1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Byzantine Art
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The style may be said to have arisen from the orientalization of Roman art, and itself largely contributed to the formation of the Saracenic or Mahommedan styles. As Choisy well says, "The history of art in the Roman epoch presents two currents, one with its source in Rome, the other in Hellenic Asia. When Rome fell the Orient returned to itself and to the freedom of exploring new ways. There was now a new form of society, the Christian civilization, and, in art, an original type of architecture, the Byzantine." It has hardly been sufficiently emphasized how closely the art was identified with the outward expression of the Christian church; in fact, the Christian element in late classical art is the chief root of the new style, and it was the moral and intellectual criticism that was brought to bear on the old material, which really marked off Byzantine art from being merely a late form of classic.
Hardly any distinction can be set up in the material contents of the art; it was at least for a period only simplified and sweetened, and it is this freshening which prepared the way for future development. It must be confessed, however, that certain influences darkened the style even before it had reached maturity; chief among these was a gloomy hierarchical splendour, and a ritual rigidity, which to-day we yet refer to, quite properly, as Byzantinism. Choisy sees a distinction in the constructive types of Roman and Byzantine architecture, in that the former covered spaces by concreted vaults built on centres, which approximated to a sort of "monolithic" formation, whereas in the Byzantine style the vaults were built of brick and drawn forward in space without the help of preparatory support. Building in this way, it became of the greatest importance that the vaults should be so arranged as to bring about an equilibrium of thrusts. The distinction holds as between Rome in the 4th century and Constantinople in the 6th, but we are not sufficiently sure that the concreted construction did not depend on merely local circumstances, and it is possible, in other centres of the empire where strong cement was not so readily obtainable, and wood was scarce, that the Byzantine constructive method was already known in classical times. Choisy, following Dieulafoy, would derive the Byzantine system of construction from Persia, but this proposition seems to depend on a mistaken chronology of the monuments as shown by Perrot and Chipiez in their History of Art in Persia. It seems probable that the erection of brick vaulting was indigenous in Egypt as a building method. Strzygowski, in his recent elaborate examination of the art-types found at the palace of Mashita (Mschatta), a remarkable ruin discovered by Canon Tristram in Moab, of which the most important parts have now been brought to the new Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin, shows that there are Persian ideas intermixed with Byzantine in its decoration, and there are also brick arches of high elliptical form in the structure. He seems disposed to date this work rather in the 5th than in the 6th century, and to see in it an intermediate step between the Byzantine work of the west and a Mesopotamian style, which he postulates as probably having its centre at Seleucia-Ctesiphon. From the examples brought forward by the learned author himself, it is safer as yet to look on the work as in the main Byzantine, with many Egyptian and Syrian elements, and an admixture, as has been said, of Persian ideas in the ornamentation. Egypt was certainly an important centre in the development of the Byzantine style.
The course of the transition to Byzantine, the first mature Christian style, cannot be satisfactorily traced while, guided by Roman archaeologists, we continue to regard Rome as a source of Christian art apart from the rest of the world. Christianity itself was not of Rome, it was an eastern leaven in Roman society. Christian art even in that capital was, we may say, an eastern leaven in Roman art. If we set the year 450 for the beginning of Byzantine art, counting all that went before as early Christian, we get one thousand years to the Moslem conquest of Constantinople (1453). This millennium is broken into three well-marked periods by the great iconoclastic schism (726-842) and the taking of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204. The first we may call the classical epoch of Byzantine art; it includes the mature period under Justinian (the central year of which we may put as 550), from which it declined until the settlement of the quarrel about images, 400 years in all, to, say, 850. The second period, to which we may assign the limits 850-1200, is, in the main, one of orientalizing influences, especially in architecture, although in MSS. and paintings there was, at one time, a distinct and successful classical revival. The interregnum had caused almost complete isolation from the West, and inspiration was only to be found either by casting back on its own course, or by borrowing from the East. This period is best represented by the splendid works undertaken by Basil the Macedonian (867-886) and his immediate successors, in the imperial palace, Constantinople. The third period is marked by the return of western influence, of which the chief agency was probably the establishment of Cistercian monasteries. This western influence, although it may be traced here and there, was not sufficient, however, to change the essentially oriental character of the art, which from first to last may be described as Oriental-Christian.
