Standing in awe of Byzantine art being displayed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., I wondered why it is so splendid. The mosaics and icons are flat and somewhat stiff, whereas paintings and frescos of other artists are often multidimensional and filled with expression.
Byzantine art tends to portray long and thin figures, whereas other art figures are beautifully formed. Byzantine mosaics sparkle whereas other art is sometimes more subdued.
When I returned home from the exhibit, I did some homework to learn about the meaning behind Byzantine art.
One of the church domes in the exhibit contains a large mosaic that portrays Christ against a glimmering gold background. I learned that the background represents the ethereal heavenly realm we read about in the Book of Revelation. I have to wonder if this is why we get thrilled when seeing a beautiful sparkling object and say it’s “heavenly.”
Why does Byzantine art employ mosaics frequently? It is because they were seen as the supreme media for expressing our adoration of God. Creating a mosaic is an extremely expensive technique involving the insertion of colored stones, or gold and silver fused in glass. These are then put onto fresh plaster to create wall and ceiling images of virtually indestructible brilliance.
As I viewed the mosaics, their color and light engulfed me, creating an uplifting, sacred spirit.
Why are there long, thin figures in Byzantine art? It is because in early Christianity fasting and mortification were considered blessed practices of the saints. The flat and stiff figures in icons also countered early Greek and Roman figures that endeavored to portray the perfect figure of a man and woman that never really exists. Mosaics and icons are more about the meaning of God than about the unrealistic perfect body.
Byzantine art also had a political side to it. When Constantine became emperor of the Roman Empire, he realized there is only one king in our life: Christ; hence the reason Christ is often portrayed in kingly fashion.
In his book, “Yours Is the Church,” author Mike Aquilina says that when we see the greatest talents in the history of art seized by an idea and producing their greatest masterpieces, we have got to say that it must have been a powerful idea.
I concur, one cannot but be enraptured by the power of God that is especially found in Byzantine art.
Join the CatholicPhilly.com family
CatholicPhilly.com works to strengthen the connections between people, families and communities every day by delivering the news people need to know about the Catholic Church, especially in the Philadelphia region, and the world in which we live.
By your donation in any amount, you and hundreds of other people become part of our mission to inform, form in the Catholic faith and inspire the thousands of readers who visit every month.
Here is how you can help:
- A $100 gift allows us to present award-winning photos of Catholic life in our neighborhoods.
- A $50 gift enables us to cover a news event in a local parish, school or Catholic institution.
- A $20 gift lets us obtain solid faith formation resources that can deepen your spirituality and knowledge of the faith.
- A small, automated monthly donation means you can support us continually and easily.
Won't you consider making a gift today?
Please join in the church's vital mission of communications by offering a gift in whatever amount that you can ― a single gift of $40, $50, $100, or more, or a monthly donation. Your gift will strengthen the fabric of our entire Catholic community and sustain CatholicPhilly.com as your trusted news source. Thank you in advance!
Make your donation by credit card here:
Or make your donation by check:
222 N. 17th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103