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Architecture and Decoration of the Second Golden Age

After the age of Justinian, the development of Byzantine art and architecture was disrupted by the Iconoclastic Controversy, which began with an imperial edict of 726 prohibiting religious images. The controversy raged for more than 100 years, dividing the population into two hostile groups. The image-destroyers (Iconoclasts), led by the emperor and supported mainly in the eastern provinces of the realm, insisted on a literal interpretation of the biblical ban against graven images as conducive to idolatry; they wanted to restrict religious art to abstract symbols and plant or animal forms. Their opponents, the Iconophiles, were led by the monks and centered in the western provinces, where the imperial edict remained ineffective for the most part. The roots of the conflict went very deep. On the plane of theology they involved the basic issue of the relationship of the human and the divine in the person of Christ. Socially and politically, they reflected a power struggle between State and Church. The Controversy also marked the final break between Catholicism and the Orthodox faith.

Had the edict been enforceable throughout the Empire, it might well have dealt Byzantine religious art a fatal blow. It did succeed in sharply reducing the production of sacred images, but failed to wipe it out altogether, so that after the victory of the Iconophiles in 843 there was a fairly rapid recovery, called the Second Golden Age, which lasted from the late ninth to the eleventh century.


332. Churches of the Monastery of Hosios Lonkas (St. Luke of Stirisi), Greece. Early 11th century.
333. Plan of churches of the Monastery of Hosios Loukas (after Diehl)

Monastery of Hosios Lonkas (St. Luke of Stirisi)

334. Interior, Katholikon, Hosios Loukas

Byzantine architecture never produced another structure to match Hagia Sophia. As a consequence of the Iconoclastic Controversy, the churches of the Second Golden Age and after were modest in scale, and monastic rather than imperial or urban in spirit. Most were built for small groups of monks living in isolated areas. Their usual plan is that of a Greek cross (a cross with arms of equal length) contained in a square, with a narthex added on one side and an apse (sometimes with flanking chapels) on the other. The central feature is a dome on a square base. It often rests on a cylindrical or octagonal drum with tall windows, which raises it high above the rest of the building, as in both churches of the monastery of Hosios Loukas in Greece (figs. 332-34). They also show other characteristics of later Byzantine architecture: a tendency toward more elaborate exteriors, in contrast to the extreme severity we observed earlier (compare fig. 319), and a preference for elongated proportions. The full impact of this verticality, however, strikes us only when we enter the church (fig. 334 shows the interior of the Katholikon, seen on the left in fig. 332 and at bottom in fig. 333). The tall, narrow compartments produce a sense of crowdedness, almost of compression, which is dramatically relieved as we glance toward the luminous pool of space beneath the dome.


The pictorial decoration of the dome in the Greek monastery church of Daphne (fig. 335) is better preserved than in the Katholikon of Hosios Loukas. Staring down from the center of the dome is an awesome mosaic image of Christ the Pantocrator (Ruler of the Universe) against a gold background, its huge scale emphasized by the much smaller figures of the 16 Old Testament prophets between the windows. In the corners, we see four scenes revealing the divine and human natures of Christ: the Annunciation (bottom left) followed in counterclockwise order by the Birth, Baptism, and Transfiguration. The entire cycle represents a theological program so perfectly in harmony with the geometric relationship of the images that we cannot say whether the architecture has been shaped by the pictorial scheme or vice versa. A similarly strict order governs the distribution of subjects throughout the rest of the interior.

335. Monastery Church, Daphne, Greece

335. Dome mosaics. 11th century. Monastery Church, Daphne, Greece


The largest and most lavishly decorated church of the Second Golden Age surviving today is St. Mark's in Venice, begun in 1063. The Venetians had long been under Byzantine sovereignty and remained artistically dependent on the East well after they had become politically and commercially powerful in their own right. St. Mark's, too, has the Greek-cross plan inscribed within a square, but here each arm of the cross is emphasized by a dome of its own (figs. 336 and 337). These domes are not raised on drums. Instead, they have been encased in bulbous wooden helmets covered by gilt copper sheeting and topped by ornate lanterns, to make them appear taller and more conspicuous at a distance. They make a splendid landmark for the seafarer. The spacious interior, famous for its mosaics (see fig. 341), shows that it was meant to receive the citizenry of a large metropolis, and not just a small monastic community as at Daphne or Hosios Loukas.

