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Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
Early civilizations
6th - 11th century
     Byzantine icons
     Portable paintings
     Illuminated manuscripts

Medieval Europe
Works on paper
Renaissance in Europe
The High Renaissance
16th century in Europe
17th century in Europe
18th century in Europe
To be completed

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Byzantine icons: from the 6th century

The earliest images of the Christian empire are the mosaics decorating the walls and domes of churches. But a different and ultimately more lasting tradition grows up in the monasteries of the eastern church. This is the tradition of the icon, from the Greek eikon meaning 'image' - a holy picture, and particularly one painted on a portable wooden panel.

This form of devotional object is well suited to the needs of monks in remote desert communities. One of the greatest collections of early icons survives in the monastery of St Catherine in Sinai, founded in the 6th century by the emperor Justinian.


Soon the icons themselves become objects of such veneration that strict rules evolve as to how they shall be painted, with proper place and rank given to the hierarchy of characters - Christ himself, his Virgin mother, the apostles, prophets and saints. With their gilded backgrounds, lavish clothes, crowns, haloes and solemn expressions, the holy figures of the Byzantine icon establish the dominant style of early medieval Christian art.

The tendency to worship these images provokes the violent reaction of iconoclasm. From726 vast numbers of icons are smashed, along with the mosaics in churches. But a century later imperial approval is once again given to the production of holy images.


From843 icons recover their special position in Greek Orthodox Christianity, never again to lose it. The screen between the nave and the altar sanctuary in an Orthodox church is dedicated to the display of holy images - as its name iconostasis specifically states.

As other regions are converted to the Greek religion, in the Balkans and in Russia, the veneration of images spreads. Indeed to many people nowadays, after a millennium of the rich tradition of Russian Orthodox Christianity, the word 'icon' suggests first and foremost a Russian religious painting. And Russian icons, still being painted today, preserve much of the ancient Byzantine style.


Portable paintings

From the first cave paintings to the murals of Egypt, Pompeii or Buddhist China, pictorial art is almost exclusively found on walls. But in more recent centuries portable images, following the early example of icons, have become the main thread in the history of painting.

Two separate kinds of portable art evolve, one rather easier to carry about than the other. The heavier kind at first uses wood as the support. Beginning with Byzantine icons, this tradition develops into the panel paintings of the early Renaissance and then evolves further when stretched canvas is introduced as the backing for the image (particularly in nothern Italy, in the late 15th century, by artists such as Mantegna).


Another great tradition of images is made possible by very light backing materials, most of them developed primarily as surfaces for writing. Each material in turn becomes associated with a school or style of painting. First the papyrus scroll in Egypt prompts the delicate illustrations which are familiar, in particular, from the famous 'books of the dead'.

Then the development of parchment makes possible the codex (with the leaves bound together at the spine), enabling Christian monks to decorate illuminated manuscripts. Similarly, Buddhist monks produce the earliest portable paintings from India (of which examples survive from the 11th century AD), each on a single palm leaf.


The discovery of silk, in China, provides painters in the far east with a material which retains its popularity over the centuries. Even today, if tourists to China come home with a painted image, it is likely to be on silk.

But it is another Chinese material, paper, which comes to occupy a place even more central than canvas in the history of art. Paper makes possible the beauties of Persian and Indian miniatures. The masterpieces of European drawing, from the Renaissance onwards, are achieved on paper - to be followed later by the subtleties of watercolour. And printmaking, throughout its history, has depended on paper.


Illuminated manuscripts: 7th - 11th century

Irish monks of the 7th and 8th century create illuminated manuscripts which are among the greatest treasures of Celtic and early Christian art. The beautiful calligraphy (the scribes sometimes add Complaints in the margin about their difficult working conditions) usually provides the text of the four Gospels. The earliest is the Book of Durrow, from about 650. Others include the Lindisfarne Gospels (c.700) and the Book of Kells (c.800).

The glory of these manuscripts (in addition to their wonderfully inventive images of the evangelists) is the intricate decoration, with the famous 'carpet pages' formed of interlacing patterns - reminiscent of the complex linear designs in Celtic metalwork.


In the late 8th century many illuminated manuscripts are commissioned by Charlemagne, who values them both as holy objects and as his own personal art gallery. When the imperial court is on the move (which is most of the time), part of the emperor's baggage train is a wagon full of precious manscripts.

Legend adds that after his death Charlemagne is buried in a sitting position, clothed in rich robes and holding a sceptre. On his lap is an illuminated manuscript.


The scribes writing the texts of the manuscripts, and the illuminators adding the decorative lettering and the illustrations, do so in the workshops of Europe's monasteries - though probably not all the men employed are monks. The example of Charlemagne's patronage is followed by his immediate successors and by later rulers in medieval Europe, in particular by the emperors of the Ottonian dynasty.

The Carolingian and Ottonian manuscripts are usually gospels or other holy texts, but the secular world intrudes more than previously. A frontispiece often now shows the imperial patron on his throne, in a manner previously reserved for Jesus or one of the evangelists.


The early medieval interest in illuminated manuscripts means that the portable art of the period is confined within precious volumes. A single spread of text, with ornament and illustration, is sometimes visible today in museum displays. But for the most part these images are locked away on the rare-book shelves of libraries.

This seclusion has preserved them in better condition than other art of the same period, but it has also had the effect of making this a somewhat invisible chapter in the story of European painting. The artists begin to achieve a higher profile, from the 13th century, with fresco painting in Italy.


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