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Byzantium and the West At the Getty Center, September 14–December 5, 2004

June 29, 2004

Los Angeles—The widespread influence of the Byzantine Empire on neighboring countries and the enduring legacy of its art are explored in the new Getty exhibition Byzantium and the West, at the Getty Center, September 14 - December 5, 2004. The exhibition features manuscripts that showcase the distinctive brilliance of Byzantine art and highlight the manner in which different cultures reacted to the artistic heritage of the Empire over time.

 Drawn primarily from the Getty's rich collection, the works on view include bound manuscripts, leaves, and a painting, all dating from the 11th through 17th centuries. Among these are several loans from other West Coast collections. The exhibition explores the striking naturalism and courtly splendor that distinguishes Byzantine art, and examines the diverse ways in which the highly admired style was emulated by three of Byzantium's closest neighbors: Germany, Italy, and Armenia. 

 The Byzantine Empire, which lasted from 330 until 1453, inherited the territories and cultural traditions of the Eastern Roman Empire. Drawing upon the art of classical Greece and Rome, Byzantine artists continued the naturalistic tradition in their depictions of the human form. One hallmark of their style was to arrange the folds of garments to suggest the body underneath the garments. Byzantine art was also known for its rich visual brilliance. Strongly influenced by the sumptuous ceremony of the emperor's court, artists from the Empire illuminated their manuscripts with bright gold and other precious materials. The geometric patterns and lush decorations they used were partly based on motifs found in Byzantine metalwork and jewelry of the period. 

 Trade, intermarriage, and military expeditions facilitated the exchange of ideas and goods between Byzantium and the West. Paintings, illuminated books, and silk textiles from the Empire were among the luxury items given away as diplomatic gifts. As rulers in Western Europe established their centers of power, they looked to Byzantine models for symbols of imperial greatness. They adopted Byzantine religious imagery, and artists in the region incorporated Byzantine themes and styles into their work, reinterpreting and adapting them to suit their own culture and the interests of their patrons. 

 In Germany, the intermarriage of the imperial family with Byzantine aristocrats in the 900s intensified the connection between the two peoples. German artists adapted poses from Byzantine art, used bright patterns inspired by silks from the Empire, and often followed the naturalistic tradition of depicting Christ as vulnerable and human rather than as a triumphant figure, much to the disapproval of the Western Church. They also depicted their subjects dressed in exotic robes. A German miniature of the Annunciation, created around 1240, shows the Virgin dressed in a Byzantine costume called a maphorion, with a veil that covers the head and shoulders and a star on her forehead. In the drapery of the archangel Gabriel, the German artist also incorporates the bright highlights and angular folds of Byzantine illumination, but in a departure, he does not follow the tradition of hinting at the body underneath.

 Parts of Italy were once within the boundaries of the Empire, and strong ties persisted through commercial and military activity, especially with the beginning of the Crusades around 1095, which brought about the greatest interaction between Byzantium and the West. As more people became familiar with the landscape of the Holy Land, Western artists began to respond to this expanded worldview. An Italian manuscript created in the late 1200s follows the Byzantine tradition and sets the Nativity within a mountainous landscape with the Holy Family taking shelter in a cave, rather than resting in a stable as described in the Bible. Italian artists also borrowed imagery, such as the Virgin's swoon, which is known from a small number of examples in Byzantine manuscripts of the 1000s, but flourished in the West only after 1250.

 Armenia, the closest eastern neighbor to the Empire, remained an independent Christian state but looked to the Byzantine Orthodox Church for inspiration. In an Armenian manuscript, Saint Mark is shown in the Byzantine manner as a Gospel writer who is bearded and seated at a lectern. The background of gold is also adopted from the Byzantine tradition and suggests a heavenly setting for the figure. The Armenian artist, however, includes more elaborate architectural details and a distinctive sun, which suggest a natural setting. Armenian artists also incorporated Islamic art forms into their work. Years of contact with the Byzantine Empire, Western Crusaders, and Islamic neighbors allowed Armenian artists to choose selectively from different artistic traditions, resulting in the development of a distinct style that reflected the exchange and integration of many cultural sources. 

 When the Byzantine Empire ended with the fall of its capital, Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, its artistic traditions continued and were sometimes entwined with innovations of the Italian Renaissance, especially in areas such as Venetian-ruled Crete. Byzantine scholars who took refuge in Italy after the fall of the Empire contributed to the sustaining power of its art and culture, and Constantinople continued to be imagined as the seat of Christian splendor. Western artists, however, began to visualize Byzantine courtly splendor in familiar terms. Rather than depicting the Byzantine emperor in the gold and jewels of an Eastern ruler, for example, they might show him in the ermine-lined cloak and crown common to European kings, this time adapting imagery from the West to Byzantine subjects.

Note to editors:  Images available on request.

Tracy Gilbert
Getty Communications Dept.

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