Byzantine art and architecture

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Byzantine architecture. The Byzantine, or Eastern Roman, Empire, began with the foundation of Constantinople (formerly Byzantium) in AD 324 and ended with its capture by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. The Byzantine style began in the age of Justinian (527–65), although elements can be found from C4, and continued long after the fall of Constantinople, especially where the Orthodox Church was dominant. When the Roman Emperor Constantine (324–37) established his new Imperial and administrative capital on the Bosphorus, the seeds were sown for a division of the Empire into Eastern and Western parts, with Greek becoming dominant in the former and Latin in the latter. The division was exacerbated in C11 when Christendom suffered its Great Schism, dividing into the Orthodox and RC Churches (the latter centred on Rome).

When Constantinople was founded, every effort was made to create a new Rome in the East. Many Roman buildings were plundered to enrich the city, and the Classical Orders were familiar there, as well as the style of architecture which we call Early Christian. However, two building-types played an important part in the evolution of a specifically Byzantine church architecture: the basilica and the circular temple. The latter was known in pagan times, but acquired greater complexity in C4 when circular clerestoreyed domed structures (as at Santa Costanza, Rome) were developed first as tombs, then centrally planned martyria (commemorative or pilgrimage shrines). It is clear that the martyrium was planned in a different way from an ordinary church, and from C4 martyria were known to have been constructed as octagons with radiating arms to produce cruciform plans.

The basilican type of church can be seen at Sant'Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna (534–49), where the clerestorey is carried on arcades set on rows of columns on rectangular pedestals and with curiously un-Classical capitals based on the Composite type. Above the abaci are blocks or dosserets from which the arches spring. Yet this building is essentially Italian, whereas San Vitale, also in Ravenna (c.532–48), is very different: centrally planned, it has a clerestoreyed vaulted octagon carried on piers, a lower galleried aisle, and an apsidal chancel. Columns have block-like capitals, making the transition from circular shafts to square dosseret, and have virtually no connection with Classicism, while the bases are stepped and octagonal. San Vitale appears to have been a martyrium, and, architecturally, derives from the Church of Sts Sergios and Bacchos in Constantinople (c.525–c.536), which has a clearstoreyed octagon. The beautiful lace-like capitals in Sts Sergios and Bacchos have only a suggestion of the Classical about them.

The great achievement of Byzantine architecture was the huge Church of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) in Constantinople (c.532–7), designed by the scientists and mathematicians Anthemios of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus. Various themes that were familiar at the time were synthesized and combined in one design, and it was rather as though the basic form of Sts Sergios and Bacchos had been cut in two, greatly inflated, and built on either side of a gigantic square space covered with a low saucer-dome carried on pendentives. Such a huge dome on a square space and constructed thus was unprecedented, and the complete synthesis of the basilican and centralized plan can be found in that great building. The church's interior was enriched with a skin of coloured marbles, porphyry, and other stones, while the vaults and domes were covered with the mosaics that were such a glorious feature of Byzantine churches.

The next largest church in Constantinople after Hagia Sophia was Hagia Irene (Holy Peace), begun 532, and rebuilt 564 and 740 (the C8 rebuilding included an additional dome over the nave, creating a more longitudinal plan). By C11, the typical Byzantine church-plan was a Greek cross within a square, roofed with a central dome flanked by four barrel-vaults and with domed squares in the corners. The plan is also known as the quincunx, and there were further variations on it (often consisting of three apses to the east and one or more narthexes to the west)—a good example is the Church of the Holy Apostles, Thessalonika (early C14), where cloisonné (stones individually framed horizontally and vertically with bricks), herring-bone, and other patterns occur. The exteriors of earlier Byzantine churches often give the impression of having been left to their own devices, as though they were merely the result of the need to encase the rich interiors. Later churches, however, had greater care lavished on their exteriors: clerestoreyed drums of domes are taller, walls are often given the cloisonné treatment, while motifs based on the Kufic alphabet are introduced in bands on the wall-surface. A typical example is the Theotokos Church of the monastery of Hosios Loukas, Phocis (C10 or C11), probably the earliest representative of architectural themes that were to dominate in Byzantine architecture in Greece.

