Byzantine Architecture | Elements History and Characteristics

What is Byzantine Architecture?

Byzantine architecture is undoubtedly one of the three great forces in the world of architecture during the Middle Ages in Europe. This architectural style developed during the reign of the Roman Emperor Justinian during the years 527 and 565 AD.

The extensive use of mosaics and the implementation of elevated Byzantine domes as a distinctive feature result in a contribution to the quality of construction as one of the last engineering techniques of the 6th century.

History of Byzantine architecture

Byzantine architecture predominated in the eastern half of the Roman Empire during the reign of Justinian the Great, however, influences spread over the centuries from 330 until the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and were incorporated into the ecclesiastical architecture of the present day.

The contributions of Byzantine architecture dramatically influenced later medieval architecture throughout Europe and the Near East, and it became the main progenitor of the Renaissance and Ottoman architectural traditions that emerged in the wake of its collapse.

Much of what we now call Byzantine architecture is ecclesiastical, that is, church-related. Christianity began to flourish after the Edict of Milan in 313 AD when the Roman Emperor Constantine proclaimed his own Christianity, which would legitimize the new religion; Christians would no longer be routinely persecuted.

Religious freedom allowed Christians to worship openly and without threat, as well as a rapid spread of the new religion. The need for places of worship expanded, as did the need for new approaches to the design of Byzantine buildings and works.

Hagia Irene (also known as Haghia Eirene or Aya İrini Kilisesi) in Istanbul, Turkey is the site of the first Christian church built by Constantine in the 4th century. Most of these early Byzantine churches were destroyed but rebuilt on their rubble by Emperor Justinian.

Characteristics of Byzantine architecture

In Constantinople, as the Roman Empire moved eastward (and also toward Christianity) with its new capital, it adopted a more sensual and ambitious architecture than ever before. This Byzantine style, with increasingly exotic Byzantine domes and richer and richer mosaics, spread westward to Ravenna and Venice and northward to Moscow.

Most Byzantine churches and basilicas have high domes. As a consequence, they created wide open spaces in the centers of the churches, increasing the sense of grace and light.

The round arch is a fundamental characteristic of the Byzantine style. Magnificent golden mosaics with their graphic simplicity and immense power brought light and warmth to the heart of the churches. Byzantine capitals break with the classical conventions of ancient Greece and Rome.

Sinuous lines and naturalistic forms are the precursors of the Gothic style. The first half of the Middle Ages was also a time of research into construction methods and materials. Skylight windows became a popular means of letting natural light and ventilation into a dark, smoky building.

Elements of Byzantine Architecture

The structural use of Byzantine pendentives to raise Byzantine domes to new heights was used by Byzantine engineers. A dome can rise from the top of a vertical cylinder, such as a silo, giving height to the dome.

The exterior of the church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, like the Hagia Irene, is characterized by the construction of silo-like pendentives. A good example of pendentives seen from the interior is the interior of the Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya) in Istanbul, which is one of the most famous Byzantine structures in the world.

  • Multiple domes - The proliferation of domes began, reaching its peak at St. Mark's in Venice, which features a dome on each arm of the floor plan and another in the center.
  • Mosaics - Golden mosaics with a simple design and immense power were clear, warm and conveyed mystery to Byzantine churches.
  • Raised and semicircular arches - The semicircular arch is a fundamental element in the Byzantine style. The arches of the octagonal portico of Santa Fosca in Torcello, Italy, are a bridge between contemporary Islamic design and Christian design.
  • Naturalistic ornamentation on capitals - Byzantine capitals break with classical Greek and Roman convention. Their ornamentation is of sinuous lines and natural forms, pioneering the Gothic.

Materials of Byzantine architecture

Bricks were used to create walls by laying two sides and pouring rubble and mortar between them. The cement mortar was made with lime, sand and bricks or crushed stones. In some instances, a reinforcing layer made entirely of bricks ran through the entire wall. Unlike Roman walls, the Byzantine version did not use core concrete (pozzolana), and if the facing was damaged, then eventually the core would be damaged as well.

In the case of the Byzantine builders, a much thicker layer of mortar was used between the bricks, probably as a cost-saving exercise, since fewer bricks were needed.

Unfortunately, as the mortar dried, it warped and many Byzantine buildings suffered distortion or even partial collapse. Brick was also used to make domes, arches and vaults, in many cases using bricks twice the standard size.

As an alternative to brick, ashlar stone blocks were used, which were the most popular in the eastern region of the Byzantine Empire. In some buildings, especially in the 6th century AD, the two were combined and had a lower part of brick and an upper part of stone blocks.

These materials and their use in Byzantine buildings remained virtually unchanged until the 14th century. Marble, an expensive material, was generally used for Byzantine columns, capitals, cornices, architraves and decorative elements such as door frames, window grills and floors.

Some of the building exteriors were plastered, but this was not common. Greater attention was paid to interior architecture, where generally all walls were covered with plaster, stucco, marble slabs, Byzantine painting and mosaics.

Byzantine imperial buildings and the most important basilicas received a greater number of marbles than anywhere else, with the Proconesios of the island of Proconesus in the Sea of Marmara being the most common. In the Western Roman tradition, the prestige of colored marble continued, so it was imported from places like Egypt and Phrygia. The roofs of churches and houses were made of wood in the vast majority of cases.

Eastern and Western Byzantine Architecture

Flavius Justinian was not born in Rome, but in Tauresium, Macedonia, in Eastern Europe, around 482. Because of his birthplace he is one of the main factors that made the Christian emperor's reign change the shape of architecture between 527 and 565.

Justinian was a ruler of Rome, but he grew up with the people of the Eastern world. He was a Christian leader who brought two worlds together; construction methods and architectural details were passed back and forth. Buildings that had previously been constructed similarly to those in Rome took on more local and eastern influences.

Justinian reconquered the Western Roman Empire, which had been taken over by the barbarians, and Eastern architectural traditions were introduced into the West. The mosaic of Justinian's image in the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, is a testament to the Byzantine influence in the Ravenna area, which remains a major center of Italian Byzantine architecture.

Church of Santa Sofia

The most important and most famous Byzantine church is the Church of St. Sophia in Constantinople, consecrated to the holy wisdom of God. It was built in 532-537 AD during the reign of Justinian on the site of two more modest versions dating from the 4th century AD. The building is unique and was never equaled in size or design by any later Byzantine building.

The basic, rectangular form measures 74.6 x 69.7 meters and is formed by a vault 55 meters high above the ground and rests on four massive arches with four supporting pendentives. This was a spectacular achievement for Justinian and he boasted that he had managed to beat Solomon, but it was all too good to be true, and the dome collapsed in 558 AD, its cracks catastrophically aggravated by two earthquakes.

It was therefore replaced with a structurally stronger, channeled and steep dome 31.8 meters in diameter, which still survives today (despite partial collapses in A.D. 989 and 1346). Hagia Sophia was the largest church in the world until the 16th century and one of the most decorated with many of its brilliant mosaics and murals that still impress visitors today.