From the early Christian period, it was customary to decorate the space of Christian churches with icons and wall paintings. In the art of Byzantium , a harmonious system of building murals was developed, which is of paramount importance for the church art of the Orthodox Church to this day.
Basic principles of Byzantine temple painting
Interior paintings of Byzantine churches , in contrast to early Christian churches and cathedrals of medieval Europe, cannot be considered simply as a set of separate images (icons) or a simple narrative cycle (the Bible for the illiterate in the words of St. Gregory the Great  ).
The famous Austrian art historian Otto Demus writes:
“In the case of temple decoration - the area in which Byzantine art has reached, perhaps, its greatest heights - every single element is part of an organic, indivisible whole, built on the basis of certain principles. It seems that in the classical period of Middle Byzantine art - from the end of the 9th to the end of the 11th century. - these principles form a surprisingly consistent structure, in which some parameters are permissible and even necessary, while others are avoided, since they do not find it necessary to reckon with them. This system was not purely formal - to create it, the theologian needed no less than an artist. ” “The ensemble of Byzantine monumental painting essentially loses, if we consider it as the sum of separate compositions. These compositions were not intended as independent works. Their creators were primarily concerned with the relationship of images with each other, with the architectural framing and with the audience  . ”
The well-structured system of plotting the plot clearly expressed the basic truths of Christian dogma, above all the Christological dogma, that is, the doctrine of Christ the Savior . However, the painting played not only an educational function. The person who came to the temple not only looked at certain images, but he himself became an accomplice to certain events of the sacred history. Byzantine artists sought such an impression that the saints depicted on the walls and arches of the temple were not present in an illusory pictorial space (there was no such space in Byzantine painting) as if beyond the wall surface, but were perceived as being in a real three-dimensional space of the interior with the worshiper. In accordance with the doctrine of the veneration of the VII Ecumenical Council, the images of Christ and the saints are their living present presence, so that “the honor given to the image passes to the primitive, and the icon worshiping the essence of the image depicted on it  ”.
All images in the temple were located in strict accordance with their hierarchy. The most important, most sacred significant areas of the temple were located at the top - the dome and vault of the altar ( conch apse ), they symbolized the spiritual sky. Then came the vaults of the temple and the upper parts of the walls, which were usually assigned to the image of the events of the Gospel story. Finally, the lower zones of the interior represented the earthly world, where among the saints there was a man who came to the temple.
In the capital's Byzantine temples, images were located, as a rule, only in the upper areas of the temple, while the wall surfaces were lined with marble. The exceptions were separate niches highlighted on the plane of the walls. The most commonly used mosaic best fit the curved surfaces of the dome , vaults , tromp , sails and niches . Only in the ensembles created on the periphery of Byzantium (in Italy, Cappadocia, in Russia, etc.), did the paintings cover the walls with a solid carpet.
Byzantine mosaics had a number of major artistic features. The solid gold background deprived the images of illusory depth, thanks to which the figures were perceived as being in the real space of the interior. Frontal shape was the most important condition for contact between the viewer and the images. In Byzantine art of the 9th — 11th centuries. the profile image of the face was perceived as inferior and was used only for the image of negative characters. Turning his back to the viewer made the figure “completely absent” for Byzantine perception. At the same time, strict frontality destroyed the interaction of the characters among themselves. For this, a three-quarter-angle shape was often used (at the same time both to the viewer and to other figures). Moreover, by placing the figures on concave surfaces, the Byzantines sought to interact in real space by placing the frontal figures opposite each other  .
Later, these principles are removed from Byzantine art. The laconic iconographic set of plots is also changing. From the 12th century in the Byzantine churches (including other countries of the Eastern Orthodox world) the narrative began to increase again, the murals became wordy. They are sated with a set of new plots and subject cycles. But the key components of the program remain almost unchanged. These primarily include the upper area of the temple and the altar.
Especially significant changes occur in the Palaeologo period. The expensive mosaic technique is replaced by a mural. The interpretation of the space and the construction of the composition of multi-figure scenes are changing. Some spatial depth arises in the image, however, it is still deprived of a direct perspective . The set of angles becomes less strict, the figures become more free and mobile.
The main iconographic content of the Byzantine system of painting continued to serve as a model for the later art of Orthodox countries, in particular, in the paintings of ancient Russian temples, despite all the innovations of the next centuries. The principles and iconography developed in Byzantium are still best suited for the painting of Orthodox churches.