Architecture.—The architecture of our period is treated in some detail in the article ARCHITECTURE; here we can only glance at some broad aspects of its development. As early as the building of Constantine's churches in Palestine there were two chief types of plan in use—the basilican, or axial, type, represented by the basilica at the Holy Sepulchre, and the circular, or central, type, represented by the great octagonal church once at Antioch. Those of the latter type we must suppose were nearly always vaulted, for a central dome would seem to furnish their very raison d'être. The central space was sometimes surrounded by a very thick wall, in which deep recesses, to the interior, were formed, as at the noble church of St George, Salonica (5th century?), or by a vaulted aisle, as at Sta Costanza, Rome (4th century); or annexes were thrown out from the central space in such a way as to form a cross, in which these additions helped to counterpoise the central vault, as at the mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna (5th century). The most famous church of this type was that of the Holy Apostles, Constantinople. Vaults appear to have been early applied to the basilican type of plan; for instance, at St Irene, Constantinople (6th century), the long body of the church is covered by two domes.
At St Sergius, Constantinople, and San Vitale, Ravenna, churches of the central type, the space under the dome was enlarged by having apsidal additions made to the octagon. Finally, at St Sophia (6th century) a combination was made which is perhaps the most remarkable piece of planning ever contrived. A central space of 100 ft. square is increased to 200 ft. in length by adding two hemicycles to it to the east and the west; these are again extended by pushing out three minor apses eastward, and two others, one on either side of a straight extension, to the west. This unbroken area, about 260 ft. long, the larger part of which is over 100 ft. wide, is entirely covered by a system of domical surfaces. Above the conchs of the small apses rise the two great semi-domes which cover the hemicycles, and between these bursts out the vast dome over the central square. On the two sides, to the north and south of the dome, it is supported by vaulted aisles in two storeys which bring the exterior form to a general square. At the Holy Apostles (6th century) five domes were applied to a cruciform plan, that in the midst being the highest. After the 6th century there were no churches built which in any way competed in scale with these great works of Justinian, and the plans more or less tended to approximate to one type. The central area covered by the dome was included in a considerably larger square, of which the four divisions, to the east, west, north and south, were carried up higher in the vaulting and roof system than the four corners, forming in this way a sort of nave and transepts. Sometimes the central space was square, sometimes octagonal, or at least there were eight piers supporting the dome instead of four, and the "nave" and "transepts" were narrower in proportion. If we draw a square and divide each side into three so that the middle parts are greater than the others, and then divide the area into nine from these points, we approximate to the typical setting out of a plan of this time. Now add three apses on the east side opening from the three divisions, and opposite to the west put a narrow entrance porch running right across the front. Still in front put a square court. The court is the atrium and usually has a fountain in the middle under a canopy resting on pillars. The entrance porch is the narthex. The central area covered by the dome is the solea, the place for the choir of singers. Here also stood the ambo. Across the eastern side of the central square was a screen which divided off the bema, where the altar was situated, from the body of the church; this screen, bearing images, is the iconastasis. The altar was protected by a canopy or ciborium resting on pillars. Rows of rising seats around the curve of the apse with the patriarch's throne at the middle eastern point formed the synthronon. The two smaller compartments and apses at the sides of the bema were sacristies, the diaconicon and prothesis. The continuous influence from the East is strangely shown in the fashion of decorating external brick walls of churches built about the 12th century, in which bricks roughly carved into form are set up so as to make bands of ornamentation which it is quite clear are imitated from Cufic writing. This fashion was associated with the disposition of the exterior brick and stone work generally into many varieties of pattern, zig-zags, key-patterns, &c.; and, as similar decoration is found in many Persian buildings, it is probable that this custom also was derived from the East. The domes and vaults to the exterior were covered with lead or with tiling of the Roman variety. The window and door frames were of marble. The interior surfaces were adorned all over by mosaics or paintings in the higher parts of the edifice, and below with incrustations of marble slabs, which were frequently of very beautiful varieties, and disposed so that, although in one surface, the colouring formed a series of large panels. The choicer marbles were opened out so that the two surfaces produced by the division formed a symmetrical pattern resembling somewhat the marking of skins of beasts.
