The iconographic themes on the sanctuary arches of Byzantine temples (AD 324-1204)

May 20th, 2018


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!


The aim of this short study is to examine the development of the iconographic themes on the sanctuary arches of Byzantine temples, covering the period between the 4th and the early 13th century AD. The study is divided in three sections and each one describes an artistic example from three phases: the Early Byzantine period, the Iconoclasm period, and the Middle Byzantine period. Furthermore, each section discusses the theological and political views that circulated during these periods, which affected the development of the iconographic themes in Byzantine temples.

The Early Byzantine period (AD 324-726)

During the early Byzantine period there were three popular iconographic themes for the decoration of the sanctuary arches of Christian temples. Firstly, there used to be representations of Jesus Christ inspired by abstracts from the Old and New Testament, St. John’s Revelation and the Orthodox Divine Liturgy (Albani 1999a, 83). Two characteristic examples of such themes are the Triumphant Christ from the temple of Osios David in Thessaloniki (Albani 1999, 83-4; Lowden 1999, 168) and the Transfiguration of Christ Saviour from St. Catharine’s Monastery at the Sinai Peninsula (Lowden 1999, 74). Secondly, there used to be representations of the cross, which is the holiest symbol of the Christian faith. A characteristic example is the mosaic at the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare in Classe, in Ravenna, which combines a cross with a symbolical representation of the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ (Lowden 1999, 82-3). Thirdly, there used to be representations of the Vrephokratoussa (baby-holding) Theotokos (carrier of God). Characteristic examples are found at the Basilica of Panagia Kanakaria in Lythragomi, Cyprus (Albani 1999a, 84) and at the Euphrasian Basilica (Eufrazijeva bazilika) at Poreč, Croatia, also known as the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of Mary (Lowden 1999, 141).

The mosaic of the Transfiguration of Christ Saviour from the sanctuary arch of St. Catharine’s Basilica at the Sinai Peninsula dates to the 6th century AD (Panselenou 2002, 88). In some temples, such as the above, sanctuary arches were almost exclusively decorated with mosaic pixels (Almpani 1999a, 82). The aim of the artists was to emphasise the holiness of this specific area of the temple through the use of elaborate and expensive decorative techniques.

In the above mosaic, Jesus Christ is represented frontally, suspended in the centre of the representation. He is wearing a halo and a white-and-golden robe. His arm projects to the front at chest-height and he is blessing the viewers. Eight bright light beams are symmetrically diffused across different directions. Christ is surrounded by a light blue ovoid frame and the background is coloured by golden pixels. The use of bright colours for the representation of depth, volume and expressiveness of the forms carry the viewer to the transcended world of the divine (Panselenou 2002, 107). Around the body of Jesus Christ there are five forms that are symmetrically arranged and represented in full. These are Prophet Elijah; Moses, who has with right arm extended in a blessing gesture; Christ’s disciples John and James, who are kneeling in praying posture; and at the bottom of the mosaic Apostle Peter, who is represented almost lying down with his right hand supporting his head. The clothes of the five figures are neat with rich folds. On the curve of the arch there are twelve representations of the disciples of Christ. Six are arranged on the left side and another six on the right side, while in the middle of the arch, directly above the head of Jesus Christ, there is the representation of a golden cross. The edge of the semi-circular base of the architectural quarter-sphere is decorated with nineteen representations of holy figures of the Christian tradition.

The lack of third dimension, the immobility and frontality of the images, combined with the abstract representation of the background, are all artistic elements of the later antiquity. Byzantine iconography employed these elements to represent the transcendent character of Christian art (Albani 1999b, 21-6).

The Iconoclasm period (AD 726-843)

During the Iconoclasm period, the production of icons and other representations of divine figures was banned under imperial orders. According to contemporary testimonials, we nowadays know that the iconographic themes of this period were aniconic and included representations of trees, plants and animals. In the sanctuary arches of temples, the main decorative theme was the cross, an element that was already in use before the Iconoclasm period (Albani 1999a, 97).

The reasons that led to the Iconoclasm debate were equally political and theological. They were firstly associated with the dangers brought by the Islamic expansion from the East, and secondly with the ecclesiastical conflicts over theological matters during Ecumenical Councils of that period (Lowden 1999, 147-8). The aniconic decoration of the temples consisted of a disorientating solution towards the ecclesiastical issues debated during the Ecumenical Councils. At the same time, it functioned as a political approach towards the Eastern nations who followed monophysite heresies, and also towards the Arab Muslims (Panselenou 2002, 131-2).

