The Tribal Migration formed a danger for the newly established Byzantine Empire. The Hun Turks proved to be a dangerous enemy for the empire under Theodosios II (408-450 A.D.). However, the Byzantines reached a peaceful settlement with the Huns by means of money. In the meantime, religious struggles shook the empire. The competition for authority between the Roman and Byzantine churches started around this time. One group of Christians supported the divinity of Jesus while another group valued him more as a person than a god.
Marcianus took over the throne from Theodosios II, whom had the high walls built around Byzantium. In 451, Marcianus held a religious council in Kadikoy in an attempt to peacefully resolve ongoing religious strife, but the disputes did not end. The tension escalated rapidly, whereas two Byzantine groups appeared, called the Blues and the Greens. Justinianos I, who was Orthodox, took control of the empire and promptly reached an accord with the Pope, thereby eliminating all dissension between the churches of the west and east. Under the long rule of Justinianos I, the Byzantines experienced their most productive period. In 532 A.D., the Blues and the Greens rebelled against the emperor in the Hippodrome. This rebellion, known as the Nike Revolt, spread through the town rapidly, whereas the town was plundered, houses burned to the ground, and the Hagia Sophia Church was also totally devastated in a massive fire. Justinianos set out immediately to have Byzantium reconstructed, the Hagia Sophia restored, had St.Irene Church and the Underground Cisterns built, and had water brought to Byzantium through a network of aqueducts. Besides Byzantium, he is also known to have the St.John Basilica built in Ephesus. By adding the lands of Sicily and Corsica in Italy and North Africa to the empire, Justinianos had turned the Mediterranean into a Byzantine lake. Following Justinianos I, the Byzantine Empire passed through very difficult times between 565-1025.
In a decree handed down by Emperor Leo III in 726, it was forbidden to worship icons, and all paintings of religious character were destroyed. This ban lasted all the way through the reigns of Constantine V and Leo IV and it was only with Constantine VI that a solution to the ban was presented. Although it was Empress Eirene that had taken his post in state affairs and was the one in 787 that allowed the faithful to offer respect to the icons, it was only in the year 842 when the ban was completely removed. While these religious conflicts dragged on, Arab raids continued to be a thorn in the side of the empire. Also, the Bulgarians made it as far as the outskirts of Byzantium, and plundered the surrounding towns.
In the year 927, hunger and epidemic diseases rampaged through the city. While the Turks were settling down in Anatolia, the plot continued to thicken in Byzantium. Alexius I Comnenus (1180-1183) had the infamous Anamaz dungeons in Ayvansaray erected to imprison those who revolted against him. It was during the reign of this emperor that discontent has risen to an extreme level. It was only with the violent deaths of both Alexius I Comnenus and his successor, Andronikos Comnenus I, that the public riots were quelled.
While internal hostility for the throne persisted, the Fourth Crusade (1201-1204) was diverted to Byzantium by Venetians and claimants to the Byzantine throne from Egypt. The Crusaders pillaged the city, and set up the Latin Empire of Constantinople. They looted all of the beautiful works of art from Byzantium and carried them off to their country, and shared the valuables pillaged from the churches and palaces amongst themselves. The lower hall of the Byzantine Palace was converted into a stable. Bronze reliefs upon the Constantine VII columns were removed to mint money, statues of horses in the Hippodrome, church doors and everything else of value was plundered and carried away.
The Byzantines fled to Iznik and made it the capital. By taking advantage of the French and Venetian rivalry for the throne, they returned 57 years later, in 1261, to chase the Franks from Byzantium. The Byzantine Emperor Mikhail Palaiologos (1282-1328) came to Byzantium to sit on the Byzantine throne, but found the city looted, destitute and in a miserable state. During the reign of Constantinos Palaiologos XI, Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror conquered the city in 1453, and renamed it Istanbul.
Byzantine art is an exclusive product of the Eastern Empire. It is totally medieval in form but developed in a peculiarly Byzantine way. In Byzantine art we see Greek and Roman forms exposed to the stylistic influence of ancient Anatolian cultures and eastern art. It reached a totally Byzantine synthesis within the religious framework of the empire. Specific examples of this art, which took its main source from Anatolia may be seen in several places around Anatolia.
