Timeline of Roman antiquities, 500 B.C. - 609 A.D.
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500-200 B.C 200-31 B.C. 30 B.C.-53 A.D. 54-96 A.D. 98-138 A.D. 138-360 A.D. 312-609 A.D.

The Roman Empire and it's art (312-609 A.D.)

Art from this period is dominated by the city formerly known as Byzantium, renamed Constantinople by Constantine the Great (ruled 324-37 A.D.) But art continued to be produced in the Western portion of the Roman Empire as well. The imagery and themes of art from the Fourth through Seventh Century A.D. were increasingly Christian. Byzantium/Constantinople had been a crossroads where East and West came together since at least 8000 B.C. (G. Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State, Oxford University Press, 1980, pp. 9 et.seq.). Emperor Septimius Severus (193-211 A.D.) had built up Byzantium so it had some Roman public buildings, Roman sanitation, and a small forum. It had a superb location and a deep port. Nevertheless, it was nearly defenseless to attacks from land, and Constantine had to build walls to fortify the city. The walls were allegedly four times the width of the previous walls around the city. The other major drawback of the location of the city was its lack of fresh water. Constantine also had to build a system of aqueducts, which fed cisterns to supply the city. Nevertheless, because Rome was threatened by Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Huns, and Vandals, it was prudent for Constantine to move the center of his empire to Constantinople.


Map of Constantinople as of 330 A.D., the city was founded on the site of the Greek fishing settlement Byzantium. The Imperial Palace was joined with the Hippodrome, where chariot fights were held for the masses. Constantinople became the most populous city in the Eastern part of the Roman Empire; its population was 500,000 at its height.


Constantine had grand ambitions for the city, and in 325 A.D., shortly after becoming Emperor began construction of Hagia Sophia (Church of Holy Wisdom). Hagia Sophia was completed under his successor Constantius II in 360 A.D. Nothing of the first Hagia Sophia remains. It was burned in a riot over Christian doctrine in 404. The rebuilt Hagia Sofia became a mosque and is now a museum. Constantine the Great also inaugurated the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, now the largest church in the world. St. Peter’s was started in 323 A.D., finished in 333 A.D. (“Hagia Sofia,” and “St. Peter’s Basilica,” in The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, edited by A. Kazhdan, vol. I, Oxford, U.K., 1991.)


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Under Diocletian and Constantine, civil administration was separated from military commands. Provinces that had existed for centuries were divided into a dozen "dioceses." In 395 A.D., the Empire was divided into two sections-East and West, with imperial power divided among three emperors, supported by "junior" emperors. Rome was supplanted by Milan, then Trier, as capitols of the Western Roman Empire. Constantinople was the capitol of the Eastern Roman Empire.


Early Christian Art

In the Fourth Century A.D., Christian and pagan symbols often existed in the same piece of art. This was a time when paganism and Christianity were equally popular. The earliest Christians shunned images of people as contrary to the stricture against “graven images” in the Old Testament. (Joachim Gaehde, “The Rise of Christian art, “ in The Christian World, Thames & Hudson, p. 61). Early Christian symbols were profoundly influenced by the Bible, but often do not have an exact source in scripture. For instance, the marble funerary stele below, combines Greek and Latin with Christian symbols. The Greek says: “fish of the living.” The Latin tells us that this is the funerary stele of Licinia Amias. It is one of the first known inscriptions with Christian symbols. The stele was excavated near the Vatican in Rome. (information from the entry on the piece from the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum). Fish were one of the first known symbols for Christianity. In Greek, the word for fish is ΙΧΘΥΣ, which was considered by the early Christians to be an acronym of the words: Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter, in translation: “Jesus Christ Savior Son of God.” The anchors may refer to the miracles of Jesus, or to the passage in Matthew 4:19 in which the disciples were told to catch believers rather than fish. Jesus is frequently referred to in scripture as the fisherman of souls. (K.S. Latourette, A History of the Expansion of Christianity, London, vol. I, 1940.) When Christianity was outlawed, very early Christians used the image of a fish on signs to show the faithful where they could find Christian rituals to attend. By the Third and Fourth Centuries A.D., the image of the fish was used in Christian catacombs to symbolize Christ. (William H.C. Frend, “Christianity in the Roman Empire,” in G. Barraclough, The Christian World, Thames & Hudson, London, U.K., 1981, pp. 47-50


