Art historian Michael Baxandall theorized that people of a particular culture perceive and understand art in a similar way, a phenomenon known as the “period eye.” This concept can certainly be applied to art of the Byzantine Empire; its artistic conventions remained fairly consistent throughout the middle ages. Since Cappadocia was a Byzantine province, first-time researchers and visitors will find that familiarity with Byzantine art in general enhances their experience and helps them develop the “period eye” necessary for understanding Cappadocian paintings and carvings. These resources provide an introductory overview of early Christian and Byzantine art history.
First, watch the video of Egypt’s sixth-century Red Monastery, shared here via the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Egypt was also a province of the Byzantine empire at this time, and the video shows what is like to be surrounded by floor-to-ceiling wall paintings. Although the church is much larger than an average Cappadocian structure, Elizabeth Bolman’s narration gives a good overview of both monasticism and the conservation of painted churches.
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Two affordable Byzantine art survey textbooks discuss a variety of objects within their social and historical context. Robin Cormack’s Byzantine Art (Oxford University Press, 2000) eloquently addresses the issues of continuity and change in the capital city, offering an explanation of icons in the section, “What is Byzantine Art?” available in the online preview and Kindle edition. John Lowden’s Byzantine Art (Phaidon, 1997) is well-rounded, but particularly strong in its discussion of manuscripts.
12 Byzantine Rulers: The History of the Byzantine Empire is a podcast series by Lars Brownworth, using biographies of rulers to structure the historical narrative. Listen to the free audio files on his website, or download them in iTunes.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art has released several Byzantine exhibition catalogs online in its MetPublications portal. The entire volumes, all with short descriptions of many images as well as scholarly essays, can be downloaded as PDFs and some can be read online. Age of Spirituality: Late Antique and Early Christian Art, Third to Seventh Century, edited by Kurt Weitzmann (1979) uses imperial, Jewish, and Christian objects to trace the transition from classical antiquity into early Byzantine society. The images are black and white, and the essays represent decades-old scholarship, but the volume was an important beginning to the tradition of Byzantine exhibitions in American museums. The Glory of Byzantium: Art and Culture of the Middle Byzantine Era, A.D. 843–1261, edited by Helen Evans and William Wixom (1997) covers art made in the Middle Byzantine period, between the end of Iconoclasm and the end of the Latin occupation of Constantinople after the Fourth Crusade. This is often thought to be a ‘golden era’ of Byzantine art, culture, and influence. The catalog examples include Christian and secular luxury arts, everyday objects, and architecture. In Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261–1557), edited by Helen Evans (2004), an exploration of Byzantium’s artistic strengths and political weaknesses completes the trilogy of exhibitions.
The cultural melting pot of late antiquity is revisited in Transition to Christianity: Art of Late Antiquity, 3rd – 7th Century AD, edited by Anastasia Lazaridou ( 2011). In the catalog, published by the Onassis Foundation to accompany an exhibition, pagan and early Christian themes are explored in a set of essays that offer a fresh perspective on Weitzmann’s influential legacy.