With the spread of Christianity north-wards, tall drums with domes recurred in the Ukraine and Russia: Hagia Sophia in Kiev (C11) had the rectangular cross-in-square plan, but there were five naves each with its own apse, and thirteen domes arranged in a pyramidal formation crowned the composition. Byzantine churches in Russia generally consisted of the cross-in-square, with many variants, as at Hagia Sophia, Novgorod (1045–50), and the Cathedral of the Transfiguration, Černigov (c.1036). However, after C11 the Byzantine themes were elaborated upon, and architecture became more identified as having national or regional styles. Among characteristic Russian themes are walls subdivided into bays by means of large blind arcades, and the ‘onion’ domes that evolved from the helmet-like domes in C13. A variation on the quincunx plan occurred in the C11 Church of San Marco, Venice, with a dome over the centre of the nave and over each of the four arms. Modelled on Justinian's Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople, it was deliberately antiquarian, as it was intended to enshrine the Relics of St Mark in a church that was as important as the Apostoleion in Constantinople (which contained the Relics of Sts Andrew and Luke).

From C7 the Eastern Empire was threatened from within and without, and fatally weakened by the Crusaders' sack of Constantinople in 1204, an event which deepened the rift between RC and Orthodox Christendom. Paradoxically, as the Empire contracted, missionary activity seems to have increased, and the Byzantine style proliferated over a wide area. In both Armenia and Georgia (Christian from C4), basilican and centralized churches were erected in numbers, although from the end of C6 the domed centralized plan, much influenced by architecture in Syria, began to reach heights of elaboration. In both Armenia and Georgia, a domed interior surrounded by four apses roofed with hemi-domes (the ‘tetraconch’ arrangement), the whole enclosed in a rectangle, was common. It is best represented by St Ripsime at Echmiadzin, Armenia (618–30), and the Holy Cross, Džvari, Georgia (before 605). It is unclear how certain Western-European buildings were influenced by (or influenced) some Armenian architecture, but certainly by the early C11 domed basilicas (such as at Ani (988–1000)) began to acquire bundle-like piers, vaulting systems, and architectural features reminiscent of Western Romanesque and Gothic forms. However, Transcaucasia (Armenia and Georgia) developed a characteristic type of church architecture that had a surprisingly long life, usually based on the tetraconch plan with a high polygonal central drum pierced with windows. An example is Holy Cross, Aght'amar, Armenia (915–21), which also has the exterior enriched with figures and stylized ornament carved in low relief. In Bulgaria impressive Byzantine architecture evolved, including the extraordinary circular church at Preslav (a twelve-sided rotunda of c.900 with radiating niches, a projecting apse, a ring of internal columns on which the dome was supported, a western narthex flanked by circular towers, and an atrium surrounded by columns and with its deep walls enriched with niches). At the Black Sea town of Mesembria (Nesebŭr), known as the ‘Bulgarian Ravenna’, there are several Byzantine churches, including St John the Baptist (probably C10, a cross-in-square plan with barrel-vaulted aisles).

Serbian churches can be classified in three Schools: Raška (1170–1282); Byzantine Serbia (1282–1355); and the Morava (1355 to the Turkish domination beginning 1459). The first School combined Romanesque elements (notably in the treatment of gable-tops and eaves, fenestration, and arcading) with Byzantine domes and decorations. Good examples are the Church of the Virgin, Studenica, the Monastery at Sopočani (both C13), and the backward-looking Monastery Church of Dečani (1327–35). Later, the cross-in-square type of church acquired a pyramidal pile-up of domes: for example, the Monastery Church of Gračanica (c.1318–21), where the upper array of barrel-vaults has pointed arches. The Morava School may be represented by the Church of the Ascension, Ravanica (c.1375)—another five-domed church, the elongated drums of which have deeply recessed arches—and by the church within the fortress of Resava (Manasija) of 1406–18. In Moldavia and Wallachia (Romania), the Byzantine influence acquired a rich exoticism. The Church of the Episcopal Monastery at Curtea de Argeş (C16) is an offspring of the Morava School, where the main body of the church is a trefoil, with a huge narthex given an ambulatory plan. The Monastic Church of Dealu (1502) is also a descendant of the Morava School, derived from the plan of the Church at Cozia (1386). Moldavian C16 and C17 churches are less overtly Byzantine in inspiration, but are uniquely decorated: among the best was the Monastery Church of Voroneţ (c.1488). It had a large rectangular narthex covered by a domical vault, and a trefoil nave with a tall drum in the centre. The three apses of the trefoil plan were treated with tall blind arcades, and the exterior was decorated with elaborate frescoes protected by wide overhanging eaves. A similar arrangement was given to the Monastery Church at Suceviţa (c.1602–4).