Funerary stele of Licinia Amias, marble, late Third Century A.D., formerly in the Kircher Collection, currently at the Museo Nazionale Romano-Terme di Diocleziono, Rome, Italy.


Until the Fourth Century A.D., Christianity was officially banned under Roman law. Christians hid to practice their rites. Sometimes in private houses, where there was no dedicated room for services, sometimes below the ground in catacombs. J. Spier, “The Earliest Christian Art: From Personal Salvation to Imperial Power,” in Picturing the Bible, The Earliest Christian Art, exhibition catalogue, Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, TX, 2008, pp. 6-8.) The catacombs were decorated with religious images. Often they depicted New Testament scenes but with some touches of Old Testament and often pagan imagery. For instance in the Catacomb of Priscilla from the early Fourth Century, Christ is depicted as the Good Shepherd, an image similar to Hermes, a god from classical times, or Osiris, an Egyptian god. The image of the Good Shepherd also harkens back to the Psalms, (in the Old Testament). (E. Kitzinger, Byzantine Art in the Making, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1977, p. 311) As Christianity became increasing tolerated, and Christians more confident, they developed their own distinctive imagery. By the Second Century A.D., the See of Rome had its own catacombs, close to the present church of San Calisto in Rome, near the Vatican. The subject matter of frescoes in the catacombs is familiar Old Testament stories, but they are depicted with a new brio and naturalism. (R. Jensen, Understanding Early Christian Art, London and New York, 2000, p. 94.)


Fresco with the Sacrifice of Isaac, (Genesis 22:1-14), Right hand niche, back wall, (panel 78 x 41 cm), Cubiculum C, Via Latina Catacomb, Rome, late Fourth Century A.D. Catacomb near the Via Dino Compagni, Rome, excavated in 1955. The catacombs were tombs and places of worship created by the Christians in existing caves beneath cities, principally in Rome.


Because Christianity was illegal and adherents had to practice surreptiously, Jesus himself was rarely shown in very early Christian art. From the Second Century A.D. until the end of the Sixth Century A.D., Jesus was generally depicted as the Good Shepherd. Jesus likens himself to a shepherd in a talk with his disciples in John 10:11-16: “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So thee will be one flock, one shepherd.” (D. Talbot Rice, Byzantine Art and its Influences: Collected Studies, Valorium Press, London, 1973, pp. 7-10.) The image of the shepherd with carrying a lamb on his back was also made famous in a statue by the Fourth Century B.C. Athenian sculptor Calamis. Many scholars believe “The introduction of the Good Shepherd marks the first step in a decisively Christian iconography.” (T. Mathews, “The Beginnings of Christian Art,” in Byzantium: 330-1453, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy of Art, London, 2009, p. 48.) The Good Shepherd is seen in many frescoes and sarcophagi from the Late Roman Empire. By about 600 A.D., the iconography changed: after that Jesus was depicted as The Teacher.


Table support in the shape of the Good Shepherd, ca. early Fourth Century A.D., marble, height 110 cm, Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens, Greece. In earlier times, a figure of the god Heracles was the typical table support.