The transition phase between the years’ 400-500, when Christianity made its biggest impact, is known as the Early Byzantine art. Byzantine art, which is divided into three phases, the First, Middle and Late, lived through its first brilliant period was the Justinianos period (527-565). Without a doubt, the most important work from this period that has survived to this day is the Hagia Sophia Church. The architects Anthemios of Tralles from Aydin and Isidoros of Miletus were commissioned to rebuild the church after the Nike Revolt. It was reopened in 537 with a basilica plan and a central domed roof.
One of the most beautiful examples of Byzantine art in the city of Istanbul are the surrounding walls. The walls were constructed during the reign of Theodosios II (408-450) and conveyed a military purpose as well as aesthetic beauty. Apart from these, there are numerous works of Byzantine art that are scattered around Istanbul. Among these are the Cemberlitas (Hooped Column), Kiztasi (Maiden Column), Dikilitas (Planted Column), Yilanli Sutun (Snaked Column), Gotlar Sutunu (Goths Column), Ormeli Sutun (Knitted Column), Buyuk Saray (Grand Palace), Blakernal Sarayi (Blakernal Palace), Tekfur Sarayi (Tekfur Palace), cisterns, aqueducts, and several churches, the majority of which have been converted into mosques.
The well-preserved mosaics found inside both the chapel of Theotochos Pammacharistos (Fethiye Mosque) and the Church of St. Saviour (known today as the Kariye Museum) are important works that represent the Late Byzantine Period. Constantinople was positioned as the art center of the empire. However, the source of its main influences was Anatolia. For this reason, the most widespread and various examples of Byzantine art can be seen in Anatolia. It is possible to come across Byzantine masterpieces in ancient cities outside Istanbul. In particular, several temples in Anatolia had been restored and converted into churches. The fact that there was an archbishop’s palace in Aphrodisias, Byzantine basilicas uncovered in Side, the formation of St. Philip’s Martyrium in Hierapolis (Pamukkale) and other ancient cities like these show us that after the Roman Age, the Byzantine Age was a powerful entity.
Today, examples of small Byzantine handicrafts can be seen in museums. If we take into consideration the many pieces of artwork that were smuggled to Europe during the Latin Crusade of 1204, we may have a better understanding of the high quality of these works. The treasure of masterpieces of the church found in Kordalya near modern day Kumluca gives support to this idea. Some of these are found today in the Antalya Museum. Constantinople was a city of splendid sacred buildings, frescoes, manuscripts, fabric and valuable artifacts and adornments made of precious metals. This was an empire which survived for an astonishing 1100 years, steeped in the mysteries of medieval culture.
Works of art made with a mosaic technique were floor and wall mosaics. The finest examples of wall mosaics are those of the Grand Palace, which date back to the 5th century and can be seen in the Istanbul Museum of Mosaics.
It is regrettable that the Iconoclast Period of 726-842 resulted in the destruction of practically all early Byzantine pictorial art. Figurative impressions were prohibited and symbolism became a major influence. For example, as can be seen in the St. Irene Church, a cross motif symbolizes Jesus Christ. According to the concept of pictorial art, every scene had its own specific place. Almost all of the icons surviving today date from the 12th and 13th centuries, and it is these icons which inspired western art. The Hagia Sophia mosaics do not conform with this system as mosaics made during different periods in various sites around the structure can be seen.
The mosaics located in the south gallery depicting Deisis, Zoe, Comnenus are considered the finest in the world. Fine examples of mosaics from the Late Byzantine Period can be seen in the Kariye Museum. Visitors to the museum are stunned by the exquisite beauty of these mosaics. The most important mosaics belonging to the Early Byzantine Period made using the fresco technique may be seen in Yamacevler in Ephesus. It is here that animal figures like fish, birds, pigeons and peacocks that expressed concepts seen in Christian art such as heaven, the Holy Spirit and immortality were frequently used.
The most important frescoes representing the Mid-Byzantine Period are found in the Cappadocia region. These belong to the X-XI centuries. The frescoes that adorn the cemetery chapel of the Kariye Museum represent the Late Byzantine Period. Several notable historians and foreign dignitaries that have passed through Istanbul have stated in books they have written that Istanbul is a city rich with incredible masterpieces.
However, the majority of these artworks were plundered during the Frankish Crusade of 1204. It is for this reason that the most valuable Byzantine masterpieces are found in Western museums.
Small handicrafts such as ivory tablets, trays made from precious metals, incense burners, relics and icons can all be seen in our museums.