Byzantine Architecture

In the early Byzantine period, as wide a diversity of styles is seen in ecclesiastical architecture as in art. Two major types of churches, however, can be distinguished: the basilica type, with a nave flanked by colonnades terminating in a semicircular apse and covered by a timber roof; and the stone-vaulted centralized church, with its separate components gathered under a central dome. The second type the stone-vaulted centralized church was dominant throughout the Byzantine period.

Though Justinian's domed basilicas are the models from which Byzantine architecture developed, Hagia Sophia, or the Church of the Holy Wisdom, remained unique, and no attempt was thereafter made by Byzantine builders to emulate it. In plan it is almost square, but looked at from within, it appears to be rectangular, for there is a great semidome at east and west above that prolongs the effect of the roof, while on the ground there are three aisles, separated by columns with galleries above. At either end, however, great piers rise up through the galleries to support the dome. The vast central dome rises some 56 m (185 ft) from ground level. Above the galleries are curtain walls (non-load-bearing exterior walls) at either side, pierced by windows, and there are more windows at the base of the dome. The columns are of finest marble, selected for their colour and variety, while the lower parts of the walls are covered with marble slabs. Like the elaborately carved cornices and capitals, these survive, but the rest of the original decoration, including most of the mosaics that adorned the upper parts of the walls and the roof, have perished. They were all described in the most glowing terms by early writers. But enough does survive to warrant the inclusion of Hagia Sophia in the list of the world's greatest buildings. Hagia Sophia was completed in the amazingly short period of five years, under the direction of two architects from Asia Minor, Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus, in the year 537. Three other type of churches in Constantinople are: SS. Sergius and Bacchus, a centralized building; the Church of St. Eirene (Irene), a basilica roofed by two domes in echelon; the Church of the Holy Apostles, which was cruciform, with a dome at the crossing and another on each of the arms of the cross;

The walls of the city, which still in greater part survive, were set up under Theodosius II (408-450) early in the 5th century, and already the method of construction (where a number of courses of brick alternate with those of stone) and the forms of vaulting used to support the floors in the numerous towers show several innovations. The walls themselves, a triple line of defense, with 192 towers at alternate intervals in the inner and middle wall, were far in advance of anything erected previously; they were, indeed, so well conceived that they served to protect the city against every assault until the Turks, supported by cannon, attacked with vastly superior odds in 1453. Also distinctive were the underground cisterns, of which more than 30 are known in Constantinople today. They all took on the same character, with strong outer walls and roofs of small domes supported on tall columns. Some are of great size, some comparatively small. In some, like the great cistern near Hagia Sophia called by the Turks the Yerebatan (Underground) Palace, old material was reused; in others, like the even more impressive Binbirdirek (Thousand and One Columns) cistern, new columns of unusually tall and slender proportions and new capitals of cubic form were designed specially. These cisterns assured an adequate supply of water even when the aqueducts that fed the city were cut by an attacking enemy. Many of them were still in use at the end of the 19th century. Contemporary texts show that the houses were often large and elaborate and had at least two stories, while the imperial palace was built on enormous terraces of masonry on the slopes bordering the upper shores of the Sea of Marmara.

The palace was founded by Constantine, but practically every subsequent emperor added to it, and it eventually became a vast conglomeration of buildings extending over more than 100 acres. Many of the buildings were of a very original character, if the descriptions that survive are to be believed; unfortunately, nearly all have been destroyed in the course of time, mainly because of the indifference of the Ottoman state for the civilizations which existed before the invasion of Turks in the area of Asia Minor.

Basil I (867-886), like many of his predecessors, built in the area of the Great Palace, two churches: the New Church and the Church of the Theotokos of the Pharos. These set a fashion in church building and decoration that was to exercise an influence for many centuries. Neither survives, but something is known of them from written descriptions, and it would seem that both were typical of what was to be the mid-Byzantine style. The churches of this age conform to a single type, usually termed the cross-in-square. It is made up of three aisles, each one terminating in an apsidal chapel at the east, with a transverse nave, known as the exonarthex, at the west. Invariably, there was a dome over the central aisle, supported on four columns, with four vaults radiating from it to roof the central aisle to the west, the sanctuary to the east, and the central portions of the side aisles to the north and south. The main church at the monastery of St. Luke near Delphi, in Greece (1050), is the most complete surviving example of the architect type of the middle Byzantine period (843-1204).

