Examples of Late Byzantine and post-Byzantine iconography

May 20th, 2018

Disclaimer

The article below was originally written in the form of an undergraduate assignment for the Greek Open University in 2004, during a period when the author’s academic skills were still under development. Although the quality of this article does not match the quality of later examples of the same author’s work, it is written in a thorough manner and contains useful information to nowadays students and other readers with non-specialised knowledge; therefore, it has been proudly included on this website.

The reader needs to be warned that the original assignment, on which this article is based on, was written in Greek and was intended to be read by specialised academic art historians. Despite the author’s best intentions to present this essay in the clearest way possible, some points and arguments might still be lost in translation. The author recommends that for any unknown words or specialised vocabulary, the readers should refer to the web for additional information.

The author admits that the bibliography used for writing this article is limited, matching the requirements of an undergraduate assignment of this level. The author did not include any additional bibliography during the translation of his work in English due to time and access limitations. It must also be noted that the original bibliography for this article was studied from translated copies in Greek; therefore, the page numbers suggested in the citations below match the page numbers of the translated copies and not the original volumes.

In a series of other articles, the author has already expressed his objections and complaints for the ways in which the publication industry abuses and exaggerates anything that has to do with intellectual property rights of photographed artefacts. For this online article, the author decided to play the game by the book and did not include any photographs that could attract negative attention. Still, the article is accompanied by some links from random websites that assist with the visual representation of the artefacts mentioned in this study.

The point the author is trying to make is simple: no matter how much effort authors and publishers put into restricting the circulation of photographs of archaeological artefacts, there will always be websites that will circulate such material for free and out of their reach. What they are trying to achieve is totally pointless!

Introduction

The aim of this short study is to present the development of Byzantine iconography during the Late Byzantine and post-Byzantine periods. This study focuses on two signed pieces of artwork from each of the above periods, which associate with the same theme. The study also compares these two artworks in relation to their artistic context and style.

The Late Byzantine period (AD 1261-1453)

During the Late Byzantine period, the artistic tendencies in religious iconography were strengthened further by the revival of Byzantine traditions dating to earlier periods. This was primarily due to the recapture of Constantinople by the Byzantines in AD 1261 and the ‘Palaeologian Renaissance’, which also revived traditions from the ancient Greek (pagan) past (Albani 1999a, 29-30). The art of this period was characterised by a tendency towards greater realism, grotesque elements, motion, expressiveness and emotional charge. The themes were taken from the Circle of the Passions of Christ, the life of the Virgin Mary (the Panagia Theotokos), the stories of the Akathist Hymn, the Divine Liturgy, and finally by the Menologia and the Lives of the Saints of the Christian faith (Albani 1999b, 127-30).

A characteristic iconographic example of the Late Byzantine period associates with the life of St. George. It is a portable Icon by the painter Ioannis, which is nowadays found at the temple of St. George at Sruga, FYROM. The icon dates to AD 1266/7 (Vokotopoulos 1994, 84). The inscription at the back side of the icon states that it was commissioned by the Referendarius Ioannnis during the above period at Struga, and that the icon's painter was also named Ioannis. The icon’s dimensions are impressive: 146cm height and 86cm width (Vokotopoulos 1994, 84).

http://www.visit-struga.com/en/places-to-visit/churches-and-monasteries/church-of-st-george

St. George is represented in a standing position, with clam facial expressions and a melancholic gaze. He is wearing a halo on the head and a military uniform, consisted of a cuirass and a long red chlamys extending down to the Saint’s shins. The frontal side of the cuirass carries the representation of a large black cross, which covers almost its entire surface. A smaller cross in a silvery colour is embedded in the centre of the larger black cross, combining rhomboid and circular motifs. The four edges of the smaller cross touch the corners of the rhomboid motif enclosed by a circle, forming the shape of a bloomed flower. The cuirass stops at the Sant’s thighs, revealing a black chiton decorated with red bands, running down to knee height. The Saint’s lower body is covered in black leggings and brown military boots. In his right hand he is holding a spear and in his left hand he is holding a rhomboid shield, decorated with a central cross and radiating bands. The bulky shield is touching the ground and is covering almost half of the Saint’s height, who appears to be leaning against it. The Saint’s arms are extending feely to the entire surface of the painted plank, while his static body posture is broken by a slight bent of his waist and right knee.

The form of the Saint is bulky and symmetrical in relation to its body proportions. Such proportions remind the naturalistic conventions of ancient Greek art (Albani 1999b, 128). The details of the body under the dress are represented in a realistic manner. A characteristic example is the representation of the kneecap, which protrudes under the leggings. The static character of the icon and the two-dimensional representation of the event appear closer to the artistic conventions followed during the preceding Middle Byzantine period (Vokotopoulos 1994, 205). This suggests that such conventions continued during the beginning of the 13th century during the Late Byzantine period. The same can be noted in relation to the icon’s background, which is golden and stresses the transcendent nature of the image. By contrast, most of the Late Byzantine icons of the Palaeologian period include a plethora of background elements (Albani 1999b, 128), which are virtually absent in this specific example.

