The Religious Relationship between Byzantium and the West

See works of art
  • Christ Bearing the Cross
  • Madonna and Child

Works of Art (3)


During the Late Byzantine period, church authorities made efforts to unify the Latin and Greek churches. After the Fourth Crusade of 1204, the break between the two churches was considered definitive. For two centuries, various attempts were made to reconcile the breach, but the Latin domination of Byzantium and certain theological issues rendered these aspirations ineffective. In 1274, Michael VIII Palaiologos and Pope Gregory X held the Council of Lyon to discuss a formal union. Michael’s representatives swore obedience to the Roman church and its faith. While politically useful, great resistance within the Byzantine population spurred repudiation of the settlement eleven years later. Another meeting occurred in 1438, when Pope Eugenius IV met with Emperor John VIII Palaiologos. The emperor brought with him the most esteemed Byzantine intellectuals of the day, including Joseph II and Bessarion, who would remain in Italy promoting the cause of union after being ordained a Roman cardinal. Meeting in Ferrara until an outbreak of the plague forced the assembly to move to Florence, the members debated issues such as primal papacy and purgatory. Political as well as theological issues were at stake. The papacy hoped for political subordination of the Byzantine empire. The Byzantines wanted military aid against the Turks. The union decree of the July 6, 1439, proved ephemeral and, after the collapse of the empire, the Byzantine church renounced the agreement.

While attempts at official union between the churches were not wholly successful, compromise and exchange were widespread in the arts. Byzantine and Western artists adopted styles and compositions from each other in both monumental decorations and panel painting. One center of artistic exchange was the city of Candia, the capital of Venetian-owned Crete. The icon of Christ Bearing the Cross (29.158.746) by Nicolaos Tzafouris reveals a great mixture and exchange of artistic ideas. For example, the artist signs his name in Latin but writes the title of the scene in Greek. The rock formations are typically Byzantine, while the iconography of the scene is distinctly Italian.

Annie Labatt
Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

October 2004


Labatt, Annie. “The Religious Relationship between Byzantium and the West.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2004)

Further Reading

Belting, Hans. Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image Before the Era of Art. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Belting, Hans, ed. Il Medio Oriente e l'Occidente nell'arte del XIII secolo. Bologna: CLUEB, 1982.

Demus, Otto. The Church of San Marco in Venice. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1960.

Demus, Otto. The Mosaics of San Marco in Venice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Derbes, Anne. Picturing the Passion in Late Medieval Italy: Narrative Painting, Franciscan Ideologies, and the Levant. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Hyman, Isabelle. "The Venice Connection: Questions about Brunelleschi and the East." In Florence and Venice: Comparisons and Relations, edited by Nicolai Rubinstein and Craig Hugh Smyth, vol. 1, pp. 193–208. Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1979.

Nelson, Robert S. "The Italian Appreciation and Appropriation of Illuminated Byzantine Manuscripts, ca. 1200–1450." Dumbarton Oaks Papers 49 (1995), pp. 209–35. See on MetPublications

Striker, Cecil L., and Y. Dogan Kuban, eds. Kalenderhane in Istanbul. Mainz: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 1997.

Wilson, Nigel G. From Byzantium to Italy: Greek Studies in the Italian Renaissance. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Wixom, William D. "Byzantine Art and the Latin West." In The Glory of Byzantium: Art and Culture of the Middle Byzantine Era, A.D. 843–1261, edited by Helen C. Evans and William D. Wixom, pp. 434–510. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997.

Additional Essays by Annie Labatt