Byzantine influence upon the Western world was most marked in Italy–not surpisingly, since the Italian peninsula was the wealthiest part of Western Europe, and was always close enough to the Byzantine Empire to feel its influence. Italian religious art was, until the early 14th century, wholly Greek in style, before it developped in a different direction. Even then, however, it still looked for a while towards its place of origin for inspiration and models.
Observing Italian art in the middle ages give an overview of all the tendencies that were operating and being synthesized on the peninsula at the time, and which would win the rest of Western Europe. The gallery below shows this transformation, using the theme of the Mother of God enthroned with her child. The first image is an icon in the Byzantine tradition. The works of Cimabue, one of the great maestri of Italian painting and the last to operate fully in the Byzantine iconographic tradition, closely resemble their Byzantine models. Cavallini looks back to ancient Roman models, making his works seem to belong to Justinian’s era. With Giotto, however, a transformation takes place: the third dimension. The theme remains the same, so do the colors and the use of gold, the pose of the models and the outline, but the emergence of perspective witness to a change of outlook in medieval society. By Botticelli’s time, this same theme would be represented in a wholly different manner, no longer being the expression of an objective divine reality, but the expression of a sensible reality seen through the artist’s subjective eyes–symbol of the divergence of two civilizations that share so much in common; symbol, too, of the gradual turning away of the emerging West from a spiritual faith.
Byzantine icon from Crete, 15th. century.
Cavallini, The Annunciation, ca. 1291.
Cimabue, Madonna Enthroned, ca. 1280.
Giotto, Madonna enthroned, ca. 1310.
Duccio, Maesta with Twenty Angels and Nineteen Saints, 1308-1311.
Botticelli, Virgin and Child Enthroned Between St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist, ca. 1484.