Module 8 Essay

Submitted By DjTysen
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Pages: 15

As you learned from the module on early Christian art, 476 CE marked the fall of Rome and the division of the Roman Empire into eastern and western halves. At that time, the capital of the Roman Empire was the eastern city of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). In the West, barbaric tribes set up different kingdoms that eventually evolved into modern-day Europe. The Eastern Roman Empire survived until 1453, the year the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople.

Map of Byzantium.
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"Byzantine art" refers to the art of the Eastern Roman Empire. We usually mark its earliest works of art to the projects initiated by the Emperor Justinian, who ruled from 527-565 CE. Although Byzantine art will fill only one module in this course, keep in mind that this period extended well into the 15th century. In fact, the period corresponds to the art of the early Italian Renaissance, which you will study in the last module of the course.

Byzantium was Christian, yet as early as the sixth century, divisions appeared in the Roman Empire and within Christianity. The tension between the East and West persisted until the churches officially split in 1054 into Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

Byzantine Art

Saint Michael the Archangel, right leaf of a diptych, early sixth century. Ivory, 1' 5" x 5 1/2". British Museum, London.
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Our first example of Byzantine art is this ivory diptych leaf depicting Saint Michael the rchangel. A diptych consists of two panels that are hinged together so that they can easily be opened or shut. Originally, diptychs were used as wax molds for writing, or were made for commemorative purposes.
This particular diptych was most likely carved in Constantinople in the sixth century CE. It commemorated a meeting in Constantinople in 519 between members of the Greek Orthodox Church and the pope's representatives from Rome. The goal of the meeting was the restoration of the Roman Empire and the unification of the eastern and western halves of the empire.
In the Bible, Saint Michael the Archangel was one of the most powerful of the Christian God's messengers. He symbolizes victory over evil and is the defender of God's Kingdom of Heaven.
To convey this message of victory, Christians borrowed or appropriated the image of the winged figure of victory from the Greek and Roman pagan world. For example, compare the famous Nike of Samothrace to the image of St. Michael.

Nike alighting on a warship (Nike of Samothrace), from Samothrace, Greece, ca. 190 BCE. Marble, figure 8' 1" high. Louvre, Paris.
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The artist used classical motifs and imagery in the creation of the Saint Michael the Archangel diptych. His garb and hairstyle, as well as the laurel wreath atop his head, are all reminiscent of ancient classical statuary.
Indicative of the new Christian context, Saint Michael seems flat and awkward in his niche. His feet do not appear to rest firmly on the staircase. Rather, he seems to hover in space.
The whole composition is pressed up toward the picture plane and pressed into the viewer's space. Saint Michael's glance is outward but not directed at us. Like the Colossal Head of Constantine, his gaze is heavenward from which he came.
The laurel wreath so popular in the pagan world now enshrines an orb surmounted by the cross of the Christians. It is the same orb that Saint Michael holds in his hand. In this new Christian context, Saint Michael symbolizes the triumph of Christianity over the orb of the earth.

Sinai Christ

Sinai Christ, from the Monastery of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, Sinai, Egypt, ca. sixth century.
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Among Justinian's important building projects was the Monastery of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, which lies at the base of Mount Sinai. Within this monastery are preserved some of the most beautiful icons from the Byzantine world. The image shown here, known as the Sinai Christ,