336. St. Mark's, Venice. Begun 1063

337. St. Marks, Venice. Interior.
St. Mark's, Venice. A detail from the rooftop


see collection: Russian Architecture and Russian Icons

During the Second Golden Age, Byzantine architecture also spread to Russia, along with the Orthodox faith. There the basic type of the Byzantine church underwent an amazing transformation through the use of wood as a structural material. The most famous product of this native trend is the Cathedral of St. Basil adjoining the Kremlin in Moscow (fig. 338). Built during the reign of Ivan the Terrible, it seems as unmistakably Russian as that extraordinary ruler. The domes, growing in amazing profusion, have become fantastic towerlike structures whose vividly patterned helmets may resemble anything from mushrooms and berries to Oriental turbans. These huge ice-cream cones have the gay unreality of a fairy-tale, yet their total effect is oddly impressive. Keyed as they are to the imagination of faithful peasants (who must have stared at them in open-mouthed wonder on their rare visits to the capital), they nevertheless convey a sense of the miraculous that is derived from the more austere miracles of Byzantine architecture.

338. Cathedral of St. Basil, Moscow. 1554-60

Painting and Mosaics of the Second Golden Age

We know little for certain about how the Byzantine artistic tradition managed to survive from the early eighth to the mid-ninth century, but survive it did. The most astonishing proof is the mosaic of the Virgin and Child Enthroned in Hagia Sophia (fig. 339), which we know was made sometime between 843 and 867. It adheres closely to the earliest icon of the same subject (see fig. 331). Remarkably, the subtlety of modeling and color manages to perpetuate the best Classical tradition of the First Golden Age. Perhaps most important, there is a new human quality in the fullness of the figures, the more relaxed poses, and their more natural expressions that we have not seen before.


Iconoclasm seems to have brought about a renewed interest in secular art, which was not affected by the ban. This interest may help to explain the astonishing reappearance of Late Classical motifs in the art of the Second Golden Age. David Composing the Psalms, from the so-called Paris Psalter (fig. 340), was probably illuminated about 900, although the temptation to put it earlier is almost irresistible. Not only do we find a landscape that recalls Pompeian murals, but the figures, too, derive from Classical models. David himself could well be mistaken for Orpheus charming the beasts with his music, and his companions prove even more surprising, since they are allegorical figures that have nothing at all to do with the Bible: the young woman next to David is Melody, the one coyly hiding behind a pillar is Echo, and the male figure with a tree trunk personifies the mountains of Bethlehem. The late date of the picture is evident only from certain qualities of style, such as the abstract zigzag pattern of the drapery covering Melody's legs.

339. Virgin and Child Enthroned, c. 843-67. Mosaic. Hagia Sophia, Constantinople

340. David Composing the Psalms, from the Paris Psalter, ñ. 900 A.D. Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris


Another fascinating reflection of an early source is the sequence of scenes from Genesis among the mosaics of St. Mark's in Venice (fig. 341). which must have been adapted from an Early Christian illuminated manuscript. The squat, large-headed figures recall the art of the fourth century, as does the classical young philosopher type representing the Lord (compare fig. 315), which had long since been replaced in general usage by the more familiar bearded type (see fig. 335). Of particular interest is the scene in the upper right-hand comer. Ancient art had visualized the human soul as a tiny nude figure with butterfly wings. Here this image reappears—or survives, rather—under Christian auspices as the spirit of life that the Lord breathes into Adam.


The Paris Psalter and the Genesis mosaics in St. Mark's betray an almost antiquarian enthusiasm for the traditions of Classical art. Such direct revivals, however, are exreme cases. The finest works of the Second Golden Age show a classicism that has been harmoniously merged with the spiritualized ideal of human beauty we encountered in the art of Justinian's reign. Among these, the Crucifixion mosaic at Daphne (fig. 342) enjoys special fame. Its Classical qualities are more fundamental, and more deeply felt, than those of the Paris Psalter, yet they are also completely Christian. There is no attempt to re-create a realistic spatial setting, but the composition has a balance and clarity that are truly monumental as against the cluttered Pompeian landscape of the David miniature. Classical, too, is the statuesque dignity of the figures, which seem extraordinarily organic and graceful compared to those of the Justinian mosaics at S. Vitale (figs. 323 and 324).

