Late Byzantine Art

Late Byzantine Art began after the sack of Constantinople in 1204 and continued until the fall of Byzantium in 1453.


By the end of this module you will be able to:

  • Describe the form, content, and context of key Late Byzantine works
  • Define key terms related to Late Byzantine art
  • Explain how art during the Late Byzantine period departed from the standards and styles seen in its early and middle periods
  • Discuss the ways in which the Chora Church in Constantinople represents Late Byzantine artistic styles
  • Describe the impact of the Crusades on Byzantine art


Late Byzantine Art

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.



This is a map that shows the division of the Byzantine Empire after its sacking in 1204.
The division of the Byzantine Empire: The division of the Byzantine Empire after its sacking in 1204 by the French and Italian armies during the Fourth Crusades.

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.



This is a photo of the mosaic Christ Healing a Paralytic. It depicts Christ standing over the bed of a patient, reaching toward him.
Christ Healing a Paralytic: A mosaic in Capernaum from the cycle of the Life of Christ. It is located in the outer narthex of Chora Church, Constantinople, circa 1310–20.

Chora Church

First built in Constantinople during the 5th century, the Chora Church’s full name is the Church of the Holy Savior in Chora, a reference to its location outside the city’s fourth-century walls. Even when the walls were expanded in the early fifth century by Theodosius II, the church maintained its name. Inside the church is a set of frescoes and mosaics that survived the church’s conversion into a mosque in the sixteenth century when its Christian imagery was plastered over. In 1948 the church became a museum after undergoing extensive restoration to uncover and restore its fourteenth-century decoration. It is now known as the Kariye Museum or Kariye Camii.


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:

  1. An inner and outer narthex or entrance hall.
  2. The naos or main chapel.
  3. 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.



This is the ground plan of the Chora Church.
Ground plan of the Chora Church: 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.

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 frescoes 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.



This photo shows fresco scenes from the lives of the Virgin Mary and Christ.
Frescoed interior of the Paracclesion: Scenes from the lives of the Virgin Mary and Christ. Chora Church, Constantinople, c. 1310–20.

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 mandorla 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.



This photo shows the Koimesis mosaic. In the center, Jesus holds an infant representing the soul of the Virgin. Around him, are angels and a six-winged seraph. At Mary's head, is Saint Peter and at her feet, Saint Paul.
Koimesis mosaic: 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”.



This photo shows the south dome of the inner narthex. .
South dome of the inner narthex: This mosaic depicts Christ Pantocrator surrounded by his ancestors.

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.



This photo shows the dedication mosaic for the Chora Church.
Dedication mosaic: 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.


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.



This is a photo of a fresco in a dome in the parecclesion.
Virgin and Child with Angels: A fresco in a dome in the parecclesion that depicts the Virgin and Child with Angels.


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 mandorla.



This photo shows the fresco Anastasis.
Anastasis: 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.

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.



This photo shows the iconostasis of the Church of the Annunciation Designed by Theophanes the Greek.
Iconostasis of the Church of the Annunciation: Designed by Theophanes the Greek, the wall is covered in icons and its doors allow access into the sanctuary and a view of the altar.

Ohrid Icons

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.



This photo shows the Ohrid Annunciation icon.
Annunciation: This icon 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 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.



This photo shows The Crucifixion.
Crucifixion: This is painted behind the altar of the Katholikon of the monastery of the Virgin at Studenica.

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.



  • The French and Italian armies sacked Constantinople during the Fourth Crusades in 1204 and divided the Byzantium empire into smaller kingdoms. The Byzantines eventually re-conquered Constantinople in 1261 and the Byzantine Empire continued to reign until falling to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.
  • Art during the final centuries of the Byzantine Empire is known as Late Byzantine art and the styles and conventions of the Early and Middle Byzantine periods begin to change to reflect emerging dynamics and tastes.
  • Mosaics and frescoes were still used for church decoration, although frescoed wall paintings became more popular. The change in favoured medium also changed the types of imagery; wall paintings more heavily favour narrative scenes and cycles instead of standard single images.
  • The Chora Church’s architecture, mosaics, and frescoes are exceptional examples of Late Byzantine artistic developments and style. The church that stands today consists of two narthices, a parecclesion, and a mortuary chapel.
  • Painters in the Late Byzantine period painted scenes with a new sense of naturalism by portraying figures with mass and naturalistic bodies under their clothing; drapery became a garment through which the body was rendered. Landscapes and settings were used more often, and figures were given increased movement and emotion to lend them an additional level of humanity.
  • The Ohrid Icons are a series of icons produced in Constantinople that were later moved to Ohrid Macedonia. The Annunciation from one of the icons is a delicately painted scene filled with emotion and tension.
  • During this time the iconostasis was fully developed and became a popular method of dividing the nave from the altar in Byzantine churches, especially in Russia. This screen was often large and covered in icons of saints and Christ in the general pattern of a Deesis.
  • Even as the Byzantine Empire lost territory, its artistic traditions continued, most notably in the Cretan School. In this final phase of Byzantine art, figures and illusionistic space continued to assume greater degrees of naturalism, while the gold background remained in most icons.

Adapted from “Boundless Art History” License: CC BY-SA: Attribution-ShareAlike



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Art and Visual Culture: Prehistory to Renaissance Copyright © by Alena Buis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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