Qantara Qantara

Mural painting and "peinture de chevalet"

In Byzantium

Mural painting

Painting was the most common technique used for monumental decoration in Byzantium, the Balkans, the Caucasus and Russia. Having outlasted the Byzantine Empire, after 1453 it spread through the Orthodox world of which it was – with icons – the most authentic expression. The figures, which the humanist Giorgio Vasari considered “monstrosities” – “those eyes with their lustreless staring, the feet standing on tiptoes, the pointed hands”[1] – are the product of a long tradition whose origins lie in Neoplatonic thought. However, despite the fidelity to an anti-naturalist aesthetic, mural painting was neither immutable nor conservative. Over 2,500 frescoes[2] inventoried in the area of the Byzantine Empire and its zone of influence reflect Byzantine art across time and space.

The evolution of mural painting is traditionally divided into four periods, which correspond to those of the history of the Byzantine Empire: the early Christian period to the Iconoclastic Controversy, the Macedonian Renaissance, Comnenus classicism and mannerism, and the last glimmers of the Palaeologi period. However, the stylistic trends varied according to geographic, economic and cultural factors.

Stemming from the classical tradition, Christian painting was first attested in the syncretic context of catacombs and funerary decorations. The frescoes of the baptistery of Dura-Europos[3] and those of the adjacent synagogue bear witness to the use of painting in places of worship. However, mural painting seems to have been regarded as subordinate to mosaic even though many decorations have disappeared. The oldest examples date from the sixth and seventh centuries[4], in Naxos and the church of Hagios Demetrios in Thessaloniki in Greece, in the frescoes of the Red Church of Perustica in Bulgaria, and in Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai, on two panels surrounding the apse of the basilica. Thought to date from the seventh century, the paintings of the church of the Panagia Drosiani on the island of Naxos[5] are an example of fine and accomplished painting, like the frescoes in Rome commissioned by Pope John VII, no doubt from Greek painters[6]. The production of votive panels continued until the ninth century, when the Eastern Roman Empire was being shaken by the Iconoclastic Controversy. The rare surviving aniconic decorations in Cappadocia and Naxos bear witness, however, to the continuation of painting featuring the theme of the cross, associated with an ornamental vocabulary common to the decorative arts.

During the Macedonian Renaissance, embodied above all by the sumptuary arts and illumination, mural painting played a secondary role. The proliferating number of churches in Cappadocia followed different trends: in addition to “archaic” decorations characterised by a highly linear style, flat figures and thick colours, the classicising spirit was felt in decoration, such as that of the new church of Tokali Kilise. The innovations in painted decoration after Iconoclasm included the creation of iconographic programmes based on the economy of salvation. Henceforth, compositions took into account the liturgical vocation of buildings, like, for example, in the funerary church of the Panagia ton Chalkeon in Thessaloniki, founded in 1028 and decorated in the understated and hieratic style that prevailed in the eleventh century. Interest in the rite was reflected in particular in the iconography of the apse and its surroundings: underneath the image of the Virgin and Child, emblematic of the Incarnation, hierarch saints flank the priests; above it, in the middle register, the Communion of the Apostles serving as an illustration of the Eucharist.

Executed in 1164, the frescoes of Nerezi, near Skopje, embody the new sensibility that animated painting during the Comnenus dynasty: liberated from the solemn frontality of old, the light and slender figures adopted lively gestures and personalised expressions that do not conceal affection, anxiety or grief. The frescoes of Kurbinovo in Macedonia (1191) and Lagoudera in Cyprus (1192) mark the evolution towards “mannerism” or the “dynamic style” in the late twelfth century, which took place throughout the Mediterranean basin, from Abu Ghosh in the Holy Land to Monreale, Sicily, as well as in icon painting and manuscripts. The capture of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204 put an end, at least temporarily, to the predominance of the capital as source of stylistic trends. The fragmentary frescoes illustrating the life of Saint Francis of Assisi, whose painters appropriated the Byzantine tradition, constitute the sole surviving example of the mural painting of this period in the capital[7]. The tradition continued in Nicaea, where the Byzantine aristocracy found refuge, as well as in the Serb kingdom, with the graceful paintings of Milesevo. At the same time, several churches in mainland Greece and the islands bear witness to sustained activity, prolonging the Comnenus tradition with a trend towards a more human expression[8]. Certain archaisms illustrate the return of painters to early Christian models while other innovations infiltrated as a result of contact with the Western tradition[9]. A similar evolution occurred in Cappadocia, stabilised under Seljuq domination, where the prosperous Christian population commissioned new foundations[10].

