Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Stylization in Byzantine Art

Stylization in two works of art, the mosaic of “ Justinian, Archbishop Maximianus of Ravenna and Attendants in San Vitale” and the “Virgin and Child with Saints and Angels” during the Byzantine period.

           There is a shift to more stylization and a movement away from the naturalism that was seen in ancient Roman art.  Stylization of the figure and the landscape is very prevalent in Byzantine art.  While there are still some aspects of naturalism that are present, such as the use of some mottling, realism becomes less of a focus for Byzantine artists.  Instead, there is a focus on spirituality and the use of icons, which are representations of holy figures and events.  Icons were important to the Byzantines, except to the iconoclasts, and they thought that by honoring an icon of a spiritual figure that honor was then passed on to the actual figure itself.  These icons, along with the artwork found in churches, give a representation of the stylization in artwork produced during the Byzantine era.

            There is a rigid styles that is noticeable in Byzantine art and can be seen in the representation of the figures and by looking at the landscape behind the figures.  Looking at the human front figures in the “Virgin and Child with Saints and Angels” (Stokstad p. 245), they appear stiff and rigid.  Mary is holding her body very upright in her throne and her posture is a very frontal pose.  Both the saints flanking her on both sides, share her same stiff straight posture and frontal view.  The angels behind the frontal figures seem to breaking away from this view, adding a contrast from the main figures in front, and seem to be looking at the hand, or the representation of God, coming from the sky.  The same stiffness in the body can be seen in the figures of Justinian with the bishop, attendants, and soldiers (Stokstad p. 240).  There is a slight suggestion of the contropposto stance with Justinian and the other figures.  We can see one foot is in front of the other and one foot is turned to the side.  The stance can be seen even better in the bent knee of the saints next to Mary.  Even with so much stylization done with the figures, there are still some visible attempts at realism, and Roman influence, but it is no longer the main focus for Byzantine art.

The elongated figures is a stylization found throughout much of the Byzantine art.  In the figure of Justinian, we can see that his body is very long in comparison to the size of his head and his shoulders.  His face along with the other figures in the scene share a long narrow face with long narrow noses.  The hands holding the dish are also elongated unnaturally along with the feet.  This same elongation in the face can be seen in the icon of Mary and in the faces of the saints and angels.  The faces also show a two-dimensional quality that can be seen in the outline of the eyes and the dark eyebrows.  The cheeks on all the figures of Justinian and his attendants are unnaturally pink and flush.  There is some individualization of the faces in both sets of artwork.  We can see a change in hair and the appearance of beards in some figures, but overall the features of eyes and eyebrows remain similar in the different faces.  The robes of that Justinian wears, along with his other attendants, are very much stylized.  There is no longer the interest in the verism and naturalism that was seen in the Roman art, where the garment was a vehichle to show the outline of the figure beneath the clothing, without actually having them the figure be nude, instead, the cloth and the garments are more of a focus than the body underneath.  The emphasis is more on the lavish quality of the material and using it as a symbolism of wealth and/or royalty.  The purple robe of Justinian symbolizes wealth, because it was so expensive to make the dye, and we know he is a royal figure because of the purple robe and his red shoes.  The possibility that the robe Mary is wearing in the iconograh is purple, instead of blue, symbolizes Mary as the veil for Christ and the red shoes proclaim her status as empress.

The mixture of two-dimensional quality and three-dimensional characteristics can be seen in the landscape and the backgrounds.  In the mosaic of Justinian, the ground is suggested by the expanse of green that is mostly one color.  The background is filled in with one solid tone of gold, which is a stylization that is very prominent in many works of art from the Byzantines.  There are only slight hints of naturalism with the pillars in the background, which show some mottling, but overall the affect is of a two-dimensional world, where the figures don’t seem to be quite standing on solid ground.  Gold backgrounds symbolized divinity and spirituality, along with reflecting wealth, status, and prestige.  These backgrounds were not meant to show depth or realism, but instead seem to focus on creating a two-dimensional other worldly realm not of this world.  Gold is also used for the halos around the faces of Mary and the saints, and of Justinian.  They are of a solid color and symbolize the holiness and spirituality of the figures, and the association with royalty.

The Byzantine artists were more focused on the naturalism of their art but instead they were interested in the symbolism and spirituality of their subject matter, and less on trying to create a naturalistic world.  They did use some slight mottling and some shading and the use of the contropposto stance in some figures, but for the most part their figures were kept two dimensional with the outlining of the bodies, around the eyes, and the unnatural positioning of the feet that give the figures the appearance of floating in space.  The two-dimensional aspect is brought into the landscape and the background with the use of a solid gold sky, which has rich symbolism but no depth. 


  1. You are right that we sometimes do see some modeling in Byzantine mosaics and paintings. I'm glad that you mentioned that, since there occasionally are features in Byzantine art that are naturalistic.

    -Prof. Bowen

  2. I like your perspective of the clothing in "Emperor Justinian and His Attendants," I was hoping there would at least be some hinting of the figure underneath the cloth, like some works include a little indication of naturalism, but he and his attendants' bodies/poses are so static and frontal, so I can appreciate how the drapery done can show the quality of the material, and in return, how wealthy/important the figures must be to have this kind of quality clothing. This was a nice read!