Iconographic content of the painting of early Christian churches
The painting system of the Byzantine cross-domed church
In the middle of the 9th century, after the end of Byzantine iconoclasm, Byzantine church art flourished. By this time, a harmonious theological and artistic system of monumental decoration of the Christian church had finally been formed. At the same time, the cross-dome type of the temple dominates in architecture, namely, the temple of the type of the inscribed cross, perfectly reflecting the idea of a Christian church and corresponding to the Eastern rite of worship. Strictly designed painting system is consistent with the architecture of the building and makes up with it a whole.
The patriarch of Constantinople, Photius, in one of his sermons, described the painting of a new church built with him in the imperial palace. According to this description, Christ the Almighty was depicted in a cupola in a medallion surrounded by archangels. At the end of the altar there is the Virgin Orans . In addition, in the temple there were numerous images of saints: forefathers, prophets, apostles and martyrs. About the scenes depicting the events of the Gospel (the Twelve Great Feasts ) are not mentioned here, although they could have already been included in the painting of the temple  .
Since the monuments of Constantinople of the Middle Byzantine time are lost, three mosaic ensembles of the 11th century, created in the province with the participation of masters of the capital, are of most interest: the cathedral of Osios Lucas monastery in Phocis 1030-1040, Nea Moni on Chios island around 1045 and Dafni monastery around 1100 . The interiors of these temples represent a square space ( naos ), covered with a dome on the tromp . In Osios Lucas and Daphne naos is surrounded by galleries with choirs . From the east, an altar consisting of vima and apsides adjoins the naos. From the west, the temple ends with one or two porches .
The iconographic program of these ensembles is generally similar:
- to the dome is Christ the Almighty, half-length in the medallion. In Osios Lucas, Christ is surrounded by the archangels and the Mother of God (later repetition of the lost mosaics);
- in the drum of the dome between the windows - the prophets;
- in the conch of the altar in Osios Lukas, the figure of the throne of Our Lady with the Child on her knees was preserved (a similar figure of the 9th century was preserved in the altar of Sophia of Constantinople );
- in Osios Lukas, medallions with angels were placed on the side cross vaults. In the separate niches of the altar and the temple are the saints. In the western part of the temple on the vaults under the choirs, the growth and belt in the medallions are figures of the reverend. A special set of saints, together with the locally venerable St. Luke, is depicted on the walls of the porch.
The multi-figure scenes of the holidays (the most important events of the Gospel story) are located both in Naos and in the vestibule. Their number increases over time.
In Naos, festivals are occupied by trompas at the base of the dome, the niches between them and the upper parts of the walls. Scenes are arranged in a circle clockwise. In the vestibule, holidays and some other scenes from the Gospel included in their cycle are located on the walls and in the end niches.
Here could be depicted: the Annunciation , the Nativity of Christ , the Presentation of the Lord , the Baptism of the Lord , the Transfiguration of the Lord , the Resurrection of Lazarus , the Entry into Jerusalem , the Crucifixion of Christ , the Resurrection of Christ , the Ascension of the Lord and the Pentecost ( Descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles), as well as some secondary scenes, showing in more detail the Passion of Christ and the events of his resurrection — washing the feet at the Last Supper , lifting the cross , assuring Thomas . At the same time, some compositions, for example, the removal from the cross, occupy a place on a par with the Twenty Great Feasts.
An important feature is the absence of the Ascension of Christ. His place is taken by the domed image of the ascended Christ Pantocrator . For the Byzantians of that time, these two plots were virtually identical. The narrative composition of the Ascension has become a hieratic symbol. Simultaneous use of the image of Pantokrator in the dome and the Ascension in the cycle of holidays appeared only in later paintings.
The Descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles in Osios Lucas is depicted in a small dome over the altar. Here, as in the Cathedral of St. Mark in Venice, the dome with Pentecost is perfectly coordinated with the domed Ascension. One event is inextricably linked with another. In the center of the composition is depicted Etimasia - Prepared Throne - the symbol of the Holy Trinity , from which rays with fiery tongues descend on the apostles. Below (in the dome's sails or in the drum ) are the figures of the peoples mentioned in the account of this event in the book of Acts ( Acts 2: 1-11 ).
In fact, these compositions are not a narrative cycle, but reflect the most important tenets of Christianity. The story about this or that event in them is replaced by the expression of his idea, meaning in the matter of salvation of mankind by Christ.
