• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Cartographers of the Mind: Byzantine Views on Nature



Byzantines, on the one hand, celebrated nature as a reflection of God’s glory. On the other, they considered it fleeting, corruptible and a potential distraction from spiritual reality. Between the fourth to seventh centuries the former sentiment dominated. Homilists celebrated creation in complex commentaries on the Hexaemeron which glorified the first six days (hexaemera) of creation. Meanwhile, churches excused their depictions of nature, first, by declaring that it honoured God’s dominion; second, by observing that spiritual concepts were often articulated by nature (as in the case of the biblical vine and lamb). This attitude is noticeable at San Vitale, Ravenna, where Christ is enthroned on a globe in a lush landscape watered by the four rivers of paradise. Blingtastic peacocks and cornucopias stare back at spectators, alongside a dove, parrot, owl, cock, quail, swallow, duck, wader (with a snake in its beak). An antelope, fawn, white ram, billy goat, panther and lion can be counted among the beasts.


Nature was acclaimed as a source of beauty neutered of its pagan past; its worthiness proven by submission to Christ’s rule. This much is obvious from a sermon by the fifth-century bishop of Ravenna, St Peter Chrysologus, which explained that the river Jordan did not flee from the presence of the Trinity during the baptism of Christ (as it had previous withdrawn to allow the passage of the Ark of the Covenant in the time of Joshua) thanks to the fact that “One that has submitted in reverence [to the Trinity] begins not to be in fear.”[1] Imagery also captured this ebullient attitude. The stream in the apse at the church of Hosios David, for instance, shows (to the left of Christ’s feet) a shadowy form, a defeated deity. The watery god raises both arms – in a cramped orans pose – to acknowledge the wondrous vision above him, a symbol of Christ’s sovereignty. In the literary sphere, Avitus even dared to frame rivers as lost remnants of paradise. The poet claimed the river Phison flowed – like the Indian Ganges – from heaven, a happy memento of Man’s pre-exilic world.[2]

Enter iconoclasm (726–842) and a giant sea-change in the East. This saw the delights of the meadow replaced with galleries of pious portraits, forbidding representations of Christ the Pantokrator, and angels who preferred to assemble in bemused courts rather than cherubic choirs. In short, a severity took over that scorned depicting animals anywhere other than a Nativity scene, or using plants as anything other than ornamental trefoil leaves. An old claim gained traction. Namely that those who “simped” for nature in holy places venerated creation rather than the Creator, or at least misled simpler folk into such a trap. Nature in many ways shared the same fate as rhetoric. Both were once celebrated as harbingers of grace, delight and harmony before being cast aside as potential agents of deceit and deviance. Though the pendulum clearly swung towards the latter in the iconoclastic period, the sentiment had germinated for centuries. When the prefect Olympiodorus, for example, wrote to St Nilus of Sinai in the fifth century, explaining that he wanted to build a church with the conventional decoration scheme, the saint warned him such designs were regrettable and that the church should be covered in crosses as “whatever is unnecessary ought to be left out.”[3]

Iconoclasts don’t seem to have bought the argument that nature had submitted to Christ. To these folk its (toxic) allure remained a relic of the old pantheon’s powers. In such an atmosphere even private houses such as the self-explanatory “House of the Sea Goddess” at Antioch had the tesserae of their deities faces picked out and/or replaced with marble. Anxieties centred on whether the old gods had truly lost their divine faculties. Relative freedom of expression among the wealthy, however, gave room enough to be hypocritical, an attitude Libanius clearly targeted when he pointedly noted Christians in Constantinople weren’t quite so censorious about the pagan festivals of the Nile (which continued until at least AD 424) whose obstruction might affect the city’s food supply.[4] Those who didn’t want to butcher their figural art increasingly sought to move up the ladder of abstraction. Instead of concrete spirits and deities, woollier, more conceptual names proliferated such as ktisis (creation), anameosis (renewal), evandria (manliness) and dynamis (strength). This didn’t outfox diehards, however, many of whom were Monophysites. Philoxenus of Mabbug, for instance, destroyed images of angels and concealed those of Christ.[5] While others took issue with the animal symbols of spiritual notions, especially the white dove as the Holy Spirit. A passage from the History of John Diakrinomenos, cited in the Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea (787) claimed it was an

“Infantile act. The Gospel teaches not that the Holy Spirit became a dove but that it was once seen in that form.”[6]

Despite naturalistic imagery having to take a back seat in art, Byzantines refused to surrender in rhetoric. The chairetsimoi (invocations) of the fifth-century Akathistos hymn accumulate images that are unapologetically based in the natural world: “Hail, vine of the unwithered shoot, hail, field of immortal crop. hail to you who harvest the harvester, friend of Man;

hail to you who plant the planter of our life;

hail field that flourishes with a fertility of compassion

hail table that bears a wealth of mercy hail to you who makes a meadow of delight to blossom…”[7] Elsewhere, Proclus of Constantinople, wrote “How will I dare to search out the depth of the virginal sea and find the great mystery hidden therein if you do not instruct me, Mother of God! … Only then, shining with the light of your mercy, shall I find within you the pearl of truth.”[8]