A typical example of a temple with aniconic decoration dating to the Iconoclasm period is Hagia Irene at Constantinople. The representation of the cross on the arch above the sacred step of the temple dates after AD 740 (Lowden 1999, 158-9). The arch has suffered great damages; however, the extraordinarily neat representation of a large-sized cross is still visible. The edges of the cross end in twin angular points, each of which intersecting with an ovoid ring. The cross is placed on a stepped triangular base and the monochrome background is totally aniconic.

The Middle Byzantine period (AD 843-2014)

During the Ecumenical Council of Niece in AD 787, which was summoned by the icon-supporter Empress Irene the Athenian, the ecclesiastic circles of the time established some distinctions between casual artwork and correct representations, which were expected to be seen in ecclesiastic art. The iconography of the time often allowed the artists to modify some of the traditional artistic conventions they used; however, the actual artwork needed to be precise and recognisable by the viewers. After AD 787, the content of ecclesiastic art became strictly regulated (Lowden 1999, 175-6).

After the end of the Iconoclasm debate in AD 843, the preconditions that had been established in ecclesiastic art, including the ban of iconic representations, were completely abandoned; the Christians were now allowed to venerate the divine representations shown on icons without any fear (Albani 1999a, 100). Furthermore, during the 9th century the Islamic expansion stopped, and new events, such as the ‘Renaissance of the Macedonian Dynasty’ (867-1081) and the Christianisation of the Bulgarians (AD 864) and the Russians (AD 988/9), generated a boost in Christian iconography (Panselenou 2002, 135-7).

The first appearance of a new type of temple during the 9th and 10th centuries AD, the so-called cross-in-square of crossed-domed temple, coincided with the establishment of a decoration plan, which demanded the representation of specific forms on specific locations inside the temple (Panselenou 2002, 138-9). From that period onwards, the niece of the sanctuary’s arch hosted the representation of the Holly Mother of God holding the Divine Infant, which is commonly known as the Vrephokratoussa Theotokos (Albani 1999a, 100; Panselenou 2002, 141). The representation of Holly Mary on the quarter-sphere of the sanctuary’s arch, which is one of the most visible sections of a Christian temple, was probably due to the important role the Panagia Theotokos played in the development of Byzantine thought. A characteristic example was the belief that the siege of Constantinople by the Avars in AD 626 failed after the intervention of the Holly Mary (Panselenou 2002, 146).

A typical example of the Vrephokratoussa Theotokos comes from the temple of Hagia Sophia in Thessaloniki, dating between AD 787 and 797 (Lowden 1999, 161). The Theotokos is represented in a flat and static manner. Facial expressions are absent and the scene carries no emotional charge. Such elements are typical of Middle Byzantine iconography.

In the mosaic, the Theotokos is wearing a halo on the head; her face is rounded and her eyes are distinctively large. The Divine Infant is represented in the arms of the Theotokos wearing a neat child’s robe and a golden halo on the head. The Theotokos is wearing a long, dark-coloured and rich-fold robe, which touches the ground and covers the entire throne on which she is sat on; the only visible element of the throne is a red cushion. On the cylindrical ceiling of the sanctuary, there appears a circular frame with a cross surrounded by eight pairs of stars.

In relation to the representation’s style, the Theotokos sits completely still. The background of the mosaic has been made with a special technique, where the golden pixels have been stuck on the wall inclined. This way, the pixels reflect the light back to the viewers, generating the impression of a transcendent image (Albani 1999a, 104). The mosaic of the Vrephokratoussa Theotokos has overlaid an earlier representation of the cross, dating to the Iconoclasm period (Lowden 1999, 160-1).


The iconographic themes of the sanctuary arches of the Early Byzantine period primarily represented images of Jesus Christ inspired by the holly scripts, and also images of the cross and the Panagia Theotokos. Iconoclasm introduced changes in the representation of sacred forms. For a series of theological reasons (e.g. differences between Ecumenical Councils) and political reasons (e.g. a shift towards the Eastern territories after the Arab expansion), the Byzantine Emperors imposed an aniconic decoration for Christian churches. This resulted to the plain cross becoming the dominant representation of the sanctuary arches of the temples. After the end of Iconoclasm in AD 843 and due to the ‘Renaissance of the Macedonian Dynasty’, the representation of the Vrephokratoussa Theotokos became established as the only decorative theme for the sanctuary arches. It was also the period during which a uniform canon was introduced for maintaining a hierarchy of religious themes in ecclesiastic decoration, which still remains in use today.


Albani, J., 1999a, ‘Visual works of the 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.
Albani, J., 1999b, ‘Introduction to 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.
Lowden, J., 1999, Early Christian and Byzantine Art, second edition, translated by M. Agelidou, Athens: Kastaniotis.
Panselenou, N., 2002, Byzantine Painting. Byzantine Society and its Icons, Athens: Kastaniotis.