In this lesson, we look at the development of Byzantine architecture. We examine its relationship to the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. We then compare Byzantine architecture to early Christian architecture and enumerate the distinctly Byzantine elements of their art and architecture: central-plan, domes and pendentives. Finally, we touch briefly on how these architectural masterpieces were decorated.
Byzantine vs. Early Christian
Byzantine architecture has a lot in common with early Christian architecture. This is not surprising, as most early Christian buildings were built at the command of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine. You may wonder, why don’t we just classify early Christian architecture as Byzantine architecture and be done with it? The reason is that Byzantine architecture diverges from early Christian architecture during the reign of the Emperor Justinian, around the middle of the sixth century.
From the size and shape of their churches to the style of their decorations, the Byzantines established a style and form all their own. This style persisted in Eastern Europe for another thousand years, while Western Europe developed new, Western styles of architecture.
Justinian, Architect of the Byzantine Golden Age
Before we take a closer look at Byzantine architecture, it behooves us to look at the man behind the movement: Emperor Justinian. Justinian was following in the footsteps of Constantine, the Roman emperor who converted to Christianity and elevated it to the level of a state religion. Justinian wanted to realize Constantine’s vision of a united Christian empire. Yet Justinian was not content to unify his empire by force of arms.
The last century had made it clear that swords alone could not hold the empire together. So Justinian took a page from Constantine’s book and began an ambitious building project, constructing churches all over his empire.
Similarities to Early Christian Architecture
The best surviving example of Justinian’s architectural program can be found in the western cities of the empire, which avoided the empire’s eventual conquest by Islam. The most Byzantine of these western cities was Ravenna, which had replaced Rome as the capitol of the western empire in 402. And it is in Ravenna that we find what is perhaps the best example of Justinian’s imperial architectural vision: the Church of Saint Vitale.
In this church, we can clearly see the differences and similarities between early Christian and Byzantine architecture. At first glance, it is obvious that Byzantine architecture shared many of the qualities of early Christian architecture: the use of mosaic to decorate surfaces, the focus on the apse, or half domed alcove at the front of the church, and the use of clerestory, or windows at a high level to bring in light. All of these trends carried over from Christian times. In these respects, the main difference between early Christian and Byzantine art and architecture can be summarized in two words: bigger and more. Byzantine churches featured more clerestory windows and mosaics on every conceivable surface.
Byzantine Architectural Innovations
Yet the Byzantines also broke away from their early Christian predecessors in other respects, forming an artistic and architectural tradition that differed greatly from the West.
In the mid sixth century, the architectural style of churches began to diverge sharply. The long, narrow basilica, which had been Constantine’s favored form of church, continued to be the dominant form of church in the West, while rounder, domed, central-plan styles of churches, like the early Christian circular baptistries, became more popular in the Byzantine East. You can remember these differences between the Eastern and Western styles of church by looking at the differences between the Eastern and Western renditions of the cross. The Western cross, or Latin cross, is long, just like the Western basilica is long. It also has a small cross-section, just like the Western basilica is crossed by a transept, or bema, at the eastern end, giving the whole building the appearance of a cross if seen from above. The Eastern cross, or Greek cross, is as wide as it is long – just as the Eastern central-plan church is round.This central-plan style reached its apex in the Hagia Sophia, which is indisputably the greatest work of Byzantine architecture.
Sadly, most of this immense church’s mosaics were destroyed or covered by the Turks, whose Islamic religion forbade any images whatsoever. As they turned the Hagia Sophia into a mosque, the Turks whitewashed over these images. Yet the lack of mosaic art allows us to notice some of the more architectural advancements of the Byzantines. First, let’s look at this dome.
Though the dome of the Hagia Sophia is a bit smaller than the dome of the Roman Pantheon, it rests much higher up in the structure, making the dome stand out much more in the building’s profile. This boosting of the dome was achieved by a trademark of Byzantine architecture called a pendentive. The dome of the Hagia Sophia rests on four arches. The legs of these arches curve inward, like a set of four two-dimensional triangles wrapped around a three-dimensional ball like a crown. Pendentives are essentially a dome with the top cut off, supporting another dome. The pendentives of the Hagia Sophia are huge.
This makes the dome seem to float above a huge open space. The airy effect is helped by the addition of a ring of windows at the base of the dome, flooding the interior with light.
A New Order of Column
We also see new forms of decoration in the Hagia Sophia.
The column capital got a facelift during the Byzantine era, forming a new order of columns, not quite Ionic and not quite Corinthian. Its delicate surface pattern further emphasizes the airy grandeur of this new architectural form. No later Byzantine project would ever come close to the sheer size and splendor of the Hagia Sophia. However, the Byzantine style would continue to develop over time, taking in architectural elements from the West, like the cross-shaped church, and giving them a distinctive Byzantine touch: central plans, domes and a fixation on mosaic. These architectural elements spread with the Eastern Orthodox faith, even finding expression in St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow.