The rebuilding of the city of Byzantium the beginning of Byzantine art—Justinian's fondness for building and splendour—Description of Paul the Silentiary—Sumptuous garments—The Gospel-book of Hormisdas—Characteristics of Byzantine work—Comparative scarcity of examples—Rigidity of Byzantine rules of art—Periods of Byzantine art—Examples—Monotony and lifelessness of the style.

The signal event which gave birth to mediæval illumination, or rather to the ideas which were thereby concentrated upon the production of magnificent books, was the rebuilding of the Imperial Palace and the Basilica of Constantine, henceforward to be known as the Church of Sancta Sophia, or the Divine Wisdom, at Byzantium. The Emperor Justinian had been reigning six years when a terrific fire, caused by the conflicts between the various seditions, called Circus factions, of the time, almost entirely destroyed not only his own palace and the great Christian church adjoining it, but the city of Constantinople itself. So important a scheme of reconstruction had probably never been forced upon a government since the great fire in Rome under Nero. Justinian, whose early training had been of the most economical kind, and whose disposition seemed to be rather inclined to parsimony than extravagance, now came out in his true character. For various reasons he had hitherto studiously concealed his master-passion; but this catastrophe of the fire, which seemed at first so disastrous, was really a stroke of fortune. It afforded the hitherto frugal sovereign the chance he had long waited for of spending without stint the hoarded savings of his two miserly predecessors, and gratifying his own tastes for magnificent architecture and splendour of apparel.

Not only Asia, with its wealth of gold and gems, but all the known world capable of supplying material for the reconstructions, were called upon, and ivory, marbles, mosaics, lamps, censers, candelabra, chalices, ciboria, crosses, furniture, fittings, pictures—in short, everything that his own taste and the experience of four or five of the ablest architects of the time could suggest—administered to the gorgeous, the unspeakable splendour of the new edifices and their furniture.

Paul the Silentiary, an eye-witness of the whole proceeding, has left a description in verse, and the accurate Du Fresne in prose, which enable us easily to trace how the Roman city of Constantine became transformed into the semi-oriental Byzantium of Justinian. During the two centuries which had elapsed since the days of the first Christian emperor many foreign luxuries had found their way into the Eastern capital. Byzantine jewellery and Byzantine silks were already famous. The patterns on the latter were not merely floral or geometrical, but four-footed animals, birds, and scenes from outdoor sports formed part of the embellishment, which, therefore, must have taken the place occupied in later times by the tapestries of Arras and Fontainebleau.

Hitherto the Byzantines had imported their silks from Persia. After the rebuilding of the Basilica, Justinian introduced silk-culture into Greece. The garments ridiculed by Asterius, Bishop of Amasia, in the fourth century, were repeated in the sixth century. “When men,” says he, “appear in the streets thus dressed, the passers-by look at them as at painted walls. Their clothes are pictures which little children point out to one another. The saintlier sort wear likenesses of Christ, the Marriage of Galilee...and Lazarus raised from the dead.”

On the robe of the Empress Theodora—the wife of Justinian, who is shown in one of the mosaics of St. Vitale at Ravenna as presenting rich gifts to that church—there is embroidered work along the border, showing the Adoration of the Magi. Theodora pia was one among the many rôles played by that all-accomplished actress; but this seems to have been after her death. Like Lucrezia Borgia, perhaps, she was better than her reputation. With such surroundings liturgical books could not have existed without sharing in the universal luxury of enrichment. And, in point of fact, we still have records of such books. While Justinian reigned in Byzantium it happened that Hormisdas, a native of Frosinone, was Pope of Rome. He was a zealous eradicator of heresy (especially of the Eutychian and Manichæan), and in recognition of his services in this direction the Greek Emperor, with his thanks, sent him a great Gospel-book richly decorated, no doubt, with those splendid Eusebian canons and portraits of the Evangelists, the like of which we see in the Byzantine examples still preserved at Paris, in London, and elsewhere. Plates of beaten gold, studded with gems, formed the covers of the Gospel-book of Hormisdas.

Nor was this sumptuous volume the only, or even a rare, example of its kind. We read that the art of book decoration had become a fashionable craze. No expense was spared in the search for costly materials. Colours were imported from India, Persia, and Spain, including vermilion and ultramarine, while the renowned Byzantine gold ink was manufactured from imported Indian gold. Persian calligraphers had taught its use afresh to the Byzantine scribes.

If, as we may believe, the first object of the Roman miniatores was distinctness combined with beauty, we may now believe that the object of the Byzantine scribes was splendour. The progress had been from mere “cheirography” to calligraphy; now it was from calligraphy to chrysography and arguriography.