Quite a number of byzantine buildings survive in Constantinople, Asia Minor, Pontos, Macedonia, Sicily, and throughout Balkans. Their appearance changed quite considerably during the late Byzantine Period (1204-1453), the domes becoming smaller and higher, while the wall surfaces of the exterior were usually elaborately decorated, either with intricate patterns in brickwork or by setting glazed pottery vessels into the wall to form friezes similar to work in tile. In Constantinople elaborate blank arcading also played an important role, as, for example, in the Church of the Pammakaristos Virgin (Mosque of Fethiye; 1315). The building material varied with the locality, though generally brick was preferred to stone. In the details of planning and in the handling there was considerable regional variation, and numerous local styles may be distinguished. Grandeur was generally lacking--except perhaps in the churches set up for the Comnene emperors of Trebizond, a state on the south side of the Black Sea, (1204-1461)--but all the buildings have considerable charm and deserve fuller consideration than they have sometimes received. Good work was done, especially on Mount Athos, Macedonia, where the large-scale painted churches, are often both magnificent and very beautiful.

Byzantine architecture inspired Arab architects, and this one can see in the masterpieces of Spanish architecture: the famous Alhambra Palace at Granada and the Great Mosque of Cordoba. In Venice the five-domed type, St. Mark's Cathedral was replication of the Church of the Holy Apostles at Constantinople. The importance of Byzantine art to the religious art of Europe cannot be overestimated. Byzantine forms were spread to Italy and Sicily, where they persisted in modified form through the 12th century and became formative influences on Italian Renaissance art.

Also in Kiev of Russia, its dominant political and cultural centre, mosaics, which date from about 1045, were the work of Byzantine craftsmen. Other Byzantine artists and artisans worked intermittently in the area from that time onward, so that Russian art as a whole was founded on a Byzantine basis. Architecture and icon painting grew up as important independent arts, both having their beginnings during this period. From Kiev the Byzantine style of architecture soon spread throughout the principalities of Novgorod and Vladimir-Suzdal. The emphasis of the Byzantine church on the physical splendour of its edifices was a cardinal factor in determining the characteristics of Russian ecclesiastical architecture. Everything connected with the design and decoration of the new churches followed the Byzantine pattern; and the standard scheme of the Greek church--the cross inscribed in a rectangle and the dome supported on piers or on pendentives--became the accepted type for Orthodox churches. The design and support of the central dome or cupola, together with the number and disposition of the subsidiary cupolas, remained for a long time the principal theme of Russian architecture. The main monuments of Kiev were the Church of the Tithes (989-996), the Cathedral of St. Sophia (1037), and the Church of the Assumption in the Monastery of the Caves (1073-78). All of these churches were built in the Byzantine tradition, though certain influences from Bulgaria, Georgia, and Armenia can be discerned. The Cathedral of St. Sophia is the only structure of this period that still stands and retains, at least in the interior, something of its original form. The central part of the cathedral was in the form of a Greek cross. The nave and four aisles terminated in semicircular apses, and it had 13 cupolas (symbolizing Christ and his Apostles). It was reconstructed and enlarged at the end of the 17th century, and it was later obscured by additional bays and stories to its lateral galleries, a new tower, and many bizarre Baroque cupolas. Only five apses and the central interior portion survive from the 11th century.

After Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, Russia continued for several centuries to develop a national art that had grown out of the middle Byzantine period. After the hegemony in the world of Orthodox Christianity shifted to Muscovite Russia, Moscow, having become the new city of Constantine--the "third Rome"--and aspiring to rival the older centres of culture, launched a building program commensurate with its international importance.

Encyclopaedia Britannica
Microsoft Encarta
Norman Baynes - Moss. Byzantium


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