A Byzantine Revival was spurred by scholarly publications in C19 following the independence of Greece and the Balkan States. Works include the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Hagia Sophia, Moscow Road, Bayswater, London (1877–82), by John Oldrid Scott (1841–1913), and Westminster Cathedral (1895–1903), by John Francis Bentley.


Buchwald (1999);
Cruickshank (ed.) (1996);
G. Hamilton (1983);
Krautheimer (1986);
Mango (1972, 1986);
Ousterhout (1999);
Peña (1996);
Runciman (1975);
Jane Turner (1996);
D. Watkin (1986)

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Byzantine art and architecture, works of art and structures works produced in the city of Byzantium after Constantine made it the capital of the Roman Empire (AD 330) and the work done under Byzantine influence, as in Venice, Ravenna, Norman Sicily, as well as in Syria, Greece, Russia, and other Eastern countries.

General History

For more than a thousand years, until the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453, Byzantine art retained a remarkably conservative orientation; the major phases of its development emerge from a background marked by adherence to classical principles. Artistic activity was temporarily disrupted by the Iconoclastic controversy (726–843), which resulted in the wholesale destruction of figurative works of art and the restriction of permissible content to ornamental forms or to symbols like the cross. The pillaging of Constantinople by the Frankish Crusaders in 1204 was perhaps a more serious blow; but it was followed by an impressive late flowering of Byzantine art under the Paleologus dynasty.

Byzantine Art


Byzantine achievements in mosaic decoration brought this art to an unprecedented level of monumentality and expressive power. Mosaics were applied to the domes, half-domes, and other available surfaces of Byzantine churches in an established hierarchical order. The center of the dome was reserved for the representation of the Pantocrator, or Jesus as the ruler of the universe, whereas other sacred personages occupied lower spaces in descending order of importance.

The entire church thus served as a tangible evocation of the celestial order; this conception was further enhanced by the stylized poses and gestures of the figures, their hieratic gaze, and the luminous shimmer of the gold backgrounds. Because of the destruction of many major monuments in Constantinople proper, large ensembles of mosaic decoration have survived chiefly outside the capital, in such places as Salonica, Nicaea, and Daphni in Greece and Ravenna in Italy.


An important aspect of Byzantine artistic activity was the painting of devotional panels, since the cult of icons played a leading part in both religious and secular life. Icon painting usually employed the encaustic technique. Little scope was afforded individuality; the effectiveness of the religious image as a vehicle of divine presence was held to depend on its fidelity to an established prototype. A large group of devotional images has been preserved in the monastery of St. Catherine on Mt. Sinai.

The development of Byzantine painting may also be seen in manuscript illumination. Among notable examples of Byzantine illumination are a lavishly illustrated 9th-century copy of the Homilies of Gregory Nazianzen and two works believed to date from a 10th-century revival of classicism, the Joshua Rotulus (or Roll) and the Paris Psalter.

Other Arts

Enamel, ivory, and metalwork objects of Byzantine workmanship were highly prized throughout the Middle Ages; many such works are found in the treasuries of Western churches. Most of these objects were reliquaries or devotional panels, although an important series of ivory caskets with pagan subjects has also been preserved. Byzantine silks, the manufacture of which was a state monopoly, were also eagerly sought and treasured as goods of utmost luxury.

Byzantine Architecture

The architecture of the Byzantine Empire was based on the great legacy of Roman formal and technical achievements. Constantinople had been purposely founded as the Christian counterpart and successor to the leadership of the old pagan city of Rome. The new capital was in close contact with the Hellenized East, and the contribution of Eastern culture, though sometimes overstressed, was an important element in the development of its architectural style. The 5th-century basilica of St. John of the Studion, the oldest surviving church in Constantinople, is an early example of Byzantine reliance upon traditional Roman models.

