Byzantine Art History 20th Anniversary Celebration!

20 years of raiding!

This button was designed by me Emma aka M. Harris copyright 2016

The game series Tomb Raider is getting ready to enter into its 20th anniversary. Of course, I wanted to write a piece in celebration of that anniversary by defining the artwork found in the latest game.

The new game Rise of the Tomb Raider shows off some outstanding artwork. Specifically, Byzantine-inspired designs. These distinctive art forms are seen throughout in the architecture and the mosaics and frescos found on tomb walls and elsewhere through the game. One can identify the style from the unmistakable Byzantine architecture reminiscent of the Hagia Sophia last commissioned by Emperor Justinian I. in the 6th century A.D. after several disasters from fire to structural collapse. His rendition was of a lasting design that the world has marvelled over for centuries.

Today I will only touch on some of the vast histories of Constantinople and its art found through what is loosely referred to as the Byzantine era, which existed through the Medieval period. There is an enormous span of art history among other things during the medieval period, which encompasses about 1000 years. Though the Byzantines existed during Medieval times, not all art from that era is Byzantine. To sandwich every art form together from every country during that time is a vast undertaking to make an accurate assessment of the epoch.  I may do a follow-up piece in 2016.

Byzantine: A History

Emperor Diocletian ruled the Roman Empire from 284 -305 A.D. However, he held the perspective that the empire was too vast to rule it alone. He decided to divide the empire into a tetrarchy, or ruled by four. The four rulers were the emperor and a co-emperor. They would rule from the east and the west.

Diocletian ruled from the east and the young Constantine, whose father Constantius ruled the west, came to power after his father died.

After Constantine’s defeat of Maxentius in the Battle of Milvian Bridge, he was the only emperor of the west in 312 AD.

Constantine’s rising victory was upon him when Lucinius assumed rule of the eastern empire in 313 AD Constantine challenged him in battle at Chrysopolis and won. The result was the uniting of the empire. Constantine felt it essential to relocate the empire’s capital; however, he knew it was not going to be old Rome, for he knew the economy, for one thing, was stagnate. He wanted a fresh start and soon began searching areas for his “New Rome” even considering Troy briefly. Eventually, he decided on the ancient Greek settlement founded by a man named Byzas in 7th century B.C. known as Byzantium. Historians believe that Byzas and his settlers hailed from the city of Megara, because of the names of the Byzantine societies’, months and phylai (a Greek word  from phyle meaning “tribe” but in this case, may have referred to the division of the citizen body which was identical to those of Megara.)

The ancient city’s location was perfect, for it was nearly the centre of the empire geographically and it had a strait of water called the Bosphorus that connects the Black Sea to the Mediterranean thus Asia to Europe. This facilitated trade in silk, ivory, pearls and many other goods including spices. It was exuberant trading in Constantinople that led to great wealth for the empire.

As for recognition of its Greek roots some avenues through the city were wide and had large statues of Alexander the Great, and Constantine himself with other Emperors all dressed in the same style as the Greek god Apollo. Additionally, he kept an ancient serpent column that dates back to Delphi and celebrates the conquest of the Greeks over the Persians at Plataea in 479 B.C. Constantine also reserved the Greek hippodrome enlarging it to accommodate chariot races. However, at the council of Nicaea Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of Rome.

Constantine achieved steps forward for Christianity through a Christianized Imperial governing class along with his successful reign. Through not forcing any legislative programs  to push Christianity throughout the Empire that resulted in the Christianization of the Roman Empire.

In the 4th century AD two natures of culture arose side by side that appeared to fortify each other. That of Byzantine that lived alongside of the Western medieval culture:  a Christian biblical culture that lived beside the traditional Classic culture observed by the upper classes, resulting in extended forms of religious patronage between, bishops, governing classes, Christian intellectuals and holy men.

“It is not hard to see why Eusebius regarded Constantine’s reign as the fulfillment of divine providence—nor to concede the force of Constantine’s assessment of his own role as that of the 13th Apostle.”

 Though Constantine was mostly a politician that openly supported Christianity (his mother was Christian), it is reported by historians that he converted on his death bed. This is one of the reasons the ancient Greek acropolis was allowed to stay in Constantinople without his protest.  

Clearly the Greek influence was strong throughout “New Rome” which was later named Constantinople after Emperor Constantine the Great. The “new Rome” even had seven hills as the Rome of the west did; additionally, it was divided into fourteen districts like old Rome as well, rapidly mimicking its western counterpart.  Constantinople became a cultural apex of economic growth in the east through its prime location and trade in goods. This also allowed it the glory of being the epitome of Greek classics and Christendom throughout the Roman Empire. Though the people of the Roman Empire were known as Romans and Christians most of them spoke Greek. Thus, Hellenism was a great influence.

