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Saturday, May 30, 2015

Early Christian and Byzantine Styles


The Roman Emperor Constantine, who made Christianity the state religion  in AD 313, gave a tangible expression in his faith by commissioning churches: one of these a huge structure in the Early Christian basilican style , was raise on the site of St. Peter’s martyrdom in Rome.  Four years later Constantine moved his capital to Byzantium (renamed Constantinople, later Istanbul).  In the Dark Ages this former Greek trading-post, a colossus bestriding the gap between East and West, was a bastion for both the Eastern Empire and the Christian Church against the threat of barbarian onslaughts.

The Western Empire was officially recognized as a separate entity on the death of Theodosius in 395.  One of his sons, Arcadius, ruled the East from Constantinople, while the other, Honorius, ruled the West, first from Rome but after 402 from Ravenna (later famous for its mosaics).

The Empire was reunited under Justinians (527-65), a great patron of church-building whose finest project was the church of Santa Sophia in Constantinople.  This building was in the new Byzantine style, a fusion of Western Classicism with Eastern attitudes, which developed various regional idioms and reached as far as Russia after the 10th century.  Its structural innovations – in particular the superimpositions of a dome on a square – were well suited to express the mystical, hierarchical emphasis of the Eastern Orthodox Church, which increasingly preferred intimacy, mystery and silence to the large choirs and congregations of Western Christianity.

DISCLAIMER:  All text from this blog entry are taken from the book The Story of Architecture by Patrick Nuttgens.


Some of the earlier Christian building in the West were constructed with materials plundered from disused Classical temples: unique columns were surmounted with arcades or entablatures, and floors were paved with old Roman marbles or column slices.  Many were round or octagonal with dome and surrounding ambulatory - a form derived from the Roman mausoleum and used for tombs, ba[tisteries and martyria (churches on martyrs' graves). The scheme generally used for congregational churches was based on the Roman basilica community hall.


Byzantine architects seeking the perfect form for a symbolic structure based on the Eastern mystical figure of the circle, tackled the problem of putting a dome over a square (the ancient Romans, in the Pantheon, had already covered a circular space with an impressive dome). One answer was to span the corners with quarter-spherical arched or corbelled niches (squinches) to create an octagonal base closer to the circular form.  A triumphantly more elegant solution, which became the Byzantine hallmark, was the pendentive: an inventive concave triangle springing from a corner of the square and curving up to meet the other pendentive, the four of them forming at their tops a circular base for the dome, which was of brick, light stone or sometimes pottery.

Byzantine Ornament.

Like the Early Christian basilica, the Byzantine church was adorned inside with mosaics. Figures were arranged in precise hierarchy on dome, drum, pendentives and apse, and the eye was drawn not along nave towards altar but up into dome, where Christ as judge was depicted.

As well as mosaics the interior decorative reportoire included polychrome marble and frescoes. capitals were often adaptations of the Corinthian Order, or featured intricate incised patterns. Between the abacus and the spandrel of the arch was sometimes an additional slab (dosseret), probably used to give extra height to antique columns.  

Santa Sophia, Istanbul

The church of Santa Sophia ("The Holy Wisdom") was the ne ultra plus of the Byzantine style. Famous in particular for its massive dome, it is considered the epitome of Byzantine architeture and is said to have "changed the history of architecture".  It remained the world's largest cathedral for nearly a thousand years until Seville Cathedral was completed in 1520. The current building was originally constructed as a church between 532 and 537 on the orders of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I and was the third Church of the Holy Wisdom to occupy the site, the previous two having both been destroyed by rioters.  It was designed by the Greek scientists Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Trallers.  After Turks captured city, building became a mosque:  most of original mosaics were plastered over and minarets added.


Rome still boasts more than a dozen churches dating from the 7th century or before.  Many retain from their Early Christian character, the least spoiled being the more modest ones built near or outside the walls of the ancient city.

 Basilica of St. Lawrence Outside the Walls.  Let's swap (

Basilica of St. Lawrence Outside the Wall. 
It is a galleried basilican church which was originally two buildings dating from 4th and 5th century joined in 1216 by removal of apses and insertion of columns.  Since east part was lower than west, a new floor was put in to avoid having to descend to altar; space beneath became crypt.

St. Agnes Outside the Wall. Let's swap (

St. Agnes Outside the Wall. What are said to be the remains of Saint Agnes are below the high altar.  The church is over one of the catacombs of Rome, where Agnes was originally buried and which may still be visited from the church. The church was built by Pope Honorius I in the 7th century, and largely retains its original structure, despite many changes to the decoration.

Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Wall.  The Basilica was founded by the Roman Emperor Constantine I over the burial palce of St. Paul, where it was said that, after the Apostle's execution, his followers erected a memorial, called a cella memoriae.  This first edifice was expanded under Valentinian I in the 370s. The covered portico that precedes the facade is a Neo-classicist addition of the 19th-century reconstruction.

