The period of Late Byzantium saw the decline of the Byzantine Empire during the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries. Although the capital city of Constantinople and the empire as a whole prospered as a connection between east and west traders, Byzantium continually dealt with threats from the Ottoman Turks to the east and the Latin Empire to the west.
During the Fourth Crusades, the Crusaders attacked Constantinople, took the city under siege in 1203, and eventually overcame its defences to sack the city in 1204. Constantinople became the capital city of the Latin Empire, one of the new kingdoms of a divided Byzantium, until the Byzantines retook it in 1261.
Once more, Constantinople became a prosperous Byzantine city until falling to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. The sack of Constantinople in 1204 marks the starting point of Late Byzantine Art, which lasted until the fifteenth century and spread beyond the borders of Byzantium.
Art during this period began to change from the standards and styles seen in the Early and Middle periods of Byzantium rule. A renewed interest in landscapes and earthly settings arose in mosaics, frescoes, and psalters. This development eventually led to the demise of the gold background.
The settings are often simple, perhaps a hill or a chair at first, and are often pastoral. Architecture began to be depicted more often, which renewed the use of perspective. At first, buildings were rendered slightly skewed, but eventually, artists refined the combination of material (mosaic and painting) with architecture and perspective.
The Chora Church that stands today is the result of its third stage of construction. This building and the interior decoration were completed between 1315 and 1321 under the Byzantine statesman Theodore Metochites. Metochites’ additions and reconstruction in the fourteenth century enlarged the ground plan from the original small, symmetrical church into a large, asymmetrical square that consists of three main areas:
- An inner and outer narthex or entrance hall.
- The naos or main chapel.
- The side chapel, known as the parecclesion. The parecclesion serves as a mortuary chapel and held eight tombs that were added after the area was initially decorated.
There are six domes in the church, three over the naos (one over the main space and two over smaller chapels), two in the inner narthex, and one in the side chapel. The domes are pumpkin-shaped, with concave bands radiating from their centers, and richly decorated with frescoes and mosaics that depict images of Christ and the Virgin at the center, with angels or ancestors surrounding them in the bands.
Mosaics to Frescoes
The Chora Church is decorated with iconic murals and mosaics from the fourteenth century that represent the Late Byzantine artistic styles. Mosaic work was still popular in the Late Byzantine period, but and the depiction of narrative cycles began to increase in popularity to become the primary decoration in churches. This transition is seen in the Chora Church, which was initially decorated in mosaic, with the final wing decorated with wall paintings. The shift in media changed the way subjects were depicted.
Mosaics of single scenes and figures were replaced in favour of frescoed narrative cycles and biblical stories. The rendering of the figures also began to change. Artists now relied less on sharp, schematic folds and patterns and instead use softer, more subtle modelling and shading. While sharp folds in the drapery can still be found in images from this period, these folds are rendered in similar, not complimentary, colours and shades. Furthermore, the bodies appear to have mass and weight. The figures no longer float or hover on their toes but stand on their feet. This allows for the addition of movement and energy in the painted figures and an overall increase in drama and emotion.
Mosaics extensively decorate the narthices of the Chora Church. The artists first decorated the church in the naos and then completed the work in the inner and outer narthices, which results in differences in the mosaics’ execution as the style progressed to show more liveliness and subtlety.
The surviving mosaics in the naos depict the Virgin and Child and the Dormition of the Virgin, a koimesis scene depicting the Virgin after death before she ascends to Heaven. This scene, located above the west door, depicts the Virgin in blue lying on a sarcophagus draped in purple and gold. Christ, in gold, stands behind the Virgin surrounded by a and holds an infant, representing the Virgin’s soul. The figures in the scene all have a certain weightiness that helps to ground them, adding an element of naturalism.