Mosaics and Paintings.—The method of depicting designs by bringing together morsels of variously colored materials is of high antiquity. We are apt to think of a line of distinction between classical and Christian mosaics in that the former were generally of marble and the latter mostly of colored and gilt glass. But glass mosaics were already in use in the Augustan age, and the use of gilt tesserae goes back to the 1st or 2nd century. The first application of glass to this purpose seems to have been made in Egypt, the great glass-working centre of antiquity, and the gilding of tesserae may with probability be traced to the same source, whence, it is generally agreed, most of the gilt glass vessels, of which so many have been found in the catacombs, were derived. The earliest existing mosaics of a typically Christian character are some to be found at Santa Costanza, Rome (4th century). Other mosaics on the vaults of the same church are of marble and follow a classical tradition. It is probable that we have here the meeting-point of two art-currents, the indigenous and the eastern. In Rome, the great apse-mosaic of S. Pudenziana dates from about A.D. 400. The mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna, is incrusted within by mosaic work of the 5th century, and most probably the dome mosaics of the church of St George, Salonica, are also of this period. Of the 6th century are many of the magnificent examples still remaining at Ravenna, portions of the original incrustation of St Sophia, Constantinople, those of the basilica at Parenzo, on the Gulf of Istria, and of St Catherines, Sinai. An interesting mosaic which is probably of this period, and has only recently been described, is at the small church of Keti in Cyprus. This, which may be the only Byzantine mosaic in the British dominions, fills the conch of a tiny apse, but is none the less of great dignity. In the centre is a figure of the Virgin with the Holy Child in her arms standing between two angels who hold disks marked with the sign Χ. They are named Michael and Gabriel. Another mosaic of this period brought from Ravenna to Germany two generations ago has been recently almost rediscovered, and set up in the new Museum of Decorative Art in Berlin. In this, a somewhat similar composition fills the conch of the apse, but here it is the Risen Christ who stands between the two archangels. Above, in a broad strip, a frieze of angels blowing trumpets stand on the celestial sea on either hand of the Enthroned Majesty.
Such mosaics flowed out widely over the Christian world trom its art centres, as far east as Sanâ, the capital of Yemen, as far north as Kiev in Russia, and Aachen in Germany, and as far west as Paris, and continued in time for a thousand years without break in the tradition save by the iconoclastic dispute. The finest late example is the well-known "mosaic-church" (the Convent of the Saviour) at Constantinople, a work of the 14th century.
The single figures were from the first, and for the most part, treated with an axial symmetry. Almost all are full front; only occasionally will one, like the announcing angel, be drawn with a three-quarter face. The features are thus kept together on the general map of the face. In the same way the details of a tree will be collected on a simple including form which makes a sort of mat for them. Groups, similarly, are closely gathered up into masses of balanced form, and such masses are arranged with strict regard for general symmetry. "The art," as Bayet says, "in losing something of life and liberty became so much the better fitted for the decoration of great edifices." The technical means were just as much simplified, and only a few frank colours were made sufficient, by skilful juxtaposition, to do all that was required of them. The fine pure blue, or bright gold, backgrounds on which the figures were spaced, as well as the broken surface incidental to the process, created an atmosphere which harmonized all together. At St Sophia there were literally acres of such mosaics, and they seem to have been applied with similar profusion in the imperial palace.