The most imposing achievement of Byzantine architecture is the Church of Holy Wisdom or Hagia Sophia. It was constructed in a short span of five years (532–37) during the reign of Justinian. Hagia Sophia is without a clear antecedent in the architecture of late antiquity, yet it must be accounted as culminating several centuries of experimentation toward the realization of a unified space of monumental dimensions. Throughout the history of Byzantine religious architecture, the centrally planned structure continued in favor. Such structures, which may show considerable variation in plan, have in common the predominance of a central domed space, flanked and partly sustained by smaller domes and half-domes spanning peripheral spaces.

Although many of the important buildings of Constantinople have been destroyed, impressive examples are still extant throughout the provinces and on the outer fringes of the empire, notably in Bulgaria, Russia, Armenia, and Sicily. A great Byzantine architectural achievement is the octagonal church of San Vitale (consecrated 547) in Ravenna. The church of St. Mark's in Venice was based on a Byzantine prototype, and Byzantine workmen were employed by Arab rulers in the Holy Land and in Ottonian Germany during the 11th cent.

Secular architecture in the Byzantine Empire has left fewer traces. Foremost among these are the ruins of the 5th-century walls of the city of Constantinople, consisting of an outer and an inner wall, each originally studded with 96 towers. Some of these can still be seen.


See A. van Millingen, Byzantine Churches in Constantinople (1912); D. T. Rice, Art of Byzantium (1959) and Art of the Byzantine Era (1963, repr. 1985); W. MacDonald, Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture (1963); I. Hutter, Early Christian and Byzantine Art (1988).

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Byzantine of or pertaining to the ancient city of Byzantium, or Constantinople. The Byzantine Empire in SE Europe and Asia Minor was formed from the eastern part of the Roman Empire at the end of the 4th century ad. Constantinople (Byzantium) became the capital of the Eastern Empire in 476, with the fall of Rome, and in 1054 theological and political differences between Constantinople and Rome led to the breach between Eastern and Western Christianity (see Great of Chancery). The loss of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 was the end of the empire, although its rulers held Trebizond (Trabzon) until 1461.

The term Byzantine denotes something regarded as typifying the politics and bureaucratic structure of the Byzantine Empire; in particular, (of a system or situation) excessively complicated and typically involving a great deal of administrative detail; characterized by deviousness or underhand procedure.

Byzantine is also used to designate an ornate artistic and architectural style which developed in the Byzantine Empire and spread to Italy, Russia, and elsewhere. The art is generally rich and stylized (as in religious icons) and the architecture is typified by many-domed, highly decorated churches.

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Byz·an·tine / ˈbizənˌtēn; bəˈzan-; -ˌtīn/ • adj. of or relating to Byzantium, the Byzantine Empire, or the Eastern Orthodox Church. ∎  of an ornate artistic and architectural style that developed in the Byzantine Empire and spread esp. to Italy and Russia. The art is generally rich and stylized (as in religious icons) and the architecture typified by many-domed, highly decorated churches. ∎  (of a system or situation) excessively complicated, typically involving a great deal of administrative detail: Byzantine insurance regulations. ∎  characterized by deviousness or underhanded procedure: Byzantine intrigues. • n. a citizen of Byzantium or the Byzantine Empire. DERIVATIVES: By·zan·tin·ism n.

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Byzantine art and architecture Art produced in the Byzantine empire e of the Balkans. Its greatest achievements fall within three periods. The first Golden Age coincided with the reign of Justinian I (527–65), and saw the construction of the Hagia Sophia. The second Golden Age refers to the artistic revival that occurred during the time of the Macedonian emperors (867–1057), and which followed the terrible destruction caused by the Iconoclastic Controversy. Finally, the last years of the empire, under the rule of the Palaeologs (1261–1453), are often referred to as the Byzantine Renaissance. Most Byzantine art was religious in subject matter and combined Christian imagery with an oriental expressive style. The mosaic and icon were the most common forms. Byzantine church architecture is typically central rather than longitudinal, and the central dome (surrounded by groupings of smaller or semi-domes) is supported by means of pendentives. Construction is of brick arranged in decorative patterns and mortar. Interiors are faced with marble slabs, coloured glass mosaics, gold leaf, and fresco decoration.;

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Byzantine. That which pertains to the Church and the patriarchate of Constantinople; though the term in practice is often used to refer to the whole Eastern Orthodox Church.