As in Rome and Ravenna during the period of the Constantinian basilicas, so also in the East during the long period of Byzantine Art, artists no longer conceived plastically, and the victory of pictorial over plastic art was complete. Moreover, the times were scarcely propitious to sculpture, since religion shunned statuesque representation of the Redeemer, the Madonna or Saints, which would have been too nearly related to the pagan cult.
Hence there are very few works known to us of sculpture in the round, of the Byzantine period (for example, the statues of angels in the interior of S. Mark's, Venice), or even of bas-reliefs of any size (for example the worshipping Madonnas of Ravenna and Venice, the inlaid figures of saints in the basilica of S. Mark, Venice). Ambones and sarcophagi are more numerous, and still more so are the plastic decorations of buildings, whilst we have immense numbers of bas-reliefs in ivory and metal, so that we may say Byzantine sculpture confined its energies within the bounds of architectural decoration and the lesser arts.
Plastic architectural decoration in Byzantine Art includes capitals, columns, cornices, door-posts, screens and balconies or plutei and pulpits or ambones. Even in so limited a field Byzantine sculptors had acquired great skill and so wide a renown that they worked largely for exportation: their decorative works (even capitals), sculptured in Proconesian marble were disseminated on both shores of the Adriatic as well as in the East.
We have already mentioned a few of the most characteristic types of Byzantine capitals:
Capitals of classical origin, i.e. simplified, or rather, degenerate adaptations of the classical Corinthian capital and of the composite, with the leaves sometimes thrown aside as if shaken by the wind.
Cubic capitals, plain, or with the addition at the sides of two volutes, of Ionic origin.
Vase-shaped capitals, with an undulating surface .
We have also already noticed that in certain buildings the capitals are crowned by cushions or rounded cubes, like stumps of ruined pyramids.
The ornamentation of the capitals differs according to the period. On those which were imitated from the classical capitals it consists in an imitation of the prickly acanthus; on the cube-shaped and cushion capitals the foliage is reduced to an interlacing of bare and prickly branches, and subsequently to conventional forms, from the midst of which stand out medallions with monograms. The style degenerates more and more till it becomes chip work rather than modelling, producing an effect of embroidery, or of a perforated involucre, enwrapping the smooth kernel of the capital.
The cornices and doorposts were at first covered with leafy boughs, peopled with beasts--in relief--but the foliage became, by degrees, more and more emaciated, till it consisted merely of dry, sharp olive leaves which constitute the style of ornament that was later to pass into Romanesque and particularly into Lombardic architecture.
In the same way, the decoration of the ambones and slabs of the parapets passed from the high relief of the well-rounded Hellenistic forms, into conventionalised interlacing boughs -- framing conventionalised beasts --some of them of oriental type, especially Sassanid.
Often the ornamentation is in geometrical patterns sometimes supplemented by little figures of animals; and from this grew the method of ornamentation by bands arranged geometrically so as to form garlands of tombs and discs.
The types of this second group of ornament, mainly geometrical in character, are probably derived from some of the Byzantine decorations in mosaic, also of classic origin.
Examples of these various types of plastic decoration abound in Greece, especially at Athens 1 and in Italy, especially at Venice 2 and in the islands of the Lagoon. There are also some at Naples in the church of S. Giovanni Maggiore, in the museum of Sorrento, in the church of San Salvatore at Atrani, and in the museum of Brindisi.
Sculpture or intaglio in ivory, which had always been cultivated in Greek Art, especially in the Hellenistic Art of Alexandria, and which, under the Roman Empire, when it was applied chiefly to works of small dimensions or of practical utility, had become a branch of the minor arts, assumed with the Byzantines the importance, and may almost be said to have risen to the level, of a primary art, so largely was it practised and diffused, and so great is the value of many of its productions, considering the conditions of art as a whole.
This art of sculpture in ivory, if perchance in the statuettes it leaves much to be desired, finds most noble expression in diptyches, on book - covers, little eikons which take the shape of diptyches and triptyches, chests, caskets, seats, thrones, etc.
One of the most important works on account of its size, its historical connections and the quality of its decoration, is the celebrated throne of Bishop Maximianus at Ravenna, an Alexandrian work of the sixth century.
Of the diptyches, several tablets of the fifth and sixth centuries--like that of the Marys and the Guard at the Sepulchre, in the collection of Prince Trivulzio at Milan, and that of the Angel with the Sceptre in the British Museum--must be ranked high on account of their noble style.
A few diptyches and triptyches and a few book-covers also of the period of the Byzantine Renaissance, from the end of the eighth to the eleventh century, recover true grace and fulness of form, for example:
The triptych of Arbaville, in the museum of the Louvre.
The tablet of Christ crowning the Emperor Romanus IV. and the Empress, in the Cabinet numismatique at Paris ( 10681071).
The tablets of Christ and of the Madonna enthroned, both in the Stroganoff collection in Rome; the book-cover in the duomo of Milan, on which is represented Christ enthroned, seems in its modelling to have been indirectly influenced by the statue of Olympian Zeus of Pheidias.
The tablet of Christ's Ascension, in the Museo Nazionale at Florence.
It must be remembered that the intaglios, and as a rule even the plain diptyches, were coloured, and sometimes even gilded; and we may remind ourselves that the easy transport of all these works facilitated their diffusion in the west, as also of the miniatures; a fact which contributed much to the establishment and influence of Byzantine Art.