What is the style of Byzantine architecture and what are its features?
Byzantine architecture refers to a style that was prevalent in the lands under the rule of the Byzantine Empire (Eastern Rome) between the 4th and 15th centuries AD. The use of large and high domes, tall windows and mosaics for decor are common features of this style.
Byzantine architecture was a style that flourished in the Middle Ages during the reign of the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I or Justinian I. In addition to the extensive use of mosaics inside the building, large and high domes were other prominent features of the Byzantine style that the engineering techniques of the 6th century AD, had paved the way for the construction of this type of dome. Byzantine architecture was able to become the dominant style of the eastern part of the Roman Empire during the reign of Emperor Justinian; But its influence lasted for centuries, from 330 until the fall of Constantinople in 1453, and even today it is still used to build some churches.
In fact, most of the buildings to which we attribute Byzantine architectural style are religious and ecclesiastical. Constantine (Roman Emperor) declared Christianity by order of the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, and this act of his recognized the religion of Christianity. So Christians were no longer persecuted and could worship without any threat. As a result of these changes, Christianity was able to flourish and expand rapidly during this period, and at the same time they had to think about building places of worship and new plans. Hagia Irene in Istanbul was the first Christian church to be established by Emperor Constantine in the 4th century AD. Many of the early churches were demolished during this period and rebuilt on the ruins of these buildings during the reign of Emperor Justinian. The Church of St. Mark or the “Church of St. Mark” in Venice is another famous church that has been built in various architectural styles, including Gothic and Byzantine.
Why is this style called Byzantine?
Emperor Constantine changed the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome in 330 to a part of Turkey called Byzantium (modern-day Istanbul). The emperor wrote this section inspired by his own name, Constantinople. The Roman Empire was divided into eastern and western parts, with Byzantium being the center of its eastern part and Ravenna in Italy being the center of its western part. The Western Roman Empire fell at Ravenna in 476, but was restored by Justinian in 540. The influence of Justinian and Byzantine architecture can still be seen in the city of Ravenna.
Emperor Justinian I and Byzantine architecture
Emperor Justinian was born around 482 in a region of Macedonia (Eastern Europe) and was not born in Rome. His birthplace is an important reason why this Christian emperor was able to change the architecture between 527 and 565. He was considered the emperor of Rome, but he actually grew up with the people of the Eastern world. Justinian intended to unite Western and Eastern Rome, and various construction methods and architectural details were exchanged between the two regions during this period. The Berbers had conquered the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, and Justinian was able to reclaim it, introducing Eastern architectural traditions to Western Rome. His mosaic in the Basilica di San Vitale in Ravana is a testament to the Byzantine influence on the city, which is still a major center of Italian Byzantine architecture.
Justinian I wanted to follow in Constantine’s footsteps, but previous experience had shown him that he could not rely solely on the strength of his troops to have a united territory. As a result, he embarked on an ambitious project of building a church throughout his empire. The best surviving examples of Justinian’s architectural projects can be seen in the Western Roman Empire; Because its buildings were almost safe from the invasion of the Ottoman Turks and its ruins in the 15th century. In the meantime, the city of Ravenna and the church of San Vitale are considered to be the best examples, which well illustrates the architectural vision of Justinian. In this basilica one can clearly see the similarities between the Byzantine style and early Christianity, and a mosaic image of Justinian was made in his honor and shows the emperor in a purple robe standing next to servants and soldiers and a number of clergy. The influence of the rule of this Christian Roman emperor was felt long after his death in 565.
Features of Byzantine architecture
The main Byzantine buildings are square in shape and form a central plan. Instead of following the Latin cross of the Gothic churches, the building was built in the shape of a Greek cross. Early Byzantine churches usually had a high central dome that rested on half-dome-shaped columns, or triangular sections below the dome. Byzantine architecture combined the details of Greek, Roman, Western, and Middle Eastern architectural styles, and was able to influence Orthodox architecture as well. Architects of this style preferred columns that had decorative arches and were inspired by Middle Eastern designs, instead of the classic pillars. Of course, the Byzantines used the methods of classical piling, but their pattern was more irregular and varied. One reason may be that old non-Christian buildings were used to make various stones to build new ones. In fact, the emphasis on its use and preference in appearance was one of the salient features of Byzantine architecture.
Examples of Byzantine architecture
Although many of the important buildings of Constantinople have been destroyed or altered, there are still many remarkable ones around the world that are reminiscent of the glory of the Roman Empire and its unique architectural style. The following are some of the most famous Byzantine architectural monuments:
1. Basilica of San Vitale, Italy
The Basilica of San Vitale is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, built by the Ostrogoths in Ravenna and completed by the Byzantines in 547. The interior of this place is decorated with beautiful mosaics, which are considered to be among the best examples of Byzantine mosaics outside of Constantinople and are well preserved.
2. Hagia Sophia Museum, Turkey
Hagia Sophia in Istanbul is the most famous and spectacular Byzantine church and its foundation dates back to 532. After its construction, it was the largest and most prominent church in the world and held this title until the conquest of the Byzantine capital by the Ottomans. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the basilica became a mosque, and since the Ottoman Turkish religion forbade the depiction of saints, many of the mosaics were destroyed or covered. The building was closed in 1931 and reopened to the public in 1935 as a museum.
3. Basilica of St. Apollinaire Novo, Italy
The Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo was founded in Ravenna in the early 6th century by the Ostrogothic king Theodoric the Great. After the Byzantine Empire conquered Italy during the Gothic Wars of 535, Justinian I converted it to the Orthodox Church and dedicated it to St. Martin of Tours. The bones of Saint Apollinaris were moved to the site in the mid-9th century and renamed in his honor. This basilica is a combination of Byzantine style and early Christianity and contains several spectacular mosaics from the beginning of Byzantium. The monument was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1996.
4. Constantinople Hippodrome, Turkey
The Hippodrome of Constantinople was originally a site for chariot races, and many social and political unrests took place in the area. Today, this place is known as “Sultan Ahmed Square” and, unfortunately, many parts of it have been destroyed, but its statues, obelisks and other decorative items have been well protected.
5. Aya Irini, Turkey
Ia Irini, or Ia Irene, was one of the first churches to be built in the capital of the Byzantine Empire. The building was commissioned by Emperor Constantine, and of course the main church was destroyed in the Nika Riot in 532. Justinian rebuilt it in the 6th century, but two centuries later, the church was severely damaged by an earthquake. Most of the parts of this building that you can see in Istanbul now date back to the 8th century. Today, Ierini has become a museum and is sometimes used for music events.
6. Hosius Lucas, Greece
Hosios Loukas is a monastery in the Greek city of Distomo, dating to the 10th century. The building is considered one of the best examples of Byzantine architecture of the “Second Age of the Golden Age”, also known as “Middle Byzantium” and coincided with the rule of the Macedonian dynasty. The monastery was known throughout the empire for its magnificent décor, including mosaics, murals and marble, and was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1990.