The Challenge of Sacred Iconography – Part 2: The Byzantine Empire – Justinian and the Church of Holy Wisdom

As we continue our discussion of sacred iconography it is imperative that we take a historical view and look at the major contribution the Byzantine Empire and its civilization made to this sacred art form.

When we speak of the Byzantine Empire we are referring, initially, to the eastern region of the Roman Empire. The Roman civilization was eight hundred years old when it began to feel the pressure of highly motivated foreign tribes that desired to pick away at her borders and plunder her cities. By the fourth century AD the Emperor Constantine moved the capital of the Empire out of Rome, Italy and firmly established it in a new city that he named after himself – Constantinople. He accomplished this by AD 330.

The name Byzantine derives from the Greek colony (Byzantium) that had been established in the 7th century BC in that area of eastern Turkey that borders the Black Sea. It was a successful colony primarily because it had a fabulous harbor – the area known as the “Golden Horn,” and was easily defended. What distinguished the new city of Constantinople from the other major cities of the Roman Empire was the fact that the Emperor Constantine was a convert to Christianity. As a result, the city of Constantinople and the resulting development of the new Byzantine Empire was Christian, as compared to the Roman west, which still had large cultural areas that were dominated by Greek, Roman, Germanic, and Celtic paganism.

The Byzantine Empire lasted for over one thousand years; and within that period of time produced magnificent architectural and portable sacred art. Justinian, the great Roman-Byzantine emperor of the 6th century, heavily promoted the expansion of the Empire (see map) and sacred art – especially in his building the magnificent Church of the Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) in Constantinople. In the map below the green area is the Byzantine Empire prior to Justinian. The purple is the territory that was part of the western Roman Empire, and was retaken from various barbarian tribes as a result of Justinian’s considerable military efforts.

As you can see from the small image at the left – The Church of Holy Wisdom was an extraordinary undertaking even for the renowned Roman and Greek architects and engineers that worked on its construction. Its completion was complicated because Justinian demanded that his architects build high and have a wide cupola – which ultimately led to cracks forming, partial collapse, and major renovations having to take place within the same century that it was built.

The beautiful and very large mosaics (found below) of Christ, His Mother, and John the Baptist are found within the Church of Holy Wisdom in Constantinople (the first image of Christ is a close-up of the three figure mosaic below it). You will be able to tell from my next post that it had a major impact on the development of the sacred art of the Byzantine Empire.

The large mosaic of the Blessed Mother and the child Jesus dates to the 9th century; and the three figures of Mary, Jesus, and John the Baptist dates from the 13th century. The Church of the Holy Wisdom was the largest church in Catholicism for 1000 years. The Muslims converted it into a mosque after the conquest of Constantinople in 1453. Today, it is a museum, a major tourist attraction, and is considered priceless by the secular Muslim government of Turkey and the entire Christian world.

Copyright © 2011 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

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