One kind of metal that the Byzantine’s really liked to use was gold. They got the gold form a place called Armenia, and from mines and streams in Greece. Byzantine’s described gold as condensed light from the sun, and they made it the symbol of incorruptibility, truth, and glory. It was sometimes mixed with silver or copper. Gold was worked to create coins, medallions, enamel plaques, jewelry, elegant dishes for the home, and containers for the church. Gold foil was used in mosaic cubes, book illumination, and icon painting. Gold wires were even woven into textiles and used in embroideries.
Another type of metal that they liked using lots was Silver. The got most of their silver from mines in Armenia and Cyprus. It was used to create works of art for the church, including decorative pavements and icon frames. Not very much personal jewelry was ever made of silver, except for amulets. Some of the techniques that they used to work the silver included carving it, hammering it as a sheet from the reverse side or over a wooden form to make a raised image, engraving and chasing, they then filled the grooves with a black compound of silver and other elements, then decorated it with cords made by melting together metal grains or beads to create raised patterns on a metal surface. Silver works of art might be completely meant to imitate gold, especially if they were to be set with gold enamel plaques and gems.
Icons and Manuscripts
Some painters of icon panels were monks, whereas others were lay artists. The profession had considerable prestige, since Saint Luke was believed to have painted icons (including the first image of the Virgin Mary), and many such artists were thought to have had supernatural aid in finishing their works. Although in the sixth and seventh centuries painters used both encaustic (pigment suspended in wax) and tempera (pigment suspended in egg yolk) to create the colors of sacred images on wooden panels, by the Middle Byzantine period only tempera was used. Painted icons could take the shape of a single rectangular panel, two joined panels, called a diptych (derived from ancient writing tablets), or three joined panels, called a triptych (which recall pagan Roman triptychs displaying images of the gods). No circular examples exist today, but they may have existed, since they are depicted in other media.
Byzantine manuscripts (literally “written by hand”) often reflected a deep devotion to Christianity and the state through the luxurious art on the parchment. Scribes, whose chief task was creating the script, and illuminators, who usually painted pictures in books after the scribe had made the text, mainly worked on copies of the Bible, collections of saints’ lives, and sermons. They also produced illustrated volumes of classical Greek poetry, drama, philosophy, history, and secular poetry, as well as manuals on the law, veterinary science, military tactics, poisons, and medicinal plants. Although richly decorated at times, most of the nonreligious works had rather simple pictures that were intended merely to clarify meaning.
Byzantine illuminators, who sometimes were scribes themselves, were influenced by mosaics, sculpture, and metalwork. To create their works of art, illuminators first made a sketch in the space left by the scribe, then covered it with opaque colors. Sometimes the paintings were made on a separate sheet, which was added to the book when it was bound. One of the most common Byzantine book illustrations was the author’s portrait in each of the Gospels, in which the evangelist author is usually shown sitting in his study, writing or pausing to reflect, sometimes looking toward the text of the facing page.
Elephant tusks were carved by Byzantine artists to create many works of art, including icons and panels covering furniture and doors. Many Byzantine ivories reached the West, where they embellished book covers. By the fourth century Constantinople was a center of ivory carving. Although records indicate that ivory carvers passed on their skills to their children, we have no knowledge of their production methods. Dependent on trade with Africa and India, the availability of ivory in Byzantium fluctuated widely over the centuries. For instance, ivory carving at Constantinople was interrupted in the late sixth and seventh centuries by Arab invasions in the Middle East, which cut Byzantium off from its supplies. When the art form was resumed in the tenth century, its themes were both religious and secular. In the twelfth century the supply of ivory to Byzantium seems to have vanished, perhaps because it was diverted at its source to the West. Byzantine ivory carvers then used walrus or narwhale tusks, bone, and steatite (soapstone).
Although Byzantine artists often painted walls with pictures on fresh plaster (called frescoes), mosaic was the most elaborate and expensive form of decoration for the walls of churches and palaces. Perfected by Byzantine artists during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Byzantine mosaics were so admired that mosaicists from Byzantium even traveled to Italy and the Kievan Rus’ to practice their art.
To create their mosaics, Byzantine artists employed durable multicolored stone and marble pieces as well as cubes (called tesserae) of more fragile materials, such as brick or terracotta, semiprecious gems, and opaque colored glass to create their wall mosaics. They also made gold and silver cubes by sandwiching foil between layers of translucent glass. Tesserae were produced in many sizes, with the tiniest being used to model faces. To create a mosaic, the artist first covered a wall with one or more layers of plaster. A final layer of mortar was mixed with crushed pottery, called a setting bed, and often guidelines were painted on it. Finally the artist pressed the mosaic cubes into the setting bed, embedding them at different angles to create a glittering effect when light struck them. Depending on the size of the tesserae used, a mosaicist could perhaps cover up to four meters (about fifteen feet) of wall a day with mosaics.
The term silk refers to the yarns and textiles made with filaments from the cocoons of several species of moth, especially the Bombyx mori, which feeds on white mulberry leaves and was cultivated in ancient China.
Silk was always considered a luxury product in Byzantium; it was sold by weight and bought on speculation. Byzantium first imported silk from China and elsewhere; then, in the year 553/4, under Emperor Justinian I, silk moth eggs were reportedly smuggled into the empire by some monks who had learned the secrets of silk production in the Far East. From the seventh century onward the center of the Byzantine silk industry was Constantinople. Made either in imperial factories, located both within and near the emperor’s Great Palace, or in private workshops, silk was used to make court and church clothing, altar cloths, curtains, couch fabrics, wall hangings, and embroidery. The Byzantine state tightly controlled its manufacture and trade and guaranteed its quality. This meant that Byzantine silks were used as an instrument of Byzantine foreign policy, since these highly esteemed fabrics could be acquired by states outside Byzantium only as official gifts or tribute.
Most of the Byzantine silks still in existence date from the tenth and eleventh centuries. They mainly come from church treasuries of western Europe, where they were often used to wrap the venerated remains of saints or objects associated with them. Their brightly colored designs in twill weave, created on draw looms, include rows of animals, such as eagles; series of lions, griffins, and elephants in circles; hunting scenes; and images of Byzantine emperors.