Second Golden Age of Byzantine Art (The illumination of manuscripts, icons on wood, and enamels)

It is known that Byzantine emperors and patricians were very fond of illuminated manuscripts*. The Gospels, the Octateuch (or eight books of the Bible), and the Psalter all had fixed repertoires as they almost always treated the same issues represented in the same way. To this day there are six Byzantine manuscripts of the Octateuch illuminated with miniatures: two are in the Vatican, one in Florence, one in Smyrna, one in the Topkapi Sarayi Library in Constantinople, and another in the Vatopedi monastery on Mount Athos (Greece). All these manuscripts describe the same themes arranged in the same order.

Miniature from a XIIth century Octateuch showing scenes of the Original Sin: a snake with legs tempts Eve, Eve convinces Adam, and finally both appear eating the fruit of the forbidden Tree (Topkapi Sarayi Library of Constantinople, Istanbul).

The Psalter or Book of Psalms was also profusely illuminated with scenes from the life of David and mystical allegories. Both the Gospels and Psalms were illustrated using two types of images. Some have miniatures that occupy the entire width of the page; others have only marginal vignettes. The latter were preferably used by common citizens.

Beatus initial for the start of Psalm 1 from the The Psalter of Saint Louis, ca. 1253-1270 (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris).

In addition to these biblical books, the most notable religious manuscripts were the calendars of saints called menologium*. Some of these books were of enormous dimensions, unmanageable as books for everyday use. Menologies were some kind of an image gallery, where the text was merely an almost unnecessary complement. Some manuscripts dedicated to particular people were preceded by the portrait of their owners and these miniatures constitute the only source of available information to imagine what did many great masters and remarkable Byzantine princesses look like.

Regarding the painters of icons, mosaics, or illuminators of manuscripts, we only know some few names and a few biographical details. In the menology or calendar of saints owned by emperor Basil II, large miniatures were signed by eight different artists, two of them named themselves as “of the Blachernae“, that is, they were ascribed to the Imperial Palace of the same name where there was a scriptorium* or workshop devoted to the writing, copying, and illuminating of manuscripts by monastic scribes. Every artist-scribe, however, kept his own style.

Jonah and the whale from The Menologion of Basil II an illuminated manuscript from ca. 1000 (Vatican Library).

The illustrations of Byzantine calendars of saints or menologies had the curious detail of often repeating the same architectural background image, like a theater curtain, and sometimes even the architectures painted at the sides appeared also repeated. This has led to believe that what miniaturists were painting were plays or semi-theatrical scenes, that is mysteries.

After the iconoclastic persecution Byzantine painters devoted themselves to produce paintings on wood. Numerous diptychs are still conserved representing the year’s twelve holidays, calendars of saints, and paintings with images of the Virgin and the Savior. Most of these paintings were executed in the same way: on a piece of wood, previously prepared with plaster and gold, the figures were painted in bright colors, the folds of their robes were drawn scrapping the colors using a chisel and thus revealing the gold-painted background which ultimately formed the drapery lines. Currently, there are some Byzantine icons still in their original place: in the altars of the Greek monasteries of Mount Athos for example, but in several museums throughout Italy they can also be found because these wood paintings represented another way in which Byzantine art spread as in those days they were in high demand in the Western World.  Some of these icons weren’t painted but made with very fine mosaics.

Byzantine icon representing the Virgin Hodegetria, tempera and gold on wood, ca. 1360-1370 (The Holy Monastery of Vlatadon, Thessalonike, Greece).

After icons, another expression of Byzantine painting was represented by enamels*. Byzantium learned from Persia the art of enamel and its special manufacture called by French cloisonné*. It involves drawing the figures on a metal plate and then place on it, following the drawing’s contour, small dividers of welded thin metal sheets so that the drawing was left divided into several compartments. Each one of these compartments was then filled with colored molten glass and was later polished so that the dividers’ lines or the colored patches weren’t protruding from the surface which at the end appeared smooth and flat as if it was “painted” with glass. Enamels served to enrich the sumptuous Byzantine goldsmithing: hanging wreaths, large chandeliers, altars, and pulpits, reliquaries, crosses, and manuscript bindings. They were generally applied, once finished, on the objects they embelished, thus they constituted medallions for various pieces of goldsmithing. For example, the front cover of the luxury binding of a Gospel preserved in the Biblioteca Comunale degli Intronati in Siena (Italy) shows in the center the characteristic depiction of the Anastasis or Descent into Limbo (one of the twelve Byzantine holydays) along with other medallions of Christ, the Virgin, and several angels and the Apostles. One of the major works of Byzantine enamel is still in place in Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice.  It is the famous Pala d’Oro (or golden cloth) located at the main altar, universally recognized as one of the most refined and accomplished works of Byzantine craftsmanship.

Front cover of a Xth century Gospel with an extraordinary collection of Byzantine enamels (Biblioteca degli Intronati, Siena, Italy).
Front cover of the Gospels of Saint Michael also called “unique work” for its magnificence and richness of the materials used, ca. X century (Treasury of St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice, Italy).
The famous Pala d’Oro, the high altar retable of the Basilica di San Marco in Venice (Italy), ca. 1102.
General view of the Pala d’Oro (St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice, Italy).
The Archangel Michael, detail from the Pala d’Oro (St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice, Italy).


*Cloisonné: An ancient technique for decorating metalwork objects, in recent centuries using vitreous enamel, and in older periods also inlays of cut gemstones, glass, and other materials. The resulting objects can also be called cloisonné. The decoration is formed by first adding compartments (cloisons in French) to the metal object by soldering or affixing silver or gold wires or thin strips placed on their edges. These remain visible in the finished piece, separating the different compartments of the enamel or inlays, which are often of several colors.

*Enamel: (Or Vitreous enamel). A material made by fusing powdered glass to a substrate by firing, usually between 750 and 850 °C. The powder melts, flows, and then hardens to a smooth, durable vitreous coating on metal, or on glass or ceramics. Used as a noun, “an enamel” is usually a small decorative object coated with enamel. Enameling is an old and widely adopted technology, for most of its history mainly used in jewelry and decorative art.

*Illuminated manuscript: A manuscript in which the text is supplemented with such decoration as initials, borders (marginalia) and miniature illustrations.

*Menologium: Menologium (from the Greek meaning “a month”; Latin menologium), is a service-book used in the Eastern Orthodox Church and those Eastern Catholic Churches which follow the Rite of Constantinople and that is arranged according to the months.

*Scriptorium: Literally “a place for writing”, is commonly used to refer to a room in medieval European monasteries devoted to the writing, copying and illuminating of manuscripts by monastic scribes. Written accounts, surviving buildings, and archaeological excavations all show, however, that contrary to popular belief such rooms rarely existed: most monastic writing was done in cubicle-like recesses in the cloister, or in the monks’ own cells.




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