Architecture and Decoration of the
Second Golden Age
After the age of Justinian, the development of Byzantine art and
architecture was disrupted by the Iconoclastic Controversy, which began
with an imperial edict of 726 prohibiting religious images. The
controversy raged for more than 100 years, dividing the population into
two hostile groups. The image-destroyers (Iconoclasts), led by the
emperor and supported mainly in the eastern provinces of the realm,
insisted on a literal interpretation of the biblical ban against graven
images as conducive to idolatry; they wanted to restrict religious art
to abstract symbols and plant or animal forms. Their opponents, the
Iconophiles, were led by the monks and centered in the western
provinces, where the imperial edict remained ineffective for the most
part. The roots of the conflict went very deep. On the plane of theology
they involved the basic issue of the relationship of the human and the
divine in the person of Christ. Socially and politically, they reflected
a power struggle between State and Church. The Controversy also marked
the final break between Catholicism and the Orthodox faith.
Had the edict been enforceable throughout the Empire, it might well have
dealt Byzantine religious art a fatal blow. It did succeed in sharply
reducing the production of sacred images, but failed to wipe it out
altogether, so that after the victory of the Iconophiles in 843 there
was a fairly rapid recovery, called the Second Golden Age, which lasted
from the late ninth to the eleventh century.
332. Churches of the Monastery of
Hosios Lonkas (St. Luke of Stirisi), Greece. Early 11th century.
333. Plan of churches of the
Monastery of Hosios Loukas (after Diehl)
Monastery of Hosios Lonkas (St. Luke of Stirisi)
334. Interior, Katholikon, Hosios
Byzantine architecture never produced another structure to match Hagia
Sophia. As a consequence of the Iconoclastic Controversy, the churches
of the Second Golden Age and after were modest in scale, and monastic
rather than imperial or urban in spirit. Most were built for small
groups of monks living in isolated areas. Their usual plan is that of a
Greek cross (a cross with arms of equal length) contained in a square,
with a narthex added on one side and an apse (sometimes with flanking
chapels) on the other. The central feature is a dome on a square base.
It often rests on a cylindrical or octagonal drum with tall windows,
which raises it high above the rest of the building, as in both churches
of the monastery of Hosios Loukas in Greece (figs. 332-34). They also
show other characteristics of later Byzantine architecture: a tendency
toward more elaborate exteriors, in contrast to the extreme severity we
observed earlier (compare fig. 319), and a preference for elongated
proportions. The full impact of this verticality, however, strikes us
only when we enter the church (fig. 334 shows the interior of the Katholikon, seen on the left in
fig. 332 and at bottom in fig. 333). The
tall, narrow compartments produce a sense of crowdedness, almost of
compression, which is dramatically relieved as we glance toward the
luminous pool of space beneath the dome.
The pictorial decoration of the dome in the Greek monastery church of
Daphne (fig. 335) is better preserved than in the Katholikon of Hosios
Loukas. Staring down from the center of the dome is an awesome mosaic
image of Christ the Pantocrator (Ruler of the Universe) against a gold
background, its huge scale emphasized by the much smaller figures of the
16 Old Testament prophets between the windows. In the corners, we see
four scenes revealing the divine and human natures of Christ: the
Annunciation (bottom left) followed in counterclockwise order by the
Birth, Baptism, and Transfiguration. The entire cycle represents a
theological program so perfectly in harmony with the geometric
relationship of the images that we cannot say whether the architecture
has been shaped by the pictorial scheme or vice versa. A similarly
strict order governs the distribution of subjects throughout the rest of
335. Monastery Church, Daphne, Greece
335. Dome mosaics. 11th century. Monastery Church, Daphne, Greece
ST. MARK'S, VENICE.
The largest and most lavishly decorated church of the Second Golden Age
surviving today is St. Mark's in Venice, begun in 1063. The Venetians
had long been under Byzantine sovereignty and remained artistically
dependent on the East well after they had become politically and
commercially powerful in their own right. St. Mark's, too, has the
Greek-cross plan inscribed within a square, but here each arm of the
cross is emphasized by a dome of its own (figs. 336 and 337). These
domes are not raised on drums. Instead, they have been encased in
bulbous wooden helmets covered by gilt copper sheeting and topped by
ornate lanterns, to make them appear taller and more conspicuous at a
distance. They make a splendid landmark for the seafarer. The spacious
interior, famous for its mosaics (see fig. 341), shows that it was meant
to receive the citizenry of a large metropolis, and not just a small
monastic community as at Daphne or Hosios Loukas.
336. St. Mark's, Venice. Begun
337. St. Marks, Venice.
A detail from the rooftop
ST. BASIL, MOSCOW.
During the Second Golden Age, Byzantine architecture also spread to
Russia, along with the Orthodox faith. There the basic type of the
Byzantine church underwent an amazing transformation through the use of
wood as a structural material. The most famous product of this native
trend is the Cathedral of St. Basil adjoining the Kremlin in Moscow
(fig. 338). Built during the reign of Ivan the Terrible, it seems as
unmistakably Russian as that extraordinary ruler. The domes, growing in
amazing profusion, have become fantastic towerlike structures whose
vividly patterned helmets may resemble anything from mushrooms and
berries to Oriental turbans. These huge ice-cream cones have the gay
unreality of a fairy-tale, yet their total effect is oddly impressive.