The most important aspect of these figures' Classical heritage, however, is emotional rather than physical. It is the gentle pathos conveyed by their gestures and facial expressions, a restrained and noble suffering of the kind we first met in Greek art of the fifth century B.C. Early Christian art had been quite devoid of this quality. Its view of Christ stressed the Saviour's divine wisdom and power, rather than His sacrificial death, so that the Crucifixion was depicted only rarely and in a notably unpathetic spirit. The image of the Pantocrator as we saw it on the Sarcophagus ofjumus Bassus and above the apse of S. Apollinare in Classe (figs. 315 and 305) retained its importance throughout the Second Golden Age—the majestic dome mosaic at Daphne (fig. 335) stems from that tradition—but alongside it we now find a new-emphasis on the Christ of the Passion.

When and where this human interpretation of the Saviour made its first appearance we cannot say, but it seems to have developed primarily in the wake of the Iconoclastic Controversy. There are, to be sure, a few earlier examples of it, but none of them has so powerful an appeal to the emotions of the beholder as the Daphne Crucifixion. To have introduced this compassionate quality into sacred art was perhaps the greatest achievement of the Second Golden Age, even though its full possibilities were to be exploited not in Byzantium but in the medieval West at a later date.

341. Scenes from Genesis, ñ. 1200. Mosaic. St. Mark's. Venice

The Crucifixion. 11th century. Mosaic. Monastery Church, Daphne, Greece


Sculpture of the Second Golden Age

Monumental sculpture, as we saw earlier, tended to disappear completely from the fifth century on. In Byzantine art, large-scale statuary died out with the last imperial portraits, and stone carving was confined almost entirely to architectural ornament (see fig. 329). But small-scale reliefs, especially in ivory and metal, continued to be produced throughout the Second Golden Age and beyond.

343. The Harbaville Triptych. Late 10th century. Ivory, 9 1/2 x 11" (24 x 28 cm). Musee du Louvre, Paris

343. The Harbaville Triptych. Verso, full view

Their extraordinary variety of content, style, and purpose is suggested by the two samples shown here, both of them dating from the tenth century. One is a small portable altar shrine with two hinged wings—a triptych—of the kind a high dignitary might carry for his private devotions while traveling (fig. 343). In the upper half of the center panel we see Christ Enthroned, flanked by St. John the Baptist and the Virgin, who plead for divine mercy on behalf of humanity, with five apostles below. The exquisite refinement of this icon-in-miniature recalls the style of the Daphne Crucifixion (fig. 342).

Our second panel, representing the Sacrifice of Iphigenia (fig. 344), belongs to an ivory casket meant for wedding gifts that, rather surprisingly, is decorated with scenes from Greek mythology. Even more than the miniatures of the Paris Psalter, it illustrates the antiquarian aspects of Byzantine Classicism after the Iconoclastic Controversy. The subject is that of a famous Greek drama by Euripides, and the composition (which is curiously shallow, despite the deep undercutting of the relief) probably derives from an illustrated manuscript, rather than from a sculptural source. Though drained of all tragic emotion and reduced to a level of ornamental playfulness, these knobby little figures form a coherent visual quotation from ancient art. It was through channels such as this that the Graeco-Roman heritage entered the mainstream of Byzantine tradition.

