How did Byzantium influence the British Isles?
Byzantium was a continuation of the Roman Empire in the Eastern Mediterranean following Rome’s decline in the fifth century AD. It was a strong power for more than 1000 years, and its influence was felt across the world, even as far as the British Isles. Evidence of its influence has survived in buildings, artworks and clothing dated to Late Antiquity and medieval times, in addition to religious and royal ceremonies.
Research reveals that many pilgrims from the British Isles visited Byzantium on their way to the Holy Land, and that Byzantine missionaries came to Britain.
Literature suggests that the West Saxons moved along the Dorset coast into what is now Devon. They left behind Byzantine silver pieces dating to the sixth and seventh centuries, examples of which were found in the burial mounds at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk.
On the Kentish coast, metallic buckles of Byzantine origin dating to the seventh century have been found. These were unearthed alongside objects from Egypt, which once belonged to Coptic Christians.
Well known works
There are a number of examples of Byzantine art in Britain which have been thoroughly studied by researchers. One example is a slab at York Cathedral that represents the image of the Virgin and Child and resembles the sculpted Mangana Virgin in the Ottoman Museum, Istanbul (formerly Constantinople, the capital of the Empire).
Another example is a plaque of Mary and the Child in the style of the Byzantine Virgin of Nicopea which can be seen in Deerhurst Church, Gloucestershire. These items were made in the early ninth and tenth centuries respectively.
More to discover
There are a number of frescoes that look strikingly Byzantine in some of the oldest churches along the coast of Wales and Ireland. These murals have not yet received the scholarly attention they deserve, and need to be catalogued and studied further for us to fully understand how masters from Byzantium influenced their decoration.