Middle Byzantine

Architecture and mosaic decoration thrived during the Middle Byzantine period that followed Iconoclasm’s stifling of the arts.


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

  • Describe the form, content, and context of key Middle Byzantine works
  • Define key terms related to Middle Byzantine art
  • Discuss the characteristics and innovations of Byzantine religious art that followed the end of the Iconoclasm controversy
  • Explain the stylistic changes in painting during the Middle Byzantine period

Broadly defined, iconoclasm is defined as the destruction of images. In Christianity, iconoclasm has generally been motivated by people who adopt a literal interpretation of the Ten Commandments, which forbid the making and worshipping of graven images. The period after the reign of Justinian I (527–565) witnessed a significant increase in the use and veneration of images, which helped to trigger a religious and political crisis in the empire. As a result, aniconic sentiment grew, culminating in two periods of iconoclasm—the First Iconoclasm (726–87) and the Second Iconoclasm (814–42)—which brought the Early Byzantine period to an end.

Byzantine Iconoclasm constituted a ban on religious images by Emperor Leo III and continued under his successors. It was accompanied by the widespread destruction of images and persecution of supporters of the veneration of images. The goal of the iconoclasts was to restore the church to a strict opposition to images in worship that they believed characterized at the least some parts of the early church.

The Feast of Orthodoxy

After the death of the last Iconoclast emperor Theophilos, his young son Michael III, with his mother the regent Theodora and Patriarch Methodios, summoned the Synod of Constantinople in 843 to bring peace to the Church. At the end of the first session, on the first day of Lent, all made a triumphal procession from the Church of Blachernae to Hagia Sophia to restore the icons to the church in an event called the Feast of Orthodoxy.

Imagery, it was decided, is an integral part of faith and devotion, making present to the believer the person or event depicted on them. However, the Orthodox makes a clear doctrinal distinction between the veneration paid to icons and the worship which is due to God alone.

Since Iconoclasm was the last of the great Christological controversies to trouble the Church, its defeat is considered to be the final triumph of the Church over heresy. When the Iconoclasm controversy came to an end in 843, Byzantine religious art underwent a renewal.

A series of naturalistic innovations can be seen in examples from the Hagia Sophia, the monastery of Hosios Loukas, and Saint Mark’s Basilica. This revival of a classical style of art was partly due to a renewed interest in classical culture, which accompanied a period of military successes, during the Macedonian Renaissance (867–1056).

Theotokos Mosaic at the Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia is a former Greek Orthodox patriarchal basilica (church), constructed from 537 until 1453. A combination of a centrally planned and basilican building, it is considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture.

After the end of iconoclasm, a new mosaic was dedicated in the Hagia Sophia under the Patriarch Photius and the Macedonian emperors Michael III and Basil I. The mosaic is located in the apse over the main altar and depicts the Theotokos or the Mother of God. The image, in which the Virgin Mary sits on a throne with the Christ child on her lap, is believed to be a reconstruction of a sixth-century mosaic that was destroyed during the Iconoclasm.

An inscription reads: “The images which the impostors had cast down here, pious emperors (Michael and Basil) have again set up.” This inscription refers to the recent past and the renewal of Byzantine art under the Macedonian emperors.



This photo shows the mosaic Theokotos and Child. It depicts the seated Virgin Mary in a veil with the child Christ in her lap.
Theokotos and Child: This image, in which the Virgin Mary sits on a throne with the Christ Child, is believed to be a reconstruction of a sixth-century mosaic that was destroyed during the Iconoclasm.

The image of the Virgin and Child is a common Christian image, and the mosaic depicts Byzantine innovations and the standard style of the period. The Virgin’s lap is large. Christ sits nestled between her two legs. The figures’ faces are depicted with gradual shading and modelling that provides a sense of realism that contradicts the schematic folding of their drapery.

Their drapery is defined by thick, harsh folds delineated by contrasting colours: the Virgin in blue and Christ in gold. The two frontal figures sit on an embellished gold throne that is tilted to imply perspective. This attempt is a new addition to Byzantine art during this period. The space given to the chair contradicts the frontality of the figures, but it provides a sense of realism previously unseen in Byzantine mosaics.

Hosios Loukas, Greece

The monastery of Hosios Loukas (St. Luke) in Greece was founded in the early tenth century to host the relics of St. Luke. Located on the slope of Mount Helicon, the monastery is known for its two churches, the Church of the Theotokos (tenth century) and the main building called the Katholikon (eleventh century).