The return to classical sources through the heritage of the Macedonian period and the spirituality of the Hesychasts were the two main intellectual sources of the Palaeologi era; they breathed a new identity into the painting of this period. The iconographic programmes were enriched with liturgical cycles inspired by the menologia, the Marian celebrations and the lives of the saints. Thessaloniki and Constantinople were the principal centres where painting blossomed through two main stylistic trends: the “heavy style” appeared in Sopocani, Serbia (1265), and was characterised by compositions featuring a certain sense of space in rich architectural settings. Covered in ample draperies, the stout figures have an imposing sculptural appearance, with almost cubic effects, thanks to the firm modelling of the draperies and the flesh tones with contrasting highlights. The second style, found in Constantinople notably in the frescoes of the funerary chapel of Chora (Kariye Camii) and in Mistra, Peloponnese, shares with the first current the taste for classicising motifs and the organisation of space, but is differentiated by a mannerist interpretation – more fluid and refined – of human figures and by the shaded transitions of the colours. It was this painting from the early fourteenth century that inspired the school of Morava in Serbia, the work of Theophanes the Greek – the predecessor of Andrei Rublev – and the painting of Venetian Crete.

Technique and method

Much less expensive than mosaic and quicker to execute, painting offered not only an accessible alternative but also a medium with different properties, notably the fluid compositions. Painted decoration usually covered all surfaces, even imitating marble or fabric on the lower sections. The painting was executed on one or more coats of plaster, progressively applied to the walls. The painters tried to make the edges of the support correspond to those of the compositions, but sometimes there were perceptible lines where they joined. After the production of a preliminary drawing with a brush or charcoal, the backgrounds and flat surfaces were painted first, from top to bottom. The figures were treated using two methods: the simpler one consisted of drawing the facial features in black or dark brown on a surface painted in flesh tones with details that were heightened summarily. In the second method, attested to especially from the twelfth century, and explained in detail in painters’ manuals, the colours were applied in three coats and merged. The two methods could be used in the same work; the most important figures were often highlighted with a more polished rendering. The coloration became more elaborate in the twelfth century: the flat tints were reduced and the colours were applied in combinations of three shades, and enriched with pure black or white for the shadows and highlights. The organic pigments were fixed with a binding agent. The use of precious materials was rare: in some Middle Byzantine princely commissions in Cappadocia, Armenia and Georgia, lapis lazuli helped produce bright blue grounds. In the Tokali Kilise, silver and gold were added; they were used for the nimbi and the armour, particularly during the Palaeologi period. Sometimes, gold was used to imitate the glitter of mosaics, and stucco for the nimbi[11].

The painters

Despite the information gleaned in painters’ manuals[12], artists’ method of working is only partially known. A painter could decorate a small church alone, but was often helped, or the decoration was executed by several painters. The mobility of painters in a limited radius was observed in Cappadocia, the Mani Peninsula, the Peloponnese[13], and later in Crete and Macedonia.

Analogies with mosaics and icon painting showed that painters could work in different formats and with different materials[14]. The passing on of models is an important question to which there is no definitive answer. The existence of life-size templates was unlikely, but that of pattern books is documented in Wölfenbuttel and Freiburg[15]; on the other hand, it is not known to what extent painters were dependent on them and how these books were put together. The erroneous renderings of models, sometimes obvious[16], may have been the consequence of a reproduction from memory or of an imperfect knowledge of the iconography. The difference in quality might be evidence of the sharing out of the work: the flesh tones and the most important figures were executed by the masters. The status of painters is also little-known[17]; there are only documentary sources from Venetian Crete[18]. However, in 1186, the signature of Theodore Apseudes, painter of the hermitage of Agios Neophytos in Cyprus, was symptomatic of the evolution from artisan to artist. Supported by the signature of the painter Archegetas in 1217–18 recently discovered in the Cappadocian church of the Archangelos in Cemil[19], this change was completed during the Palaeologi period: the decoration of the church of the Anastasi tou Sotira Christou in Veroia, Greece, is signed, with no modesty whatsoever, by “Kallierges, the best painter in all Thessaly”[20] and in Saint Clement of Ohrid, Saint Mercurius brandishes his sword, which proudly bears the name of the master Eutychios Astrapas.

I. R.


Cutler A., « The Industries of Art », A. Laiou éd., The Economic History of Byzantium, Washington, 2002, vol. 2, p. 556-586, ici p. 565,

Dagron G., Décrire et peindre: essai sur le portrait iconique, Paris, 2007.

Demus O., Studies in Byzantium, Venice and the West. I, I. Hutter éd., Londres, 1998.

Gerstel S., Beholding the sacred mysteries: programs of the Byzantine sanctuary, Seattle, University of Washington Press, 1999.

Grabar A., La peinture byzantine : étude historique et critique, Genève, 1953.

Hadermann-Misguich L., Kurbinovo : les fresques de Saint-Georges et la peinture byzantine du XIIe siècle, Bruxelles, 1975.

