Byzantine art grew from the art of Ancient Greece, and never lost sight of its classical heritage, but was distinguished from it in a number of ways. The artwork of the period focuses mainly on religious subjects that were portrayed conservatively and with little room for artists’ personal expression. Domed churches and decorative mosaics were characteristics of Byzantine architecture. The most profound of these was that the humanist ethic of Ancient Greek art was replaced by a Christian ethic. If the purpose of classical art was the glorification of man, the purpose of Byzantine art was the glorification of God, and of His Son, Jesus.
In its early period Byzantine painting was strictly realistic. The mosaics, e.g., on either side of the choir of S. Vitale at Ravenna, show the Court of Justinian and Theodora sickly, dissolute figures—the men, coarse; the women, bleached and bedizened, overladen with jewels and dressed in the extreme of luxury unforgettable personifications of a corrupt and dazzling life.
Byzantine paintings are identified by their rich colors and flat, large-eyed figures. Backgrounds were typically painted gold. The intention of Byzantine artists was to teach the viewer religious lessons, therefore the images were clear and easily understood. Byzantine paintings are characterized by a rich use of color and figures which seem flat and stiff.
The figures also tend to appear to be floating, and to have large eyes. Backgrounds tend to be solidly golden or toned. Intended as religious lessons, they were presented clearly and simply in order to be easily learned. Early Byzantine art is often called "Early Christian art."
Some of the most splendid examples of Byzantine painting are preserved in Macedonia. The role of Thessalonike was paramount while the monasteries of Mount Athos are a veritable ark of Byzantine art.
Artists were much respected in Byzantine culture, although most paintings are left anonymous until the thirteenth century. Artists were not specialized in only one particular technique, they dabbled with different forms; a mosaicist, for instance, could also paint on fresh plaster, creating frescoes.
Skills were passed on from a father to a son or a daughter, as were the equipments, possibly including drawings. Parents also placed their children as apprentices with masters. Sometimes painters who created small-scale objects worked either at home or in small clusters. When Byzantine artists worked abroad, they usually traveled in groups.
By the edict of 313 Christianity was recognized as the official religion of the Empire. The Church left its hiding places and breathed freely, and the period of the basilicas began. A profound transformation of religious painting was the result of this triumph. The time had come to display the insignia of Christ's victory with the same material splendor which the State attached to the imperial majesty of Caesar.
The Good Shepherd of the Catacombs and the pastoral scenes gradually disappeared; the last traces of them are found in the rotunda of St. Constantia and in the mausoleum of Galla Placidia at Ravenna (c. 450). In the magnificant mosaic of S. Pudenziana at Rome (before 410) the Cross, which stands in mid-heaven above a Senate of Apostles wearing the laticlave, is already a symbol of triumph.