Hi, I'm Ben.
Below is the essay I wrote for my Art History class. It’s a discussion and critique of an ancient Byzantine mosaic. Hopefully this will give you a little bit of insight into what I learn in college. :)
November 7, 2010
Emperor Justinian and His Attendants
Introduction and Identification
The image I chose to write about is called Emperor Justinian and His Attendants. A mosaic dating back to 547 CE, it is found within the church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. The material used in creating the piece is glass, known as tessarae, set in plaster. (Davies 246) The scene is one of two which flank the altar of the church. The other image is Empress Theodora and Her Attendants.(Davies 254) It is unknown who the artist was behind “Emperor” (the piece was likely from an imperially run workshop), but that won’t stop our understanding of this work.
There are many different, unique qualities within this image. To start with, the entire composition is quite cramped. There are eleven men who are at least partially visible, if not fully visible, within the scene. They include members of clergy, the emperor Justinian himself, officials and guards. The figures are all, “very different from the squat, large-headed figures […] in the art of the fourth and fifth centuries.” These men are all very tall, yet they all have eye-levels that are almost exactly the same. Their bodies are slender, faces are all quite similar and they all present small feet. To an uninformed person it might look as if these large-eyed men are all related to one another.
The entire image also has a seemingly “flat” feel to it. Though the artist intended there to be some perception of depth because of the overlapping men and their differing heights, they all have the same forward-facing stance and gaze. They almost feel like cardboard cut-outs in the way that they have no differing poses other than full-frontal. Also, though the drapery effects in their clothing are handled well - with shadows clearly defined and used effectively on the robes of the clergy members, for example - the way the supposed cloth falls from the shoulders of the subjects shows no bodily definition from underneath.
Historical and Cultural Context
There are pretty obvious reasons for the way the imagery was done the way it was. To better explain this, I must also reference the other imagery that is opposite this one. First, the scene (and its sister scene on the other side) are flanking the altar of the church. This almost gives the effect that the people depicted are staring out at the real life people inside who have gathered there. Justinian and Theodora, in the opposite mosaic, are holding bread and wine, respectively. These are said to be symbolic of the Eucharist, and the body and blood of Christ. (Davies 256) It almost appears as if Justinian, Theodora and all of their respective followers are coming in to the church to join in whatever ceremonies may be taking place within.
Justinian is seen with a saintly halo around his head along with the same imperial robes as that of Christ. This depiction is to, “clearly depict Justinian as Christ’s representative on earth, and to show him as a worthy successor to Constantine (referred to by the Chi-Rho shield of Constantine’s) - to express his power as head of both Church and State.” (Ferguson) This power is furthermore, “implied by the significant placement of the mosaic. Justinian is present in the main altar of the church, the most sacred part, where only the priest could stand. Thus, by including himself, Justinian wields his power over the priest, perhaps even suggesting his holiness, which is suggested through the halo.” (Ferguson)
When critiquing a work like this it’s easy to forget that it was done in a very, very different time period than today. The processes and techniques in use to create the tessarae, plaster, patterning, appearance of shadow, etc. were only just being discovered. The artists who worked on creating the mosaic depiction had to create it with a limited speed, due to only being able to lay tessarae within an area that they could reasonably cover in a day. Otherwise, the plaster they didn’t cover would stay on the walls and become hardened which would make it near-impossible to remove. Taking all of these things in to consideration, my critique is quite conservative.
Yes, there are obvious problems with spacial relationships, as well as minor details such as the fact that, within the tangle of legs and feet at the bottom-right of the composition, there aren’t enough legs to go with all of the men shown. There’s also a clear disregard for any sort of perspective. With, “attention focusing on the transcendent meaning of the image rather than on any “realistic” portrayal of earthly time and place […] the figures in Byzantine art, while owing much to Roman painting in their treatment of drapery and facial features, tend to “float” in space without weight and solid mass, without occupying a three-dimensional space.” (Rhodes)
I do have to give the artist(s) a lot of credit, though. Working in a medium that doesn’t allow you to move around to other sections when working, that must be developed from one side to another without a full idea of what the finished piece will look like, and that is literally as hard as stone must be quite difficult. Sure, there are the somewhat significant problems that I wrote of above, but all things considered the imagery is spectacular. There are detailed patterns, highly recognizable shadowing work in the drapery, delicately created religious and political symbolism that are instantly noticeable. The fact that this piece has survived almost entirely for over fifteen hundred years and still has a vivid color range, as well as still pushing the political ideas that Justinian was along the same line of holiness as Christ after so long, are a testament to the highly skilled craftsmanship and artisenship that is on display in the mosaic of Emperor Justinian and His Attendants.
Davies, Denny, Hofrichter, Jacobs, Roberts, Simon,
Janson’s History of Art: The Western Tradition. Seventh ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2007.
Ferguson, “Justinin And Theodora.”
http://www.stockton.edu/~fergusoc/lesson4/jump6.htm (accessed November 1, 2010).
Rhodes, Kent. “Medieval Italian Art.” April, 2003.
http://campus.queens.edu/faculty/rhodesk/medieval_italian_art.htm (accessed November 1, 2010).