The extraordinary richness of Byzantine mosaics can be seen in this hand held video. Watch it and forgive the camera shakes – as it is the work of an enthusiast. The look of the art – the amazing mosaics – makes this short video worthwhile. This is what you would be looking at: “Byzantine mosaics depicting Bible scenes and Saint Peter at the Cathedral of Monreale near Palermo. Built by the Norman king of Sicily William II (the Good) between 1174 and 1182, Monreale is decorated with at least one million tesserae, the 130 individual mosaic scenes probably being created by artisans from Byzantium and/or local craftsmen working in that style.”
Mosaics in ByzantiumThe so-called Gothic chieftain, from the Mosaic Peristyle of the Great Palace of Constantinople
Byzantine culture is more open to mosaics than Western Europe was, and this art form flourished in this region from the 6th to the 15h centuries. Golden mosaics were the norm in Byzantine church interiors. Most of the mosaics did not survive the wars and conquests that have taken place in this part of the world, but what remains is still a respectable amount.
Gone are the mosaics of the great building of the Emperor Justinian – the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, the Nea Church in Jerusalem, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. But the mosaic floor of the great palace of Constantinople , commissioned during Justinian’s reign, survives. Figures of animals and plants against a plain background are Classical in style. The portrait of a man with a moustache – probably a Gothic chieftain – is considered to be the most important surviving mosaic of the Justinian age.
Closely following the Classical tradition are the vine scroll motifs found in the mosaics in the small sekreton of the palace which was built in the reign on Justinian II. The Church of the Acheiropoietos in Thessaloniki, from the 5-6th centuries, has mosaic depicting floral decoration.
In the 6th century, Ravenna, the capital of Byzantine Italy, became the centre of mosaic making. Istria also boasts some important examples from this era. The Euphrasian Basilica in Parentium was built in the middle of the 6th century and decorated with mosaics depicting the Theotokos flanked by angels and saints.
Fragments remain from the mosaics of the Church of Santa Maria Formosa in Pola. These pieces were made during the 6th century by artists from Constantinople. Their pure Byzantine style is different from the contemporary Ravennate mosaics.
Very few early Byzantine mosaics survived the Iconoclastic destruction of the 8th century. Among the rare examples are the 6th-century Christ in majesty (or Ezekiel’s Vision) mosaic in the apse of the Church of Hosios David in Thessaloniki that was hidden behind mortar during those dangerous times. Nine mosaic panels in the Hagios Demetrios Church, which were made between 634 and 730, also escaped destruction. Unusually almost all represent Saint Demetrius of Thessaloniki, often with suppliants before him.
St George as patron of two children – Mosaic, Church of St Demetrios in Thessaloniki
In the Iconoclastic era, figural mosaics were also condemned as idolatry. The Iconoclastic churches were embellished with plain gold mosaics with only one great cross in the apse like the Hagia Irene in Constantinople (after 740). There were similar crosses in the apses of the Hagia Sophia Church in Thessaloniki and in the Church of the Dormition in Nicaea. The crosses were substituted with the image of the Theotokos in both churches after the victory of the Iconodules (787–797 and in 8th–9th centuries respectively, the Dormition church was totally destroyed in 1922).
A similar Theotokos image flanked by two archangels was made for the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople in 867. The dedication inscription says: “The images which the impostors had cast down here pious emperors have again set up.” In the 870s the so-called large sekreton of the Great Palace of Constantinople was decorated with the images of the four great iconodule patriarchs.
The post-Iconoclastic era was the heyday of Byzantine art with the most beautiful mosaics executed. The mosaics of the Macedonian Renaissance (867–1056) carefully mingled traditionalism with innovation. Constantinopolitan mosaics of this age followed the decoration scheme first used in Emperor Basil I’s Nea Ekklesia. Not only this prototype was later totally destroyed but each surviving composition is battered so it is necessary to move from church to church to reconstruct the system.
An interesting set of Macedonian-era mosaics make up the decoration of the Hosios Loukas Monastery. In the narthex there is the Crucifixion, the Pantokrator and the Anastasis above the doors, while in the church the Theotokos (apse), Pentecost, scenes from Christ’s life and ermit St Loukas (all executed before 1048). The scenes are treated with a minimum of detail and the panels are dominated with the gold setting.
Detail of mosaic from Nea Moni Monastery
The Nea Moni Monastery on Chios was established by Constantine Monomachos in 1043–1056. The exceptional mosaic decoration of the dome showing probably the nine orders of the angels was destroyed in 1822 but other panels survived (Theotokos with raised hands, four evangelists with seraphim, scenes from Christ’s life and an interesting Anastasis where King Salomon bears resemblance to Constantine Monomachos). In comparison with Osios Loukas Nea Moni mosaics contain more figures, detail, landscape and setting.
Another great undertaking by Constantine Monomachos was the restoration of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem between 1042 and 1048. Nothing survived of the mosaics which covered the walls and the dome of the edifice but the Russian abbot Daniel, who visited Jerusalem in 1106–1107 left a description: “Lively mosaics of the holy prophets are under the ceiling, over the tribune. The altar is surmounted by a mosaic image of Christ. In the main altar one can see the mosaic of the Exhaltation of Adam. In the apse the Ascension of Christ. The Annunciation occupies the two pillars next to the altar.”
The Daphni Monastery houses the best preserved complex of mosaics from the early Comnenan period (ca. 1100) when the austere and hieratic manner typical for the Macedonian epoch and represented by the awesome Christ Pantocrator image inside the dome, was metamorphosing into a more intimate and delicate style, of which The Angel before St Joachim — with its pastoral backdrop, harmonious gestures and pensive lyricism — is considered a superb example.
