The Christian period: Early period (400 - 1000 AD)

The fall of the Western Roman Empire and the avalanche of the invading Germ- ane tribes, shifted the center of the Roman World to Orient, to the Byzantine Empire. Year 325 Constantine accepted Christianity as the state religion, the old pagan world came to an end, and the associated ideas of classic art were also abolished. The population of the Eastern Empire was Greek. Accepting the new religion the speculative Greek mind, used to philosophy, felt it necessary to work out a comprehensive theological explanation of the new principles of Christianity. The ideals of the early Christianity were associated with completely new principles such as abstention of the pleasures of life, scorning sexual relationship, the idealization of secluded life, the superiority of the spirit relative flesh etc. The philosophy of Christianity starts with the name of Augustine, who made an attempt to explain the events of recorded time on one universal principle. From Plato's conception of an ideal state existing "somewhere in heaven", from St. Paul's of community of saints living and dead, from the doctrine of two societies, one of God and one of Satan, Augustine took the basic idea of his book as a tale of two cities: the earthly city of worldly men devoted to earthly affairs and joys; and the divine city of the past, present, and future worshipers of the one true God. "Christianity at first suspected art as a support of paganism, idolatry, and immorality; these nude statues hardly comported with esteem for virginity and celibacy. When the body seemed an instrument of Satan, and the monk replaced the athlete as an ideal, the study of anatomy disappeared from art, leaving a sculpture and painting of gloomy faces and shapeless drapery", notes W. Durant. But when Christianity triumphed, the great basilicas were needed to house its swelling congregations, the local and national traditions of art reasserted themselves, and architecture lifted itself out of the ruins. From that time to our own the basilica plan has been a favorite design for Christian churches. Two buildings of this time are acquiring a fundamental importance in the late Roman period. The basilica of Constantine the Great in Rome and the palace of Diocletian in Spolato. "The new ideas came from the East; the architects who built a palace to Diocletian on the Dalmatian coast (opening of the fourth century) at Spolato accomplished a revolution in European architecture. Arches were there sprung directly from column capitals, with no intervening entablature, so at one stroke were prepared the Byzantine, Romanesque, and Gothic styles. And instead of figured friezes came, in this palace, a strange decoration of zigzag lines, offensive to the classic eye, but long familiar to the Orient. The old classic orders- Dorian, Ionian, Corinthian- became almost meaningless in architectural world of arches, vaults, pendentives, and domes*. Byzantine art, so generated, dedicated itself to expounding the doctrines of Christianity", concludes W.Durant... The distinctive skill, in which the Byzantine artist surpassed all artist before him or since, lay in raising a circular dome over a polygonal frame. Among the first buildings of this period is the basilica devoted to Holy Wisdom or as we now it Hagia Sofia in Constantinople erected during the rule of emperor Justinian by Greek architect Anthemius and the mathematician Isidorus in year 537. Its architectural mastery was far ahead of its time unmatched for 1000 years. Although a system for covering large cylindrical structures with a single dome was available to architects, but a huge centrally-located cupola on top of a rectangular structure was to be tried for the first time. The structural deficiencies led to the collapse of cupola year 558, which was since several times rebuilt. The exterior of Hagia Sofia was treated simply as a crust or shell, and does not fit properly to the interior that has the magnificence of a palace. Even with this criticism it was a great achievement especially at the time it was built. Another most expressive examples of Byzantine art is the Basilica of San Appolinaris in Classe and the basilica of San Vitale both built in Ravenna in the 6th century. Both are richly decorated by mosaic scenes depicting stories of the Old and the New Testaments. "Mosaicists laid their cubes of brightly colored stone or glass, in backgrounds of blue or gold, upon the floors or walls, or over the altar, or wherever an empty surface challenged the Oriental eye. In the sculpture, statuary rarely was used, the artist sought not so much to represent figures of men and women as to create an abstract beauty of symbolic form. Never before had an art been so rich in color, so subtle in symbolism, so exuberant in decoration, so well adapted to quite the intellect and stir the soul", observes W. Durant. The art and architecture in Europe from the close of the 8th until the 12th century is described as Romanesque. In architecture the Romanesque is typified by the use of the round arch and conspicuously heavy construction. In painting and sculpture forms are linear and are often expressively distorted to convey religious emotion.. The population of Europe was illiterate, even Charlemagne who had a great respect to learning could hardly sign his name. The single and most vivid vehicle of the Christian messages were the Bible scenes depicted on the walls of churches. The Church visitors could marvel and be terrified by the visualized stories which added a lot to the sermons hold by the often ignorant priests.

* One should not forget that neither art nor civilization starts with Ancient Greece. The preceding civilizations had made great impact in the sphere of art and architecture. Although the main objective of this work is the Western hemisphere one should not forget that e.g. in architecture the Sumerians and Babylonians used dome and vault at least 2000 years before than these elements were introduced in Europe.

See also:
» Later period

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