The splendid Byzantine culture spread across vast territories that included Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, the Balkan Peninsula, Armenia, Ancient Rus, and this list is far from complete. While icons created in these regions are generally credited to the Byzantine iconographic school, the art of Constantinople was interpreted by local iconographers in accordance with their own traditions. Thus, by the Byzantine iconographic school we normally imply the icons created not far from or immediately in Constantinople.
The 1st – 4th centuries AD are usually referred to as the early Christian period - the times of development of the main concepts that determined the future of Occidental and Oriental art. It was a time of repression against Christians, catacomb painting with strong antique influence on the depictions of the saints. The 5th century marks the beginning of the early Byzantine period of arts, followed by the age of iconoclasm (8th century). The 11th – 12th century can be defined as the period of middle Byzantine art that lasted until the capture of Constantinople, by the Crusaders in 1204. The late Byzantine period (13th – 15th centuries) lasted until 1453 – the time of the final conquest of the great Byzantine metropolis.
Christianity was adopted as the state religion in 313 AD by Constantine the Great. While the first Christian images were already created in by that time that period, the icons as such have survived since the 6th century. Bearing clear traces of antique art influence, they already convey the Christian perception of matter as the incarnation of God. The greater part of these icons is kept in St. Catherine’s monastery on Mount Sinai. Painted using the encaustic technique, i.e. with wax-based paints, these icons depict the saints with unique realistic precision. Among the few surviving icons particularly remarkable is the icon of Christ Pantocrator (6th century, Sinai), known in Russian iconography as the Saviour Pantocrator.
This bright period of development in early Byzantine iconography was followed by the dark age of iconoclasm – a belief rejecting the idea of the physical manifestation of God on Earth. This concept fundamentally undermined the teaching of Jesus Christ and was therefore doomed. Having existed, nonetheless, for a whole century, it destroyed the visual art of the preceding periods. The iconoclasts persecuted sacred paintings and destroyed frescoes and mosaics. But in the provinces of the Byzantine Empire, such as Cappadocian temples, icons were secretly created. On these icons the emphasis was placed on religious contemplation of the image.
During the reign of the Empress Theodora, the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 843 AD officially condemned iconoclasm. The dark age of iconoclasm was followed by the Macedonian renaissance, so called in honor of the ruling dynasty. This was the time when Constantinople was establishing itself as a center of Christian art – its influence was spreading to more and more remote areas. The first thing the icon-painters did after the destruction of the images of the saints was application to antique art – peaceful and balanced compositions, soft half-tones and living overtones in color treatment. It was a return to the “golden” past that reflected conservative sentiments that were dominating society. The encaustic technique gave way to tempera painting. Only a few of these icons survived today, the most remarkable of them being the images of the Apostle Thaddeus and King Abgar of Edessa with the saints. These are two panels of a triptych, the central leaf of which, now lost, carried an image of Mandylion, i.e. the Savior Not Made with Hands.
Neoclassicism lasted from the late 9th to almost the end of the 10th century. Gradually, sensuality gave way to spirituality, where figures lost material features, the faces became ascetic and austere, while colors lost their transparency.
The beginning of the 11th century was a time of strong dogmatic confrontation between the churches of the East and the West (especially on the filioque issue), which eventually led to the Great Schism of 1054. Painting of that period served as a means of struggle, being used for expressing religious dogmas.
The classical stage in the development of Byzantine icon-painting began in the second half of the 11th century and lasted until the 12th century. This period is also known as the epoch of the Doukas, Comnenus and Angel dynasties. With earlier ideas of spiritualism and the methods for their representation becoming canonic, the church carefully avoided new influences. The icons created in this historical period are notable for their asterity increased attention to the spiritual world, and escape from depiction of the worldly space through atemporal and space-less golden color. The light, almost fleshless figures depicted in frontal poses, their serious faces and strictly arranged gestures, are intended to express the ideal of Byzantine consciousness. The second half of the 12th century marks the beginning of a new movement in the unceasing classical line of artistic development. This style, known as late-Comnenian mannerism, is notable for its tender and spiritual images, so untypical of Byzantine art, where the priority is placed on austere seriousness. Small and interrupted lines are employed to create remarkable silhouettes of the figures, whose gestures and poses are filled with elegance, making this style particularly exquisite. During this period Byzantine paintings were created, such as an icon of Our Lady of Vladimir from Constantinople (12th century, the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow), St. Gregory the Wonderworker (late 12th century, the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg), the Miracle of the Archangel Michael at Chonae (late 12th century, Saint Catherine Monastery, Mount Sinai). Also popular at that time were exquisite mosaic icons made of the tiniest cubes.
Dynamism, developed in an effort to express through the vusual and physical
The late-Byzantine period that followed the conquest of Constantinople by the crusaders in 1204 was the final phase in the development of the Byzantine iconographic school. Byzantium was ruled the Frankish conquerors up to 1261 when the capital was re-occupied by Michael VIII, emperor of the new Paleologian dynasty. During the Frankish period, the capital of the empire was the minor town of Nicaea in Asia Minor. With the loss by Constantinople of its position as the centre of artistic influence, many painters left Byzantium for neighboring states thus contributing to the rapid development of national art schools in Serbia, Bulgaria, Rus, Georgia and Armenia. Icon-painters resorted to antique classics as the best samples to follow. They sought to show in their icons what the icons of earlier eras lacked, specifically the integrity of space and figures; landscape became more detailed and complex, architecture acquired dimensions, rocks began to resemble crystal druses, and drapery appeared between architectural groups. This new style was notable for smaller yet more flexible figures, a more complex color scheme, and looser brush strokes.
Meanwhile, iconography became more dramatic thus making the characters and events depicted on the icons looking more realistic. Thus, the figure of Jesus Christ crucified looks curved as opposed to his straight body on earlier icons; on the icons of the Transfiguration, Jesus’ disciples adopt more dynamic poses when blinded by the light coming from the Savior; James the Apostle is falling to the ground covering his eyes with his hands. This period marks the appearance of hagiographic icons with a large figure of a saint in the mullion surrounded by scenes from his life depicted on the border panels. By the 14th century these features were dominant in icon-painting. Very popular in the first half of the 14th century were small, fine icons, yet in the second half of the century they gave way to monumentality.
Overall, these tendencies can be traced up to the fall of Constantinople to the Turkish army that re-captured the city in 1453.