The Colors of Byzantium

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Byzantine art is not an easy subject. Its mastering requires a profound knowledge of the history of Byzantine Empire, Middle Ages and the art of XIII-XV century. This kind of art is rich in colors, so it can be hardly understood without taking into account the technology of painting with light which was widely used in that period. The technology allowed to make a broad palette of colors, to create contrasts and play with light.

Let us consider some examples.

In the panel above we can see two compositions: on the left hand side John Chrysostomos surrounded by his pupils and on the right hand side Virgin Mary surrounded by her disciples.

Here the contrast between light and shadow plays an important role. Figures of John Chrysostomos and his pupils stand out from a dark background thanks to their bright clothing color (white, blue, red). It reveals that they are inside a church or a cathedral which is illuminated from windows or from candles (considering that figures are mostly depicted with natural proportions but faces are over-emphasized probably for a holy purpose).

The same composition is repeated on the right hand side in greyscale because it is more suitable for illumination during night time. Faces here are drawn in conventional way resembling Byzantine iconography style

This is a story about art, color and light. Specifically, it’s about the use of light in Byzantine painting, in the centuries immediately following the Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in AD 313. It’s a story that begins with the art of ancient Rome and then moves rapidly forward through the upheavals of Late Antiquity and on into the Middle Ages.

The Byzantine Empire was based at Constantinople, now called Istanbul and formerly known as Byzantium. The empire was established by Constantine and his successors, but lasted longer than any other imperial entity in European history. From its peak in the fifth century, when it embraced territories from Scotland to Syria, it would last another thousand years until 1453 when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks.

The Byzantine Empire is sometimes described as a continuation of Roman civilization, but that is not strictly true. Although its art often looks very like Roman art – just as British culture looks very like French culture – there are important differences which need to be recognized if we are to understand how Byzantine paintings work.

When light strikes a surface, its energy can be reflected, transmitted, or absorbed. Each of these processes is determined by the interaction between the material the surface is made of and the wavelength of the light. For example, if light with a wavelength in the visible spectrum hits an object made of glass, it will be transmitted through it rather than being reflected or absorbed.

If you look at a Byzantine mosaic you see something that looks like colored glass. But that’s not what it is. The glass in Byzantine mosaics was laid in strips; there are no tiles covering any flat surface.

What makes Byzantine mosaics look like colored glass is something more subtle: light striking them is being partially reflected and partially transmitted in a very particular way. When you stand at the right distance from a mosaic and view it from a certain angle, the color you see is partly coming from the object depicted on it and partly from reflections bouncing off of adjoining surfaces. Looking at such mosaics (if you are lucky enough to be able to) requires standing at just the right distance to get this effect right before your eyes.*

This brings us to an important point about Byzantine art—and by extension most medieval art: It was meant to be seen as much as possible through human eyes — through

Byzantine art was a product of the Orthodox Church and the Roman Empire, but it did not draw directly on either of their artistic traditions. Byzantine artists looked to Late Antique art, which in turn looked back to classical art from centuries before. The result was a unique style, with its own strengths and weaknesses.

For example, we know that the oldest surviving icons were colored with paint – that is, pigment mixed with a binder. We can infer from this that the earliest icons had bright colors – otherwise the paint would have washed away. Later icons are more muted in color, which may be due to aging or to changes in fashions (Byzantines liked bright colors) or simply to the natural evolution of painting styles.

The colors used were created by mixing together various pigments – usually earth-based ones like ochre, charcoal or clay; some reds could be made by combining red clay with iron oxides; blues and greens were often made from copper compounds. Byzantine painters also used gold leaf and silver leaf to create highlights.


The Byzantine palette was based on a series of colors that were created by mixing either gold or silver with other pigments. The range of shades that could be achieved was vast, and the resulting color combinations were rich and complex. Three basic techniques were used to create these various hues: encaustic (pigment mixed with wax); tempera (pigment mixed with egg yolk); and enamel (pigment mixed with glass). The process of creating color using encaustic and tempera was relatively simple. Powders of pigment would be combined with liquid binders, usually egg yolk for tempera painting, or melted wax for encaustic painting.

The process used for enamel is what made Byzantine art so unique, as well as its downfall. Enamel was created by heating powdered glass in a crucible to high temperatures until it liquefied, then mixing it with pigment binder to form a paste before applying it to the surface of the panel. While this created a very vibrant color palette, the process was extremely difficult and required great skill to create a workable surface that wouldn’t crack or deteriorate over time.

Painting is the least important part of Byzantine art, but it provides the clearest evidence of how the Byzantines used color to make mosaics and frescoes look three-dimensional.

Color in painting is created by mixing together tiny particles of different substances to create different hues. The particles are called pigments. Today we tend to think of pigments as being chemical, but that’s only because we’ve forgotten about all the other possibilities. In a Byzantine painting, you could make yellow by mixing honey with gold leaf. Or you could mix ground up jewel-colored glass with vinegar and then use the resulting sticky goop to attach pieces of colored glass to your painting while it dried.

We know that the Byzantines knew about chemical pigments because they had recipes for making them. But in most cases they didn’t use them, because they had better alternatives. For example, if you wanted to paint a red robe, you could mix up red paint using a chemical pigment like vermilion or red lead. Or you could mix up purple paint with blue paint and then add red paint to it until it was the right shade of red.

The advantage of mixing paints rather than using pigments is that your mixture can be thinner and more transparent than

The Byzantine empire had a bad press from the start. Early historians blamed it for the decline of Rome. Later, when Byzantium was no longer a threat to anyone except its own citizens, its very name became synonymous with decadence and corruption.

The fact that the Byzantine Empire survived for a thousand years is no longer enough to get it noticed by historians. What’s worse, the Byzantines never did anything new, and they never went anywhere: they were a Mediterranean power, confined to their small corner of the world. They never colonized America or Asia or Africa, like other empires; they never sent out missionaries or built trading posts or founded new cities anywhere but in their immediate neighborhood. They were a civilization stuck fast in time, as if they had stepped into some magic mirror and were condemned forever to reflect back upon themselves.

Does all this sound familiar? It should. It has been said of every empire that ever existed except one — our own. If I could revive any ancient empire, I think I’d pick the Byzantine one, for sheer contrariness.

But there’s another reason to take a second look at Byzantium: because it was so different from what we think of as an empire, its history can teach us something about our

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