Valens Aqueduct

Valens Aqueduct

One of the engineering marvels of Constantinople was the enormous 971-meter aqueduct that was originally 1-km in (3280 ft.) length. A little over 100 ft have fallen to deterioration. The highest point of this masterful structure is 29 meters (95 ft.) adding to the enormousness of this, the longest aqueduct of the ancient world.

It carried water to Constantinople / Istanbul until the 19th century. 971 meters (3185 ft.) is still preserved; however, it has sunk lower since its inception in Byzantine / Roman times.

Its water transporting route was from two different areas through the valley between the fourth and third hills of Constantinople. The water was stored in an underground “Basilica Cistern” which is very popular among tourists. One of the James Bond films “From Russia With love” filmed a scene there as well adding to the popularity from a tourist perspective. The Binbirderek Cistern constructed 330 AD is another important water storage area in Constantinople.

Constantinople, the hub of wealth and prosperity, was consecrated as a holy city in 330 AD and saw the fall of Rome begin in 410 AD by the Visigoth Alaric and his minions. Rome hadn’t been undone for 800 years until this time.  He intended to move on to Sicily and later Africa. However, he died shortly after in 410 and Rome never recovered from his impact resulting in Constantinople being the center of the new empire after Rome finally fell under the wrath of Visigoth Odoacer 66 years later in 476 AD.  

The Eastern Empire survived for 1000 years after. The cultural impact in the eastern world from the extensive dominance of the empire resulted in a rich culture that was steeped in traditional art, literature and learning.  

The Byzantine Empire held itself together for centuries but finally fell in 1453 A.D., when the Ottoman army breached the walls of Constantinople in subjugation under the reign of Constantine XI Palaeologus (the last emperor Palaiologos (pl. Palaiologoi; Greek: Παλαιολόγος, -οι), also romanized as Palaeologus, was the name of a Byzantine Greek family, which rose to nobility and ultimately produced the last ruling dynasty of the Byzantine Empire.). The spice trade was thriving during this time along with other lucrative trade in the Eastern Empire, and the Ottoman Empire wanted to add the riches of the diverse market to their conquests. UTnder the rule of Mehmed II  the Turks used guns of a size unknown to anyone not even through Europe. He arranged their creation through a Hungarian gunsmith. The Turks battered the walls. The main line of defense was the inner wall. It was 15 feet thick and 40 feet high! It was a mighty battle and this is what Nicolo Barbaro 

(an eyewitness) described in the final moments: ‘One hour before daybreak the Sultan had his great cannon fired, and the shot landed in the repairs which we had made and knocked them down to the ground. Nothing could be seen for the smoke made by the cannon, and the Turks, under the cover of the smoke, and about 300 of them got inside the barbicans.’ 

Because of this Turk victory, they created a major obstacle for the spice trade etc. between Asia and Europe. This later resulted in Christopher Columbus searching for an alternate trade route.

One of the most prominent structures in Constantinople (present day Istanbul) is the  Church of Hagia Sophia constructed several times due to fire and structural collapse, and finally, under Justinian I as mentioned earlier, it was rebuilt stronger and bigger, so on December 27, 537 AD. it was finally inaugurated. A true architectural wonder, it is said that the architects who built the structure were influenced by the mathematical theories of Archimedes (ca. 287–212 B. Originally a Christian church, with an immense architectural Byzantine domed (copula) style that is globally renown. It is a beautiful building and a prime example of Byzantine architectural wonder as well as artwork. 

The above photos of the Hagia Sophia illustrate the obvious inspiration of the structures in Rise of the Tomb Raider from this building. The two photos on the bottom far right are from Rise of the Tomb Raider and looks exactly like the ancient Constantinople building on the upper dome and others. The domes in the distance does as well. However, who wouldn’t be inspired from such beauty. You almost cannot help yourself; just staring at its masterful command of the horizon is imminent when in view.  



Today I will examine Byzantine artwork starting with mosaics. The Byzantines’ also created what are known as Icons. They were Christian as were most of the art they produced, and the icons depicted figures from the bible. Christ, the Virgin, etc. It was because the subjects of the Icon was holy and infinite, the temporal world was not part of the scene, and only the subject was set against a golden background.  The Icons were considered sacred. Byzantine art was concerned about religious expression. It is an expression that defined the translation of theology into an artistic form.