The mosaics found in the narthices of the Chora Church also depict scenes of the lives of the Virgin and Christ, while other scenes depict Old Testament stories that prefigure the Salvation. In the outer narthex, above the doorway to the inner narthex is a mosaic depicting Christ as the Pantocrator, the ruler or judge of all, in the center of a dome. The mosaic depicts a stern-faced Christ against a gold backdrop holding the gospels in one hand while gesturing with the other. An inscription in the mosaic reads, “Jesus Christ, Land of the Living”.
In another important scene above the entrance to the naos, Christ Enthroned is depicted receiving the donor of the church. The scene follows the Byzantine convention of depicting an architectural donation with an image of Christ in the center and the donor kneeling beside him, holding a model of his donation.
Here, Christ sits on a throne in a position similar to the Pantocrator, holding a book of gospels while his other hand gestures. The donor Theodore Metochites, wearing the clothing of his office, kneels on Christ’s right. He offers Christ a representation of the Chora Church in his hands. An inscription gives his titles.
The walls and ceilings of the parecclesion are decorated with scenes from the life of Christ and the Virgin, and themes of salvation befitting for a mortuary chapel. Like the mosaics, the scenes are painted in the upper levels of the building. The lower levels are reserved for painted images of saints and prophets and a decorative dado that mimics marble revetment.
The entirety of the parecclesion is covered in fresco scenes and painted images, creating an overwhelming sense of splendour and glory that ultimately brings the viewer to the final scenes of salvation and judgment.
The most important of these frescoes is the Anastasis, a representation of the Last Judgment, in the apse of the eastern bay. This image depicts Christ in Hell, saving the souls of the Old Testament. Christ stands in the center grasping the wrists of Adam and Eve, whom he raises from their sarcophagi. Saints, prophets, martyrs and other righteous souls, including John the Baptist, King David, and King Solomon, from the Old Testament, stand on either side of Christ. Christ, standing over a bound Satan, wears a white robe and is framed by a white and light blue .
The image is the culmination of the parecclesion’s fresco cycle and one of the most impressive Late Byzantine paintings. Christ stands in an active, chiastic position. His arms reach out to Adam and Eve and his feet are positioned on uneven ground, providing the sensation of imbalance as he retrieves righteous souls. The figures themselves are rendered in a softer, subtler mode. The harsh, jagged drapery has softened slightly with fluid and delineated folds. The expression of Christ and the others are dignified and stern. The Old Testament figures on either side gesture towards the scene, signalling the future of the faithful, as they wait for Christ to bring them into Heaven.
Changing Representations of Christ
The depictions of Christ in the Chora Church differ greatly from those of the third and fourth centuries. Recalling Early Christian art, Christ often appears clean-shaven and youthful, sometimes cast as the Good Shepherd who tends and rescues his flock from danger. At a time when Christianity was illegal, Christians would have found such imagery of a protector reassuring.
By the fourteenth century, when Theodore Metochites funded the interior decoration, Christianity was no longer a fledgling faith; it was a state religion in which even the emperor recognized Christ as the ultimate authority. The images of Christ in the frescoes and mosaics of the Chora Church depict an authoritative, bearded man who occupies the role of both saviour and judge. As an archetypal symbol of authority and wisdom through the ages, the beard would have been a logical choice for the face of the most supreme leader.
Painting in the Late Byzantine Empire
As Late Byzantine painting became more naturalistic—bodies gained mass and figures portrayed humanity with emotion and movement—and these developments and traditions continued into the Post-Byzantine age. The paintings in the Church of Christ in Chora are representative of the style of painting produced in the last centuries of the Byzantine Empire. Large murals were painted over expanses of architecture.
Many icons at this time were panels painted on both sides. Icons were painted this way since they were used in processions, and therefore seen from two directions. In churches, they were often displayed in special stands to allow for the viewing of both sides. Even after the Byzantine shrank and eventually fell, its artistic traditions continued in many former territories. The most famous example is the Cretan School.
During the Late Byzantine period, the iconostasis was fully developed. It was a screen or wall that stood in the nave, separating the space from the sanctuary and altar of the church. This wall was covered in icons and usually had three doors that allowed access into the sanctuary and viewing of the altar.