Basilica of St. Clemente.  Let's swap (

Basilica of St. Clemente.  Though now decorated in a Baroque style, it was built over an earlier church in 1108 (partial remains in crypt), has many Early Christian features, including antique columns, and low marble  screen enclosing choir.  Mosaic enrichment of apse is 12th century.

Basilica of St. Mary Major.  The largest single-aisled basilica that is strongly Classical in feeling. The original architecture of Santa Maria Maggiore was classical and traditionally Roman perhaps to convey the idea that Santa Maria Maggiore represented old imperial Rome as well as its Christian future.

St. Sabina at the Aventine. Let's swap (

Basilica of St. Sabina at the Aventine.  It is a well preserved basilica in the Ravenna style. Nave unusually high and narrow, is lit by large clerestory windows.  The 24 Corinthian marble columns are reputedly 2nd century.  Spandrels of colonnades beautifully embelished with inlaid marble designs showing chalices and patterns, symbols of the Eucharist.

Basilica of St. Stephen in the Round. Let's swap (

Basilica of St. Stephen in the Round on the Celian Hill.  It is Rome's largest circular church in existence that is built on unusual plan of a cross within a circle and probably intended as a martyrium. Arms of cross were side chapels interrupting the outer of two concentric colonnaded ambulatories.  Huge central nave is encircled by Ionic columns and lit by 22 clerestory windows.

St. Costanza Church. Let's swap (

St. Costanza Church.  It is the only other circular church remaining in the city of Rome.  It was built on circa 350 as a mausoleum for Constantine's daughter and converted into church 1256. Barrel vaulted ambulatory has 4th century mosaics.


Ravenna has the finest glass mosaics in the world on wall and vaults. Its basilican churches invariably lack a bema and have an apse wall that is round inside but polygonal outside. The finely decorated interiors of both basilican and centralized churches owe much to Greek craftsmen.

New Basilica of St. Apollinaris. Let's swap (

New Basilica of St. Apollinaris.  Erected by Theodoric the Ostrogoth, it has famous mosaics. High, wide evenly lit nave.  Windows of 10th century campanile widen with height.

Basilica of St. Apollinaris in Classe. Let's swap (

Basilica of St. Apollinaris in Classe. (begun 532), south of city, has walls of thin bricks with wide mortar joints in Byzantine fashion, beautiful 6th-7th century mosaics.  One of earliest circular campanile.

San Vitale Basilica. The beauty of the interior of St. Vitale lies partly in its subtle modulation of light and shadow. The inner octagon, with semicircular colonnaded niches typical of the early Byzantine centralized plan, opens into a chancel to east interrupting gallery. Unbuttressed dome made of clay pots covered with tiled timber roof. Delicately carved capitals with dosserets. Superb mosaics. The church retains its subtlety and elegance despite later addition of Baroque decorations.

The Basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore. It is an important place of catholic worship in Milan, within the ring of canals, originally built in Roman times and subsequently rebuilt several times over a number of centuries. Located close to the medieval Ticino gate, it is one of the oldest churches in Milan. It's nearby the city park called Basilicas Park, which includes both the Basilica of San Lorenzo and the Basilica of Sant' Eustorgio, as well as the Roman Colonne de San Lorenzo.

Mausoleum of Theodoric. The current structure is divided into two decagonal orders, one above the other, both are made of Istria stone. Its roof is a single 300-ton Istrian stone, 10 meters in diameter. A niche leads down to a room that was probably a chapel for funeral liturgies; a stair leads to the upper floor. Located in the centre of the floor is a circular porphyry stone grave, in which Theodoric was buried. His remains were removed during Byzantine rule, when the mausoleum was turned into a Christian oratory. 


Venice founded in teh 5th century as a refuge from barbarians, eclipsed Ravenna as Italy's prime commercial city, and sought to consolidate its prestige by staging a renaissance of the Byzantine art of Justinian's day. Sicily's fusion of cultures is shown in churches with combined Saracen and Byzantine features.

Torcello Cathedral. Let's swap (

Saint Mark Basilica. The basic shape of the church has a mixture of Italian and Byzantine features, notably "the treatment of the eastern arm as the termination of a basilican building with main apse and two side chapels rather than as an equal arm of a truly centralized structure." In the first half of the 13th century the narthex and the new facade were constructed, most of the mosaics were completed and the domes were covered with second much higher domes of lead-covered wood in order to blend in with the Gothic architecture of the redesigned Doge's Palace.

Arabs helped build St. John of the Hermits, in Palermo, which has 5 domes on squinches. Fine mosaics in Palermo at Martorana (1143) and Palantine Chapel.


The outlying Imperial provinces of Greece and the Balkans produced some exquisite churches, but nothing to rival Santa Sophia in Istanbul (Constantinople). The cross-n-square became the classical pattern. Late churches tended towards taller proportions and ornately patterned brickwork.