Mosaic was only a more magnificent kind of painting, and painted design followed exactly the same laws; the difference is in the splendour of effect and in the solidity and depth of colour. Paintings, from the first, must have been of more grey and pearly hues. A large side chapel at the mosaic church at Constantinople is painted, and it is difficult to say which is really the more beautiful, the deep splendour of the one, or the tender yet gay colour of the other. The greatest thing in Byzantine art was this picturing of the interiors of entire buildings with a series of mosaics or paintings, filling the wall space, vaults and domes with a connected story. The typical character of the personages and scenes, the elimination of non-essentials, and the continuity of the tradition, brought about an intensity of expression such as may nowhere else be found. It is part of the limited greatness of this side of Byzantine art that there was no room in it for the gaiety and humour of the later medieval schools; all was solemn, epical, cosmic. When such stories are displayed on the golden ground of arches and domes, and related in a connected cycle, the result produces, as it was intended to produce, a sense of the universal and eternal. Beside this great power of co-ordination possessed by Byzantine artists, they created imaginative types of the highest perfection. They clothed Christian ideas with forms so worthy, which have become so diffused, and so intimately one with the history, that we are apt to take them for granted, and not to see in them the superb results of Greek intuition and power of expression. Such a type is the Pantocrator,—the Creator-Redeemer, the Judge inflexible and yet compassionate,—who is depicted at the zenith of all greater domes; such the Virgin with the Holy Child, enthroned or standing in the conchs of apses, all tenderness and dignity, or with arms extended, all solicitude; of her image the Painter's Guide directs that it is to be painted with the "complexion the colour of wheat, hair and eyes brown, grand eyebrows, and beautiful eyes, clad in beautiful clothing, humble, beautiful and faultless"; such are the angels with their mighty wings, splendid impersonations of beneficent power; such are the prophets, doctors, martyrs, saints,—all have been fixed into final types.
We are apt to speak of the rigidity and fixity of Byzantine work, but the method is germane in the strictest sense to the result desired, and we should ask ourselves how far it is possible to represent such a serious and moving drama except by dealing with more or less unchangeable types. It could be no otherwise. This art was not a matter of taste, it was a growth of thought, cast into an historical mould. Again, the artists had an extraordinary power of concentrating and abstracting the great things of a story into a few elements or symbols. For example, the seven days of creation are each figured by some simple detail, such as a tree, or a flight of birds, or symbolically, as seven spirits; the flood by an ark on the waters. What the capabilities of such a method are, where invention is not allowed to wander into variety, but may only add intensity, may, for instance, be seen in representations of the Agony in the Garden. This subject is usually divided into three sections, each consecutive one showing, with the same general scene, greater darkness, an advance up the hill, and the figure of Christ more bowed. Another composition, the "Sleep (death) of the Virgin," is all sweetness and peace, but no less powerful. A remarkable invention is the etomasia, a splendid empty throne prepared for the Second Advent. The stories of the Old Testament are put into relation with the Gospel by way of type and anti-type. There are allegories: the anchorite life contrasted with the mad life of the world, the celestial ladder, &c., and fine impersonations, such as night and dawn, mercy and truth, cities and rivers, are frequently found, especially in MS. pictures.
