Next stop, Byzantine Architecture!

Well, it’s more like a detour. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Constantinople was founded with the intention of starting a new Rome in the East. However, the Byzantine empire was not quite a recreation of the Roman empire. Byzantine architecture started with emperor Constantine and flourished under the rule of Justinian, from around 330 AD until 1453 AD.

Greek Influence

Much like the Romans, Byzantine architecture drew upon Greek ideas that persisted throughout this empire’s reign. Byzantine architects started with the Greek cross plan but added a basilica, resulting in the cross-in-square plan which became the prevailing architectural form of Byzantine churches. In this type of plan, each arm is an equal length, leaving space for the dome in the center. Columns supporting the dome above separated each arm. By the middle stages of the Byzantine empire, the classical orders were not used in as strictly as the Romans, and many architects chose to forego them in favor of impost blocks which are based in Middle Eastern design.

floor plans of 3 Byzantine style buildings
Left to Right: Basilica of San Vitale Plan (Ravenna, Italy); Hagia Sophia Plan (Istanbul, Turkey); Myrelaion church (Istanbul, Turkey). These three plans are all Byzantine churches, but each varies spatially. The Basilica of San Vitale was one of the earliest Byzantine churches, and features an octagonal plan combining Roman and Byzantine aspects. The Hagia Sophia is the best example of a cross-in-square plan and is the epitome of Byzantine architecture. The Myrelaion was a late Byzantine church that depicts how the cross-in-square plan progressed. Photos from Wikimedia.

Improving Interiors

When Emperor Constantine moved the seat of the empire to Constantinople, he outwardly proclaimed his Christianity and by doing so gave Christians the freedom to worship openly. Since art and design reflect society, a large part of Byzantine art and architecture was religious. Larger and more impressive churches were being built and art was being commissioned inside. Roman sculptures were largely replaced by colorful mosaics. Creating mosaics from delicate materials such as pieces of glass and pearls showed how precious the icon being portrayed was to the religion.

collage of mosaic images
Left to Right: Garima Gospel Manuscript Illustration housed in the Abba Garima Monastery in Ethiopia; Mosaic of Emperor Justinian located inside the church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy; Deesis Mosaic of Christ located inside the Hagia Sophia;   These works of art show a progression from Early Byzantine art, which struggled to represent the idol as the main visual of the Christian faith, to the Late Byzantine art which was able to capture a more intricate and detailed image of their religious figures. Photos from Wikimedia and Pixabay.

Another popular Byzantine architectural technique is the use of clerestory windows. They provide light from above without drawing attention away from the focus of the church. The light from windows under the dome made the space appear heavenly.

Structural Advancements

One of the main developments during this time period was that of the pendentive dome. The cross-in-square plan challenged architects to fit a round dome on a square base. The use of pendentives, which are triangular segments of a sphere, allows space for the dome to sit atop a vertical cylinder to give the dome more height. The weight of the dome is concentrated in the pendentives located at the four corners, which is transferred to the columns below. Later Byzantine churches usually had multiple domes surrounding the central dome.

3 Byzantine style buildings
Left to Right: Basilica of San Vitale (Ravenna, Italy); Hagia Sophia (Istanbul, Turkey); Basilica Cistern (Istanbul, Turkey). Photos from Pixabay and Wikimedia.

A few other structural techniques became common such as walls with foundations and the pointed arch bridge in contrast to the smooth Roman arch. Marble was used in some churches and government buildings but only on columns and decorative features, while most interior walls were either stucco or plaster.

Fall of the Byzantine Empire

Although the Byzantine Empire came to an end with the fall of Constantinople, its influence did not. It’s architectural motifs lived on in Eastern European countries such as Romania and Russia, inspiring new cathedrals in the Byzantine style. That being said, the time period we classify as Byzantine architecture did eventually come to an end allowing for a new architectural period to take hold – the Middle Ages.

by Mackenzie Kidwell

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