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Why is Byzantine Art important?

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There are a couple of important things you should consider when thinking about the importance of Byzantine Art. For starters, it shows the importance of the Eastern Orthodox Church in the Byzantine Empire. The majority of its art centers on Christian imagery and was actively used as part of the religious practice, both in churches and in the home. Most of this art took the form of religious icons depicting saints and other central figures of the Bible.

Many people of the Byzantine Empire felt that these icons helped them form a close connection with God. However, this art form also led to protracted and violent conflict. In the year 726, Emperor Leo III banned the use of religious icons in the empire. He felt that too many people were worshipping the art, and not the god represented by it. This policy became known as iconoclasm and resulted in the destruction of countless works of Byzantine religious art. This led to massive protests by fans of icons and increased tensions with Rome. In fact, Pope Gregory III excommunicated Emperor Leo over the matter. At times, angry mobs supporting or opposing iconoclasm would violently attack their opponents. It was not until the year 843 that the ban on icons was lifted, but the split between the eastern and western churches would never be fully reconciled.

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Byzantine Art is important because of its influence within Christianity art and architecture over nearly a millennium.  The Byzantine Empire picks up with the dwindling of the Roman Empire in the early fourth century when Constantine I issues the Edict of Milan to lift the ban on Christianity.  Constantine names the capital city Constantinople, a name it retains until the rise of the Ottoman Turks in the 1400s. 

The art of Byzantine society canonizes Greek and Roman styles, yet shifts in subject from the natural world to religious imagery.  The public emergence of the Christianity creates a demand for images and architecture that promote worship through the communication of religious messages.  

One style of Byzantine Art that was especially influential is the icon painting.  Icons are paintings on wood that depict people important to the mythology of the Christian religion.  Christ, Mary, and the saints were all popular subjects.  Icon paintings could be worshipped in public or at home.  This ability to worship at home allowed for a more personal relationship between an individual and Christianity.

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