Both the religious and secular art of the Fourth Century A.D. show a move away from classical conventions, particularly in portraiture (F. Hartt, Art: A History of Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, vol. I, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1978, p. 227.) First, the scale was massively enlarged. The marble head of Emperor Constantine I (below) is eight feet high; an average portrait bust, for instance, the famous bust of Lucius Junius Brutus (bronze, at the Palazzo dei Conservatori, Rome, ca. 300 B.C. is only 12 5/8 inches. The head of Constantine is seven times life size (M. Grant, The Climax of Rome, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 1996, p. 96.) Previous statues of Constantine were life-size, and were done in highly traditional Roman style. The features of Constantine’s face, nevertheless, remain constant: square jaw, large eyes, long curved nose, with short, curly hair. After Constantine, free-standing stone statues were less common, due to the traditional early Christian stricture against graven images. Portrait statues of emperors (and empresses) continued to be sculpted, and even a few of high-ranking officials, wealthy traders, and their wives. (R. Milburn, Early Christian Art and Architecture, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 1988, pp. 190-1.)


Head of the Emperor Constantine I, marble, ca. 314 A.D., courtyard of the Capitoline Museum, Rome. Originally, the head was attached to a 30-foot statue of Constantine sitting on a throne. Unlike the wizened faces of the early emperors, Constantine's face is smooth, his expression resolute, his huge eyes focused on some distant goal.


Craftsmen trained in Rome traveled throughout the Roman Empire. Potters and other clay-makers were particularly prevalent in Gaul, and present-day Switzerland and Germany. Clay imports from Clermont-Ferrand, France to Italy date from around 50 A.D. (C.R. Morey, Early Christian Art: An Outline of the Evolution of Style and Iconography in Sculpture and Painting from Antiquity to the Eighth Century, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1942, pp. 5-9.) In these northern provinces, the manufacture of terracotta lamps thrived; some of these lamps are signed by the artisans who made them. During the later First Century A.D., hubs of pottery-making for import were Mosel, Trier, Frankfurt and Köln. Pottery from Carthage was relatively rare. Trays similar to the one below were often made in Iberia, however, and incorporated North African clothing and hair fashions their depictions of people. In Iberia and North African clay work, images of women, particularly the Virgin or the goddess Venus, were more popular than those of men.

The tray below was made using two rectangular molds. It is of a popular type called terra sigillata. Unlike much pottery clay from Africa from the Fourth to Seventh Centuries A.D., the clay in the piece below is exceptionally fine-grained and free of foreign particles. The slip appears to be the same color as the clay. The figures of Peter and Paul are exquisitely-executed. Paul is readily identifiable by his characteristic thick beard and large eyes. The frame is decorated with images from the Old Testament narrative of Jonah and the whale. The Jonah parable was quite popular during the Early Christian and Early Byzantine period, and was interpreted as preaching a moral about the fall of mankind but its ultimate salvation. (K. Weitzmann, Age of Spirituality: Late Antique and Early Christian Art: Third to Seventh Century, exhibition catalogue, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, 1977, pp. 12-19.)


Tray with depiction of the Apostles Paul and Peter, surrounding a cross; ca. 400 A.D., Carthage, North Africa, clay, 37.9 x 30.8 cm, Benaki Museum, Athens, Greece.


The free-standing icon below was created for the Pantheon at Rome. In the early Seventh Century, the Pantheon, which had been built by the Emperor Hadrian (ruled 117-138 A.D.) as a temple to all the gods, was consecrated as a church of the Virgin Mary. (R. Milburn, Early Christian Art and Architecture, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 1988, pp. 43-5.) The historian Bede wrote that the Pantheon was converted into a church: “After Boniface had expelled every abomination from it, he made a church of it dedicated to the Holy Mother of God and all the martyrs of Christ, so that, when the multitudes of devils had been driven out, it might serve as a shrine for a multitude of saints.” (Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Oxford University Press, 1994 vol. 2, p. 6.) Scholars believe the image believe the image below was part of a much larger free-standing icon of the Virgin and Child. Such monumental icons were common in Syria during the mid-to-late Sixth Century A.D. (T.F. Mathews, The Clash of the Gods: A Reinterpretation of Early Christian Art, Princeton University Press, 2004, pp. 92-114.) From about the Fourth Century to the Seventh Century A.D., the right hand of the Virgin was gilded in icons as well as mosaics.