Keyed as they are to the imagination of faithful peasants (who must have
stared at them in open-mouthed wonder on their rare visits to the
capital), they nevertheless convey a sense of the miraculous that is
derived from the more austere miracles of Byzantine architecture.
338. Cathedral of St. Basil, Moscow.
Painting and Mosaics of the Second Golden Age
We know little for certain about how the Byzantine artistic tradition
managed to survive from the early eighth to the mid-ninth century, but
survive it did. The most astonishing proof is the mosaic of the Virgin
and Child Enthroned in Hagia Sophia (fig. 339), which we know was made
sometime between 843 and 867. It adheres closely to the earliest icon of
the same subject (see fig. 331). Remarkably, the subtlety of modeling
and color manages to perpetuate the best Classical tradition of the
First Golden Age. Perhaps most important, there is a new human quality
in the fullness of the figures, the more relaxed poses, and their more
natural expressions that we have not seen before.
Iconoclasm seems to have brought about a renewed interest in secular
art, which was not affected by the ban. This interest may help to
explain the astonishing reappearance of Late Classical motifs in the art
of the Second Golden Age. David Composing the Psalms, from the so-called
Paris Psalter (fig. 340), was probably illuminated about 900, although
the temptation to put it earlier is almost irresistible. Not only do we
find a landscape that recalls Pompeian murals, but the figures, too,
derive from Classical models. David himself could well be mistaken for
Orpheus charming the beasts with his music, and his companions prove
even more surprising, since they are allegorical figures that have
nothing at all to do with the Bible: the young woman next to David is
Melody, the one coyly hiding behind a pillar is Echo, and the male
figure with a tree trunk personifies the mountains of Bethlehem. The
late date of the picture is evident only from certain qualities of
style, such as the abstract zigzag pattern of the drapery covering
339. Virgin and Child Enthroned, c.
843-67. Mosaic. Hagia Sophia, Constantinople
David Composing the Psalms,
from the Paris Psalter, ñ. 900 A.D. Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris
ST. MARK'S. VENICE.
Another fascinating reflection of an early source is the sequence of
scenes from Genesis among the mosaics of St. Mark's in Venice (fig.
341). which must have been adapted from an Early Christian illuminated
manuscript. The squat, large-headed figures recall the art of the fourth
century, as does the classical young philosopher type representing the
Lord (compare fig. 315), which had long since been replaced in general
usage by the more familiar bearded type (see fig. 335). Of particular
interest is the scene in the upper right-hand comer. Ancient art had
visualized the human soul as a tiny nude figure with butterfly wings.
Here this image reappears—or survives, rather—under Christian auspices
as the spirit of life that the Lord breathes into Adam.
The Paris Psalter and the Genesis mosaics in St. Mark's betray an
almost antiquarian enthusiasm for the traditions of Classical art. Such
direct revivals, however, are exreme cases. The finest works of the
Second Golden Age show a classicism that has been harmoniously merged
with the spiritualized ideal of human beauty we encountered in the art
of Justinian's reign. Among these, the Crucifixion mosaic at Daphne
(fig. 342) enjoys special fame. Its Classical qualities are more
fundamental, and more deeply felt, than those of the Paris Psalter, yet
they are also completely Christian. There is no attempt to re-create a
realistic spatial setting, but the composition has a balance and clarity
that are truly monumental as against the cluttered Pompeian landscape of
the David miniature. Classical, too, is the statuesque dignity of the
figures, which seem extraordinarily organic and graceful compared to
those of the Justinian mosaics at S. Vitale (figs. 323 and 324).
The most important aspect of these figures' Classical heritage, however,
is emotional rather than physical. It is the gentle pathos conveyed by
their gestures and facial expressions, a restrained and noble suffering
of the kind we first met in Greek art of the fifth century B.C. Early Christian art had been quite devoid of this
quality. Its view of Christ stressed the Saviour's divine wisdom and
power, rather than His sacrificial death, so that the Crucifixion was
depicted only rarely and in a notably unpathetic spirit. The image of
the Pantocrator as we saw it on the Sarcophagus ofjumus Bassus and above
the apse of S. Apollinare in Classe (figs. 315 and 305) retained its
importance throughout the Second Golden Age—the majestic dome mosaic at
Daphne (fig. 335) stems from that tradition—but alongside it we now find
a new-emphasis on the Christ of the Passion.
When and where this human interpretation of the Saviour made its first
appearance we cannot say, but it seems to have developed primarily in
the wake of the Iconoclastic Controversy. There are, to be sure, a few
earlier examples of it, but none of them has so powerful an appeal to
the emotions of the beholder as the Daphne Crucifixion. To have
introduced this compassionate quality into sacred art was perhaps the
greatest achievement of the Second Golden Age, even though its full
possibilities were to be exploited not in Byzantium but in the medieval
West at a later date.
341. Scenes from Genesis, ñ. 1200.
Mosaic. St. Mark's. Venice
342. The Crucifixion.
Mosaic. Monastery Church, Daphne, Greece