A few general schemes may be briefly summarized. St Sophia has the Pantocrator in the middle of the dome, and four cherubim of colossal size at the four corners; on the walls below were angels, prophets, saints and doctors. On the circle of the apse was enthroned the Virgin. To the right and left, high above the altar, were two archangels holding banners inscribed "Holy, Holy, Holy." These last are also found at Nicaea, and at the monastery of St Luke. The church of the Holy Apostles had the Ascension in the central dome, and below, the Life of Christ. St Sophia, Salonica, also has the Ascension, a composition which is repeated on the central dome of St Mark's, Venice. In the eastern dome of the Venetian church is Christ surrounded by prophets, and, in the western dome, the Descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles. A Pentecost similar to the last occupies the dome over the Bema of St Luke's monastery in Phocis; in the central dome of this church is the Pantocrator, while in a zone below stand, the Virgin to the east, St John Baptist to the west, and the four archangels, Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and Uriel, to the north and south. A better example of grandeur of treatment can hardly be cited than the paintings of the now destroyed dome of the little church of Megale Panagia at Athens, a dome which was only about 12 ft. across. At the centre was Christ enthroned, next came a series of nine semicircles containing the orders of the angels, seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominations, virtues, powers, principalities, archangels and angels. Below these came a wide blue belt set with stars and the signs of the zodiac; to the east the sun, to the west the moon. Still below these were the winds, hail and snow; and still lower mountains and trees and the life on the earth, with all of which were interwoven passages from the last three Psalms, forming a Benedicite. After St Mark's, Venice, the completest existing scheme of mosaics is that of the church of St Luke; those of Daphne, Athens, are the most beautiful. A complete series of paintings exists in one of the monastic churches on Mount Athos. The Pantocrator is at the centre of the dome, then comes a zone with the Virgin, St John Baptist and the orders of the angels. Then the prophets between the windows of the dome and the four evangelists in the pendentives. On the rest of the vaults is the life of Christ, ending at the Bema with the Ascension; in the apse is the Virgin above, the Divine Liturgy lower, and the four doctors of the church below. All the walls are painted as well as the vaults. The mosaics overflowed from the interiors on to the external walls of buildings even in Roman days, and the same practice was continued on churches. The remains of an external mosaic of the 6th century exist on the west façade of the basilica at Parenzo. Christ is there seated amongst the seven candlesticks, and adored by saints. At the basilica at Bethlehem the gable end was appropriately covered with a mosaic of the Nativity, also a work of the age of Justinian. In Rome, St Peter's and other churches had mosaics on the façades; a tradition represented, in a small way, at San Miniato, Florence. At Constantinople, according to Clavigo, the Spanish ambassador who visited that city about 1400, the church of St Mary of the Fountain had its exterior richly worked in gold, azure and other colours; and it seems almost necessary to believe that the bare front of the narthex of St Sophia was intended to be decorated in a similar manner. In Damascus the courtyard of the Great Mosque seems to have been adorned with mosaics; photographs taken before the fire in 1893 show patches on the central gable in some of the spandrels of the side colonnade and on the walls of the isolated octagonal treasury. The mosaics here were of Byzantine workmanship, and their effect, used in such abundance, must have been of great splendour. In Jerusalem the mosque of Omar also had portions of the exterior covered with mosaics. We may imagine that such external decorations of the churches, where a few solemn figures told almost as shadows on the golden background brightly reflecting the sun, must have been even more glorious than the imagery of their interiors.
Painted books were hardly different in their style from the paintings on the walls. Of the MSS. the Cottonian Genesis, now only a collection of charred fragments, was an early example. The great Natural History of Dioscorides of Vienna (c. 500) and the Joshua Roll of the Vatican, which have both been lately published in perfect facsimile, are magnificent works. In the former the plants are drawn with an accuracy of observation which was to disappear for a thousand years. The latter shows a series of drawings delicately tinted in pinks and blues. Many of the compositions contain classical survivals, like personified rivers.