This may have been one of the first images meant for direct veneration. In other words, instead of telling a story, it was supposed to provide direction communication with the divine. Of course, statues and other images of the pagan gods had been used this way in Greco-Roman antiquity. (“Early Christian Art” in The Oxford Companion to Western Art, Oxford University Press, 2006.)

History does not record who paid for the free-standing icon, or most other art work in churches or in secular settings. The historical record is better concerning art patrons who subsidized art in monasteries during the Early Christian and Early Byzantine period. (A. Cutler, Transfigurations: Studies in the Dynamics of Byzantine Iconography, Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, PA, 1975, p. 16.)


Icon with Virgin and Child, made in Constantinople or Rome, ca. 600 A.D., paint on elm, 100 x 47.5 cm, Basilica di Santa Maria al Martyres-Pantheon, Rome, Italy.


The chair ornament below was part of a set of four chair ornaments, which decorated a couch. The couch was part of the Esquiline treasure, excavated in Rome in 1793. The pieces are made with superb craftsmanship, using the ancient Greek methods of embossing and chasing. Such objects were typical of those found in the homes of rich Romans during the Late Antique period. Byzantine art abounds in such personifications of cities as decorations in homes, or in reliefs on city gates, though there were few maps created from the Fourth Century to the Seventh Century A.D. Scholars contend this is because of “the Byzantine preference for allegory and symbolism over illusion and naturalism.” (“Early Christian and Byzantine Art,” in Oxford Dictionary of Art, Oxford University Press, 2008.) The middle class and lower class did not own gold, silver, or copper tableware, though the well-to-do did. (C.R. Morey, Early Christian Art: An Outline of Evolution of Style and Iconography in Sculpture and Painting from Antiquity to the Eighth Century A.D., Princeton University Press, 1942.) The Treasure included two large boxes for holding jewelry, flasks, amphorae, horse decorations. Some of these objects were clearly meant only for special occasions or display. Many of the silver objects have been found to be ninety-six percent pure. (D. Talbot Rice, Art of the Byzantine Era, Thames and Hudson, London, 1963, p. 166-9.) But this particular Treasure lacked large serving plates, and silver cut into small pieces to be used as bullion, both of which have been found in other contemporaneous treasures. The objects of the Esquiline Treasure combine Christian with Pagan elements. For instance, the treasure’s bridal casket has pagan inscriptions but Christian images. Each of these chair ornament is hollow, with the figure of a woman (personifying one of the major cities of the Roman Empire) attached to a socket with plate in the shape of a leaf that was soldered to the chair. The figure of Alexandria (below) carries wheat and fruit, symbolizing the traditional agriculturally-based wealth of Egypt. (“Metalwork in ancient Rome,” Grove Art Online, Oxford University Press, 2009.)


Chair ornament personifying the City of Alexandria, Egypt, Rome, ca. Fourth Century A.D., gilded silver, 18.7 x 7 cm, British Museum, London, U.K.