The Byzantines had a profound adoration for colour and many of the exquisite art pieces crafted by their artisans are fine examples. A marked distinctiveness of Byzantine art is the poses of the subjects found throughout being stiff and easily recognised, as well as being largely religious in theme.

When the western empire fell there was a transfer of authority to Constantinople. Thousands of Greek and Roman painters, craftsmen proceeded to relocate in the Eastern capitol and forged new collections of Christian images and icons. This style became known as Byzantine Art. Utterly centred on Christian Art inspired created through the techniques used in Greek and Egyptian art. The style spread all through the Byzantine Empire where orthodox Christianity thrived.

In the sixth and seventh century A.D., many churches showed off large amounts of mosaics. The Byzantine artists had a preference as seen in the many popular compositions from the ancient world. That preference was to create large art pieces with distinct details. They much preferred less cluttered subjects that were showing little action.

Note the subjects are in calm, similar positions and all are standing

The positions of the subjects were subdued and regular. The arrangement of each character in the scene was meticulously thought out for symmetry. The Byzantines believed in balance in most of their artwork for a uniform result of the ensemble. Symmetry was so imbued into their mind-set that the smallest of works maintained this principle.

The Byzantine tile setters understood the importance of the demands of their art form. By comparison, the mosaics from the Middle-Ages (medieval period) (which encompasses 1000 years) used a broader spectrum in general of tile colours in order to achieve the appearance of a fresco. (Watercolour on plaster to attain a fresh, believable look)


Head of the Madonna 1296 A.D. Late period

Note the use of intermediate colour for blending subtle shades in this Roman mosaic. Particularly the pinks in the face and the shades of blue in the clothing and veil. This mosaic imitates fresco painting (watercolour on plaster) in the vaster scope of colour in order to blend more realism into the subject. This mosaic is not like regular Byzantine art from the medieval period.

  However, the Byzantines used colour variety in a smaller scale for a bolder jump off the wall approach.

In these two 5th century Byzantine mosaics (one full view and the other a close-up detail), you can see the marked style of the art form. The colours are in contrast of each other, black outlining is used for more definition as well as the vibrant shades that draw the eye into the scene with great gusto. This is a magnificent piece and serves as a wonderful example of traditional Byzantine art.

Byzantine artists used juxtaposition with contrasting colours and rarely used intermediate shades. Their reasons were valid. The eye is drawn to the mosaic from afar, for this type of art form was usually adorning a high wall, cupola ceiling, apse ect of a church, where you had to have a dramatic contrast in colour and outline in black for emphasis to appreciate the scene in question. Many of the art pieces are large in order to cover the vast surface they are meant for.


 Lara inside a Byzantine-inspired building. From Rise of the Tomb Raider By observing the beautiful Hagia Sophia we can see the interior as well as the exterior design served as inspiration for the images in the game. Lara is standing under a high cupola with the apse adorned similarly. The style is clearly reminiscent of the famous church of Constantinople now Istanbul.

From Rise of the Tomb Raider

The image (above) from Rise of the Tomb Raider appears to be inspired from the image below. The left panel on poplar of (Saint Andrew and Saint Benedict with the Archangel Gabriel)of this glorious late period Byzantine tempera panel known as a triptych just before 1387 Artist: Agnolo Gaddi . In reference to “art” a triptych is a picture or series of pictures painted on three tablets connected by hinges.


Although the mosaics are a large part of Byzantine classed art, as well as show a high level of sophistication, let us not forget the breathtaking paintings of that time. There are frescoes, which predate the Eastern Roman Empire, and there are tempera panel paintings that brought so much glorious elucidation, colour and progress to the table of the art world, and are well worth touching on in this piece. 

Another Comparison

The cross Lara finds from the game is a Byzantine cross. It has a strong resemblance to the actual Byzantine cross from the 6th century A.D. on the bottom left. . Although, these crosses are centuries apart according to Lara. She mentions it possibly being from the 10th century. It is wonderful when a game can imitate tangible items from history.

The following gallery displays various works from the span of the Byzantine era. 

An interesting form of Italian painting from the 13th century is derived from altarpieces. This beautiful art form from the same era as the Byzantine, though late, could not be passed up on this article. They contributed a great deal of fabulous style and are visually stunning. One of the iconic artisans of this style was Giotto.

