Byzantine art and the Pantocrator

Separation of Sheep and Goats. Tesserae, glass in wooden frame. Early 20th century (original dated early 6th century).

Separation of Sheep and Goats. Tesserae, glass in wooden frame. Early 20th century (original dated early 6th century).

The context of Byzantine art has to be thought as a life-changing event. The pagan religion as the Greeks and Romans practiced is totally gone, replaced by Christianity. The principles of worship remain the same: Monumental architecture and small temples; but art itself has a notable difference in execution, technique and understanding of nature, also perceived as the decline of classic art, that will prevail until the Middle Ages and take a huge positive leap again in The Renaissance. In addition to this shift of style, Byzantine art went through Iconoclasm, literally meaning ”image breaking”, which in the Byzantine world, was referred to destroy all the images and objects related to Christian icons done by the ”human” hand (they thought that pure worshiping had to be done by a divine agency, such as the Mandylion, a white cloth imprinted with the face of Christ). This lead to the destruction of almost all of the early Byzantine imagery, which later on flourished again with the retaking and allowance of artwork for religious icons in the form of mural painting and mosaic walls.

The focus of this post is different than the previous ones, selecting only one image that represents this time period and defragment its form through the use of a formal breakdown of its visual elements, quite a contrast from the Prown method. Still, the formal breakdown lets us list the image attributes into a clear and understandable way. I’ve selected a representation of Christ as a Pantocrator, located in the Church of the Dormition, in Daphni, Greece. Pantocrator means  the ”Almighty”, or ”Powerful”, referring to the omnipotence of Jesus Christ as the son of God.

As many Byzantine artwork, this huge mosaic mural in the Church of the Dormition makes use of a composition with symmetrical features, depicting Jesus as  Pantocrator. Although there is some variant in the position of the arms, the graphic mass can be perceived as symmetrical if we squint our eyes looking at the overall shape. This Pantocrator is immense in scale, done in the interior surface of the main dome. The head, halo and inscriptions are formally arranged to create an even weight of the graphic elements, framed by the outer circle (rainbow colored) and its corresponding patterns.

Screen Shot 2013-11-07 at 11.04.23 PMThis is an important characteristic in Byzantine art. Most of the objects and visual elements have a black contour line, which we could define as a ”comic book look” nowadays. In this piece, the line art has very little variation, mostly notable in the details corresponding to wrinkles in the face and hands. If we take a look at the halo, there is no variation at all, giving a solid and bi-dimensional look.

Screen Shot 2013-11-07 at 11.27.57 PMWhen analysing Byzantine art in class, we ran into the term ”cel shading” to describe the use of color separation caused partly by the line work. The hair has a very simplified and clean design, whereas the beard doesn’t have the same kind of style (I wonder why?). The drapery is the element that’s most notably represented with this color separation technique, focusing on high contrast shapes that represent the folds of the fabric. We can also see that the color of skin, hair and drapery have a high contrast relationship, making the face the main focal point.

It’s incredible to think that this image is actually made out of aligned and shaped tesserae. Early Christian artists selected mosaic as a reliable medium to depict narrative illustrations and icons for the instruction of the new religion’s followers, less susceptible to the infiltration of water in big structures. It was actually used by Greeks and Romans for their floors, fountains and pools. The Romans used colored stones for their mosaics, which gave them resistance but limitations of color palette. Later on, Christian artists used glass tesserae, which instantly opened up the possibilities for infinite glowing colors. The tesserae was never evenly leveled, giving a glimmering effect as you move across the hall watching the mosaic.

Screen Shot 2013-11-08 at 1.03.19 AMAnother important visual asset in Byzantine art is the ”Golden no space”, as defined by Ryan Finnerty, which is the negative space surrounding elements of the composition created by the insertion of golden mosaic in the image plane. This golden color must have provided a beautiful bouncing light effect in temples, lit by natural light during the day and by candles in evenings, making the interior ambiance as majestic as possible. It has been researched that the golden background was made with a technique of aligning clear glass cubes on top of gold leaf, which also helped to give it that shimmering appearance instead of a flat color.

There’s no better way to understand the byzantine design criteria than creating an illustration with the same aesthetics. My head would be laying on the ground if I made this in the Byzantine era, but right now it’s interesting and fun to make these type of  visual studies when introduced to a new art style. I’ve also added a detail of the mosaic as it could be viewed from closer. Since the mosaic of Christ as Pantokrator is inmense and high in the dome surface, we can hardly see the separation between the tesserae.

I’ve also added a diagram pointing out the design guidelines to this type of graphic, which could also be found on temples as Hagia Sophia, San Vitale or the Monastery of St. Catherine.

Pantocrator - Graphic example of Byzantine art - Autoportrait

Pantocrator – Graphic example of Byzantine art – Autoportrait

Tesserae detail

Tesserae detail

Byzantine style guideline

Byzantine style guideline

Finally, here’s an interesting video that gives us a glimpse of the mosaic creation process, which leads us to imagine the incredible amount of work to complete the images:

Hope you enjoyed the post, coming up next: Middle Ages.




One thought on “Byzantine art and the Pantocrator

  1. Pingback: Another view of the dome | orthodoxbeliever

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