Many wall mosaics from the Fourth through Sixth Centuries A.D. have been extensively repaired, and few tesserae are original. That is the case in the image below. In this case, the blue tunic and the gold background tesserae are from the nineteenth century. The face is made from glass and stone tesserae. Glass pieces were used to create reflections and intensify colors. (E. Kitzinger, The Mosaics of Monreale, Palmero, 1960, pp. 115-7.) Unfortunately, glass tessearae deteriorate faster than stone ones. The piece is less luminous than it was when original. Images used for veneration were not supposed to have shadows, according to the traditions of early Byzantine iconographic art. Some of the tesserae have been taken from one place in the mosaic and used to replace missing pieces in another part of the mosaic. Portions of wall mosaics often fall, and find their way into the international marketplace. (J. Beckwith, The Art of Constantinople, Phaidon, New York, 1961, pp. 80-2.)This image of Jesus is unusual because it depicts Jesus as a beardless youth, rather than the more conventional image of a bearded Jesus. Ravenna became the capital of the Western Roman Empire in 402 A.D., when the Emperor Honorius established his court there. Honorius found Milan to be dangerously vulnerable to attack. In addition to be being safer than Milan, Ravenna was superior because a good, deep port, Classe was in the vicinity of Ravenna and afforded easy access to the Adriatic. (W. Rosen, Justininian’s Flea, Viking Press, New York, 2007, pp. 158-161.) But Ravenna was a small, insignificant village in the early Fourth Century A.D., it was in a swamp, which had to be drained. By the time of Emperor Valentinian III, (425-455 A.D.) one cathedral, many large and sumptuously decorated churches, several elaborate palaces, and many monuments had been built in Ravenna. Ravenna was short-lived as a Roman capital. In 471 A.D. it was conquered by the Ostrogoths, and their King Theodoric (ruled Italy 493-526 A.D.) made it his capitol. The Ostrogoths were Arians; they believed that Jesus only became divine upon his baptism. One of the most important buildings constructed by the Ostrogoths was the Arian Baptistry. This was an open-air, eight-sided building. Arians only conducted baptisms once a year, at Easter. Yet there were still Orthodox Christians in Ravenna. Some churches were dedicated to Arianism and others to the Orthodox faith during the late Fifth Century A.D. The army of Emperor Justinian conquered Ravenna in 540 A.D., Bishop Maximian was installed, and the city quickly reverted to Orthodoxy. The Ostrogoths were excommunicated. With Justinian came the popularization of the concept Caeropapism, the notion that the Emperor was more important than the pope, because the Emperor was Jesus’s regent. (O. von Simson, Sacred Fortresses: Byzantine Art and State in Ravenna, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 1948, p. 22.)

A watercolor painted in 1843 showed the entire apse of the church, from which the mosaic originated. In 1990, archaeologists demonstrated that the mosaic below came from the apse of a church dedicated on May 7, 545 A.D., San Michele in Africiso, Ravenna, Italy. (G. Bovini, Ravenna Mosaics, New York Graphic Publishers, 1956, pp. 81-2.)


Mosaic depicting the head of Christ, Ravenna, detached apse mosaic, ca. 545 A.D., restored in about 1850, 53.5 x 38 cm, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, U.K.


Roman Empire/Byzantium

Gilt glassware dating mainly from the Fifth and Sixth Centuries A.D., were decorated with inscriptions and figures done in gold leaf. Few remain, mainly small cups or hemispheric bowls. Most of the extant gilt glassware from this period has been excavated in Italy, Egypt, and the Middle East. Popular images for decorating the smaller glass pieces were classical gods and goddesses, as well as Adam and Eve, Noah’s Ark, Jonah and the Whale, and other scenes from the Old Testament. There are portions of larger bowls still in existence. One at the British Museum is an image of Jesus. The glass-working techniques used are thought to have originated in Egypt, and many of the gilt glasses of this period were made in Alexandria, Egypt. The inscriptions, however, were almost always in Greek. Details were made by taking out parts of the gold, and fusing a film of glass over the surface. (D. Talbot Rice, The Art of Byzantium, London, 1935, p. 60.)

In the early Seventh Century A.D., engraved glasses were produced in Köln. While no gilt glasses have been excavated in the Northwestern part of the Roman Empire, the Köln engraved glassware has been found in France and Britain. (Age of Spirituality: Late Antique and Early Christian Art, Third to Seventh Century, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1977-8, p. 16.)


Glass chalice, engraved with an image of a shrine holding a cross surrounded by angels. The angels hold books, which are thought to be Bibles. From Syria or Palestine, ca. late Sixth or early Seventh Century A.D., 14.9 cm diameter, Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC.


