If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content
Current time:0:00Total duration:5:09

Video transcript

we're looking at a mosaic that dates from the late Byzantine period from the 1200s but it's in a church aya Sophia in Istanbul the dates to the 500s the very beginning of the Byzantine period we normally think about a building and its decoration dating from the same period but we also know that we we decorate our own homes so we're familiar with that idea now it's important to know that this mosaic which is just glorious was actually covered up for a very long time because this church became a mosque and when it became a mosque all of its images all of its crosses were either removed or were covered it's wonderful to see it but it hasn't survived very well we only have about one-third left of this mosaic but luckily we have the faces of the three figures this is called the diocese it shows Christ in the center with his right hand blessing his left hand holding the Gospels he's flanked by the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Baptist so that's what diocese means this is a subject that we see often in Byzantine art it's an intercession that is both of these figures are coming to Christ on behalf of mankind it's really easy to see the appeal of this medium small pieces of glass some with gold in them some colored these are Tesori and what's fabulous about them is they're set in the wall at slightly different angles so they all catch the light in different ways the artist has created a pattern in the background of that goal there also catches the light now this is a massive mosaic these figures are much larger than life and it's also fairly high off the ground so they really do stand above us and that gold ground reminds us that this is a heavenly space this is not an earthly space so they are distant from us but they're also approximate we feel as if there is emotional connection there's an abstraction to the background we see no landscape no architectural setting and yet the face is carefully modeled especially of Christ the artist has used light and dark to create a sense of three dimensionality in the face and in the neck and the hands of the figures and that's also true of Mary and John though perhaps to a lesser extent and yet there are still these striations that is the use of line in the drapery to define the folds and so it is still a kind of drawing as opposed to a modeling Christ seems to look directly out at us and seems to be in the middle of raising his hand for that blessing well it's interesting because he does look up but the other two figures are bowed there is a kind of solemnity they're kind of quiet both of those figures would have had their hands forward in gestures of Prayer now we're in the 12 60s here and this is just after a very tumultuous period to say the least in Byzantine history well this church which is the heart of the Eastern Orthodox tradition had been controlled briefly by the Latins that is by the Roman Catholics the Western Church in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade as the Crusaders were heading toward Jerusalem they stopped and instead sacked the very wealthy city of Constance no it was a terrible event and there was tremendous violence and really long term scarring some historians look at that moment the Fourth Crusade as the moment of the long downward spiral of Constantinople nevertheless after the Byzantines reclaimed their City there were a couple of hundred years of a real flowering and this mosaic is one of the great expressions of that period which some even call a Renaissance so this is a great example of late Byzantine work it might even remind us of what's going on in Italy at the same time with artists like Gucci oh well look at the elongation of the bodies it's not naturalism for all that's emotional engagement these are tremendously elegant figures look at the lengthening of the faces of the nose the fingers elegant but also emotional look at the st. John there's no where nasarah bonus of Christ's suffering on behalf of mankind I think this is a gorgeous mosaic but in some ways it feels out of place and it's important to remember that when this church was first consecrated its extensive mosaics were not figurative they didn't show the Virgin Mary and Christ and st. John they showed abstract symbols of the cross or patterns and in some ways they really emphasized the structural forms the volumes of the building as opposed to pictures on its walls we know that there was tension around the use of images from the very beginning of Christianity do you picture Christ you picture Mary we know that in the Judaic tradition that was disallowed on the other hand looking at this image I can see the incredibly profound value of images in aiding prayer in helping one to engage with the divine and the transcendent