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.

This employment of gold and silver inks may be looked upon as the first step in the art of illumination as practised in the Middle Ages. And the preliminary to the use of metallic inks was attention to the tint of the vellum. The pioneers in this career of luxury no doubt had observed that very white vellum fatigued the eye. Hence, at first, they tinted or stained it with saffron, on one side at least, sometimes on both. Once begun, the tinting of the vellum extended to other colours. For works of the highest rank the favourite was a fine purple, the imperial colour of the Roman and Greek emperors. For chrysography, or gold-writing, the tint was nearly what we call crimson. For arguriography, or silver-writing, it became the bluish hue we call grape-purple. On the cooled purples vermilion ink was used instead of, or together with, the gold or silver. As the usage began with the Greeks, we may be sure that it came originally from Asia.

The Emperor Nero, once having heard that an Olympic Ode of Pindar in letters of gold was laid up in one of the temples at Athens, desired that certain verses of his own should be similarly written and dedicated on the Altar of Jupiter Capitolinus at Rome. This was an imperial luxury several times repeated by other princes.

After the official establishment of Christianity it became a common practice to have the greater liturgical books executed in the same costly fashion. And between the time of Constantine and that of Basil the Macedonian many a burning homily was directed against the custom, denounced as a sinful extravagance, which no doubt it was, but in vain until the fashion had worn itself out.

It might fairly be expected, this being the case, that many examples of this kind of codex would still be in existence. But owing to war, fire, robbery, and other misfortunes but very few remain. One of the oldest and finest is the so-called Codex Argenteus, or Silver-book, now kept at Upsala, in Sweden, containing portions of the Gospels of the Mæsogothic Bishop Ulfilas. Originally the effect of the stamped or burnished silver on the rich purple of the vellum must have been very splendid, but now the action of the air has blackened it, as it has done in many other instances where silver was used in illumination. Even gold will gather tarnish, and in several such MSS. has turned of a rusty red. Gold ink was not invariably confined to tinted vellum; it was often used on the plain ground. The copy of the Old Testament in Greek, presented by the high priest Eleazar to King Ptolemy Philadelphus, was a roll of fine white vellum, upon which the text was written in letters of gold.

To enter upon the antiquities of Greek palæography would lead us too far from our track in view of the brevity of our present survey. We therefore with some reluctance turn from this interesting topic to our more immediate subject. We may remark, however, that the great majority of Greek MSS. are written on vellum. In the eleventh century are found instances of what is called charta bombycina, or cotton-paper, appearing more plentifully in the twelfth century, but on the whole vellum is the chief material of Byzantine illuminated books. Much has been said about the want of life and total lack of variety of treatment in this school of art. To a very great extent the charge is just, yet it could scarcely be otherwise. The one circumstance which compelled Byzantine work to remain so long as if cast in one unalterable mould, and thus to differ so strangely from that of Western artists, was due to the fact that in very early Christian times the scribes and illuminators were enrolled into a minutely organised corporation originating primarily in monasticism, but by no means confined to the monastic Orders. Lay guilds existed, the regulations and methods of which were rigid beyond modern belief. So that, as a class, Byzantine art has acquired the reputation of a soulless adherence to mechanical rules and precedents, depriving it of originality and even of individuality, and therefore excluding the remotest scintilla of artistic genius. Of the great crowd of examples of ordinary work this may be true, but it certainly is not true of the best, by which it has the right to be judged, as we shall see from the examples referred to by-and-by. Certainly there is one invaluable particular in which Greek MSS. are superior to those of the West, Latin or otherwise. That is, they are much more frequently signed with the names, localities, and dates of the copyists and illuminators.

It will be some help towards our knowledge of this school if we divide its existence into chronological sections or periods.

1. From præ-Christianity to the Age of Justinian, i.e. down to the year 535. (Justinian reigned from 526 to 564.)

This period marks the decadence of ancient art, but carries with it the characteristics and methods of the ancient Greek painters.

2. From the Age of Justinian to the Iconoclastic paralysis of art under Leo III. the Isaurian, i.e. 564 to 726. (Leo reigned from 717 to 741.)

During this period vast numbers of illuminated liturgical books were destroyed for religious or fanatical reasons, just as in our own Cromwellian times numbers of Horæ, Missals, etc., were destroyed as papistical and superstitious.

This Edict of 726 did not absolutely put an end to all art in MSS. It only had the effect of excluding images of God, Christ, and the saints, as in Arabian and Persian MSS., leaving the artist the free use of flowers, plants, and line ornament, after the manner of the Mohammedan arabesques.

3. From Leo III. to the Empress Irene, who restored the worship of images in part, i.e. from 741 to 785. (Irene ruled from 780 to 801.)

This was a period of stagnation, though by no means of extinction of art.

4. From Irene to Basil I. the Macedonian, i.e. from 801 to 867.

A half-century and more of rapid renaissance to the most brilliant epoch of Byzantine art since the time of Justinian, if not the zenith of the school.