A center for trading between Asia, Europe and Africa, Constantinople quickly became a locus for metal-working in the early Fourth Century A.D. (O.M. Dalton, Catalogue of Early Christian Antiquities and Objects from the Christian East in the Department of British and Medieval Antiquities and Ethnography in the British Museum, London, 1901, p. 4.) The best craftsman from all over the Empire were drawn to Constantinople by the possibility of winning rich patronage soon after the city was established in 330 A.D. They brought techniques previously only known in their cities: the craftsmen from Asia Minor introduced the use of elaborate filigree, images of lions and other wild animals; those from Corinth and Athens brought the use of palmettes, geometric shapes, and foliate scrolls; from Alexandria the craft of embossing and the incorporation of colorful gems into designs.


Pyxis (small bowl for jewelry, cosmetics, and other small objects) with depictions of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and archangels, silver with gilding, 7 x 9 cm, late Sixth or early Seventh Century A.D., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.


Purely local schools of sculpture continued to thrive, even as Constantinople reigned as the supreme artistic center of the empire, during this period. The Seventh Century A.D., however, was a tumultuous time for the Empire: it was invaded from all sides at the same time. Construction was curtailed, which meant a decrease in the demand for sculpture. Quarries were closed. Carved stones were reused for other purposes. There was a great deal of copying, particularly using Greek Proconnesian marble. In Egypt, Lycia (present day Turkey), and Northern Syria, the profusion of soft limestone led to much intricate carving, such as the piece below, characteristic of the high degree of craftsmanship in limestone at the time. (R. Nelson, Sacred Art, Secular Context: Objects of Art from the Byzantine Collection of Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC, exhibition catalogue, Georgia Museum of Art, Athens, GA, 2005, pp. 6-10.)

Plants and animals figure importantly in Egyptian sculpture from this early Byzantine period. The harmony of nature and the divine were a significant theme to these craftsmen. Nature was no longer considered wild or uncontrollable; with faith, they believed, anything could be conquered. The antelope was associated with Pharonic riches. ( D. Frankfurter,” A binding of Antelopes,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 63; 2, 2004, pp97-109.)


Limestone relief with Cross, antelopes, plants, Egypt, Seventh Century A.D., 34.5 x 65 x 6 cm, Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC. Scholars believe that the antelopes were yoked to the cross, which was thought to tame them.


Mosaics with purely religious subject matter appeared for the first time in the late Third Century A.D. Some scholars believe that mosaics better expressed Christian religious ideas than the cult statue common throughout pagan antiquity. (P.J.Nordhagen and H.P. L’Orange, Mosaics, London, 1976) By the late Third Century A.D., the use of gold and silver tesserae was popular. To the Early Christians, the use of gold or silver suggested the light coming from God. The first known Christian wall mosaics appeared in about 330 A.D. and were at the mausoleum of Constantina in Rome. The mosaics had scenes from the Old and New Testament, as well as pagan imagery. (E.W. Anthony, A History of Mosaics, Boston, 1935, p. 16)

Mosaic makers experimented with elaborate designs for floors early on and gradually simplified their designs. Instead of Jonah and the Whale in a mosaic from 330 A.D., for instance, by the late Sixth Century A.D., a simple cross was favored. (O. Demus, Byzantine Mosaic Decoration, Boston, 1955, pp. 78-82.)

During the Fifth Century A.D., Ravenna, Italy became the foremost center for mosaic workshops in the Empire. Theodoric (493-526 A.D.) was a keen patron of mosaics. (R. Ling, Ancient Mosaics, London, 1998, p. 90.) He took part in supervising the mosaics at Saint Apollinaire Nuovo and the Arain Baptistry, both in Ravenna. During this time, to create an effect of a multitude of angles and facets of light, it was the style to put tesserae far apart from each other and at unusual angles. Also, at this time, there is archaeological evidence that mosaicists in Italy and the East started making preliminary sketches on the masonry itself.

The mid-Sixth Century A.D. representations of Emperor Justinian and his retinue in the mosaics at S. Vitale in Ravenna are considered the best mosaics in the Western Empire from the Early Christian period. (K.M.D. Dunbain, Mosaics of the Greek and Roman World, Cambridge University Press, 1999, pp. 17-19.)