The post-Byzantine period (AD 1453-1830)

After the fall of Constantinople in AD 1453, the Byzantine iconographic traditions moved to the Helladic mainland and followed independent developments across different regions (Albani 1999a, 51-2). Two of the most important representatives of post-Byzantine artistic traditions were the Cretan School and the School of North-West Greece. The former sprang at the large urban centres of Crete during the 15th century, such as Chandax (Herakleion), Rethymnon and Chania; it became influenced by Western European traditions and lasted until the 17th century, when Crete was finally conquered by the Turks. Its style was a continuation of older Palaeologian iconographic traditions, which were better organised, although its broader character remained static. The School of North-West Greece first appeared at Ioannina during the 16th century and followed a contemporary evolution with the Cretan School. Its main features were the dynamic representation, variation and density of artistic elements, and a characteristic technique in the representation of colours, which showed Baroque tendencies (Albani 1999a, 58-61).

St. George the Dragon-slayer from the painter Michael Damaskenos is a typical example of Cretan art, dating to the second half of the 16th century AD. It is a portable icon drawn with egg tempera, which is characterised by multiple Italian influences (Albani 1999a, 55). Today, it is located at the Temple of Panagia Spelaeotissa (Holy Mary in the Cave) at the Diocese of Corfu (Albani 1999b, 152).

St. George is depicted as the Dragon-slayer, an event that is never represented in previous Byzantine traditions. The actual representation of the Saint slaying a dragon is probably of Western influence, associated with popular knighthood novels of this period. The most popular representation of St. George in the Byzantine tradition is static and does not include a popular narrative; the Saint is represented motionless in a standing position, holding weapons. By contrast, the Cretan icon of St. George represents the Saint riding a horse and aiming towards the dragon before striking his sword. The Saint’s facial expression is calm and his body posture suggests determination. The representation is drawn in three dimensions, moving away from the frontality the Late Byzantine traditions.

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The Saint’s right arm is bent and lifted at chest height, holding a sword. He is wearing a red cloak and armour, which covers the chest and waist. Under the armour, the Saint is wearing a black chiton and on his feet, he is wearing military sandals that cover his shins. The Saint is riding a white horse with raised front legs, which are ready to fall upon the dragon. The dragon is facing St. George nearly dead and its tongue projects from its mouth. Its look inspires fear and hostility. On the forehead, the dragon is bearing a reversed cross formed by five white dots. Its red wings are folded towards the ground and its tail is curled. A broken javelin is coming out of the dragon’s mouth, giving the impression that the animal took an earlier hit from the Saint. With its second head, the dragon is eating the corps of a fallen figure, which is represented as a dark-coloured skeleton.

The scene’s background is represented in three different levels. The first level shows a fully-clothed woman, dressed in a Western manner, running scared away from the dragon. Her small-sized body has been drawn in such way to show the distance between her and the actual event taking place on the icon. The second level represents a group of men on a tower at the right side of the icon, who are watching the dual between St. George and dragon from a distance. The third level, on the left side of the icon, represents a distanced city, the buildings and defensive walls of which are represented with the use of geometric shapes. In the sky, there are four naked angels carrying an open book on a red vale, which is probably the Bible.

Motion is expressed through the galloping of the horse, the movements of the wounded dragon, the rippling of St. George’s clothes and the running woman at the background. The icon includes another ten smaller representations, with are place on the left and right margins is sets of five. These representations associate with events from St. George’s life and contribute to the icon’s broader narrative. The military uniforms and the clothes of the characters participating in these scenes are inspired by Italian contemporary fashions. Even the torture scene on one of the frames is conducted with the use of a large wheel, which was used during the Western European middle ages. The intense naturalistic conception of this artwork has been achieved through the realistic representation of the Saint’s and the horse’s anatomical details. Furthermore, emotional charge has been expressed though the dragon’s dying motions and through the escape of the running woman.

Michael Damaskenos was one of the most important representatives of the Cretan School of the 16th century. Depending on the type of commissioning, he was able to combine different artistic styles of his time (Albani 1999b, 157). In general, Cretan artists of the post-Byzantine period were capable of following already-established Byzantine traditions and of combining them with Western elements of post-Gothic traditions (Albani 1999b, 152). Michael Damaskenos in particular lived in Venice, where he became acquainted with Italian art. His compositions were characterised by realism, bright colours, harmony, use of geometric perspective and depth of representation. The artist moved away from the Palaeologian traditions and came closer to the conventions of the Italian Renaissance (Albani 1999b, 158).

Conclusions

During the Late Byzantine period there was a revival in ecclesiastic art due to the so called ‘Palaeologian Renaissance’. In religious iconography there was a shift towards realism. Late Byzantine icons were dominated by naturalistic elements and began to show motion, rich decoration and expression of emotions. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Byzantine capital stopped being the centre of artistic production. Byzantine art continued in Greek territories that were either under the Venetians or the Ottomans. During the 15th century, there appeared the Cretan School, which formed the continuation of Palaeologian art, also by combining it with Western influences brought to Crete by the Venetians. Around the 16th century, there appeared the School of North-West Greece, which was less receptive to Western influences and steadily followed the Palaeologian prototypes.

Bibliography

Albani, J., 1999a, ‘Introduction to post-Byzantine art’, in Papagiannopoulou, A. (ed.) Arts 1: Greek Representational Arts. Review of Greek Architecture and Urban Planning, Volume 2, Byzantine and post-Byzantine art, Patra: Greek Open University.
Albani, J., 1999b, ‘Visual works of the post-Byzantine period’, in Papagiannopoulou, A. (ed.) Arts 1: Greek Representational Arts. Review of Greek Architecture and Urban Planning, Volume 2, Byzantine and post-Byzantine art, Patra: Greek Open University.
Vokotopoulos, P., 1994, Greek Art. Byzantine Icons, Athens: Ekdotiki Athinon.