The growth of Christianity challenged the already existing social codes and attitudes and thus it offers one clue to the radical transformations of Roman art (Cormack 1). The similarities and differences between the art during the Roman Empire and the Byzantine art is the key to understanding the processes of the rebirth of ancient art and therefore the Byzantine art and the Roman Empire art remains a living art although they began some 2000 years ago (Cormack 1).
The fall of the Roman Empire thus gave birth to the Byzantine art which was regarded as highly true or close to nature. Through the Byzantine art the illiterate could learn to recognize common saint’s names and the main biblical narrative subjects where else through the Roman Empire or Western art people could figure out the emperors, generals and political images during a certain period (Cormack 76).
Byzantine art in real sense signifies religious icons unlike the art during the Roman Empire which portrayed political and scientific figures. In this context the art of the Byzantine period can be conceived as above all a religious art which was centered on a Christian society based in Constantinople (Cormack 2). As a result religious icons were at the center of Byzantine art and life because they were seen and venerated by all those who identified themselves as belonging to the culture. Byzantine art says that “the Byzantine art was one of most solemn and elevated modes of religious expression ever developed because the icons could manipulate viewers and create an atmosphere more potent than most other art forms” (2).
Unlike the Byzantine art which was largely influenced by Christianity, Ortiz et al. says that the social changes and ways of living in Roman Empire led to the introduction of the western art. They say that the social changes led to a reassessment of man and the world around him revived from classical times and pervaded philosophy in the 19th century in academic art. The book Art: Perception & Appreciation established that in the Western art “portraits, landscapes, still life’s, and genre lent themselves to the smaller format of portable easel paintings” (189).
The book further says that the important characteristic of the western art of that period was the spirit of scientific inquiry and investigation. Art: Perception & Appreciation found out that “this was considered as a new and vital approach to the material world which led to empiricism and laid emphasis on the evidence of the senses hence the scientific spirit manifested itself not only in the new discoveries but the art as well” (189).
The Roman Empire art was dissimilar to Byzantine art because the Byzantine art had a functional as well as an aesthetic aim which implies that they were made as props in the face of joy and sorrow happiness and pain. The book Byzantine art further says that this form of art received the prayers and veneration that passed through them to the other world that they symbolized and they were expected to reflect the powers of God. In this context it was noted that each icon had to maintain its power from century to century.
The artist in the Roman Empire were influenced by the interest in science strove for a more naturalistic portrayal of man and developed new techniques such as the utilization of modeling and shading for a three dimensional effect unlike the Byzantine artists who were influence by the Christianity religion. Ortiz et al. also says that the modeling of the human figure countered the liner tradition of Byzantine art (189). He continues to say that this trend was begun by Giotto in his frescoes in which he stressed the solidity and monumentality of his figures that they existed with volume in space and were surrounded by space. Ortiz et al. says that this was done by careful modeling with particular attention to folds and draperies.
Unlike Byzantine art the western art as illustrated by Giotto and Masaccio were among the first artists to endow their figures with a familiar human quality in reaction to the other worldly hieratic forms of Byzantine art (Ortiz et al., 189). Ortiz et al. established that the art was first supposed to employ meaningful gestures to express emotions within the context of a human situation (189).
On the other hand Ortiz et al. says that the classical and Asian artistic traditions merge in Byzantine art because of their two dimensional or flat style placing emphasis on clarity of line and sharpness of the outlines (189). The book Byzantine art therefore says that “early Byzantine art adopted the visual vocabulary of pagan art for maximum effect on the Christian viewer which expressed the total triumph of the early church over antiquity” (31). The icon which was the second object was a work of art of a different form period and function.
Cormack in his further studies indicates that the comparison of the value of the icon in Byzantine art suggests that a systematic treatment of Byzantine art in time and context offers more than the broad synoptic treatment (31). The icon used in Byzantine art was small in scale and religious hence it was appropriate for individual, even private, viewing, painted on wood, and could be easily moved and transported. According to Byzantine art the “subject of this type of art had broad connections with the Rotunda because it included a group of saints shown by definition after death and in paradise since they were surrounded by divine light symbolized by the gold ground of the background who were arranged in registers around the image of Christ” (31).
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Dissimilarity between the eastern art and western art was that the time and style of the Byzantine art was different from the one of the western art. According to Byzantine art “a distinctive feature of byzantine art is its long time span of production and use and its balance of continuity and change in style” (23). A good example is a vast monumental mosaic whose first impression was that they represented a similar subject, Christian saints, painted after their deaths when they were according to Christian belief in heaven (Cormack 23). In this context art is used as a way of transforming a mere list of life after death hence this truth is established by showing to those who entered the church in cosmic time an image of the infinite time of the other world.
Bunson says that the Western Roman Empire art revealed a strong Latin influence and embodied Augustus vision of imperial grandeur (32). He further noted that under Augustus considerable effort in art was put into decorating and beautifying altars which was the kind of artistic practice which emerged in the painting of these altars. Painting in the western art of the Roman Empire was popular and carvings were used on the still popular sarcophagi.
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On the other hand Grant says that in the Roman Empire Western Art architecture was the only art in which Romans showed any creative activity. The book Art in the Roman Empire established that “art in architecture was the only art which could only effectively promote the ambitious aims of the state and universal dominion and also adequately express the consciousness of its right to the empire of the world” (31).
