What Was The 7th Century Crisis?

By the end of Justinian’s reign, the Byzantine empire began to suffer heavy decline in many aspects of its society, most notably in religious and political influence. While Justinian had launched successful campaigns all over the Byzantine empire and influenced a great undertaking for the sake of religious art and architecture, it could be said that the historical significance of his military prowess was also a determining factor in the downward spike of religious art and its role in Byzantine society. Where Justinian had succeeded in art, he had failed miserably in military campaigns and conquests. The empire also suffered pressure of invasion from forces of the Avars, Slavs, Persians, and Arabs throughout the 7th century. Internally, however, it could be said the Byzantine empire suffered most, as the role of religious art in society, which had been of increasingly significant value over the past four centuries, faced a great dilemma. All of these events culminated into a period known as the Seventh-century Crisis.

It is important to note that trends within Byzantine art, both in its religious significance as well as its societal trends, remained intact for the most part into the Seventh-century Crisis. While there were no notable erections of great monuments for the sake of the Eastern Orthodox Church and its influence, restoration and preservation of pre-existing structures amid widespread conflict still managed to occur outside of Constantinople. The Hagios Demetrios, a church built in Thessaloniki in the 4th century, was restored between AD 629 and 634 with new mosaics added depicting St. Demetrius and officials. These mosaics shine as rare examples of art that survived the crisis as well as the periods that followed. Mosaics from a menagerie of Roman churches, still considered Byzantine territory at this point in history, also bear many images of religious significance. Among these include Santa Maria Antiqua, considered to be the oldest monument to Christianity in the Roman Forum. This church in particular is renowned for the mosaic of the earliest Roman interpretation of “Saint Mary as Queen,” estimated to the 6th century. Several great projects of religious renown are rumored to have come to fruition by the hands of Byzantine mosaicists as well, although these projects of Umayyad make – such as the Dome of the Rock and the Great Mosque of Damascus – were likely the result of the 7th century invasions that occurred throughout the empire and bore little Christian influence whatsoever.

Luxury art persisted for a time as well into the 7th century, though it could also be considered one of the greater contributions to the subsequent periods of the history of Byzantine art. While silver plates were still of great value within society, the phenomenon known as “acheiropoieta” (essentially, holy images occurring in nature) became widespread and greatly revered. Many within the empire credited these phenomena for the aversion of outside military threat, and the practice of prostrating oneself in front of these images in a process known as proskynesis became just as widespread.

Considered worship of iconography, it became part of a greater whole within the debate of the role of art in churches and the Christian religion altogether. The Quinisext Council held in AD 692 addressed main points of controversy that circulated around religious imagery. Among these were the depictions of crosses on pavement, the depiction of Christ as a lamb, and the use of “pictures, whether they are in paintings or in what way so ever, which attract the eye and corrupt the mind, and incite it to the enkindling of base pleasures,” all three of these canons suffering prohibition of injunction as a result of the council. As time passes, the intensity of these debates regarding the role art and imagery in a religious context grows and gives way to the period in Byzantine history known as Iconoclasm.

Categories Art