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Europe’s cathedrals, churches, monasteries, and baptisteries cover the countryside like Veronica’s veil. They comprise the continent’s landmarks and focal attractions and, for centuries, have been integral to its culture. It is curious, then, that, in the history of art, architecture has been a relatively infrequent subject—in Western painting before 1900, only scattered examples come to mind, such as the Dutch seventeenth-century church interiors by Emanuel de Witte (pictured here) or the panoramas of Venice by Canaletto. The words art historians most frequently summon to describe the role of architecture in painting echo most people’s daily experience with architecture: Again and again, one reads dismissals of architecture as merely a “framing device.” If architecture seems a minor player in the Western tradition, it appears even less significant in Byzantine art, an amorphously defined aggregation of objects dating from the third century to as late as the early nineteenth. The pieces are united by religious subject (Christianity), geographic origin (parts of eastern Europe, western Asia, and the Middle East), and a flat, non-realistic, and boldly delineated style. And painting after painting (after painting) suggests that, to Byzantine artists, architecture meant little.

more from Sarah Williams Goldhagen at TNR here.