Byzantine Art

The art on this page – mostly mosaics – comes from three sources in Istanbul: (1) The Byzantine Great Palace; (2) The Aya Sophia; and (3) The Church of St. Savior in Chora, also known as the Kariye Museum.

The Byzantine Empire that is spoken of today was once the eastern portion of the Roman Empire. In 330, Roman emperor Constantine I established the city of Constantinople as a "New Rome" and made it the capital of the eastern empire. Although controlled by Rome, the eastern empire had historically spoken Greek and looked to ancient Greece, rather than Rome, for its culture and art. In addition to establishing a new capital, Constantine also decreed that Christianity would be the official religion of the empire and he worked to unify the various Christian sects under one "true religion". In 395, the political division between the Western Empire (at Rome) and the Eastern Empire (at Constantinople) became permanent and within a hundred years the Western Empire fell to the barbarians leaving the Eastern Empire as the sole heir to once dominant Roman Empire. The Byzantine Empire – a name that was not used at the time – continued for another thousand years until the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Thus, for a millennium, the city that is now Istanbul was a rich, powerful, Greek-speaking city and an important center of Christianity. Today, however, more than 500 years after the Ottoman conquest and the introduction of Islam as the state religion, Byzantine Constantinople is mostly relegated to museums.

The Great Palace: From Constantine I in the fourth century until the latter half of the 13th century, the Byzantine emperors lived in the Great Palace. This sprawling complex of state rooms, royal apartments, churches, courtyards and gardens occupied much of the present-day Sultanahmet neighborhood from the Hippodrome (a stadium that once held 100,000 people) down to the Sea of Marmara in the south and to the Aya Sophia Church in the east. It is said that in its time, the Great Palace had no equal in Europe in terms of size and opulence. Over succeeding centuries, however, and especially after the Ottoman conquest in 1453, the Great Palace fell into disrepair and was eventually built over and largely forgotten.

In 1930, part of the Great Palace was rediscovered, including many fine mosaics dating from the 5th century that decorated a floor believed to have been part of a passage leading from the royal apartments to the imperial box at the Hippodrome. A protective structure was built over mosaic floor and thus was born Istanbul's Mosaics Museum.

The mosaics themselves are generally well preserved a represent a curious collection of domestic, wild and mythical beasts. Some are fighting, others are hunting (or being hunted) and some scenes are simply glimpses of 5th century domesticity. Many of the scenes seem rather gruesome to us today (though may have seemed less so to a culture where warfare was personal, hunting was common and punishments were brutal and torturous).

The Aya Sophia (Hagia Sophia): In sharp contrast to the often gruesome scenes in the Mosaics Museum stand the ethereal, golden mosaics of the Byzantine Empire's greatest church, the Aya Sophia. (Photos of the church/mosque itself are contained on a separate page.) The mosaics that we see today date from the 9th to the 12th centuries. Not surprisingly (given their location Christianity's main church), the mosaics in the Aya Sophia deal with religious matters, with images of Christ and the Virgin Mary predominating. But the mosaics were also an opportunity for Byzantine leaders to demonstrate their piety and their intimate connections with – and by extension, the approval of them by – Christ and Mary. Thus, several of the mosaics depict Byzantine emperors bowing before or presenting offerings to Jesus or Mary. After the Aya Sophia was converted into a mosque following the Ottoman conquest in 1453, the mosaics were covered over plaster. Fortunately – and maybe even because of this concealment – the mosaics remained remarkably well preserved until uncovered in the 20th century when the building became a museum.

Church of St. Savior in Chora (Kariye Museum): This Byzantine church was built in an area of Constantinople that was originally outside the city walls. "Chora" means "in the country". The city walls were later moved to enclose a larger area that included the church, but the name stuck. Today the church is a museum that features well-preserved mosaics and other art dating from the 14th century. Although the church as seen today dates from an earlier period, the artwork was added between 1315 and 1321 by Theodore Metochites, a theologian, philosopher and a member of the Byzantine elite of his day. Indeed, one of the mosaics modestly depicts a turbaned Theodore presenting the church to the seated Christ.

The church also includes some more elaborate works, including a mosaic that fills two domes near the entrance with a detailed genealogy portraying Christ and his mortal forebears beginning with Adam. Another mosaic portrays the "Dormition of Mary", in a composition that had, by this time, become rather standardized. As Mary lay dying, she is surrounded by all the Apostles (except Thomas), who were magically transported from various points of the earth, and Christ, who appears as a bearded adult holding an infant Christ child. Toward the rear of the church is a large fresco showing Christ as the vanquisher of death raising Adam and Eve from their tombs.