIOUS AND DIDACTIC ART, The paper presented at the 13th International Congress of Byzantine Studies held at, Oxford in September 1966
  • Barnard, Leslie William ,The Graeco-Roman and oriental background of the iconoclastic controversy Volume 5 of Byzantina Neerlandica, BRILL, 1974 , ISBN9004039449

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