Basil I. was a great builder—building, in fact, was his ruling passion—so that it may be said that he took Justinian for his model both as a ruler and as a patron of the arts. (He reigned from 867 to 886.)

5. From Basil the Macedonian to the Fall of Constantinople, i.e. from 886 to 1453.

Allowing for a few flashes of expiring skill in various reigns, this may be considered as a period of gradual but certain decline to a state worse than death, for though the monks of Greek and Russian convents still kept up the execution of MSS., it was only with the driest and most lifeless adhesion to the Manual. This so-called art still exists, but more like a magnetised corpse than a living thing.

Examples of the first period are seldom met with. We have one signal specimen in the British Museum Add. MS. 5111, being two leaves only of a Gospel-book, and containing part of the Eusebian canons, or contents-tables of the Four Gospels, etc. The work is attributed to the time of Justinian himself. It is of the kind already referred to as probably affording the model of work to the early illuminators of France and Ireland, and as being like the Gospel-book of Hormisdas and those brought to England by Augustine in 596. Another example of the same Eusebian canons is found in Roy. MS. 1 E. vi.

Of the fourth period—i.e. the ninth century—perhaps the most typical example is the Menologium (a sort of compound of a calendar and lives of the saints), now in the Vatican Library (MS. Gr. 1613). This MS. shows that the revival under Basil the Macedonian was a return not to Roman, but to ancient Greek art, the facial types being of the purest classical character.

Brit. Mus. Add. MS. 5111, fol. 13
Brit. Mus. Burney MS. 19 fol. 1 v.

In some of them we see the horizontal frown of the Homeric heroes (σύνοφρυς Οδυσσευς), and of the Georgian and Armenian races shown in the features of the Emperor Johannes Ducas. We have, too, the large Hera-like eye with its mystic gaze, which, in later Byzantine work, becomes first a gaze of lofty indifference, as in the portraits of the emperors and empresses, and lastly a stony and expressionless stare; still, if possible, more stony and glaring when transferred to Celtic and Carolingian Gospel-books. (See chapter on Carolingian Illumination.)

Of this fourth period we might indeed point to many examples. One must suffice. It is the beautiful Greek Psalter, now at Paris (MS., p. 139), containing lovely examples of antique design, including remarkable personifications or allegorical figures. In this MS. is one of the most graceful personifications ever painted, that of Night, with her veil of gauze studded with stars floating overhead. The seven pictures from the Life of David are among the best ever put into a MS. But personification is carried to an extreme. Thus the Red Sea, the Jordan, Rivers, Mountains, Night, Dawn, etc., are all represented as persons. The drawings are really beautiful and the illuminated initials and general ornament in good taste.

For other examples the reader may consult the British Museum Cat. of Addit. MSS., 1841-5, p. 87; also Du Sommerard, Les Arts au Moyen-âge, tom. v., 1846, pp. 107, 162-8, and album, 2e sér. pl. xxix., 8e sér. pl. xii.-xvi.

It is noticeable in these Byzantine pictures that while the figure-painting is often really excellent, the design skilful, and the pose natural, the landscape, trees, etc., are quite symbolic and fanciful. The painters seem to have been utterly ignorant of perspective. Buildings, too, without any regard to relative proportion, are coloured merely as parts of a colour scheme. They are pink, pale green, yellow, violet, blue, just to please the eye. That the painter had a system of colour-harmony is plain, but he paid no regard to the facts of city life, unless, indeed, it was the practice of the mediæval Byzantines to paint the outside of their houses in this truly brilliant style. Possibly they did so; we have similar things in Italy even nowadays.

No doubt the French illuminators of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries drew from these sources both their perspective and their architectural colouring. As for ornamental illumination, the principal method of decoration was a square heading,[10] perhaps including a semicircular arch sweeping over several arcades, the corners and wall-space being occupied either with arabesque patterns, showing them to be after the time of Leo III., or with scrolls of line-ornament enriched with acanthus foliages. Under this the scribe has placed his title.

[10] It has been thought to represent the Greek π, and to mean πύλη, a gate or door.

Brit. Mus. Egert. MS. 1139
C. 835
Brit. Mus. Harl. MS. 2788, fol. 176

Other examples have a square frame filled with the latter kind of scrolls and foliages, leaving a sort of open panel in the centre, in which is placed a small scene of sacred history or perhaps of country life. Sometimes the title, in golden letters, is surrounded with medallions containing heads of Christ and the Virgin, apostles, and saints. The peculiar interlacing bands of violet, yellow, rose, blue, etc., which are still often seen in Russian ornament, are also features of these Byzantine MSS.; but most of all is the lavish use of gold. Perhaps the fact most to be remembered about these MSS. is that the painters of them worked in a manner that was absolutely fixed and rigid, the rules of which are laid down in a manual called the Guide to Painting, a work which has been translated by M. Didron.

So fixed and unalterable, indeed, is the manner that there is absolutely no difference to indicate relative antiquity between a MS. of the eleventh century and one of the sixteenth or even later, we might almost say, of the present day. In the matter of saint-images this is strictly true.