The Icon from Constantinople to the Twentieth Century
The most famous of the surviving Byzantine mosaics of the Church of the Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sofia) in Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) - the image of Christ on the walls of the upper southern gallery. Christ is flanked by the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist. The mosaics were made in the 12th century.
Byzantine art and the icon seem almost synonymous after more than six weeks of study and discussion of this topic. I just completed a summer class at the Newberry Library on this and found that both the history and the art of Byzantium intrigued and invigorated me. Throughout the course there was a focus on icons which were most often based on stories from the life of Jesus. These church images started as early as the catacombs of Rome but flourished during the rise of the Eastern Roman Empire founded by Constantine and continued after the fall of Rome and the west as what we know as the Byzantine Empire for almost one thousand years until it too succumbed to invaders in 1453 AD. Constantine's conversion and the subsequent declaration of Christianity as the official religion of the empire was an important factor in the influence of the sacred in Byzantine art. Other influences on Byzantine art icons included Egyptian mummy portraits.
One of the best sources for viewing the influence of Byzantine art is in the sacred mosaics of Ravenna Italy. They are the finest outside Istanbul. A thriving seaport in ancient times (it now lies five miles inland), Ravenna rose to power in the 1st century BC under the Emperor Augustus. The Roman emperor built a port and naval base at nearby Classe, which is currently undergoing archaeological excavation. The town converted to Christianity very early, in the 2nd century AD. As Rome's power declined, Ravenna took over as capital of the Western Empire (402 AD). The following century it came under the rule of Thedoric and the Arian Ostrogoths, and in 540 the city became part of the Byzantine empire under Justinian. Ravenna's exquisite early Christian mosaics span the years of Roman, Ostrogothic and Byzantine rule. Today, Ravenna is a very pleasant town of about 140,000. It looks much like any other Italian city at first glance, with old streets, fine shops and peaceful squares, but the Byzantine domes of its churches still evoke its Eastern heritage. Ravenna's early Christian churches and mosaics have been collectively designated a World Heritage Site.
With the fall of Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 some of the artists fled to Crete and established a Greek artist colony. Notable artists included Michael Damaskenos (1530/35-1592/93) and others of the "Cretan School", but the most famous today is the artist simply known as El Greco (1451-1614). It is in his early work that the influence of icons is most evident, but it can be seen in his large-scale masterpieces produced in Spain later in his career. For more than two centuries Byzantine art was out of favor, primarily as a result of the Reformation, but in mid-nineteenth century France artists rediscovered Byzantine art and the Orient in general as can be seen in the work of Gustave Moreau and Jean Renoir. This influence spread throughout Europe and can be seen in the works of such diverse artists as Gustave Klimt (Austria, 1862 – 1918), and Theodore Ralli (Greece, 1852 – 1909). The influence grew into the twentieth century, particularly through the interest and work of Henri Matisse. The interest in Byzantine art has continued to grow and the field today includes scholars, best exemplified by the work of Hans Belting on the history of the Image, interested in a multitude of aspects of this classic tradition that had its roots in Rome and Egypt.
Likeness and Presence by Hans Belting. University of Chicago Press. 1996 (1994)