The Expansion of Byzantine Art in Western Europe and the Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice

During the Middle Ages, Byzantine art and culture spread first to the Mediterranean and later to the Balkan Peninsula and Russia.

The legions of the Christian emperors of Constantinople (Theodosius and Justinian) occupied the territories dominated by barbarians in Italy, Spain and Africa in order to expand the frontiers of the Empire to the west and as a result they left a few buildings of Byzantine style in those places. Particularly in Africa, Belisarius (general and lieutenant of the Emperor Justinian) ordered to built some byzantine castles for the imperial garrisons. However, this Byzantine occupation was to last longer in Southern Italy and Sicily.

The Basilica of Parenzo also known as “Euphrasian Basilica” (in actual Poreč, Croatia), ca. VIth century.

The second diffusion of Byzantine art in western Europe occurred in the eighth century when, thanks to the persecution of the iconoclasts emperors, many artists fled the capital and migrated to southern Italy, and it was from there that the artistic and cultural Byzantine influence spread further west. Later we will see how the European Romanesque art was strongly influenced by Byzantine styles.

Main mosaic of the apse of the Euphrasian Basilica with Mary and Child surrounded by angels, Bishop Euphrasius (holding the model of the church) and local saints.
The Torcello Cathedral (island of Torcello, Venice). It contains the earliest mosaics in the area of Venice, ca. VIIth century.
Mosaic of the main apse of the Torcello Cathedral with an 11th-century mosaic of the standing Virgin Hodegetria, isolated against a gold background and over the images of several saints.

In the region of the Adriatic Sea, the oldest building in Byzantine style was the Basilica of Parenzo or Euphrasian Basilica in Istria (Croatia) built around the mid-sixth century. Near Venice, on the island of Torcello, a somewhat later cathedral has splendid Byzantine mosaics from around the XI century. But ultimately would be Venice who dominated the Adriatic. It was precisely in Venice that the best preserved monument of Byzantine art including its entire mosaics was built: the famous Metropolitan Church of Saint Mark still in use. Having consolidated its maritime and commercial supremacy, Venice went to Byzantium in search of architects to begin in the ninth century the construction of what would be the early church of Saint Mark. Destroyed by fire during the insurrection of 916, the primitive church reopened to the public two years later with some modifications. From this second church built during the time of Doge Orso I, there are only some walls. This first church was supposedly built with a combination of stone and brick placed in decorative strips as we saw earlier when we discussed the post-iconoclastic Byzantine buildings. This primitive Saint Mark had a basilica floor plan based on a Greek cross* with three naves, the central separated from the laterals by two rows of 12 columns. In appearance and proportions, primitive Saint Mark looked a lot like Parenzo’s Cathedral and the Torcello church.

Exterior view of the Patriarchal Cathedral Basilica of Saint Mark in Venice (Italy), XIth-XIIth centuries.
Floor plan of St. Mark’s Basilica.

But it was in 1063 during the reign of Doge Domenico Contarini that Saint Mark changed its floor plan and physiognomy to almost its current appearance following the design of the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople. Architects added the transept’s naves and the narthex was also extended to each side to be joined with the new transept. The columns were also removed, and as the church was to have five domes and the central one had to be higher than the other four, it was necessary to built massive pillars in order to hold it in place. Old columns were also adapted to install upper galleries similar to those of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. After 30 years, the church of Saint Mark was ready and prepared to receive its decorative elements which included wide variety of rich materials: pieces taken from ancient monuments, rare stones, precious marbles, all brought in large quantities for the embellishment of Saint Mark’s Basilica.

General view of the central nave at the interior of St. Mark’s Basilica.

Compared to the dimensions of Hagia Sophia, Saint Mark in Venice is a small church, but its clever disposition, the excellence of its proportions, and some clever perspective tricks make it seem larger than it really is. The interior of the church is of indescribable magnificence: at the bottom shines the altar with its columns of precious stones; pulpits and lecterns are carved in rare marbles; from above, antique lamps hang from the ceiling, and in the most sacred place dazzles the altar of gold and enamels, the Pala d’Oro. Light comes almost exclusively from above; the five domes have at their base small openings through which the sun’s rays enter and directly illuminate the inner mosaics. These mosaics were put in place by Byzantine artists in the twelfth century and include the typical subjects of Byzantine iconography: passages from the Old Testament, the Twelve great Holidays, Life of the Virgin, and symbolic scenes such as the sacrifice of Abraham, the story of Joseph, the communion of Emmaus, etc.

View of the ceiling’s mosaics from the main crossing dome and adjacent lateral naves, St. Mark’s Basilica.

In its exterior, Saint Mark also offers a sumptuous and beautiful appearance. Atop the central door, a bronze quadriga testifies to the military glory of Venice because this sculpture was taken as war booty during the sack of Byzantium by the army of the Republic in 1204. The horses along with the quadriga were originally displayed at the Hippodrome of Constantinople but were looted by the Venetian army during the sack of the city in the Fourth Crusade. On the walls some imported reliefs were also applied, which make St. Mark like a museum of Byzantine sculpture.

The original St. Mark’s Horses in the museum of the Basilica, the sculptures date from classical antiquity, probably Roman in origin.


The replicas of the Horses of Saint Mark placed on the facade on the loggia above the porch of St Mark’s Basilica.

Some of the columns of the basilica have ancient Roman capitals, others come from the times of the first buildings made during the reign of Doge Orso, others are from the eleventh and twelfth centuries… All these styles harmoniously combined inside the building. As a notable feature, St. Mark has on the interior of its brick domes some wooden frames that hold other higher and lighter metal domes that stand out from the whole mass of the building, the purpose: these five golden domes can well be distinguished from far away when approaching the city from the entrance of the lagoons.

The so-called Altar of the Crucifix, a ninth-century hexagonal tabernacle inside St. Mark’s Basilica. It has six columns of African marble crowned by golden Byzantine capitals holding a marble pyramid with an ovoid block of agate at its apex.


*Greek cross: The term Greek cross designates a cross with arms of equal length, as in a plus sign, while the term Latin cross designates a cross with an elongated descending arm.