Sources and Types of Byzantine Hagiography
History and archeological research have shown that the art of hagiography was influenced by:
- a) The art of ancient Greece
- b) The art of the East
- c) The Hellenistic art (portraits at Fagium)
- d) The Greekoroman art (wall paintings of Pompeii)
In point of fact, the two large branches, the eastern and the Hellenistic are the main factors that acted as catalyst in the creation of this art. In greater detail, Great Alexander and his successors succeeded in the creative union of the ancient Greek art with the already existing eastern one. The fruit of the union is the Hellenistic art. The arrival of Christianity influenced the Hellenistic and in this way brought on the Orthodox painting. Of course the character of the art achieved its full potential in the Byzantium, when Constantinople became the centre of the Byzantine Empire. There happened the selection of the artistic elements of the two worlds (eastern and Hellenistic) and provided the final character to the painting art.
Occasion where we can observe the influence which was incorporated by the byzantine art, are the following.
- - In the catacombs of Rome, the fish and the vine are eastern elements
- - Again in the catacombs the display of seasons, the different personifications (of the sun, sea ) etc are elements of the Hellenistic branch.
- - The Good Shepherd of Ravenna, the monastery of the Nation in Constantinople and a great number of monuments are characteristic examples of Hellenistic influence.
- - From ancient Greece we have the winged angels, the face of Christ in the early Christian period as a beardless youth and other occasions
Of course we should mention that apart from the eastern influence much more intense was the influence of the Greek art, of the Greek spirit. Finally we should not omit to mention in a very significant finding in our century, the portraits in the Fagium area. They were discovered in Egypt, west of the Nile and samples exist in our Benakio Museum in Athens. It concerns family portraits and are dated from the 1st to 4rd century AD. They were drawn by Greek artists and has been proved that they formed the coupling link between the ancient Greek art and the byzantine. All these elements and the technical methods we mentioned, Orthodoxy took hold of them, improved them, modified them imparting them a spiritual characteristic so as to enable the expression of the lofty truths of our faith.
The art of byzantine hagiography is distinguished by:
A. Portable Icons
These icons are usually drawn on wood and the colours are dissolved in egg yoke. Of course, an icon can be painted on some other surface, such as ceramic, old wood, textile, plaster etc, save the selection of materials be such as not be disdainful to the depicted persons. In the Christian icons we encounter the "burning technique" which was mainly developed in the 6th century AD. In this technique we have mixing of the colours with wax and heating of the surface with a hot iron. When the hot iron is not used but the coloured wax is spread on the wood we have what is called "wax - poured icons".
The "enamel technique" was outstanding in Byzantium. The icon was made on a metallic substrate. With slim wires they drew the outline of the forms (faces etc) and between the wires they poured enamel colours. To this, so called enclosed enamels, are included icons, manuals, holy chalices, relic holders, and other items of fine and detailed work.
B. Wall paintings
In this wall painting category we have two techniques. The first one is the damp drawing or "fresco". In this technique the hagiographer draws on a freshly plastered wall. Only as long as the plaster is still damp the work could succeed because once the plaster is dried no correction can be made. A second technique is the "xerography" (dry drawing). Here we have the mixing of the colours with a sticky substance and the drawing is on a dry wall.
In the mosaics instead of colours, small pieces of marble, stones, ivory, stained glass shards are used. They are called mosaic because the walls of caves dedicated to the Muses were decorated with mosaics. While it is not possible to achieve a soft and gradual transition of colours that are used in painting with mosaics, yet the brightness and liveliness of the mosaics instill in the faithful the feeling of transcendence to a different, more spiritual dimension. The works at Saint Luke in Lebadia, in the New Monastery of Chios, in the Monastery of the Nation etc, are considered classics.
D. Micrography (Miniature drawing)
Micrography or miniature is used mainly for decoration of the manuscripts. The detail and perfection of the features in these works is impressive. The manuscript usually is made of parchment and is called illustrated manuscript.