In some of the miniatures of the later school of the art the classical revival of the 10th century was especially marked. Still later others show a very definite Persian influence in their ornamentation, where intricate arabesques almost of the style of eastern rugs are found.The Plastic Art.—If painting under the new conditions entered on a fresh course of power and conquest, if it set itself successfully to provide an imagery for new and intense thought, sculpture, on the other hand, seems to have withered away as it became removed from the classic stock. Already in the pre-Constantinian epoch of classical art sculpture had become strangely dry and powerless, and as time went on the traditions of modelling appear to have been forgotten. Two points of recent criticism may be mentioned here. It has been shown that the porphyry images of warriors at the southwest angle of St Mark's, Venice, are of Egyptian origin and are of late classical tradition. The celebrated bronze St Peter at Rome is now assigned to the 13th century. Not only did statue-making become nearly a lost art, but architectural carvings ceased to be seen as modelled form, and a new system of relief came into use. Ornament, instead of being gathered up into forcible projections relieved against retiring planes, and instead of having its surfaces modulated all over with delicate gradations of shade, was spread over a given space in an even fretwork. Such a highly developed member as the capital, for instance, was thought of first as a simple, solid form, usually more or less the shape of a bowl, and the carving was spread out over the general surface, the background being sunk into sharply defined spaces of shadow, all about the same size. Often the background was so deeply excavated that it ceased to be a plane supporting the relieved parts, but passed wholly into darkness. Strzygowski has given to this process the name of the "deep-dark" ground. A further step was to relieve the upper fretwork of carving from the ground altogether in certain places by cutting away the sustaining portions.
The simplicity, the definition and crisp sharpness of some of the results are entirely delightful. The bluntness and weariness of many of the later modelled Roman forms disappear in the new energy of workmanship which was engaged in exploring a fresh field of beauty. These brightly illuminated lattices of carved ornament seem to hold within them masses of cold shadow. Beautiful as was this method of architectural adornment, it must be allowed that it was, in essence, much more elementary than the school of modelled form. All such carvings were usually brightly coloured and gilt, and it seems probable that the whole was considered rather as a colour arrangement than as sculpture proper.
Plaster work, again, an art on which wonderful skill was lavished in Rome, became under the Byzantines extremely rude. Many good examples of this work exist at San Vitale and Sant' Apollinare in Classe at Ravenna, also at Parenzo, and at St Sophia, Constantinople. Later examples of plaster work of Byzantine tradition are to be found at Cividale, and at Sant' Ambrogio, Milan, where the tympana of the well-known baldachin are of this material, and contain modelled figures.
Coins and medallions of even the best period of Byzantine art prove what a deep abyss separates them from the power over modelled relief shown in classical examples. The sculptural art is best displayed by ivory carvings, although this is more to be attributed to their pictorial quality than to a feeling for modelling.
Metal Work, Ivories and Textiles.—One of the greatest of Byzantine arts is the goldsmith's. This absorbed so much from Persian and Oriental schools as to become semi-barbaric. Under Justinian the transformation from Classical art was almost complete. Some few examples, like a silver dish from Cyprus in the British Museum, show refined restraint; on the other hand, the mosaic portraits of the emperor and Theodora show crowns and jewels of full Oriental style, and the description of the splendid fittings of St Sophia read like an eastern tale. Goldsmith's work was executed on such a scale for the great church as to form parts of the architecture of the interior. The altar was wholly of gold, and its ciborium and the iconastasis were of silver. In the later palace-church, built by Basil the Macedonian, the previous metals were used to such an extent that it is clear, from the description, that the interior was intended to be, as far as possible, like a great jewelled shrine. Gold and silver, we are told, were spread over all the church, not only in the mosaics, but in plating and other applications. The enclosure of the bema, with its columns and entablatures, was of silver gilt, and set with gems and pearls.
The most splendid existing example of goldsmith's work on a large scale is the Paid d'Oro of St Mark's, Venice; an assemblage of many panels on which saints and angels are enamelled. The monastic church of St Catherine, Sinai, is entered through a pair of enamelled doors, and several doors inlaid with silver still exist. In these doors the ground was of gilt-bronze; but there is also record of silver doors in the imperial palace at Constantinople. The inlaid doors of St Paul Outside the Walls at Rome were executed in Constantinople by Stauricios, in 1070, and have Greek inscriptions. There are others at Salerno (c. 1080), but the best known are those at St Mark's, Venice. In all these the imagery was delineated in silver on the gilt-bronze ground. The earliest works of this sort are still to be found in Constantinople. The panels of a door at St Sophia bear the monograms of Theophilus and Michael (840). Two other doors in the narthex of the same church, having simpler ornamentation of inlaid silver, are probably as early as the time of Justinian.