The churches were decorated in mosaics, frescoes, and marble revetment. The two churches are connected together by the narthex of the Theotokos and an arm of the Katholikon. The churches demonstrate two different styles of architecture.



This is the ground plan of Hosios Loukas. The top shows the plan of the Church of the Theotokos, and the bottom the plan of Katholikon.
Plan of Hosios Loukas: Top (1 on diagram): Plan of the Church of the Theotokos. Bottom (2): Plan of Katholikon.

Church of the Theotokos and the Katholikon

The Church of the Theokotos represents a Greek cross-plan style church. It has a large central dome that rests on a series of pendentives. The Katholikon is also a Greek cross-plan style church but instead of the dome resting on pendentives, the dome of the Katholikon rests on squinches, which create an octagonal transition between the square plan of the church and the circular plan of the dome.

The difference in style between the pendentives and the squinches allow for different relationships between the architecture and the decoration and different play of light and darkness in the shapes the squinches provided.



This photo shows the Katholikon's dome. The dome is decorated with a mosaic of Christ.
The Katholikon’s dome: Unlike the Church of the Theokotos, the dome of the Katholikon rests on squinches.

The mosaics found in the Katholikon were created in an early Byzantine style commonly seen in the centuries before Iconoclasm. The scenes depicted are flat with little architecture or props to provide a setting. Instead, the background is covered in brilliant gold mosaics.

The figures in the scenes, such as those seen in the apse mosaic of Christ washing the feet of his disciples, are depicted with naturalistic faces that are modelled with long, narrow noses and small mouths. The clothing of the figures is represented through schematic folds and contrasting colours. While the folds of the drapery represent a body underneath, there appears to be no actual mass to the body.

These characteristics of Byzantine mosaics began to change in the following century, partially through the addition of perspective in the Theokotos of the Hagia Sophia.



This photo shows the mosaic Christ Washing the Feet of His Disciples. Christ wears a blue robe. The disciples wear white robes.
Christ Washing the Feet of His Disciples: In the Katholikon, the figures in these scenes are depicted with naturalistic faces that are modelled with long, narrow noses and small mouths.

Saint Mark’s Basilica, Venice

Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Italy, was first built in the ninth century and rebuilt in the eleventh century in its current form following a fire. The basilica is a grand building, built next to the Doge’s Palace. It initially functioned as the doge’s private chapel, then a state church, and in 1806 became the city’s cathedral. The basilica houses the remains of Saint Mark, which the Venetians looted from Alexandria in 828 and prompted the building of the basilica.

Saint Mark’s Basilica was built in the Byzantine Greek-cross plan. Each arm is divided into three naves and topped by a dome. At the crossing is a large central dome. The main apse is flanked by two smaller chapels. The narthex of the basilica is U-shaped and wraps around the western transept.  It is decorated with scenes from the lives of Old Testament prophets.



This is a schematic plan of St. Mark's Basilica. It shows five large domes.
Plan of St. Mark’s Basilica: The circles mark the location of each dome.

The entirety of the basilica is richly decorated. The floor is covered in geometric patterns and designs that use the Roman decoration techniques known as opus sectile and opus tessellatum.

The lower walls and pillars are covered in marble polychromatic panels, and the upper walls and the domes are decorated with twelfth- and thirteenth-century mosaics. The central dome depicts an image of Christ Pantocrator, and the overall decorative program depicts scenes from the life of Christ and images of salvation from both the Old and New Testament.



This photo shows the interior of St. Mark's Basilica in Venice, Italy.
The interior of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Italy: A view from the clerestory-level walkway shows its richly decorated mosaics and marble, polychrome panels.

Objects of Worship in the Middle Byzantine Empire

Personal objects (psalters and triptychs), reliquaries, and icons were popular objects of worship during the Middle Byzantine period.


Triptychs are a type of panel painting or relief carving for devotional objects that are created on three panels. The panels could also be divided in two, known as diptychs, or sometimes had more than three panels, known as a polyptych.

The use of triptychs began in the Byzantine period, and they were originally made to be small and portable. Later during the Gothic period, multi-panel devotional paintings were enlarged as altarpieces. However, the small, portable triptychs of the Byzantine period were used as personal objects of worship. They were designed to guide their owner in prayer and direct their thoughts towards Christ.

The triptych was designed with one central panel and two wings that folded over the main image and allowed the object to be portable when closed, and to stand when the wings were open. The wings are typically carved with portrayals of saints, while the main image often depicted Christ, although the imagery varied. The Harbaville Triptych depicts a scene of Deesis with Christ as the Pantocrator, while the Borradaile Triptych depicts an image of the Crucifixion.