SS Sergius and Bacchus, Istanbul (527-35), slightly ante-dates S. Sophia, which is related to it in design. The central dome, on small pendentives, has 8 windows.

Other churches: St.Irene (begun 532), used for centuries as an armoury; St. Theodore Kilisse Mosque, St. Saviour in the Chora (Kariye Mosque) and St. Mary Pammakaristos, both with fine mosaics.

The Church of the Holy Apostles, Salonica (1312-15) is among finest in all Greece. Five domes are raised on octagonal drums whose windows are separated by brick columns carrying arched cornices. 

Also at Salonica: St. Sophia with possibly earliest example of a dome surmounted on a low drum pierced by windows; St. George (converted to a churchc. 400); St. Demertius (late 5th centurry)

After the creation of an independent Serbian Church in the early 13th century, an unassertive architectural style emerged in Ralka, the capital, placing a dome over a long, Romanesque style nave, usually aisleless. Examples (now in former Yoguslavia) at Defani, Sopocani and Studenica.

The fine church of the monastery of Gracanica (1321) is a good example of late Byzantine structural complexity: one cruciform barrel-vaulted form is superimposed on another, the upper, shorter-armed one having pointed arches which lead the eye to a high central dome on a drum. The exterior combines brick and stone. Outer narthex was added at a later date.

Mount Athos, or the "Holy Mountain", a 40-mile peninsula in N. Greece, has been an independent monastic community for over a millenium. The 20 monasteries (15ht-18th century) have central church (generally surrounded by service buildings  and cells) with transepts terminating in apses.

The church of Dapni, near Athens, is a large example of the use of squinches to create an octagonal base for dome. The outstanding 11th centiury mosaics include a fierce-looking Christ.

The attractive "Little Metropolitan" Cathedral in Athens is probably the world's smallest cathedral, reflecting unimportance of city in late Imperial times. Walls covered with antique marble reliefs. Also in Athens: St. Theodore (1060-70); Kapnikarea (1060-70).

In the lovely 13th-15th century churches of Mustra in the Peloponnese, western elements (pointed arches , bell towers, fleur-de-lys ornaments) jostle with Byzantine traits. Late 14th century church of Peripleton has west end hollowed out of rock. The Pantanassa (1428), a domed basilica, boast spirited frescoes, while St. Theodore (c 1296) has exuberant decorative brickwork.

As with most Byzantine churches, St. Naum was chosen primarily for its location – on a high, rocky outcropping over the lake, above deep forests and life-giving springs of the river Crn Drim. The monastic complex and church of St. Naum were built originally at the turn of the tenth century by the monk that beared the same name.

A typical Serbo-Byzantine church with a rectangular foundation. Usually Serbo-Byzantine buildings are decorated with frescoes that depict biblical stories.

It was converted to a mosque during the Ottoman Empire and then back into a church in the early 20th century. The construction of the church was commissioned in 1306-9 by Serbian King Stefan Milutin. It was built on the site of the ruins of an earlier Byzantine church, whose original name Metera Eleousa swas preserved  in Slavic as Bogorodica Ljeviška. 

TRESKAVEC MONASTERY (Macedonian: Манастир Трескавец), or St. Bogorodica, is a monastery situated on the rocky Mount Zlatovrv, 8 km north of Prilep, in the Republic of Macedonia. Built in the 12th century, it currently has only one monk.
The monastery possesses a large collection of Byzantine frescoes. The oldest remaining date from the 15th century.
It was rebuilt in the 14th century by Serbian kings Stefan Milutin and Stefan Dušan. In the mid-16th century it was renovated by knez Dimitrije Pepić (d. 1566) of Kratovo.
However, the monastery was destroyed by a fire in the early 2010s and, apart from the church, it is now in ruins. As of 2015, no restoration work has been launched by the Macedonian government.
The monastery was the burial place of Serbian noblemen Dabiživ Čihorić and Gradislav Borilović.


The early churches of Syria (5ht-6th century), mostly basilican, are characterized by an open gallery over the narthex and a single apse built within the east wall. A highpoint of later Christian architecture was the brilliant Armenian style, well illustrated by ruined churches at Ani (now in Turkey). Its greatest exponent was the architect  Trdat, who was invited, in the 10th century, to repair the dome of Santa Sophia, Constantinople.


The earliest Russian churches, influenced by the Constantinople style, sprung up at Kiev at end of the 9th century. By the 11th century Novgorod was a major cultural center; here, or possibly at Pskov, the Russian onion dome was devised (to cope with heavy downfall). 

Cathedral of St. Sophia, Kiev. This cathedral  retains part of its original east wall and Greek mosaics. The present structure is 16th-18th century.  It inspired the Church of St. Sophia, Novgorod (see below).

Church of St. Sophia, Novgorod. This church is a cross-in-square with three apses and six domes on drums; onion domes replaced Byzantine ones in the 12th century.

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