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Situated at the crossroads of Asia, Africa, and Europe, Byzantium was the face of power in the medieval world. As a melting pot of cultures ancient and contemporary, the empire connected the past to the present, and the near with the far. Something about Christianity

This virtual exhibition explores the art of Byzantium as an expression of this interconnectedness. Sentence about the content of the exhibition. Five thematic strands.

This is the first digital exhibition on the DC Exhibits platform curated by students at Utah State University.


Art Making and Materials
Art Making and Materials

The Byzantine Empire and its works of art are known for the tangled web of culture and technique that came together to create what we recognize as the iconic Byzantium style. They were heavily influenced by Greco-Roman and Egyptian cultures, selecting what they found important and implementing what they thought would drive their Christian narrative. Byzantium artists used Roman gods to represent Christian characters and had periods of renewed interest in their Greek naturalistic origins. During their time of power they mastered fresco technique, mosaics and icons with a new distinct style dominated church artistic expression, and created illuminated manuscripts and religious paintings that still influence the modern ecclesiastical works.The crucible of cultures molded Byzantine artists. The mediums they chose and how they represented the narratives and subjects they revered was guided by Byzantium’s neighbors and predecessors. For example, the Acheiropoietic, meaning "made without hands," was inspired by Greek and Roman portrait panels via choosing to depict important or divine people and in such small-scale forms. The coffin paintings of the Byzantium period greatly resemble sarcophagi imagery from Egyptian tombs. The shape of the paintings and stylized features, though not always used in the same location, exhibit many similar characteristics. While not identical copies, Byzantium works pull from civilizations before and around them to create their own distinctive flair.This melting pot of styles and ideas was also affected by the materials they were able to acquire. As trade became more established and widespread there was a noticeable development in the variety of goods available in the Byzantine Empire. One of those materials they obtained through trade was silk. It quickly became indicative of luxury and was highly coveted. The lack of amount circulating in society, as well as a lack of people with the knowledge to make it, elevated its status as a luxury good afforded by only the rich and higher-class members. The Byzantine Empire, stealing silkworm eggs from China, started their own production of silks that would be highly valuable, introducing the idea of a five-color silk. Other trade items include spices, incense and ostraka, pottery shards with writing, often in Greek. These goods would be traded along the Silk Road or by ships entering through the Red Sea. Marketplaces would be constructed in major cities such as the ancient city of Tedmor, modern day Syria, or Constantinople which would allow these merchants to pass along their goods and partake in the old art of trading. Merchants from places such as Egypt, Italy, the Middle East, and Turkey, all countries that coincide along the Mediterranean Sea would enter in this activity, spreading and exchanging their culture and textiles which would influence how the Byzantine Empire would produce their art, ‘borrowing’ many different aspects of different cultures to mold into their own. 

Liturgy and Ritual
Liturgy and Ritual

The Interwoven nature of Byzantine Imperial and Religious Powers and Influences.The use of religion to legitimize an emperor's authority was common throughout Roman history. The Roman imperial cult (Links to an external site.) deemed the emperor divinely sanctioned with authority, whether as godly intermediaries or as divine in their own right intermediaries or divine in their own right. When Constantine the Great (Links to an external site.) converted to Christianity in 312 C.E. and adopted it as the Empire’s state-sponsored religion, he did not discontinue this practice. Rather, he established the Emperor as the patron protector of Christianity and along with it, the Emperor as the supreme authority in all matters both religious and secular.As a consequence, Byzantine liturgical practices were inexorably linked with the exaltation of Imperial powers; a legacy that lasted from 330 C.E. when Constantine moved the Roman capital to Constantinople (considered the beginning of the Byzantine Empire by modern historians), to the empire’s fall in the 15th century. This is evidenced by the countless depictions of Imperial figures that appear in places of worship, on religious monuments, in Christlike scenes, or even in works with Christ himself.Liturgy and Ritual ObjectsLiturgy (Links to an external site.), the practice of public worship, is characterized by communal activities and rituals held as sacred. Objects involved in these rituals were often made using precious materials, sometimes with intricate detailing. Some such objects used in the Eucharist (Links to an external site.): shallow vessels called Patens (Links to an external site.) intended to hold bread representing the body of Christ and goblets to hold wine representing his blood. The scriptures read within these churches, themselves, became works of art in the form of ornate manuscripts. Even the walls of churches were covered in mosaics with scenes from scripture and the life of Christ in order to impress upon viewers the sacred nature of the building and their visit there.Icons, Relics, and Saints Icons (Links to an external site.) are sacred images that represent Christ, the Virgin, and Saints. They were intended to be used to communicate to the depicted figure through contemplation of the item and prayer. Icons inhabited many spaces both personal and public and could be found in most sizes and materials.The use of icons also expanded to be used alongside relics: remains of or objects related to a deceased individual to be venerated. These relics held incredible spiritual significance to Christian worshipers, becoming sites of pilgrimage. However, with the rise of icons, so too did a debate on their use: the use of relics and special images of Christ led to Byzantium experiencing a period of iconoclasm. Iconoclasm (Links to an external site.) is the destruction of images and was the result of contention between the church believing icons, relics, and images were worshiped over Christ. All of these elements, the control of Christianity in the empire; the use of relics and icons; and the period of iconoclasm, influenced the Byzantine empire to become a culture with rich artistic elements and treasured artifacts.

