Fresko in the church of the Archangel in Galata, Cyprus
Unknown artist, 1500 AD
As an art student, lots of my class time is spent learning about the history of art, as it is important to understand the origins of my practice. I remember about a year or so ago studying Byzantine art and how I began to get enthusiastic about the history lesson. The names of the artists were beginning to become less impossible to pronounce and the imagery and symbolism were more vivid and somewhat relatable. It all started when Constantine the Great moved the capitol of the Roman Empire to Istanbul and it was renamed Constantinople. He legalized Christianity with the Edict of Milan and from there Christianity became the dominant religion of the empire.
The Byzantines, a good chunk of the medieval period, came after antiquity but before Romanesque and Gothic art. The style of Byzantine art is easily recognized; golden backgrounds, circular halos, no atmospheric perspective, icons made from tempura on wood, and of course the wall frescoes (or mosaics) found in the elaborate cathedrals.
The exhibit is organized in chronological order, and as you move through the history of the Byzantine Empire, you come across iconoclasm, something I find exceptionally interesting. The idea is that, according to religious leaders, it was considered unholy to create a lifeless representation of Jesus or any of the saints because the church goers looked to the icons for worship, and they were losing sight of whom they were truly praying to. In response to this idea, people destroyed many of the existing religious icons and imagery. Nobody truly knows how much artwork was destroyed, but it was a lot, and few images from the iconoclastic period were salvaged.
Also in the exhibit is a room full of non-secular items such as precious jewelry and tableware. As non-secular as these items are, the imagery on them really illustrates how deeply religious their culture was. The Byzantine Empire came to an end when they were taken over by the Ottoman Empire in the west. Their religious art told us a lot about the way these people lived and the influence of the ancient Greeks in their culture. As much as one can learn from a history book, there is nothing quite like seeing the art work in person and experiencing it for yourself. Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections, will be open until March 2nd, 2014 at the National Gallery of Art. For more details, visit http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/exhibitions/2013/heaven-and-earth.html.