Though do not confuse Giotto’s work with Byzantine art, for he broke from that style to a more realist style. He was a type of pioneer in the art world. He is featured in this article, because, his artwork was from the time of the Byzantine Empire. His artwork shows as an example of the transition from Byzantine to a more realistic style. more in line with the way painting is visualised today. 
New attention was placed on the altar. This happened because of changes in the church architectural design and the method they displayed relics. The result of this new idea overshadowed frescos and mosaics. Gilded painted panels of ornate alter pieces started to take over the previous styles culminating into western artists adopting the styles of the Byzantines in the East. You will see some of these art pieces in this gallery. 


I decided to make a special mention of these particular pieces. You can find these fantastic works of splendor in the Sant’Apollinare Nuovo. I could not resist adding this from their site here. Of course, they get full credit. these pieces of art are breathtaking. 

  You will notice in the following mosaics there is an upper, middle and lower band of mosaics. In the upper band, there are 26 scenes. This is the oldest series of mosaics of the New Testament in existents. The scenes on the right are about the life of the saviour. Some of these mosaics are from a time when the Theodoric church was intended for Arian worship reconciled with the Catholic rites, so a few of the mosaics were replaced with other subjects.

Those areas are of Byzantine background. The ones from the Theodoric church are based in Hellenistic-Roman tradition. A great deal of these lovely mosaics survived over the centuries. On the left, there are mosaics that evoke the evangelical readings of Holy Week and Easter. You can see that the Saviour is depicted bigger than the other subjects according to the way art was rendered in the canon of antiquity.

The middle Band:

 is an iconographic masterpiece consisting of thirty-two figures of prophets, sixteen on each side. Each figure is uniformly repeated in celebration of the Book and to confirm the importance of the Prophets, in the composition of the scriptures, prophets who recall, lato sensu, all the masters of the faith in both testaments.

The lower band:

Was commissioned by the Chancellery of Ravenna, contains mosaics that illustrate a magnificent procession of male and female saints. The twenty-two

saints, led by Saint Euphemia, slowly and rhythmically proceed in stately procession holding a symbolic crown. On the opposite wall, the twenty-six martyrs in white robes seem to form an infinitely long procession.

The expressions and attitudes are always constant, removing all individuality for the sake of conveying a common message. 

Please note that some of the most beautiful artwork from the Byzantine era comes from Ravenna Italy. 

Byzantine Chronology

Early Byzantium Emperors

1 Portrait head of the emperor Constantine [Roman]
2 Solidus of Constantius II (Sole Emperor, 350-361) [Byzantine]
3 Theodosius Arrives at Ephesus (Scene from the Legend of the Seven Sleepers) [French]
4 Solidus of Justinian I [Byzantine]
Constantine I the Great(1)324–37
Constantios (Constantius) II(2)337–61
Theodosios (Theodosius) I(3)379–95
Arkadios (Arcadius)395–408
Theodosios (Theodosius) II408–50
Leo I457–74
Leo II474
Basiliscos (Basiliscus)475–76
Zeno (again)476–91
Anastasios (Anastasius) I491–518
Justin I518–27
Justinian I the Great(4)527–65
Justin II565–78
Tiberios II Constantinos (Tiberius II Constantinus)578–82
Phokas (Phocas) I602–10
Herakleios (Heraclius)610–41
Constantine III and Herakleonas (Heracleonas)641
Herakleonas (Heracleonas)641
Constans II641–68
Constantine IV668–85
Justinian II (first reign)685–95
Leontios (Leontius)695–98
Tiberios (Tiberius) III698–705
Justinian II (second reign)705–11
Philippicos (Philippicus)711–13
Anastasios (Anastasius) II713–15
Theodosios (Theodosius) III715–17
Leo III717–41
Constantine V741–75
Leo IV775–80
Constantine VI780–97
Nikephoros (Nicephorus) I802–11
Stauracios (Stauracius)811
Michael I Rangabe811–13
Leo V813–20
Michael II820–29
Theophilos (Theophilus)829–42
Michael III842–67

