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Mosaics in the Byzantine Era

Updated on April 29, 2013
Mosaic in the apse of Santa Pudenziana.
Mosaic in the apse of Santa Pudenziana. | Source

The medium of mosaic, in which figural or other designs are created from tesserae (small bits of colored marble or colored glass), was extensively practiced in Rome both for floors and for mural designs. The figures in Roman mosaics generally have some indication of three-dimensional solidity. In such early Christian basilicas as Santa Maria Maggiore (5th century), Rome, extensive scenes from the Scriptures appear in the wall mosaics. The mosaic in the apse of Santa Pudenziana (4th century), Rome, shows Christ enthroned, flanked by apostles. The figures, somewhat rounded, are clothed in plain robes; buildings and a clouded sky form the background.

Byzantine mosaic designers, however, were concerned with figures as symbols, rather than as actual human beings, and regarded the design primarily as a chance to use opulent decorative color. They made little use of shading or other indications of three-dimensionality.

Church of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna.
Church of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna. | Source

In the Byzantine Church of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, the mosaic on one side above the arcade depicts a long file of male saints approaching Christ, and on the opposite wall a similar line of female saints headed by the three kings approaches the Virgin. The poses of the figures are nearly identical, as are their richly embroidered and bejeweled costumes. There is little attempt to suggest roundness in the figures, and there is no setting except conventionalized palms between the figures. They form, however, a most effective decorative frieze, echoing the colonnade below and leading the eye to the sanctuary ahead.

Two celebrated mosaics face each other across the chancel of San Vitale, Ravenna. One shows the Emperor Justinian holding a patten, Archbishop Maximian with a small cross, priests carrying a book and a censer, and a group of courtiers. The opposite mosaic presents the Empress Theodora with a chalice, priests, and ladies of the court. The figures are almost frontal, in rich draperies at least for the rulers, and with the third dimension indicated more by linear folds than by shaded modeling. No setting is visible in the Justinian mosaic, but Theodora is seen against a shell-like niche with curtains at the sides. The heads have a degree of individuality uncommon in Byzantine mosaics. The Emperor and the Empress are distinguished by halos, used here as marks of rank, not of sanctity.

These mosaics lead up to the fine apse mosaic where Christ is seated on the globe flanked by angels and by San Vitale on one side and by Ecclesius, carrying a model of the church, on the other. The ground, like the draperies, is conventionalized, and the gold background, although laced with symbolic clouds, denies any sense of depth.

With the barbarian invasions of Italy and the west in the 5th century, Constantinople was the major beacon of civilization in Europe for the next two centuries, and Byzantine influence was felt even in Rome. For instance, the 7th century apse mosaic of Sant'Agnese outside the walls in Rome is formal, even rigid, in pose and costume. St. Agnes has become a Byzantine princess dressed in almost Oriental opulence, with a gold crown, gold and precious stones in her hair, a golden stole over her shoulders, and a violet tunic embroidered with gold.

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