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Byzantine Decorative Arts

Byzantine Decorative Arts

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Byzantine Decorative Arts Byzantium's decorative arts developed within the context

of the late Roman world. The variable starting points assigned to Byzantine history reflect
this essential continuity, which maintained Roman artistic means and ideas and only
gradually defined a distinctive artistic style. The earliest phase of Byzantine material
culture (fourth through seventh centuries) has received the greatest archaeological
attention, as a result of excavations conducted at classical sites that were continuously
inhabited into Byzantine times. Lacking comparable study of Byzantium's Dark Age
(eighth through ninth centuries) and later years (tenth through fifteenth centuries),
traditional scholarship has focused on the artistic production ofConsta ntinople and has
emphasized formalist approaches to the study of later Byzantine art. Recent scholarly
interest has also included the cultural life of small settlements in the provinces and their
interaction with neighboring states. Special attention has been paid to understanding how
the arts functioned within contemporary society and the relationship between visual and
literary images.

Byzantine decorative arts encompass objects used in daily life as well as in civil and
religious ceremonies. The most common artifacts are ceramic and glass vessels, lamps, and
other domestic objects. On archaeological sites, the best-dated Byzantine objects are fine
red-slipped ceramic tablewares, which in the early Byzantine period originated in north
Africa, western Asia Minor, andCyprus. Common forms include broad dishes and plates
stamped with vegetal and animal images and religious symbols. The subsequent
development of glazed wares led to distinctive pottery styles that flourished in the east
Mediterranean during the tenth through fifteenth centuries. Regional workshops
produced wares with different patterns of incised and glazed decoration representing
fanciful animals and floral motives as well as stylized human figures. Thin-walled glass
vessels for table use were manufactured throughout the empire. Small oil-burning lamps
usually were made of ceramic and glass. Terracotta mold-made lamps were typically disc-
or slipper-shaped with raised decoration. Glass lamps were often goblet-shaped and
suspended in bronze stands or hanging chandeliers.

Metal objects also figured prominently in Byzantine daily life. Heavy iron implements
were used primarily for building and as tools for commerce, industry, and warfare.
Bronze was widely used for such household furnishings as tables and stands as well as
lamps, braziers, and censers. Elaborately decorated pieces of silverplate and gold signified
high social rank and were often donated for church use; they are known primarily from
buried hoards and literary descriptions. Items of personal adornment included finely
worked pins, fibulae, buckles, strap ends, and jewelry of bronze, silver, and gold,
depending on the status of the owner. These highly mobile and intrinsically ornamental
objects helped spread new ideas from the Byzantine borderlands, including the animal
motives and polychrome style of northern migrating peoples and Arab decorative themes.
The working of gems in Constantinople was complemented by a sophisticated enamel-
working tradition that flourished during the tenth through twelfth centuries.

Apart from literary descriptions, ByzantineTextiles have survived primarily in Egypt and
in west European church treasuries. Curtains were woven of linen, wool, and silk, and
were hung as wall decoration and as partitions between rooms. Preserved fragments
reflect the special popularity of repeated floral patterns enclosing animal or figural scenes.

Items of everyday dress included the tunic and short cloak; contemporary mosaics and illuminated manuscripts depict elaborately woven and embroidered garments that were worn by churchmen and officials at court.

Other important categories of Byzantine decorative arts include small-scale sculpture in
bone, ivory, and stone. Cosmetic implements and toys carved of bone and ivory have been
excavated in residential contexts. Much less common were early Byzantine ivory reliefs or
diptychs, which were often carved with portraits and decorative scenes to commemorate
religious and political events among high-ranking families and officeholders. In the tenth
through twelfth centuries, ivory workshops provided aristocratic families with small
boxes, carved with mythological and other figural scenes, as well as devotional plaques
and triptychs. Books and illuminated manuscripts for aristocratic and ecclesiastical
patrons were produced in cities and monasteries across the empire. Early surviving
examples include fifth- and sixth-century editions of classical and biblical literature, while
the production of gospel and liturgical books was especially popular during the later

Byzantine culture may be best known for its monumental painting and mosaics. Popular
classical themes, including architectural moldings, floral patterns, and vegetal borders,
continued to appear in early Byzantine floor mosaics and in wall mosaics and paintings
through the fifteenth century. The illusionistic representational techniques of late Roman
artists were combined in the fifth and sixth centuries with a hieratic formality to produce a
distinctive means of visual communication that both influenced and was shaped by
contemporary Christianity. This process is best documented by the icon, or painted
devotional panel depicting a religious person or event. Debate over the spiritual properties
of religious images led to their official banishment during the Iconoclastic Period (726\u2013
843). The restoration of such images in the midninth century fostered the development of
complex programs of decoration that evolved together with ecclesiastical architecture. The
synthesis of these two traditions in the body of the Byzantine church constitutes one of the
most distinctive features of the cultural landscape of modern Greece.[See alsoRoman

Decorative Arts: Roman Mosaics.]

Cyril Mango, Art of the Byzantine Empire, 312\u20131453: Sources and Documents (1972).
Ernst Kitzinger, Byzantine Art in the Making (1977).
John Beckwith, Early Christian and Byzantine Art, 2nd ed. (1979).
Kurt Weitzmann, ed., Age of Spirituality, Late Antique and Early Christian Art, exhibition
catalog (1979).
Eunice Dauterman Maguire, Henry P. Maguire, and Maggie J. Duncan-Flowers, Art and

Holy Powers in the Early Christian House, exhibition catalog (1989).
Lyn Rodley, Byzantine Art and Architecture: An Introduction (1994).
Marcus Rautman
How to cite this entry:
Marcus Rautman, Jodi Magness, Robert Schick "Byzantine Culture"The Oxford Companion

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