Mosaic of the Emperor Constantius IV granting privileges to the church of Ravenna, Italy. The Emperor, his brother, to his left and the Bishop of Ravenna to the Emperor's right, have halos, suggesting their exalted status. S. Apollinare in Classe at Ravenna, Seventh Century A.D.


Illustrated manuscripts were popular with the Imperial court and the wealthy. Nevertheless, there are only a few manuscript makers known by name, none from the Early Christian or Early Byzantine period, the earliest is from the Eleventh Century A.D. Two of the most highly-regarded centers of manuscript manufacture were Cyprus and Southern Italy. (G. Vikan, Illuminated Greek Manuscripts from American Collections, exhibition catalogue, Princeton University Museum of Art, 1973, pp. xi-xx).

The Old Testament in Greek translation from Hebrew (called the Septuagint), was a popular subject for Byzantine manuscripts. The most common presentation was to divide the Old Testament into the following books: Genesis; Octateuchs; Kings; Job; the Sixteen Prophetical Books; Psalters (Psalms). (R. Cormack, Byzantine Art, Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 154-9.) The early Byzantines also made illustrated manuscripts of Latin texts, including classical literature (e.g. Virgil) and Christian writings (e.g. Saint Augustine).

Purple dye originally came from one of two snails common in the Mediterranean, Murex trunculus or Murex bandaris. Its use was restricted under late Roman law to the royal family’s purple clothing. (A. Muthesius, “From Seek to Samite: Aspects of Byzantine Silk Production,” History of Textiles, vol. 20, no. 2 (1989), pp. 139-49.) It was typically used to dye wool. Today scholars believe that this original purple was no longer used after the Seventh Century A.D., when the two great production centers—Sidon and Tyre—were captured by the Arabs. After that cheaper substitutes were used, made of plants or insects. (M. Reinhold, History of Purple as a Status Symbol in Antiquity, Collection Latomus, Brussels, 1970.)


Purple parchment from Syria depicting the Old Testament story of Rebecca and Eliezer, ca Sixth Century A.D., National Library, Vienna, Austria. Eliezer, Abraham's servant, was sent by Abraham, the master, to find an appropriate wife for Abraham's son Jacob, from his tribe. Rebecca brings water to the servant and his camels. The support is calfskin dyed purple; words are written in silver. There are 192 pages in the Vienna Genesis at the Austrian National Library.


Portions of bibles survive from this period, but no full illustrated complete bibles from before 950 A.D. (the Leo Bible at the Vatican).

Portraits of the Evangelists were coveted by collectors, and were often detached from illustrated bibles. Unfortunately, at this time there were few binding agents to keep pigments to the parchment, so we can’t get a real sense of what the original illustrations looked like. The early Christians liked to polish or even use gilding on parchment before painting or writing on it. The benefit of the erosion of pigment is that we can see the preliminary sketches or sometimes instructions to the illustrator from the text-writer. We know very little about how the craft was taught, particularly during this early period. (K.Weitzmann, Ancient Book Illumination, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1959.)

The conventional model for the portrait of an Evangelist came from classical portraits of philosophers. (Byzantine Art: A European Art, exhibition catalogue, Athens, National Museum, 1964, p. 83.) The bearded, older man was typically depicted indoors, sitting, reading a book, writing, or balancing a book on his knee. In the Ninth Century A.D. and later, the portrait of the Evangelist typically would be on the left side of the manuscript, with ornament and text on the right side. From about the Tenth Century A.D., the first initial of the first word would be enlarged and decorated to indicate the beginning of a section. (“Byzantine Manuscripts,” Grove Dictionary of Art Online edition.)

Stylistic changes occur often in these early manuscripts, and sometimes styles return to older form. There are very few surviving manuscripts from before 975 A.D., and they are very different from each other stylistically even if close in time and geography.