Hadermann-Misguich L., Le Temps des Anges : recueil d'études sur la peinture byzantine du XIIe siècle, ses antécédents, son rayonnement, B. D'Hainaut-Zveny et Catherine Vanderheyde éd., Bruxelles, 2005.

Jolivet-Lévy, C., Études cappadociennes, Londres, 2002.

Jolivet-Lévy, C., La Cappadoce médiévale : images et spiritualité, Paris, 2001.

Lazarev V., Studies in early Russian Art, Londres, 2000.

Mouriki D., Studies in Late Byzantine Painting, Londres, 1995. 

Panayotidi M., « La peinture monumentale en Grèce de la fin de l’iconoclasme jusqu’à l’avènement des Comnènes (843-1081) », Cahiers archéologiques 34, 1986, p. 75-108.

Panayotidi M., « The Wall-Paintings in the Church of the Virgin Kosmosoteira at Ferai (Vira) and Stylistic Trends in 12th Century Painting », Byzantinische Forschungen, 14, 1989, p. 459-484.

Skawran, K., The Development of Middle Byzantine Fresco Painting in Greece, Pretoria, 1982.

Spatharakis I., Byzantine Wall paintings of Crete. Vol. I, Rethymnon Province, Londres, 1999 

Spatharakis I., Dated Byzantine wall paintings of Crete, Leyde, 2001. 

Velmans, T., La peinture murale byzantine à la fin du Moyen Age. Vol. I, Paris, 1977.


[1] G. Vasari, The Lives of the Artists, trans. Julia Conway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 52.

[2] P. Vocotopoulos, “Le Corpus de la peinture monumentale byzantine : bilan et perspectives”, in E. Jeffreys, ed., Proceedings of the 21st International Congress of Byzantine Studies (London, 2006), 150.

[3] K. Weitzmann and H. Kessler, The Frescoes of the Dura Synagogue and Christian Art (Washington, 1990).

[4] N. Gioles, “Monumentale Wandmalereien frühchristlicher Zeit in Griechenland” in G. Koch, ed., Byzantinische Malerei, Bildprogramme – Ikonographie – Stil (Wiesbaden, 2000), 73–78.

[5] M. Panayotidi, “Les Peintures murales de Naxos”, Corso di Cultura sull’Arte ravennate e bizantina 38 (1991): 281–303; M. Hatzēdakēs, Naxos (Athens, 1989).

[6] J. Nordhagen, The Frescoes of John VII (A.D. 705-707) in S. Maria Antiqua in Rome (Rome, 1968).

[7] H. Evans, ed., Byzantium: Faith and Power (New Haven, 2004), no. 274.

[8] S. Kalopissi-Verti, “Osservazioni iconografiche sulla pittura monumentale della Grecia durante il XIII secolo”, Corso di Cultura sull’Arte ravennate e bizantina 31 (1984): 191–220.

[9] Gerousi.

[10] C. Jolivet-Lévy, “Art chrétien en Anatolie turque : le témoignage de peintures inédites à Tatlarin”, in Études cappadociennes (London, 2002), 270–84.

[11] D. Winfield, “Middle and Later Byzantine Wall Painting Methods: A Comparative Study”, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 22 (1968): 74.

[12] The most important source is the Hermeneia, which Mount Athos painter Dionysius of Fourna compiled in the eighteenth century based on an older tradition. Analogous treatises in the West and the Russian world, as well as certain Byzantine partial sources, allow certain pieces of information to be cross-checked.

[13] M. Panayotidi, “Village Painting and the Question of Local ‘Workshops’”, in J. Lefort, C. Morrisson and J.-P. Sodini, eds., Les Villages dans l’Empire byzantin (Paris, 2005), 193–212.

[14] A. Cutler, “The Industries of Art”, in A. Laiou, ed., The Economic History of Byzantium, vol. 2 (Washington, 2002), 565.

[15] H. Buchthal, The Musterbuch of Wölfenbüttel and its Position in the Art of the Thirteenth Century (Vienna, 1979). Cf. E. Kitzinger, “The Role of Miniature Painting in Mural Decoration”, Studies in Late Antique, Byzantine and Medieval Western Art, vol. I (London, 2002), 448–97.

[16] C. Jolivet-Lévy, La Cappadoce médiévale (Paris, 2002), 45.

[17] S. Kalopissi-Verti, “Painters in late Byzantine society: The evidence of church inscriptions”, Cahiers Archéologiques 42 (1994): 139–58.

[18] M. Vassilaki, ed., To portraito tou kallitehne sto BuzantioIraklion, 2000).

[19] G. Kiourtzian, “Une nouvelle inscription de Cappadoce du règne de Théodore Ier Laskaris”, Deltion tes Christianikes Archaiologikes Etaireias 29 (2008): 131–38.

[20] S. Pelekanidis, Kal