Byzantine Silk with Paired Griffins in Roundels

In Byzantium, manifestations of luxury were present in both private and public life. Emperors and government officials owned luxury items, such as tapestries, embroidered textiles, and jewelry, and displayed them in their homes and on their bodies. Additionally, high-ranking church leaders used luxury clothing, bibles, and liturgical objects, not to indicate economic or political status, but rather to indicate their spiritual status above the laity and their closeness to God. Notably, sumptuary laws were in place to ensure that only individuals of a certain social, religious, and political role wore specific luxury clothing items, colors, or patterns, adding to the culture of using luxury to bifurcate society. Though it wasn’t uncommon for ‘regular people’ to own a few luxury objects, the excess amount of these objects used by those in power made their status especially clear.In the Byzantine world, it was common to see manifestations of luxury through many media. For instance, dishes, clothing, shoes, jewelry, objects of religious worship, and many more were created in luxurious forms that often removed the functionality of the object and turned them into works of conspicuous consumption. One of the best, and most popular, ways for an individual to visually indicate their lifestyle of wealth and luxury was through the ownership of imported, “exotic,” luxury goods. Byzantium, and Constantinople specifically, was set in an ideal location for global trade. Sitting at the cross-section of Europe, Africa, and Asia, Byzantium was able to import many goods such as spices, silks, and hand-crafted metalwork. Though trade in this era was common and fruitful, it was not cheap. The unfamiliarity of these foreign objects invoked a sense of wonder for viewers who were not engaged in the global trade network. Naturally, by owning rare and unfamiliar, but beautiful, objects, social, political, and religious elites were able to indicate their status and establish visual connections with a massive trading network that was revered society-wide, from the poorest to richest members alike.


In the Byzantine empire from the fourth century to the fifteenth century, emperors ruled as absolute monarchs. The emperor and sometimes empress were the commander-in-chief of the army, head of the church and government, and controlled all the state finances. One reason the emperor's power was so great is because during the Byzantine era there was no separation between church and state, giving the emperor absolute power. They did this while aided by high-ranking nobility, church figures, and ministers. They could appoint or dismiss nobles at will and enjoyed fabulous wealth. The position was most often hereditary though brand new dynasties did sometimes form. Emperors were considered by the people to be God-chosen rulers making them extremely unavailable to the public. One would be considered lucky to catch only a glimpse of the imperial family in their lifetime. However, the emperor's image was widely spread through its use on official coinage.The concept of power has been represented repeatedly throughout different aspects of Byzantine history. However, the most efficient way in which the Byzantine Empire portrayed its power and wealth was through the arts. Power was often clearly illustrated, whether it be through meticulously crafted mosaics, lustrous jewelry, golden coins, or extravagant churches and palaces.  A well-known lavish architectural construction that symbolizes imperial power and divine authority is the Hagia Sophia with its great size, geometric structure, and sense of divine presence while playing with light sources. Power was represented through various icons and symbols, which viewers may find in the Justinian mosaic at San Vitale depicting the accomplished emperor wearing imperial colors and a golden halo around his head, signifying him as a "god chosen ruler." Much smaller objects were also utilized to portray the immense power that the emperors held. For instance, the coronation ivories and coins illustrating emperors crowned directly by holy figures, as seen in the Romanos Ivory or the Solidus of Alexander. Additionally, illuminated manuscripts would often associate the emperor to the biblical kings, David and Solomon, or the classical hero, Herakles. Therefore the ruling emperors were not only represented by their great imperial power but their spiritual power as well.  


The Byzantine Empire spanned through the 4th to 15th century. Their main textile production was that in linen and wool, which appears in every class structure.  Raw silk was imported from China and made into fine fabrics that command high prices throughout the world; Silkworms were smuggled into the Byzantine Empire and overland silk gradually became less important. Constintinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, was the first significant silk-weaving center in Europe. Silk was one of the most important commodities in the Byzantine economy and was used by the state as a method of payment and diplomacy.  Byzantium dominated silk production in Europe throughout the Early Middle Ages, until the establishment of the Italian silk-weaving industry in the 12th century and the conquest and break-up of the Byzantine Empire in the Fourth Crusade. Byzantine silks are significant for their brilliant colours, use of gold thread, and intricate designs that approach the pictorial complexity of embroidery in loom-woven fabric.  After the reign of Justinian I, the manufacture and sale of silk became an imperial monopoly, only processed in imperial factories, and sold to authorized buyersNew types of looms and weaving techniques also played a part in the change of how textiles were produced. Plain-woven or tabby  silks had circulated in the Roman world, and patterned damask silks in increasingly complex geometric designs appear from the mid-3rd century.  Textiles had patterns influenced from where they were imported from, examples included China, Persia. They had complex mirrored woven patterns that usually depicted Christian subjects.The majority of textiles that have survived until today come from grave goods. Grave goods mean that these are items that people were buried with.  We have knowledge of what people wore during the Byzantine time period due to the grave goods, surviving textual accounts, and depictions in art. 

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