Harbaville Triptych

The Harbaville Triptych is an early example from the mid-tenth century of the new ivory triptychs that replaced diptychs during the Middle Byzantine period. The main scene depicts the figures of Christ Pantocrator flanked by John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary, in a supplication scene known as a Deesis.

John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary are depicted as intercessors, praying on behalf of the triptych’s owner to Christ. On the register below them are the apostles James, John, Peter, Paul, and Andrew. The two side panels depict two registers with two characters each, all of which are identifiable saints.



This photo shows the Harbaville Triptych's supplication scene as previously described.
Harbaville Triptych: The supplication scene, Deesis with Saints. Made of ivory, circa 950.

The figures are carved in a recognizably Byzantine style. Their bodies are elongated and narrow, and they seem to float or hover just above the ground instead of standing with weight. This illusion is furthered by the fact that nearly every character stands on a small platform.

The saints are elegantly draped, and their bodies are distinguished by the folds of their drapery and not any type of modelling. The figures’ facial expressions are solemn, and their facial features are deeply carved. The saints each face outward, except for John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary, who are each slightly turned and bowing to an enthroned Christ. Christ sits on an elaborate throne as the Pantocrator, with a book of Gospels in one arm and his hand gesturing in a motion of blessing.

Borradaile Triptych

The Borradaile Triptych’s main image depicts the Crucifixion of Christ instead of a Deesis. The central image takes up the entirety of the main frame and the two wings are divided into three registers. The figures on the wings are images of saints, similar to the Harbaville Triptych.

The central scene is dominated by the image of Christ on the cross. Two angels flank him above his arms. Below are the figures of the Virgin Mary and St. John. St. John gestures and averts his eyes, while Mary lifts a veil to her face, which bears a distraught expression.



This is a photo of the Borradaile Triptych.
Borradaile Triptych: Central panel carved with the Crucifixion, the Virgin and St. John, and above, the half-length figures of the archangels Michael and Gabriel; on the left leaf, from top to bottom: St. Kyros; St. George and St. Theodore Stratilates; St. Menas and St. Prokopios; on the right leaf: St. John; St. Eustathius and St. Clement of Ankyra; St. Stephen and St Kyrion. On the reverse are two inscribed crosses and roundels containing busts of Saints Joachim and Anna in the centers, with Saints Basil and Barbara, and John the Persian and Thekla at the terminus. Made of ivory, circa 10th century.

The figures, like those of the Harbaville Triptych, are elongated, although less narrow and more rigid. They also are less deeply carved and appear more insubstantial. Except for Christ’s upper body, which is unclothed, the bodies of the figures are defined by their rigid drapery. The saints stand in straight, upright positions that further provide a sense of solemnity to the scene. Christ is seen on the cross in a stance that focuses on his divine qualities and not his human suffering. The only emotion from the scene derives from his mother, the Virgin Mary, who stands weeping beneath him.


A reliquary is a protective container used for the storage and display of sacred objects called relics. Relics were a part of the body of a dead saint that was preserved for veneration. Some relics are believed to be endowed with miraculous powers, and other relics have come to play key roles in certain church festivals.

The veneration of relics and the use of reliquaries became popular during the Byzantine period when the bodies of saints were often moved and divided between Churches. While many relics were honoured and venerated, the church never considered this form of devotion as a form of worship—that was an act reserved for God.



This photo shows the Reliquary of the True Cross.
Reliquary of the True Cross: This reliquary depicts a scene of the Crucifixion with fourteen saints around the border. The reliquary is very small and probably contained a piece of the True Cross, the cross on which Christ was crucified.

Reliquaries take many forms and shapes and are made out of a variety of materials. However, many reliquaries were made from or decorated with expensive material, such as gold and precious stones.

A reliquary from the early ninth century depicts a scene of the Crucifixion with fourteen saints around the border. The reliquary is very small and probably contained a piece of the True Cross, the cross on which Christ was crucified. This reliquary is made from cloisonné, a metalworking technique in which metal was soldered into compartments and was then filled with enamel, glass, gems, or other materials. This reliquary is made with green, white, blue, and red enamel and gold and is only four inches high by nearly three inches wide.


Like triptychs, psalters were small, private objects used for private devotion and worship. A psalter is a book that contains the Book of Psalms and other liturgical material such as calendars. They were often commissioned and were richly decorated and illuminated. The surviving psalters contain many fine examples of the painting styles and techniques from the Middle Byzantine period.

The Paris Psalter is a mid-tenth century manuscript with fourteen, full-page, miniature paintings created in a classical style. As with most of the art produced under the Macedonian Dynasty, the figures and subject matter were influenced by a revived interest in classical culture.