In the West, however, the art lived on too. The apses of Rome still brimmed with naturalistic motifs. Cosma e Damiano for instance, which was not converted into a church until AD 527, contains palms, a phoenix, the river Jordan, and so on. This had a long western pedigree. The fifth-century octagonal baptistery at Albenga in Liguria has a jewelled Chi-Rho with twelve doves around it, rows of stars below and, in a lunette, sheep standing either side of another jewelled cross with an alpha and omega. At the Lateran baptistery an acanthus scroll fills the eastern apse conch of the Chapel of SS. Cyprian and Justina (AKA as SS. Secunda and Rufina): in the centre is Christ the lamb. The mosaic of the western apse opposite depicted four shepherds with their sheep. While the chapel of St John the Evangelist in the same baptistery puts the lamb inside a wreath framed with garlands. Further south, the shrine of St Felix of Nola (Cimitile) contained peacocks and vine scroll. In Apulia, Santa Maria della Croce’s bema barrel vault contains zoomorphic and flower motifs with pears, golden flowers, a green fish, a hare, an artichoke, a hen, a goldfinch, and so on. While the cupola’s starry vault is surrounded by vegetal motifs, pomegranates, pears, grapes and even a jellyfish. Further north, despite Saint Victor being cast as “in ciel d’oro” (in a golden sky i.e. a golden ground) in Milan’s Sant Ambrogio, the surrounding details contain flowers, garlands and and so on.



From the eighth century onwards the East rarely used nature in the same manner. Indeed, the lamb almost immediately disappeared from churches after the Quinisext Council (692). In Rome, however, continued use can be observed at San Marco (restored in 792 and rebuilt in 833) where sheep, a meadow (with lilies and roses) and wreaths feature, as well as a dove on a fountain. Rome was equally unapologetic in the twelfth century when it had San Clemente covered in a luxuriant vine scroll with songbirds, beasts and even winged putti riding on dolphins. While the thirteenth-century Santa Maria Maggiore’s Virgin was flanked by vine-scroll above a river that was both personified and a physical flume teeming with Nilotic devices (and even a fisherman). When going on the offensive against their Latin cousins, Byzantines tended to accuse them of having no images. This might bewilder modern readers who see an abundance of natural spectacles but by “images” the Byzantines meant those with iconographical profiles i.e. saints, prophets and so forth. According to the Eastern Romans, therefore, the Westerners had almost no images other than the crucifixion – their churches were otherwise unadorned. Indeed, their apses (with their celebration of creation in the most prominent part of the church) would have been sorely deficient as icons.[9]

Not that Latins cared too much about such critiques. In essence, the pre-iconoclastic style – epitomised by Ravenna – still carried too much weight and prestige as symbols of Roman imperialism’s high noon to heed the latest appraisals from Constantinople. Hence the eleventh-century decoration of the south-eastern chapel at Torcello – at the northern end of the Venetian lagoon – where a vault mosaic lauds the lamb. Perhaps the elder & new Rome knew they were quibbling over details and so remarkably little of their cultural alienation gravitated around art. Ultimately, both believed that images provided access to Christ and his saints, a position formulated by St Basil in the fourth century when he’d written “The honour paid to the image passes to the prototype.” The same could not be said of the Carolingians, however, who despised images – Christian and profane – as false since they represented nothing more than artists’ fictions. All claims for art that rose above the act of “reminding us of things that have happened” amounted to hubris. Indeed, the Carolingian position helps explain why western artists – unlike their eastern counterparts – never developed a tradition of sacred portraiture. In the West, only Peter and Paul possessed clear models for portrayals, while in Byzantium every saint had his cast and authenticity stood at its core.



[1] Sermo CLX, ed. J. P. Migne, Patrologiae cursus completes, Series Latina LII, cols. 621–62.

[2] Poematum de mosaicae historiae gestis, ed. Migne, Patrologia Latina, LIX, col. 330.

[3] Epistulae, 4.61, ed. Migne, Patrologia Graeca LXXIX, cols. 577–580.

[4] Oratio XXX, 35; A. F. Norman, Libanius’ Selected Works, Vol. 2 (1977).

[5] J. Cranmer, ed. Anecdata Graeca e Codd Manuscriptis Bibliothecae Regiae Parisiensis, vol. 2 (1839) 109.

[6] G. Mansi, Sacrorum Conciliorum Nova Collectio, vol. XIII, col. 181.

[7] C. A. Trypanis, Penguin Book of Greek Verse (1971) 377.

[8] In Sanctissimae Deiparae Annuntiationem 4; ed. Migne, PG LXXXV, col. 436.

[9] La Vie d’Etienne le Jeune par Etienne le Diacre, ed. M. F. Auzepy (1997) 126-7.

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