Leaf from decorated Bible, depicting Luke the Evangelist, his symbol the ox is above his head, along with scenes depicting Saint Augustine, and other saints. From Italy. Late Sixth Century A.D., Corpus Christi College Collection, Cambridge, U.K.


Gold was extremely pure during this period, and was the most popular substance for gifts to churches by emperors, bishops, and other important people. (C. Mango, The Art of the Byzantine Empire, 312-1453: Sources and Documents, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1986, pp. 78-9.) “Up to 642, 90 % of approximately 2300 pounds of recorded gold objects and furnishings made for the churches of Rome were presented by Constantine the Great.” (M. Mundel Mango, “Byzantine Art,” in Oxford Dictionary of Art, Oxford, 2009, p.47.)

From the early Fourth Century A.D., important pieces of worked silver were stamped with the Imperial seal. There was a complicated system of such stamps for silver by the end of the Sixth Century A.D., with control marks for eight cities, as well as stamps for bureaucrats.

The purity of silver from this period has not been analyzed as much as gold. (D. Buckton, Treasures of Byzantine Art and Culture, London, 1994, pp. 129-30.) Most of the silver from this period that is known to scholars comes from thirty “treasures,” which include large silver plates honoring officials as well as silver domestic utensils. Silver plates noticeably increase in size and weight after the Fourth Century A.D. From the Fourth Century A.D., they often bear the monogram or name of their owner. (J.P.C. Kent and K.S. Painter, Wealth of the Roman World: 300-700 A.D., London, 1977, pp. 50-52.) There are very few silver cups that survive from this period; more survive from the period before the Second Century A.D.. The cups that do survive are usually decorated with mythological scenes or depictions of animals and plants.


Silver bowl with image of unknown saint, ca. Seventh Century A.D., 24.3 cm diameter, niello (an alloy of lead, sulfur, copper, and silver, and is black) inlay. British Museum, London, U.K. Around the neck of the unknown saint is a maniakion, worn by the palace guard of the eastern empire. The bowl is from Cyprus. It is notable for its incorporation of a religious image in a household object.


Linen was a popular fabric for clothing during the Fifth and Sixth Centuries A.D., but it could not be dyed as easily as wool or silk, so it was used mostly for very plain garments or undergarments. Some Late Antique linen came from the Bulgar tribes. In the Seventh Century A.D, cotton was starting to supplant linen as a fabric for clothing.

Monks brought silkworm eggs from India in the 550s. (W. Volbach, Early Decorative Textiles, London, 1967, pp. 25-7.) The finest silks came from the Emperor’s workshops, and were the Emperor’s property. This silk was one of the “forbidden goods,” (kekolymena) prohibited from being taken out of Constantinople.

The design of the linen fragment below is uncommonly ornate, and the depiction of the people more naturalistic than typical of the time. Figures were commonly simplistic and designs stiff and square in textiles during this era. (A. Murthesius, A History of the Byzantine Silk Industry, Vienna, 1993, pp. 107-12.) Most such fragment were decorated with geometric patterns, narrative depictions were rare. The weave is also more complex than many of the time. It is a “weft-faced compound tabby,” unknown before the Fourth Century A.D. This weave permitted more complicated designs with more dramatic colors. Another weave popular in this time was the hexamiton (woven with six shaft). (P. Johnstone, The Byzantine Tradition in Church Embroidery, London, 1967, pp. 42-7.)


Silk-embroidered linen fragment from Egypt, ca. late Sixth Century A.D., depicting the Visitation, an event in the life of the Virgin mentioned in the Gospel of Luke 1:39-56, and a feast day celebrated on 30 March in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, U.K.


Imposing roundels, like the one above, were common from the Third to the Eighth Centuries A.D. Then they went out of fashion until about the Eleventh Century A.D. Looms at this time were horizontal, and wider than most European looms of the early medieval period: a minimum of 2.4 m wide. Two-color twill silk predominated during the Sixth and early Seventh Centuries A.D. Incised twill and more complex silk twills appeared in the Eighth Century A.D.

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