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Shimmering Glory: Byzantine Mosaics

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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Greece is considered the cradle of Western civilization for its developments in architecture, literature, mathematics, philosophy and political theory. Though absorbed into an empire by the Romans, “captive Greece captured her rude conqueror,” wrote the Roman poet Horace, as Greek culture influenced and defined all things Roman. This Grecian capture was made complete after the Roman Emperor Constantine moved the capital of the empire from Rome to the Greek city of Byzantium in the year 330, naming it New Rome. From this city bridging Asia and Europe — better known as Constantinople, the city of Constantine — developed a distinctly Greek and Christian culture even as its inhabitants understood their realm as Roman.

Among Byzantium’s greatest achievements was the development of the art of the mosaic. Artisans transformed the use of gilded glass, marble and semiprecious stone tesserae — small cut squares — from a pavement form to a glorious iconographic treatment of the Christian faith. Mosaics covered domed interiors, vaults and wall panels of churches and palaces, uniting space in a shimmering spectacle that confused and enraptured visitors and worshipers alike.

“We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth,” reported the emissaries of the grand prince of Kiev after a visit to Constantinople’s Great Church of Holy Wisdom in the tenth century.

“For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We know only that God dwells there. ... We cannot forget that beauty.”

The art of Byzantine Greek mosaics is intimately related to the cult of icons and the use of these images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, the saints and the feasts of the church as “the way and the means” for communion with heaven, wrote the Russian theologian Leonid A. Ouspensky.

After the defeat of the iconoclastic heresy and the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” in 843, Byzantine Greek mosaicists — armed with commissions from wealthy abbots and powerful nobles — covered churches with lavish mosaics, reaching “its fullest development and most perfect expression with an integrated balance between the architectural volume of the interior and the iconographic cycle of representations in mosaic” wrote the noted icon scholar John S.I. Stuart.

“Within the dome, Christ, the icon of the Father, appears as Pantocrator [the omnipotent one]. All levels below the dome are perceived to descend from it as a series of images radiating from the supreme archetype like the spokes of a wheel.”

The mosaics illustrated on these pages represent some of the finest achievements of this art to have survived.

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