The Sixth Century

If the earliest period in Christian art is characterized by its diversity and by the metamorphosis of various pagan traditions into a Christian iconography, the sixth century may be viewed as a period of synthesis and consolidation. By the sixth century Constantinople had become the undisputed capital of the Roman Empire, while old Rome and the western provinces were increasingly subjected to periods of disorder and constant pillage. Emperor Justinian (r. 527-65), who did much to militarily recapture the territory of the empire and to temporarily restore its former borders, also undertook a huge building campaign. While it is difficult to generalize, the basilica appears to have remained the main architectural form for Christian churches throughout the empire, so when Justinian built the fortress monastery of St Catherine at Mount Sinai, c.548-65, the main church of the monastery, the katholikon, was in the form of a modest masonry-built basilica.

In Constantinople, the sixth century witnessed a number of impressive experiments with domed architecture including the churches of SS Sergius and Bacchus, St Eirene and St Polyeuktos. The most spectacular church to be built in the capital in the sixth century, and arguably in the whole history of Byzantium, was the cathedral of the city dedicated to Holy Wisdom, Hagia Sophia. It was built on the site of two earlier basilica churches which had been destroyed by fires. Justinian's architects, Isidoros of Miletos and Anthemios of Tralles, between 532 and 537 erected a miraculous structure with a huge floating dome suspended between two semi-domes. The church has needed only a few minor repairs and stands to the present day, one of the most recognizable symbols of Eastern Orthodox Christianity (see plates 18.2 and 18.3). In subsequent history, many Orthodox communities throughout the empire and eastern Europe built their own versions of Hagia Sophia, but never attained the scale or the eccentric architectural boldness of the church in Constantinople.

Although Justinian's court chronicler, Prokopios, documents a vast array of buildings with splendid figurative mosaic decorations, relatively little survives in the capital. The original mosaics in Hagia Sophia itself, many of which survive (plate 18.4), in view of the building's enormous scale, appear to have been largely nonfigurative, consisting of a lacework of geometric ornament, foliage and crosses suspended against the sea of a golden mosaic background. From the sixth century, the best examples of religious mosaics survive in the provinces, particularly Ravenna, in the churches of San Vitale (plate 18.5) and San Apollinare Nuovo, at St Catherine at Mount Sinai and in some mosaic panels in the church of Hagios Demetrios in Thessaloniki. While the fragmentary and random pattern of survival cautions against sweeping generalizations, it appears that by the sixth century workshops and artists throughout the empire were producing mosaics of a very high quality and on a vast scale. The fact that virtually the same imagery is encountered in the few scattered surviving manuscripts, in the applied arts, and in what survives of monumental church decorations, suggests that a basic religious iconography was already in place, frequently modified by regional traditions.

Icons, in the form of painted panels depicting religious iconography, which have become almost synonymous with Eastern Orthodox Christianity (Cormack 1997), survive from the sixth century at the monastery of St Catherine at Mount Sinai. The survival appears to be random and a result of the remoteness of the location and the strength of its fortifications. These images of saints in encaustic (painted with wax and pigments) on wooden panels point to possible roots in funerary portraiture in late antiquity, while such literary sources as the apocryphal Acts of St John suggest that this form of Christian portraiture may go back to a very early date. Some icons, like the sixth-century Sinai Pantokrator (the image of Christ as the ruler of all) (plate 18.6), may be a copy of the image of Christ which decorated the Chalke Gate of the Great Palace in Constantinople. Other icons were in liturgical use and were placed on low chancel barriers which separated the congregation and the sanctuary or on separate icon stands - the proskynetaria.

It appears that some of the icons at Sinai may have been sent by Justinian as a gift to the monastery when he reinforced the walls, rebuilt the church, and re-endowed that sacred site associated with Moses and the tablets of the Law (Forsyth and Weitzmann 1973). Other imperial gifts in the sixth century included precious silks and other textiles with religious iconography, finely carved ivories and steatites, and church plate. As with the Church Ecumenical Councils, the first of which was held under Emperor Constantine at Nicaea in 325, in religious art there was a desire to establish a degree of standardization and Orthodoxy. Local saint and relic cults were tolerated and survived, as did the celebration of local sacred sites, but as in the religious calendar, in art, there emerged a dominant tradition of iconography.

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