344. The Sacrifice of Iphigenia. Detail of ivory casket. 10th century. Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Late Byzantine Painting

In 1204 the Byzantine Empire sustained a near-fatal defeat when the armies of the Fourth Crusade, instead of warring against the Turks, assaulted and took the city of Constantinople. For more than 50 years, the core of the Eastern Empire remained in Latin hands. Byzantium, however, was able to survive this catastrophe. In 1261 it once more regained its sovereignty, and the fourteenth century saw a last flowering of Byzantine painting, with a distinct and original flavor of its own, before the Turkish conquest in 1453.


see collection: Russian Architecture and Russian Icons

Because of the veneration in which they were held, icons had to conform to strict formal rules, with fixed patterns repeated over and over again. As a consequence, the majority of them are more conspicuous for exacting craftsmanship than for artistic inventiveness. Although painted in the thirteenth century, the Madonna Enthroned (fig. 345) reflects a type of several hundred years earlier. Echoes of the Classicism of the Second Golden Age abound: the graceful pose, the rich play of drapery folds, the tender melancholy of the Virgin's face, and the elaborate architectural perspective of the throne (which looks rather like a miniature replica of the Colosseum). But all these elements have become oddly abstract. The throne, despite its foreshortening, no longer functions as a three-dimensional object, and the highlights on the drapery resemble ornamental sunbursts, in sharp contrast to the soft shading of hands and faces. The total effect is neither flat nor spatial but transparent, somewhat like that of a stained-glass window. The shapes look as if they were lit from behind, and this is almost literally true: they are painted in a thin film on a highly reflective gold surface that forms the highlights, the halos, and the background, so that even the shadows never seem wholly opaque.

This all-pervading celestial radiance, we will recall, is a quality first encountered in Early Christian mosaics (compare fig. 310). Panels such as ours, therefore, should be viewed as the aesthetic equivalent, on a smaller scale, of mosaics, and not simply as the descendants of the ancient panel painting tradition. In fact, the most precious Byzantine icons are miniature mosaics done on panels, rather than paintings.

Along with the Orthodox faith, icon painting spread throughout the Balkans and Russia, where it continued to flourish long after the disappearance of the Byzantine Empire. The shifting of the creative impulses within this tradition to the outlying areas of the Orthodox world is signaled by the work of Andrei Rublev, the finest Russian icon painter. The title of his famous panel Old Testament Trinity (fig. 346), done about 1410-20, refers to the three angels who visited Abraham at Mamre. Although parts of it are poorly preserved (most of the background has disappeared) the picture reveals a harmonious beauty of design and a depth of lyrical feeling that vie with the most classical products of the Second Golden Age. Rublev must have been thoroughly acquainted with the best that Byzantine art had to offer, either through contact with Greek painters in Russia or through a sojourn in Constantinople. The most individual element—and also the most distinctively Russian—is the color scale, which is brighter, more complex, and different in key from that of any Byzantine work. In the hands of a lesser master, such combinations as orange, vermilion, and turquoise might easily have a primitive garishness of the sort we often find in folk art. But here, the controlled intensity of these tones is an essential part of the composition.

345. Madonna Enthroned. Late 13th century. Tempera on panel, 32 1/8 x 19 3/8" (81.9 x 49.3 cm).
The National Gallery of Art, Washington

346. ANDREI RUBLEV. Old Testament Trinity, ñ 1410-20. Panel, 55 1/2 x 44 1/21" (141 x 113 cm).
Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow


Because of the impoverished state of the greatly shrunken Empire, mural painting often took the place of mosaics. The mortuary chapel attached to the Karive Camii (the former Church of the Saviour in Chora) in Istanbul contains an impressive cycle of pictures, done about 1310-20. In figure 347 we reproduce the Anastasis, which is Greek for resurrection. (Actually the scene depicts the event just before the Resurrection: Christ's Descent into Limbo.) Surrounded by a radiant gloriole, the Saviour has vanquished Satan and battered down the gates of Hell and is raising Adam and Eve from the dead. (Note the bound Satan at His feet, in the midst of an incredible profusion of hardware.) What amazes us about this central group is its dramatic force, a quality we would hardly expect to find on the basis of what we have seen of Byzantine art so far. Christ here moves with extraordinary physical energy, tearing Adam and Eve from their graves, so that they appear to fly through the air—a magnificently expressive image of divine triumph. Such dynamism had been unknown in the earlier Byzantine tradition. Coming in the fourteenth century, it shows that 800 years after Justinian, Byzantine art still had its creative powers.

347. Anastasis. ñ. 1310—20. Fresco. Kariye Camii (Church of the Saviour in Chora), Istanbul


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