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The humanism of Byzantine art



The Last judgement (detail of the aposties 1295 -1300 by Pietro Cavallni.

EL GRECO studied iconic art, which has its origins in Byzantine art. Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) was the centre of this art of the Byzantine Empire, which flourished from the Fifth Century C.E. to the fall of the capital to the Turks in 1450.

The Orthodox Church had a central role in the development of this art form. Byzantine paintings and mosaics have rich colours and flat, stiff figures that appear to be floating. Backgrounds are solidly golden or toned. Human figures are represented in two styles — frontal figures that represented authority and the other where the figures symbolised adoration, sympathy or prayer. Folds of drapery and the position of the arms are manipulated to give a definite meaning. Feet are not placed on a firm foundation — rather they point downward to give an impression of floating. Human figures are the focus with landscape and architectural details coming a far second.



The Hell (mosaic) by Coppo di Marcovaldo.

While being an artist during the Byzantine era was an honour, artists were not identified before the 13th Century. Giotto is considered the father of modern art and was the first Western artist to make figures three-dimensional with the interplay of light and shadow.

Icons were devotional images considered windows between the spiritual and temporal world. In 726, Emperor Leo prohibited the painting of icons as he said they were a form of idolatry. This iconoclastic crisis split the empire in two. The intention was to teach the viewer religious lessons, which is why the images were simple and easily understood.

The Byzantine influence can be clearly seen in architecture — which favours the central dome and decorative mosaics. Examples of Byzantine architecture can be seen to this day, including the Senate House in Madras University.

MINI ANTHIKAD-CHHIBBER

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