Spanning from the fourth through the mid-15th century CE, the Byzantine Empire, also known as Byzantium, was the continuation of the eastern half of the Roman Empire. Its first ruler, Constantine I (reigned 306–337 CE), moved the imperial capital from Rome to the eastern frontier city of Byzantium (present-day Istanbul), renaming it Constantinople in 330 CE. As the western Roman Empire diminished and ultimately fell in 476 CE, the eastern empire grew and flourished, embracing Christianity as the official imperial religion and Greek rather than Latin as the official administrative language. At its peak, Byzantium covered parts of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa, extending its cultural and artistic traditions into these regions while also being influenced by them.
Byzantine art is characterized by a shift away from the naturalism and idealized forms associated with earlier Greek and Roman art toward more stylized, abstract forms, with an overall tendency toward flatness. Artists worked primarily in two-dimensional media, creating mosaics, icons, and wall paintings. The majority of Byzantine art depicts Christian subjects, enhancing the expression of spirituality and otherworldliness of church theology through an abstract aesthetic. Secular objects sometimes incorporated classical subjects and motifs alongside Christian iconography.
The Art Institute’s collection of Byzantine art includes works that are diverse in form, function, and media, which were created for both sacred and secular contexts. The museum holds numerous imperial coins in gold and bronze, whose imagery connects earthly rulers to the divine. Christian imagery is also found on objects used in private devotional practices, including amulets and jugs intended for storing holy oil or water. The museum’s collection also includes secular objects used in the home such as bottles, bowls, pitchers, jugs, and goblets produced in colorful glass; numerous fragments of terracotta vessels embellished with geometric motifs; and part of the rim of a large marble table likely used in elaborate banquets. Architectural decorations include large-scale mosaic panels and a wooden bas-relief, reflecting the popularity of images of domesticated and wild animals in the Byzantine period. Objects associated with personal adornment include glass containers created for storing cosmetics and jewelry. The museum’s holdings in Byzantine art are rounded out with a number of textiles from Byzantine Egypt, which appear to have been made primarily for secular use, either as ornaments on garments or as household furnishings.