In addition, The Oxford history of Western art established that “the highly selective use of the naturalistic modes of antiquity in Byzantine art reflects a profound shift in the understanding of art” (71). As a result Kemp says that the representation of the material world was embraced where appropriate but the significance of the images was directed at an experience transcending nature and the world of appearances. One of the distinctive achievements of the Byzantine art was that it developed a range of pictorial formats on the basis of the artistic language of the Roman world.
Byzantine art dealt with the East Christian world of Greek-speaking peoples. According to The essentials of art history “scholars say that Byzantine art was one of pronounced formulas because it was a monumental art filled with the power, dignity and pictorials’” (48). The book continues to say that Byzantine art was an applied art in which its technique showed a delicacy of handling and a construction by line, color, and rhythm besides been one of the distortion for a spiritual effect. Similar to the Western art the Byzantine art was unique in that over eleven centuries it maintained a pictorial consistency and stylistic homogeneity (49).
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Similarly, Cohen maintains that the art of the Byzantine architecture was theological and intellectual and in style it maintained and achieved a specific formula: an organization of subordinate masses receiving the thrust that originated in the apex of the cupola. The essentials of art history further indicated that the “exteriors of Byzantine buildings were heavy and thick in appearance hence the art was designed to achieve a line which was always horizontal and profile irregular” (49). Internally both the Byzantine architecture and Roman Empire art was pictorial in its jewel like brilliance with colorful mosaics and richly veined marbles.
Like the Byzantine art the Western art was signified by sculptures. The Byzantine sculpture was considered the least of their creative arts because what was done appeared on a small portable scale. Cohen says that in this form of art some devotional figures were carved in the round or free standing while others were in bas relief (51). Studies show that the choice of material was usually ivory although some marble and limestone for sarcophagi were used giving the Byzantine artisan a feeling of decorative, applied art to his work.
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The book essentials of art history also established that “Byzantine painting consisted of religious mosaics, frescoes, icons on panels and manuscripts” (51). The art Byzantine mosaics possessed a Near Eastern brilliance where thousands of polygonal colored-glass pieces were set into church walls and apses. Cohen says that the figures were flat and schematized and their faces were mass like, spiritually transfixed as they stared off into another state of existence.
Byzantine icon or panel paintings were most noteworthy which were used in an attempt to purify the church of superstitions and images of any kind. The book essentials of art history says that “their style was highly schematic and depersonalized in which the figures showed large eyes that stared off into a spiritual realm” (52). An overall severity and monumentality prevailed and the backgrounds were made from burnished gold leafing which intensified their spirituality (Cohen 52). Unlike the Roman Empire where there were no manuscripts, in the Byzantine art manuscripts showed biblical narrative and symbolic figures which were diagrammatically flat with Christianity and spiritually related features.
The western or the Roman Empire art emerged in the third and second centuries B.C (35). Cohen say that the Roman art synthesized Greek-Hellenistic and classical Greek styles. Roman art was thus political and symbolized the power of the emperor. The book Art History Essentials says that “in this sense the Roman art was uniform whether in architecture, sculpture, painting or minor art it reflected the political unity of its people” (35). Unlike the Byzantine art, Roman art showed little creativity or uniqueness.
The art in he Roman architecture manifested itself in 27 B.C and therefore during this period Romans exhibited a genius for construction, city planning and engineering and many other areas (Cohen 36). According to The essentials of art history “Roman architectures emphasized on the interiors in which light became an important factor through diffused effects, light illuminated hidden recesses of Roman buildings” (36).
Unlike during the Byzantine art, studies from the book The essentials of art history show that “during the Roman Empire the Romans developed an interest in the realistic portrayal of the individual” (39). Their art emphasized on features which took center stage of their art ranged from political, military and civic leaders as well as gods and goddesses who were created in marble and bronze. This was the portrayal of individuals who were famous in the empire in which the gods and goddesses were idealized and synthesized Greek and Etruscan models.
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A major difference between the Byzantine art and the art during the Roman Empire or the western art was that during the Roman Empire, the Romans gave their statures a memorial dignity and constrained sobriety. Unlike in the Byzantine art were sculptures represented saints Cohen says that the different types of sculptures that were created included full length figures depicting emperors, generals and political images (39). There were also the equestrian type sculptures which showed over life size hero on horseback and also bust portraits and heads which were not depicted in the Byzantine art.
During the Roman Empire art, paintings were executed by professional artisans, who made different types of paintings. In this context, fresco paintings decorated public buildings and houses where else panel paintings were found in private houses and at the same time mosaic work and paintings were used to decorate buildings and house interiors (Cohen 40).
Unlike in the Byzantine art which used mostly marbles, the styles used during the Roman Empire painting art included the intricate style which used bright colors against dark backgrounds. The book also established that the whole interiors of the buildings were covered with paintings giving a feeling of space and physical depth. Besides this the book The essentials of art history found out that “the practices of the Roman painter included; using a three dimensional illusionism, applying both light and dark contrasts, modeling figures in heave and dark outlines, using a varying and graduated palette and also used opaque colors”(41).
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In conclusion studies show that very few similarities existed between the art during the Byzantine time and the Roman Empire Era. The differences varied from the way the paintings were done, and what the sculptures portrayed. The aspect of Christianity in the Byzantine art took a center stage while during the Roman Empire art focused on individuals, politicians, emperors and scientific representations. In both the eastern and western art, it is important to note that the content which was portrayed by the art revolved around the sculptures, paintings and monumental figures.