The process of enamelling dates from late classical times and Venturi supposes that it was invented in Alexandria. The cloisonné process, characteristic of Byzantine enamels, is thought by Kondakov to be derived from Persia, and to its study he has devoted a splendid volume. One of the finest examples of this cloisonné is the reliquary at Limburg on which the enthroned Christ appears between St Mary and St John in the midst of the twelve apostles. An inscription tells that it was executed for the emperors Constantine and Romanus (948-959).
A reliquary lately added to the J. Pierpont Morgan collection at South Kensington is of the greatest beauty in regard to the colour and clearness of the enamel. The cover, which is only about 4½ by 3 ins., has in the centre a crucifixion with St Mary and St John to the right and left, while around are busts of the apostles. Christ is vested in a tunic. The ground colour is the green of emerald, the rest mostly blue and white. The cloisons are of gold. Two other Byzantine enamels are in the permanent collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum: one is a cross with the crucifixion on a background of the same emerald enamel; the other is a small head of St Paul of remarkably fine workmanship.
Ivory-working was another characteristic Byzantine art, although, like so many others it had its origin in antiquity. One of the earliest ivories of the Byzantine type is the diptych at Monza, showing a princess and a boy, supposed to be Galla Placidia and Valentinian III. This already shows the broad, flattened treatment which seems to mark the ivory work of the East. The majestic archangel of the British Museum, one of the largest panels known, is probably of the 5th century, and almost certainly, as Strzygowski has shown, of Syrian origin. Design and execution are equally fine. The drawing of the body, and the modelling of the drapery, are accomplished and classical. Only the full front pose, the balanced disposition of the large wings, and the intense outlook of the face, give it the Byzantine type.
Ivory, like gold-work and enamel, was pressed into the adornment of architectural works. The ambo erected by Justinian at St Sophia was in part covered by ivory panels set into the marble. The best existing specimen of this kind of work is the celebrated ivory throne at Ravenna. This masterpiece, which resembles a large, high-backed chair, is entirely covered with sculptured ivory, delicate carvings of scriptural subjects and ornament. It is of the 6th century and bears the monogram of Bishop Maximian. It is probably of Egyptian or Syrian origin.
So many fragments of ivories have been discovered in recent explorations in Egypt that it is most likely that Alexandria, a fit centre for receiving the material, was also its centre of distribution. The weaving of patterned silks was known in Europe in the classical age, and they reached great development in the Byzantine era. A fragment, long ago figured by Semper, showing a classical design of a nereid on a sea-horse, is so like the designs found on many ivories discovered in Egypt that we may probably assign it to Alexandria. Such fabrics going back to the 3rd century have been found in Egypt which must have been one of the chief centres for the production of silk as for linen textiles. The Victoria and Albert Museum is particularly rich in early silks. One fine example, having rose-coloured stripes and repeated figures of Samson and the lion, must be of the great period of the 6th century. The description of St Sophia written at that time tells of the altar curtains that they bore woven images of Christ, St Peter and St Paul standing under tabernacles upon a crimson ground, their garments being enriched with gold embroidery. Later the patterns became more barbaric and of great scale, lions trampled across the stuff, and in large circles were displayed eagles, griffins and the like in a fine heraldic style. From the origin of the raw material in China and India and the ease of transport, such figured stuffs gathered up and distributed patterns over both Europe and Asia. The Persian influence is marked. There is, for example, a pattern of a curious dragon having front feet and a peacock's tail. It appears on a silver Persian dish in the Hermitage Museum, it is found on the mixed Byzantine and Persian carvings of the palace of Mashita, and it occurs on several silks of which there are two varieties at the Victoria and Albert Museum, both of which are classed as Byzantine; it is difficult to say of many of these patterns whether they are Sassanian originals or Byzantine adaptations from them.
(W. R. L.)
- For Byzantine literature see Greek Literature: Byzantine.