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Posted on August 29th, 2012, by

The Art of the Byzantine Empire is a subject of numerous disputes of historians, philosophers, and culture experts. But if many philosophical treatises and paintings have been lost for several centuries, beautiful Byzantine mosaics of stone and smalt became a symbol of the whole civilization. Mosaics of smalt was an indispensable attribute of not only religious buildings and royal palaces, but the interior decorations of ordinary citizens’ houses.

Compared to the ancient mosaic, smalt compositions have the great diversity of colors, brightness, change of light on the surface, besides they were much more available at cost. These facts have determined the rapid spread of smalt technology both in the Byzantine Empire and outside the country.

Byzantine mosaic is primarily a mosaic of smalt. It was Byzantines who developed smalt technology, thanks to which this relatively economical and easy to use glass became the primary material in a mural. Byzantines were able to produce several hundred kinds of smalt of different colors by adding different metals (gold, copper, mercury) in various ratios to the raw glass mass. It was easy to shape simple geometric forms to mosaic elements, suitable for laying in the mosaic using simple tools. But the basic elements of mosaics are tesserae – composition of accurately inlaid small and more or less equal in size tesserae creates the glory of Byzantine mosaics.

The oldest examples of Byzantine mosaics belong to the III-IV century, and two periods of flowering were in the VI-VII century (Golden Age) and in IX-XIV. The most famous Byzantine mosaics are mosaics in Ravenna and Hagia Sophia (Constantinople). Christian theme became central in mosaic art, desire to make great impression has become a driving force to improve inlaying technique and creating new colors and structure of smalt.

The main peculiarity of Byzantine mosaics in churches was the use of wonderful golden background. Mosaics were inlaid by direct method, every element differed by its unique surface and its position relative to other elements and foundation. An organic whole golden field, flickering both with natural light and candles, was created. Originality of change of colors and shades and reflections of light on a gold background creates the effect of movement throughout the whole picture.

The technique of creating body and object contours was obligatory for the Byzantine masters. The contour was inlaid in one line of tesserae and elements from the side of figures and objects, and also in one line from the background side. Smooth line of such contours added clearness to images on the flickering background.

Most of Byzantine mosaic techniques are used in modern mosaic compositions. The use of smalt, background formed by unevenness of smalt tesserae, smooth contours of boundaries of objects and background ”“ this is classic mosaics, classic Byzantium.

Byzantine mosaics of smalt. Early-Byzantine period

Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna, V Century

The characteristic feature of the mausoleum mosaics is the contrast of two lunettes. A scene with the Good Shepherd is made in the spirit of ancient pastoral with deliberate touching of characters. The scene of St. Lawrence shows the birth of a new artistic language. The composition is clear, differs in simple symmetry of the major forms. Image is deliberately placed in the foreground. The rudiments of reverse perspective create the illusion of Ā«capsizableĀ» area.

Baptistry of Neon in Ravenna, V Century

Mosaic painting of the dome is very impressive. The figures of the Apostles are pictured in motion. Size of their steps is underlined by a wide stride and bend the hips. The illusion of space still exists: the surface on which the Apostles step, looks brighter than the mysterious and unfathomable blue background of the main picture. Heavy and elegant clothing resemble the grandeur of Roman patrician clothing.

Apostolic tunics are pictured only in two colors – white, embodying the light, and gold – the light of heaven.

The Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo, VI century

In the image of martyrs the trend, which can be called sacralization of style, is obvious. Picture intentionally sought to get rid of any specific life associations. Even a light allusion to an imaginary space or the action disappears – free space is the infinite gold background. Flowers underfoot Magi and Martyr play a purely symbolic role, and further emphasize the unreal images.

Byzantine mosaics of smalt. Era of the Komnenos dynasty
Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, Daphne, XII century

Mosaics Daphne create a sense of festivity, complete peace and universal harmony. Any dark colors completely disappear, and evangelical perform poetic beauty. Even in scenes of passions there isn’t any hint of the passion and pathos of the suffering and sacrifice.

The Cathedral-Basilica of CefalĆ¹, XII century

Mosaic composition of the cathedral combines Byzantine perfection of artistic execution and the depth of spiritual meaning with the unusual, a bit barbaric nature, holiday luxury.

Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe

The style of the mosaics reveals clear signs of the Western taste. Forms are abstract and deliberately simplified, a linear rhythm dominates in composition. Broad and ethereal silhouettes painted in even color, but actually it saves its expressiveness.

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