Early Byzantine art must be considered in relation to the Early Christian condemnation of pagan idolatry and the consequent reluctance to depict sacred Christian figures and stories. Although many notable exceptions exist, figural scenes were usually avoided and were presented in an allusive symbolic mode or were embedded in complex programs that made the veneration of single images nearly impossible.
Artists emphasized transcendent time and place; the only worldly concern was with how one must behave in order to get into heaven. Thus the figures in Byzantine art tend to "hover" in space without weight and solidness, without inhabiting a three-dimensional space.
During the first Golden Age of Byzantine Art, the earliest of Christian art was found in the catacombs of Rome. The beginning of religious and symbolic representation which has come to be known as Byzantine Art has its roots in the sufferings and persecution of the early Christians. The most famous body of work which was born from the Byzantine period is the religious Icons (iconic paintings) and the development of the Illuminated Manuscripts, which were the hand written and hand painted books.
The most important and famous artists and sculptors of the Middle Ages included Donatello, Giotto, Leon Battista Alberti, Cimabue, Filippo Brunelleschi, Fra Angelico and Lorenzo Ghiberti.
The Byzantine style grew out of traditional designs such as pictures of saints and Bible stories and repetitive decoration. There does not seem to be any basis on natural forms as the human figures are unnaturally long, the emotions are formal and still and the facial expressions are conventional, rigid and almost lifeless.
The most prominent figures of the period are Christ, the Virgin Mary, the apostles, the saints, Bishops and angels. In the 8th century paintings of Jesus, Mary or the saints were common. However in the 8th and early 9th century there were many people who disapproved of icons and many of them were destroyed. Yet, after 843, icons became popular again.
Byzantine mosaics were bedecked with gold leaf and iridescent glass tiles, radiating a shimmering, heavenly light. The effect of the composition together with the precious materials, lift the holy figures into a divine spiritual place. The figures themselves were symmetrical, repetitive, and little emotion or individualism is expressed in their calm faces.
The Western Empire (Europe) including byzantine was dominated by warring factions and their quest for conquest and power. Early Medieval Art was initially restricted to the production of Pietistic painting (religious Christian art) in the form of illuminated manuscripts, mosaics and fresco paintings in churches. There were no portrait paintings. The colors were generally muted.
During the second Golden Age of Byzantine Art which is during the 8th and 9th centuries, The Church began a campaign to destroy any religious art that looked too realistic. If it did, it was deemed to be a 'graven image' and was breaking the rules of the Church who forbid the adoration of pagan gods.
The empire’s greatest artistic monument is the splendid mosaic and fresco program of the small church of Saint Savior in the Chora in Constantinople, dating from the first decade of the 14th century, which combines a refined decorative quality with a delicate emotional sensibility, as in the striking Anastasis fresco in the pareccleseion, depicting Christ descending into Hell. Both the decorative and emotional qualities characterize the last phase of Byzantine painting.