The figures painted in these scenes have bodies with mass and drapery that conforms rather than shapes, their bodies. The image depicts David, a psalmist, in an idyllic country setting outside a city (seen in the distance) composing psalms on his harp. He sits with a sheep, goats, dogs, and an angel, representing Melody, while a personification of Echo peers around a column.

A male figure, representing the mountain of Bethlehem, lounges on the ground. The image is reminiscent of a Greco-Roman wall painting of the musician Orpheus charming people and animals with his music. While the figures appear modelled and are reminiscent of classical art, the psalter has a Byzantine style to it.

The clothing is still rendered with bright, contrasting colours and the folds of the drapery are stylized and dark. The slightly skewed perspective given to the vase on top of the column and the city in the background are additional elements that provide the scene with a Byzantine artistic style.



This photo shows a painting from the Paris Psalter that depicts David composing on his harp.
Paris Psalter: David composing on his harp.


Icons remained as popular devotional objects during the Byzantine period. These objects, which varied in size, depicted the image of a saint, or a sacred person such as Christ or Mary, who was considered sacred and was venerated. The images were often painted panels and the display of icons surged following the end of Iconoclasm in the ninth century.

Many icons, once reaching this status, would be furthered objectified and protected through the addition of custom gilded frames, or gold or silver cases that covered the entirety of the image except for the face of the subject. Other icons, such as a ninth-century depiction of the Crucifixion, contained imagery on both sides.



This photo shows a double-sided icon with the Crucifixion and the Virgin Hodegitria.
Double-sided icon with the Crucifixion and the Virgin Hodegitria: The original painting was done in the ninth century, and additional details were added in the thirteenth century.

Painting in the Middle Byzantine Empire

Painting during the Middle Byzantine period began to progress and change stylistically. Artists approached common scenes with an ingenuity based on a mix of naturalism in the conveyance of emotional reaction, and schematics in specific renderings of the body. This can be seen in the fresco of the Lamentation found in the Church of Saint Panteleimon in the city of Nerezi, Macedonia, an illumination of the Death of St. Onesimus, and an icon of the Virgin and Child.

Lamentation from Saint Panteleimon, Nerezi, Macedonia

The Lamentation of Christ is an iconic scene that depicts the Virgin Mary holding and mourning her dead son, just after Christ has been removed from the cross. She wraps an arm around his shoulders and presses her face against his. St. John grasps Christ’s right hand while Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus kneel at Christ’s feet. A fifth follower enters the scene with arms outstretched from the right and a group of angels fly above the scene in the deep blue sky.

The Macedonian painters created a scene filled with emotional tension that was unprecedented in Byzantine art. The figures’ faces are neither solemn nor formal but instead are emotionally charged with grief and sorrow. Mary’s face especially denotes the emotion and pain that a mother feels when grieving a lost child.

The figures are also bent over Christ’s body, which further emphasizes the emotions in the scene—no longer stiff or static, these figures feel and cause the viewer to be filled with emotion.



This photo shows the detail of the Lamentation of Christ.
Lamentation of Christ: This is a detail from the wall painting in the Church of Saint Panteleimon, Nerezi, Macedonia.

Despite these elements of naturalism, there are some elements of Byzantine style in the fresco. For one, the figures’ clothing is still schematically rendered, even though most of the figures appear to have bodies and mass under their garments. For another, the seminude body of Christ is rendered in a style similar to the drapery. The muscles are defined through schematic lines that denote parts of his body, such as his knees and abdominal muscles.

Another oddity is that Christ’s body is not on the ground but instead hovers unnaturally off the ground. This is hardly noticed at first since the placement of his torso and feet make sense in their individual context, but as a whole, it requires Christ’s body to float instead of lay naturally on the ground.

The Death of St. Onesimus

A similar mixture of naturalism and stylization is evident in a painting that depicts the martyrdom of Saint Onesimus (c. 985 CE). The image is part of the Menologion of Basil II, an illuminated manuscript compiled circa 1000 CE as a church calendar.

The Epistle to Philemon, written by Paul the Apostle to the slave-master Philemon, concerns a runaway slave called Onesimus. This slave found his way to the site of Paul’s imprisonment to escape punishment for a theft of which he was accused. After hearing the Gospel from Paul, Onesimus converted to Christianity.

Paul, having earlier converted Philemon to Christianity, sought to reconcile the two by writing the letter to Philemon which today exists in the New Testament. During the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian and the persecution of Trajan, Onesimus was imprisoned in Rome and might have been martyred by stoning, although some sources claim that he was beheaded.



