The Power of Symbolism in Byzantine Art
ABSTRACT: Our deeply visual culture today shows the fascination humanity has with the power of images. This paper intends to discuss the use and importance of images within the context of Byzantine art. The works produced in the service of the Eastern Orthodox Church still employed today, show a remarkable synthesis of doctrine, theology and aesthetics. The rigid program of Church decoration was meant as a didactic element to accompany the liturgy. The majesty of the images bespeaks of the Glory of God and the spiritual realities of the Christian faith. The images were intended to educated and provide contemplation of the invisible realm of the spirit. Byzantine aesthetics, therefore, is thoroughly in the service of theology.
In today's world artistic works provide an enigma to the viewer, for the emphasis on the total freedom of expression of the artist has led to a confusion as to the meaning and function of art. Many works of art today adhere to an almost 'anything goes' type of attitude to the extent of even dismissing the expression of ideas, thoughts or feelings from their repertoire. Yet a study of past artistic expressions reveals that freedom of creativity was not always stressed, especially during periods when art was in the service of religion. The need to penetrate deeper into the mystery of life and nature, to discover solutions to the practical as well as the spiritual problems that surround humans was sometimes developed with the aid of the power of images that provide a comforting world view. Byzantine art is one such example of art in the service of theology and the salvation of humankind which was perceived to be surrounded by sin and destruction. Although dominated by theology, Byzantine art is a complex phenomenon that incorporated along with the search for an absolute meaning and truth in life, a spiritual component and an educational, almost propagandistic aspect. The world of the Byzantines provides an interesting artistic phenomenon endowed with spiritual and symbolic revelations. The unifying element of this art form, which spanned from the 4th to the mid 15th centuries (the fall of Constantinople ended the Byzantine empire in 1453, Vikan, p. 81), remained in the service of theology as an educational component to the proliferation of the Orthodox Church. After the fall of Constantinople, the basic canons of Byzantine art have remained viable, even to the present day, in the Orthodox Church continuing the abstract and symbolic imagery meant to evoke spiritual elevation and divine contemplation in the viewer.
In Byzantine art one can discover the wealthiest and most complex fusion of functions, elements and reasons. The synthesis of theology, religion and aesthetics provides a window to a multifaceted world view that has endured remaining relevant for centuries, still being promoted today within the Orthodox Church. Borne of the Early Christian art of the 3rd and 4th...