Icons were placed on the iconostasis following a general guideline that included the presence of a Deesis, Christ enthroned surrounded by John the Baptist and the Theotokos. Other icons included images of angels, saints, Old Testament prophets, the Apostles, and the patron saints of the church and city. The presence of the icons and the iconostasis was not to separate but to provide a bridge or a connection between the earthly and heavenly realms.
The Ohrid Icons (early fourteenth century) were produced in Constantinople and were later moved to Ohrid in Macedonia. One icon depicts the Virgin Mary on one side and the Annunciation on the other side. The Annunciation portrays the Virgin Mary seated on a throne as the angel Gabriel approaches her to deliver the news of her conception of the son of God.
The background is typically Byzantine: gold leaf background that mimics the golden backgrounds of mosaics. The architecture is rendered in a later Byzantine style. The buildings are painted with an attempt at perspective that is more skewed than correct but that still provides a suggestion of space.
This was also seen in the Theotokos of the Hagia Sophia, but in this case, the architecture provides more of a place setting, as in the landscape of the Lamentation from Nerezi. The figures themselves are rendered with Byzantine faces—small mouths and long, narrow noses. The faces, hands, and feet are carefully shaded and modelled.
The clothing also follows the Byzantine style with dramatic, deep folds and a schematic patterning that renders the body underneath. The bodies, however, differ from their earlier Byzantine predecessors. They have weight and appear to exist underneath their clothing.
The scene also takes cues from Late Byzantine styles, since it is dramatically depicted. The Virgin’s rigid pose and single gesture signify her unease at the angel’s approach. Gabriel, meanwhile, appears to have just landed. He strides forward, with an arm outstretched. He places his weight completely on his left foot, while he prepares to plant his right foot on the ground.
We are witness to the moment of his arrival. The momentum of his arrival is further emphasized by the placement of his wings. One wing has settled down onto his back while the other reaches upwards to balance his flight. The movement and emotion in the scene can be related to the Anastasias scene of the Chora Church. Both images have a single, central figure full of motion that provides energy to the different scenes depicted.
Monastery of the Virgin at Studenica, Serbia
The Serbian Monastery of the Virgin was built in the twelfth century outside the city of Kraljevo. While the monastery’s churches do not appear from the outside to follow Byzantine architectural styles, the interior painting of the Katholikon, the Church of the Virgin, is painted in the Late Byzantine manner.
The Crucifixion, painted on the western wall overlooking the altar, represents the mastery of Serbian art and the development and spread of the Late Byzantine style from the center of Byzantium in Constantinople. The figures are less elongated than their earlier counterparts, and the background is painted in a brilliant blue with golden stars.
The central image of Christ on the cross is surrounded by mourners, including his mother. The figures in this calm scene have mass. While the Virgin Mary still appears to be a mass of robes, her drapery is more subtly rendered. The bodies of the other figures are more easily denoted by the modelling of their robes. The drapery is still reliant on deep folds, but the folds are no longer contorted and are less schematic. While less dramatic and more serene, there is an underlying emotion of sadness that is subtly depicted by the sway of Christ’s body.
The Cretan School
Over the course of the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries, the Byzantine Empire lost much of its territory. However, its artistic traditions continued for centuries in areas such as Crete.
Established, in the fifteenth century, the Cretan School is known for its distinct style of icon painting that was influenced by both Western and Eastern traditions. Even before the fall of Constantinople, the leading Byzantine artists were leaving the capital to settle in Crete. This migration continued in the following years and reached its peak after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. The early icons produced by the Cretan School follow many of the earlier Byzantine traditions. Over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as the styles of Italian and Northern Renaissance artists grew in popularity, the rendering of the human body and illusionistic space became increasingly realistic. However, many icons retained traditional gold backgrounds. The influence of the Renaissance, in which the notion of artistic genius arose, can also be seen in the increasing attachment of artists’ names to their creations.