Constantinople was a melting pot of many races and peoples and a cultural center of the world in early Christian times. This is where Orient and Occident collided. The creative thinking of Greek antiquity was still alive, mixed with the pragmatic thinking of the Romans who had conquered the country, interspersed with the rapturous and exuberant nature of the sensual Oriental peoples, the Syrians, Egyptians, Persians. The mental violence of young Christianity had a pervasive effect. A lifestyle was formed in this city, in which piety, solemnity and sensuality, splendor and asceticism, lust for power, intrigue and statesmanlike prudence had their place. The art of that time is composed of formal elements of the most diverse origins and coinage and merged into a new whole, reflecting the spirit of this new great empire that emerged from the old Roman Empire.
The Roman Emperor Constantine the Great founded this city in 324 and gave it his name. He did not intend to create a second Rome, but he did intend to create a base for the powerful empire further east of Rome, which reached as far as the Caucasus. Caesar had already toyed with the same idea – at his time the Roman Empire was still intact – but never realized it.
The Greek settlement from which the city emerged was called Byzantium. Greeks formed the majority of the population, so people still talk about the city of Byzantium and Byzantine art. In 360 Constantinople was given its own senate, and since the Ecumenical Council in 381 there has been talk of Constantinople being a “new Rome.” In 395, the Roman emperor Theodosius I died. He left his empire to his two sons for better administration: Honorius received the West, Arcadius the East. Now the division of the Roman Empire was in the offing. The Eastern Empire included Libya, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor, Bulgaria, Rurnania, southeastern Yugoslavia, and Greece. There was an emperor in the Eastern Roman Empire, but not a pope, only a patriarch, who, however, had a higher rank than those in Antioch and Alexandria.
Under Emperor Justinian I (527-565), Byzantine art experienced its first great flowering – it must also have been a heyday of icon painting. But only very few works have survived to us from this and the following century. Today they are kept in the Monastery of St. Catherine at the foot of Mount Jebel Musa in the Sinai Peninsula. There are hardly any even older icons.
In 527 Emperor Justinian had the monastery built. Thanks to the skill of the monks, who prevented the conquering Arabs from entering the monastery in the 7th century, the art treasures that had accumulated here over the centuries escaped destruction by those of other faiths.
The word icon is derived from the Greek “eikön” and means “image”, “likeness”. At the time of early Christianity, any religious image – mosaic, fresco or panel painting – was an eikon. Today we understand by the term icon the religious cult image of the Eastern Church. Many icons became works of art: Using creative means, the painters tried to overcome the tension between the archetype and the image. They were concerned with fidelity to nature and authenticity of the person portrayed. The features are carefully and precisely drawn, but despite all the movement of the lines, especially on icons of the later period, there is something rigid, unapproachable about the figures.
The person depicted is at once startlingly present and enraptured, tangible to the senses and yet incomprehensible – a mystery. “Windows to eternity” has been called the icons. The Greek-Hellenistic thinking related to this world received a new essence through Christianity – the pointing to the transcendent, beyond this world to the Absolute. In the icons it is artistically designed. The precursors and in a certain way also models of the icons – this may be regarded as certain today – are the Egyptian Hellenistic mummy portraits. Numerous have been found in the tombs of Fayum south of Cairo. They date from the period from the 2nd to the 4th century AD. These portraits of the deceased, painted on panels with wax colors, are characterized by the highest fidelity to nature and captivate with the immediacy of the representation: the faces seem to be alive. The tablet was placed between the mummy bandages at the level of the neck or head.
According to the Egyptian view, now that the body had died, the immortal part of man needed a new shell in which to dwell. Part of this cover were the portrait panels. The lifelike features made it easier for the bereaved to remain in a kind of metaphysical connection with the dead. The wide-set eyes of the depicted person are striking: they illustrate the mysterious world of the afterlife, which the dead person has already seen The image became a means of communication between the living and the deceased, and it was believed that could still be useful to his former fellows.
This view was philosophically founded by various theories of Neoplatonism, especially by the emanation theory (emanare – to radiate), according to which small particles of the divine gradually enter and penetrate the world of things. Soon people equated the image and the people depicted. This was also and especially true of images of the deity, because, it was said, the image of a deity created by the hand of an artist according to the law of sympathy was connected with its essence or participated in it. It is a quite natural longing of man to make a picture of that which he loves, venerates or feels to be sacred, to let it become more alive in the image when imagination is not sufficient or threatens to dwindle. For ancient man it was something quite natural to make the divine visible by material means – the Greeks had always depicted their gods in pictures. For them, the gods were similar to humans, the Greek sculptures testify to this. Gods were drawn into the lives of people and lived among them. But despite all humanity in the form, the Greek gods did not lack the numinous, the demonic and the ultimately incomprehensible for man.