The most important preserved monumental ensemble of Constantinople work is the painting of St. Sophia Cathedral in Kiev . It reflects the development of Byzantine thought of its time and is a model for most ancient Russian churches, one way or another repeating the compositions used here until the XVI century.
- Christ Pantokrator is depicted in the central dome in a medallion surrounded by four archangels;
- 12 apostles are depicted in the walls between the windows of the drum (a unique case);
- four sails depict four evangelists, respectively, seated at the lecterns with the gospel;
- medallions with forty martyrs of Sebastea on the arches of the marches (in other temples, while preserving the medallions themselves, any other saints could be located here);
- on the arch of the vim separating the apse, in three medallions is presented the Deesis - Christ, the Virgin and John the Baptist .
- in konkhe - the Virgin Orans ;
- below in the form of a long register - the Eucharist . The mirror-like composition of a symbolic scene depicting the communion of the apostles by Christ is a symbolic image of the Last Supper. On the left, Christ teaches holy bread, and on the right, wine;
- in the lower register of the apse is depicted the holy hierarch - holy hierarchs and deacons , as if surrounding the throne standing in the center of the altar ;
- in parallel with the hierarchs, the Old Testament high priests were depicted on the side faces of the altar pillars. Preserved figure of Aaron . A similar comparison will occur in other temples.
The gospel cycle is particularly detailed, as it is aimed at enlightening the newly baptized people. Therefore, there is a narrative element here:
- on the west, facing the praying faces of the pillars flanking the altar, is the Annunciation;
- on the left pillar is the figure of Archangel Gabriel, on the right - of Our Lady. This compositional technique, linking the image with real space, will be preserved in almost all Russian churches until the 16th century, inclusive, until the altar pillars are hidden by a high iconostasis ;
- the most important of the Great Festivals were located on the cylindrical arches of the domed cross on the four sides of the dome. Here, these images have been lost, but such an arrangement of holidays on the arches of the branches of the cross will be used with some variations in ancient Russian temples for all ages, including the 17th century;
- below on the walls of the central domed space, the Gospel narration continued with scenes of the Passion of Christ and the events of its resurrection. The upper register occupied the lunettes of the walls: here are preserved scenes: Christ before Caiaphas, Peter's abdication and the Crucifixion of Christ. The following were depicted: the Resurrection (Descent into Hell), the appearance of Christ to the myrrh-bearing women, the message of the apostles to the sermon, the assurance of Thomas and the Descent of the Holy Spirit.
Separate narrative cycles are located in the side apses:
- in the left apse are depicted the acts of the apostles Peter and Paul, as the chapel sanctified in their honor was located here;
- in the right apse was the chapel of Joachim and Anna , the parents of the Virgin. Here is the Proto-Angel cycle, containing a story about the birth and childhood of Our Lady. The basis of this cycle, which is very common in temple paintings, is the text of the Proto-Gospel of Jacob ;
- The two extreme apses are part of the Great Martyr George and the Archangel Michael, containing scenes from the life of the saint and the acts of the archangel. In the conchs of these apses are the belt figures of St. George and the Archangel Michael.
Several Old Testament and New Testament scenes are located in the choirs:
- The Last Supper and its prototype - Marriage in Cana of Galilee ;
- the appearance of the Trinity to Abraham and the Three Youths in a fiery fire , also representing the Christian sacrament.
A feature of the cathedral's painting was the almost lost portrait of the family of Yaroslav the Wise , the builder of the temple, located on the western wall of the domed cross. The inclusion of ktitorial compositions in the painting of the temple is a widespread tradition. Ktitor - the sovereign or noble customer of the temple, sometimes the church hierarch - will be in prayer to Christ or the Virgin Mary. The usual image is the family of the temple builder. Often the ktitor holds the model of the temple he built.
An important part of the painting is the design of small domes and lower vaults under the choir. Here are medallions with angels , as well as cherubs and seraphim .
In addition, on numerous pillars and walls of the temple depicted many saints of various ranks.
A rare specimen of secular content on the content of the murals are the frescoes of the cathedral’s staircase towers leading to the choir. The images that survived here date back to the paintings of the Byzantine palaces, since the choirs served as a place of prayer for the Grand Duke and his retinue. Thus, not a purely church, state or court life takes its place in the general hierarchy of being  .
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