This photo shows The Death of St. Onesimus.
The Death of St. Onesimus: From the Monologion of Basil II, a painting produced around 985 CE; the book was assembled around 1000.

As in the Lamentation scene above, the Death of St. Onesimus combines the naturalistic and the schematic. The two men who beat Onesimus to death convey a sense of dynamism as they bend at the waists and knees. The folds of their clothing and of Onesimus’s loincloth follows the contours of their bodies as they assume their poses.

Although the painting is damaged, Onesimus’s furrowed brow, possibly suggesting anger or frustration, is still visible. Despite these realistic elements, the folds of the figures’ clothing appear more linear than natural, defined by deep, noticeable lines. Like the figure of Christ in the Lamentation, Onesimus seems to hover over the landscape and rest the top half of his body on the leg of one of his attackers. Furthermore, the blood pours from his legs in a linear manner, appearing more like strings than liquid.

Theotokos of Vladimir

The Theotokos of Vladimir, an icon of the Virgin and Child, represents the new style of icons that were created in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. These icons depict emotion, compassion, and the growing trend in spirituality.

The mother and child are depicted with serene faces in the Byzantine style. Mary’s nose is long and narrow and her mouth small. She looks out and confronts the viewer with compassionate, knowing eyes that remind the viewer of Christ’s future sacrifice. The Christ child is small, although his face is adult-like and he is drawn to his mother and embraces her. His drapery shines as if it was golden rays, and the Virgin is dressed in rich, dark fabric with gold embellishments.

The compassion and humanity between the characters prefigure the emotional Late Byzantine style of the next two centuries. The image was given as a gift to the Grand Duke of Kiev in 1131 by the Greek Patriarch of Constantinople and is an important and protective icon of the Russian cities of Vladimir and Moscow and the country of Russia itself.



This photo shows the Theotokos of Vladimir. This new style of icons depict emotion, compassion, and the growing trend in spirituality.
Theotokos of Vladimir: This new style of icons depict emotion, compassion, and the growing trend in spirituality.


  • Two periods of state-sanctioned iconoclasm in the eighth and ninth centuries ended the Early Byzantine period that led to the prohibition and destruction of religious images. Iconoclasm ended in 843, leading to the renewal of churches through decorative and figurative mosaics and frescos. New elements and styles began to emerge during the Middle Byzantine period under the rule of the Macedonian emperors.
  • The Theotokos mosaic of the Virgin and Child, in the central apse of the Hagia Sophia, is believed to reconstruct an earlier sixth-century mosaic destroyed during Iconoclasm. It combines the Early Byzantine style with the new development of softer folds, increased modelling, and the addition of perspective.
  • At the Hosios Loukas monastery in Greece are two connected churches that combine the older use of pendentives and the newer use of squinches beneath their domes. The monastery’s mosaics depict figures in a more schematic manner and on flat, gold backgrounds with little hints about the setting.
  • Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Italy, is a Greek cross-plan church richly decorated in marble revetment, pattern stone floors, and a detailed and extensive program of mosaics.
  • The triptych is a small, personal object made from three panels (either painted or carved from wood or ivory ) that was used by an individual to guide their devotion and prayers to God. The Harbaville Triptych and the Borradaile Triptych are prime examples.
  • Psalters were another form of personal devotion. These books contained the Books of Psalms and were often richly decorated, or illuminated, with scenes and miniatures.
  • The reliquary was a protective container for a relic —a body part of a saint or a sacred object—that was preserved for veneration. While they could be simple, these containers were often decorated with or made from expensive materials such as gold, silver, and precious stones.
  • The icon is an image of a saint that was also considered sacred and was venerated by the public. These images, which vary in size and subject, were often painted panels.
  • Emotional elements begin to be seen in Middle Byzantine painting, as one can see in the Lamentation wall painting from the Church of St. Panteleimon. The figures of the scene are rendered with humanity and sorrow as they grieve over the dead body of Christ.
  • Naturalism and schematics combine in the Death of St. Onesimus. The folds of the figures’ clothing follow the contours of their bodies. However, the folds are defined by thick lines, and the title figure seems to hover over the landscape.
  • The Theotokos of Vladimir is a late 11th to early 12th-century icon of the Virgin and Child. The icon is considered a protective icon of Russia and depicts a compassionate and emotionally charged Virgin and Child.

Adapted from “Boundless Art History” https://courses.lumenlearning.com/boundless-arthistory/chapter/middle-byzantine-art/ 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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