How can a knowledge of technique enhance our understanding of medieval art?
During the middle ages, a wide range of artistic techniques were developed and employed both in Western Europe and Byzantium. By examining the skills developed, time invested and the vast number of materials used in the production of specialized types of craftsmanship, such as mosaics, enamels and manuscripts, it is evident that medieval art played an important part in the culture of the period. This is largely due to the fact that the majority of art was religious, and religion dominated the lives of people across Europe. By gaining an understanding of the techniques that developed in certain areas, it is also possible to see how and why these methods spread, as they were adopted and adapted by other cultures.
The Byzantine state regarded itself as a continuation of the ancient Roman Empire. Byzantine art was frequently defined as the art of Constantinople; a town renamed by the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great in 330 and art from this area was, therefore, described as imperial and used to express the Byzantine Empire’s power. Images of the court provide an example of this, such as the strongly idealized images of emperors that were developed to illustrate what a good emperor was supposed to conform to. The portrait of Nikephoros III Botaneiates and Maria of Alania, for the frontispiece page of the Homilies of John Chrysostam, presents the rulers as rigid, severe and impassive, to ‘express the ideal demeanour praised by … Byzantine orators’ . The Byzantine court was highly regulated, as were the perceptions of the court, and it can therefore be argued; ‘Byzantine imperial art appears to resemble church art in following established patterns of iconography and expression’ .
The art of Byzantium generally remained separate from the medieval art of the west, but there are examples of a diffusion of techniques between east and west. A key example is the interior of the church of San Marco in Venice; Byzantine craftsmen were imported to decorate the walls and ceilings with mosaics. Local artists were also employed to be trained by the Byzantines, to become capable of working in their style. The mosaics in the atrium of San Marco were directly based on the Byzantine sixth–century manuscript called the Cotton Genesis, an example being God Introduces Eve to Adam (figure 1). Byzantine fixtures and fittings were also imported from Constantinople to adorn the interiors of churches, for example is now lost gold and enamel antependium made for Montecassino in Constantinople.
Knowledge of the production of the mosaics in San Marco enables us to conclude that Venice was not simply adopting the techniques of Byzantine art for decorative purposes; by hiring Byzantine mosaicists to decorate San Marco it was rivalling the Byzantine churches of Constantinople. At this time Venice was also competing commercially with the Byzantine Empire and this emphasizes the competitive nature of the Italian state. The West held art from Constantinople in high esteem, but the doges of Venice would ‘not have wanted the products of Byzantine craftsmen had they not been acknowledged as providing a setting for religious activity of the utmost splendour’ .
Byzantine society was deeply religious; desiring salvation and fearful of the afterlife. The church was entwined in practically every activity of daily life. Although cities such as Constantinople were full of buildings and objects which would today be described as ‘secular’, the majority of art was sacred or religious; produced for churches and monasteries, or for private devotion. Byzantine art expressed a deep knowledge of the bible and did not aim at illusion; it abolished ‘all clear distinction between the world of reality and the world of appearance’ . If considered from a Western point of view, Byzantine art is not original or individual in terms of content. Paintings, for example, were standardized by tradition, and this tradition stated that art should not evoke emotion, as this was considered too human. In 730, Emperor Leo III decreed that any image of Christ, the Virgin, saints or angels, which were depicted in a human form, were illegal. The facial expressions of the figures in panel paintings, therefore, convey no emotion; for example the faces of the Virgin and Child in the Vladimir Madonna (figure 2) touch tenderly, yet there is no sense of emotional closeness. This knowledge of technique, i.e. the reason behind the facial expressions of Byzantine icons, therefore, reveals the religious beliefs of the period, and the importance of religion in society.
Icons were at the centre of Byzantine art and life and so time, care and considerable resources were lavished on the production of them. This was also the case with mosaics. Whilst mosaics were ‘an invention of the Mediterranean people during the classical era’ , the technique was greatly developed in Byzantium. Decorating of a building with mosaics was a complicated task and probably involved a large team of trained artists. ‘[T]he desired pictorial programme was established with considerable care’ and this would reflect the religious function of the site for which it was commissioned. When creating a wall mosaic, a sketch would be made first before the plaster could be applied. The mosaic tesserae were then placed on the third layer of plaster, whilst it was still wet. As hundreds of thousands of tesserae were required to make a mosaic, the process was long and time consuming, yet this effort was not considered a chore as mosaics were devotional, religious scenes and the production of them was an act of piety.
Glass was the major material for wall and vault mosaics due to its reflective surface. An even more glittering, shimmering effect could be achieved with the use of gold tesserae, which were first employed in mosaics around the end of the second century A.D., for example in the Christian mausoleum beneath the basilica of St Peter’s in Rome, to represent the supernatural light that surrounds Christ. Gold was later used to cover whole backgrounds; surrounding figures and creating a glistening effect. Craftsmen developed the technique of setting tesserae at different angles to produce differences in the way that light was reflected, for example the haloes could be made to appear lighter than the surrounding gold background, as is the case in Hagios Georgios in Salonika. This knowledge of technique reveals the time and skill lavished on mosaic decoration, and thus reveals the importance of church art during the medieval period.
During the medieval period precious and semi–precious stones were used to embellish sacred objects, altars and icons. Mother–of–pearl was used for the representation of pearls, particularly in depictions of jewellery, for example in the mosaics of Justinian and Theodora in San Vitale, Ravenna (figures 3 and 4); Theodora’s head–dress is adorned with mother–of–pearl, as is Justinian’s crown and the broach securing his robe. It is also assumed a large piece of red smalto (glass) was once placed at the centre of this broach, to suggest a large ruby. These examples reveal the lavish decoration mosaicists bestowed upon their art, and that artists of the period often did more than was required of them; they ‘indulged the impulse to embellish’ . Medieval craftsman developed the tendency to elaborate, both in the design and execution of works as, ‘To the good medieval craftsman, perfectionism was no reproach’ .
Small, portable objects were also commissioned for private devotion. The two most extensive fields of medieval art production were books and textiles. Illuminated manuscripts were commissioned as acts of devotion, and then studied as an act of duty. These books were time consuming to produce, carefully planned and expected to last indefinitely. The illuminated manuscript for Basil II, known as the Menologion of Basil II, was commissioned for private use, and would probably have been displayed on a stand or lectern in the imperial palace, then transported when the emperor went away from Constantinople, on a campaign. Objects such as ivory carvings held a high status both in Byzantium and Western Europe, due to the rarity of the material and the skill of the craftsmanship involved in carving. Ivory plaques, diptychs and triptychs, become popular both in Byzantium and the West, particularly in the 10th and 11th centuries, as they were devotional and portable. The double–sided Harbaville Triptych (figure 5) involved a great deal of craftsmanship as it is carved on both front and back. These items were expensive to produce and so were generally for the use of the rich and the powerful.
In conclusion, knowledge of the techniques employed for the creation of mosaics, carvings and illuminated manuscripts helps to reveal the importance of medieval art. Time consuming methods and expensive techniques were developed in order to create beautiful, elaborate works suitable for devotion, whether privately or in a church, and producing these objects was an act on piety in itself. The arts of the medieval age reveal how religion dominated both Byzantium and Western culture. Although different methods were employed in the east and west, techniques spread and they always shared one similarity; religion was the key theme of art.