A Journey through Byzantine Mosaic Art
Since Byzantine mosaics inspired the proliferation other types of mosaics, it would be a grave sin no to compose a whole article about them. When the Byzantine Empire was still around, mosaics were lavishly used in decorating palaces and churches. Unlike Western Europe back then, mosaics were central to Byzantine culture. Sadly however, the majority of Byzantine mosaics were destroyed or badly damaged due to armed conflicts. Luckily, some still remain and are being preserved.
From the time when the Byzantine Empire became the symbol of Christianity, its mosaics were assembled in a way to suit religious purposes. One could assume that Byzantine mosaics were a form of visual language to communicate the union of the Church and state. In actual terms, it was the translation of Christian theology and political authority into artistic terms. Thus, mosaics got quite a lot of attention from local practitioners. As a result, Byzantine mosaic’s sophistication surpassed Western art.
Because of the wide usage and success of Byzantine mosaics, the style spread to other regions such as the Balkans, Southern Italy, and Russia. Artists from the empire scattered throughout several regions. This ensured that Byzantine mosaic artwork was properly imitated just as in Constantinople.
Initially, Byzantine mosaics were assembled out of colored glass making them luminous with a variety of colors. The glass made it possible for these pieces of art to be glittery in effect and translucent at the same time. However as methods evolved, glass tesserae, known as smalti, was used. They were made by mixing minerals with melted glass in furnaces. Smalti were cut from thick sheets of colored glass which had small bubbles throughout and a rough surface. They were supported with a gold leaf or a reflective silver. This brought patterns to life with the enhanced glimmer they yielded.
Examples of Byzantine mosaics, which survived the many conquests against the empire, are the following:
Mosaics of Mount Nebo, Jordan
Mount Nebo is a site that is home to some Byzantine churches. For instance, The Church of Saints Lot and Procopius, has an extravagantly tiled floor portraying grape harvest. It has been that grape harvest could symbolically relate to the wine component in the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist. This well-crafted handmade mosaic, is located in the baptistery where children were baptized and thus included into the Christian faith.
Another Mosaic found in Mount Nebo, shows men and animals divided into four scenes. The first two depict hunting scenarios between soldiers and a lioness or a shepherd and a lion. The other two represent a more harmonic relationship between animals and humans. As for the boundaries of the mosaic, they have a chain-like pattern.
Mosaics of Monastery of Saint Catherine, Mount Sinai
In this particular church, the Mosaic of Transfiguration is in the spot light. It represents two occasions when God was seen by the prophet Elijah and by the Prophet Moses. Within this religious piece of art, Christ is depicted as having black hair and a beard. Around him, the two prophets linger dazzled by his appearance.
Because it was so skillfully crafted, it has been speculated that mosaic practitioners straight from Constantinople. Moreover, it won the admiration of several monks who considered it as a mean to transcend to utmost holiness and to witness God’s infinite glory. Today, the church is also called the “Church of the Transfiguration of Christ the Savior” just because of this magnificent mosaic.
Situated in Italy’s Ravenna, the Arian Baptistery possesses some exquisite Byzantine mosaics. Although research has suggested that the lower walls once fitted with lavish mosaics, the dome of the church still possess an assortment of mosaic tiles. All together, they portray the scene of Jesus’s Baptism in the central medallion. Surrounding it, the twelve apostles stand carrying the martyr’s crown. They are led by St. Paul who holds a scroll and St. Peter who bears some keys. The whole scene is configured to represent Etimasia, or the throne set in heaven. Moreover, the portrayal of Jesus being immersed in water to the hips, reflect Christ’s divine and earthly nature.
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