The 9th- and 10th-century mosaics of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople are truly classical Byzantine artworks. The north and south tympana beneath the dome was decorated with figures of prophets, saints and patriarchs. Above the principal door from the narthex we can see an Emperor kneeling before Christ (late 9th or early 10th century). Above the door from the southwest vestibule to the narthex another mosaic shows the Theotokos with Justinian and Constantine. Justinian I is offering the model of the church to Mary while Constantine is holding a model of the city in his hand. Both emperors are beardless – this is an example for conscious archaization as contemporary Byzantine rulers were bearded. A mosaic panel on the gallery shows Christ with Constantine Monomachos and Empress Zoe (1042–1055). The emperor gives a bulging money sack to Christ as a donation for the church.
The dome of the Hagia Sophia Church in Thessaloniki is decorated with an Ascension mosaic (c. 885). The composition resembles the great baptistries in Ravenna, with apostles standing between palms and Christ in the middle. The scheme is somewhat unusual as the standard post-Iconoclastic formula for domes contained only the image of the Pantokrator.
Mosaic of Christ Pantocrator from Hagia Sophia from the Deesis mosaic
There are very few existing mosaics from the Komnenian period but this paucity must be due to accidents of survival and gives a misleading impression. The only surviving 12th-century mosaic work in Constantinople is a panel in Hagia Sophia depicting Emperor John II and Empress Eirene with the Theotokos (1122–34). The empress with her long braided hair and rosy cheeks is especially capturing. It must be a lifelike portrayal because Eirene was really a redhead as her original Hungarian name, Piroska shows. The adjacent portrait of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos on a pier (from 1122) is similarly personal. The imperial mausoleum of the Komnenos dynasty, the Pantokrator Monastery was certainly decorated with great mosaics but these were later destroyed. The lack of Komnenian mosaics outside the capital is even more apparent. There is only a “Communion of the Apostles” in the apse of the cathedral of Serres.
A striking technical innovation of the Komnenian period was the production of very precious, miniature mosaic icons. In these icons the small tesserae (with sides of 1 mm or less) were set on wax or resin on a wooden panel. These products of extraordinary craftmanship were intended for private devotion. The Louvre Transfiguration is a very fine example from the late 12th century. The miniature mosaic of Christ in the Museo Nazionale at Florence illustrates the gentler, humanistic conception of Christ which appeared in the 12th century.
The sack of Constantinople in 1204 caused the decline of mosaic art for the next five decades. After the reconquest of the city by Michael VIII Palaiologos in 1261 the Hagia Sophia was restored and a beautiful new Deesis was made on the south gallery. This huge mosaic panel with figures two and a half times lifesize is really overwhelming due to its grand scale and superlative craftsmanship. The Hagia Sophia Deesis is probably the most famous Byzantine mosaic in Constantinople.
The Pammakaristos Monastery was restored by Michael Glabas, an imperial official, in the late 13th century. Only the mosaic decoration of the small burial chapel (parekklesion) of Glabas survived. This domed chapel was built by his widow, Martha around 1304–08. In the miniature dome the traditional Pantokrator can be seen with twelve prophets beneath. Unusually the apse is decorated with a Deesis, probably due to the funerary function of the chapel.
The Church of the Holy Apostles in Thessaloniki was built in 1310–14. Although some vandal systematically removed the gold tesserae of the background it can be seen that the Pantokrator and the prophets in the dome follow the traditional Byzantine pattern. Many details are similar to the Pammakaristos mosaics so it is supposed that the same team of mosaicists worked in both buildings. Another building with a related mosaic decoration is the Theotokos Paregoritissa Church in Arta. The church was established by the Despot of Epirus in 1294–96. In the dome is the traditional stern Pantokrator, with prophets and cherubim below.
Saint Peter mosaic from the Chora Church
The greatest mosaic work of the Palaeologan renaissance in art is the decoration of the Chora Church in Constantinople. Although the mosaics of the naos have not survived except three panels, the decoration of the exonarthex and the esonarthex constitute the most important full-scale mosaic cycle in Constantinople after the Hagia Sophia. They were executed around 1320 by the command of Theodore Metochites. The esonarthex has two fluted domes, specially created to provide the ideal setting for the mosaic images of the ancestors of Christ. The southern one is called the Dome of the Pantokrator while the northern one is the Dome of the Theotokos. The most important panel of the esonarthex depicts Theodore Metochites wearing a huge turban, offering the model of the church to Christ. The walls of both narthexes are decorated with mosaic cycles from the life of the Virgin and the life of Christ. These panels show the influence of the Italian trecento on Byzantine art especially the more natural settings, landscapes, figures.
Mosaic of Theodore Metochites offering the Chora Church to Christ
The last Byzantine mosaic work was created for the Hagia Sophia, Constantinople in the middle of the 14th century. The great eastern arch of the cathedral collapsed in 1346, bringing down the third of the main dome. By 1355 not only the big Pantokrator image was restored but new mosaics were set on the eastern arch depicting the Theotokos, the Baptist and Emperor John V Palaiologos (discovered only in 1989).
In addition to the large-scale monuments several miniature mosaic icons of outstanding quality was produced for the Palaiologos court and nobles. The loveliest examples from the 14th century are Annunciation in the Victoria and Albert Museum and a mosaic diptych in the Cathedral Treasury of Florence representing the Twelve Feasts of the Church.
In the troubled years of the 15th century the fatally weakened empire could not afford luxurious mosaics. Churches were decorated with wall-paintings in this era and after the Turkish conquest.