Middle Byzantium Emperors

Basil I, the Macedonian867–86
Leo VI, the Wise886–912
Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos (Porphyrogenitus)913–59
Romanos I Lekapenos (Romanus I Lecapenos)920–44
Romanos (Romanus) II959–63
Nikephoros II Phokas (Nicephorus II Phocas)963–69
John I Tzimiskes (Tzimisces)969–76
Basil II976–1025
Constantine VIII1025–28
Romanos III Argyros (Romanus III Argyrus)1028–34
Michael IV1034–41
Michael V1041–42
Zoë and Theodora1042
Constantine IX Monomachos (Monomachus)1042–55
Michael VI1056–57
Isaac I Komnenos (Comnenus)1057–59
Constantine X Doukas (Ducas)1059–67
Romanos (Romanus) IV Diogenes1068–71
Michael VII Doukas (Ducas)1071–78
Nikephoros (Nicephorus) III Botaneiates1078–81
Alexios I Komnenos (Alexius I Comnenus)1081–1118
John II Komnenos (Comnenus)1118–43
Manuel I Komnenos (Comnenus)1143–80
Alexios II Komnenos (Alexius II Comnenus)1181–83
Andronikos I Komnenos (Andronicus I Comnenos)1183–85
Isaac II Angelos (Angelus)1185–95
Alexios III Angelos (Alexius III Angelus)1195–1203
Isaac II (again) and Alexios IV Angelos (Alexius IV Angelus)1203–4
Alexios V Murtzuphlos (Alexius V Murtzuphlus)1204

Nicaean Emperors

Theodore I Laskaris (Lascaris)1204–22
John III Doukas (Ducas) Vatatzes1222–54
Theodore II Laskaris (Lascaris)1254–58
John IV Laskaris (Lascaris)1258–61

Late Byzantium Emperors—The Palaiologoi

Michael VIII Palaiologos (Palaeologus)1259–82
Andronikos II Palaiologos (Andronicus II Palaeologus)1282–1328
Andronikos III Palaiologos (Andronicus III Palaeologus)1328–41
John V Palaiologos (Palaeologus)1341–91
John VI Kantakouzenos (Cantacuzenus)1347–54
Andronikos IV Palaiologos (Andronicus IV Palaeologus)1376–79
John VII Palaiologos (Palaeologus)1390
Manuel II Palaiologos (Palaeologus)1391–1425
John VIII Palaiologos (Palaeologus)1425–48
Constantine XI Palaiologos1449–1453
Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

I hope you have enjoyed this romp through antiquities. This is something I never tire of. I shall return after the holidays. Far too busy for anything else. Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New year! 

Emma’s Quill over and out! 

Further Reading

  • Barasch, Moshe. Icon: Studies in the History of an Idea. New York: New York University Press, 1992.
  • Barber, Charles. Figure and Likeness: On the Limits of Representation in Byzantine Iconoclasm. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002.
  • Belting, Hans. Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image Before the Era of Art. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.
  • Brubaker, Leslie, John Haldon, and Robert Ousterhout. Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era (ca. 680–850): The Sources: An Annotated Survey. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001.
  • Evans, Helen C., and William D. Wixom, eds. The Glory of Byzantium: Art and Culture of the Middle Byzantine Era, A.D. 843–1261. Exhibition catalogue. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997.
  • Evans, Helen C., ed. Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261–1557). Exhibition catalogue. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004.
  • Karlin-Hayter, Patricia. “Iconoclasm.” In The Oxford History of Byzantium, edited by Cyril Mango, pp. 153–62. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • Pelikan, Jaroslav. Imago Dei: The Byzantine Apologia for Icons. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1990.
  • Pentcheva, Bissera V. Icons and Power: The Mother of God in Byzantium. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006.
  • Weitzmann, Kurt, ed. Age of Spirituality: Late Antique and Early Christian Art, Third to Seventh Century. Exhibition catalogue. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1979.

Personal Book Selection

  • Brownsworth, L, Lost to the West (Three Rivers Press, 2009)
  • Grafton, A, The Classical Tradition (Harvard University Press, 2008)
  • Hill, D, Ancient Rome: From the Republic to the Empire (Parragon Books, 2007)
  • Hornblower, S, Oxford Classical Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1996)
  • Kinross, Lord, Hagia Sophia (Newsweek Book Division, 1972)
  • Pollardm J, Wonders of the Ancient World (Metro Books, 2008)
  • Potter, D, Constantine: The Emperor (Oxford University Press, 2013)
  • The Siege of Constantinople (1453), according to Nicolo Barbaro

5 thoughts on “Byzantine Art History 20th Anniversary Celebration!

  1. Very well written. I learned a lot. Glad you wrote this. I am crocheting a long scarf (nothing to do with you know who*), in bold colours such as Byzantine shades. Your information is well presented. I have always said graphics in the way they are placed make the article. I am impressed my friend.

    1. Sarah! So glad to see you! Thank you for your kind comments. When you said you are making a scarf I almost snorted my coffee. I will bet there were questions! LOL! I am traveling back from Whistler, so I am pushed for time. Email me. It is easier. Talk to you soon!

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