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Byzantine Art: Manuscripts and Ivories

Updated on April 29, 2013
Vienna Genesis
Vienna Genesis | Source


The three most important Byzantine manuscripts of the late 5th or the 6th century are the Vienna Genesis (Imperial Library, Vienna), the Rossano Gospels (Cathedral of Rossano, Italy), and the Sinope Gospels (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris).

The Vienna Genesis is on purple vellum with silver lettering. The vivacious scenes, set at the bottom of each page, have many Byzantine details of costume and ceremony. Several successive events shown in a single picture preserve something of the "continuous narration" style, familiar from the relief on the Column of Trajan, Rome.

In the Rossano Gospels, also in silver on a purple ground, the miniatures may take a full page, or the top half of a page where the lower half is filled with four half-length figures. The figures are quieter and more dignified than those in the Vienna Genesis. The arrangement of the scenes, already standardized by the 5th century, persisted in Byzantine art for hundreds of years.

The Sinope Gospels are written in gold on purple. Here the miniatures are at the bottom of the page, flanked by two half-length figures rising out of what might be pulpits. In this manuscript, perspective, atmosphere, and setting are avoided even more persistently than in the mosaics of San Vitale.

The throne of Archbishop Maximian.
The throne of Archbishop Maximian. | Source


The most important surviving masterpiece of Byzantine ivory carving from the First Golden Age is the throne of Archbishop Maximian (mid-6th century) in the Cathedral of Ravenna. Its side panels have scenes from the life of Joseph in the narrative style. The Scythian or Sarmatian dress of Joseph's guards indicate contact with Asia, as do the tiaras (like those of Persian kings) worn by the sons of Jacob. The Egyptian headdresses of the merchants, and the very choice of the story of Joseph, suggest Egyptian influence. Five panels on the front of the throne show St. John the Baptist and the four evangelists. The figures are stiff, and the drapery is conventionalized. The main scenes and figures are framed by vine patterns, within whose scrolls appear peacocks, deer, lions, and other decorative motifs.

Another masterpiece of Byzantine ivory carving is the panel of an archangel in the British Museum, probably from the 6th century, though dated by some scholars as 4th century. The figure stands on a flight of steps with a staff in his left hand and an orb in his right. The drapery, more classical than Byzantine, is conventionalized less than draperies carved in the throne of Maximian. But the decorative effect and some of the architectural details in the archangel panel are characteristically Byzantine.

Some of the best examples of Byzantine ivory carving are consular diptychs, two-leaved panels made for Roman consuls, usually to commemorate the achievements of their office. Examples survive from the Roman period until well into the 6th century. One leaf usually presents figures, a scene, or a decorative motif, such as a wreath with an inscription. The other leaf generally depicts the consul, who is shown standing in the earlier, Roman diptychs but seated in the diptychs of the Eastern Empire. A good example is the diptych of the consul Flavius Anastasius (517; South Kensington Museum, London), which has the formalized style and embroidered costume of the early Byzantine period.


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