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Byzantine Architecture: Influence, Significance, and Timeless Legacy

Byzantine architecture is one of the most important building styles of the last 1500 years. Byzantines left behind, but this list will try to shed some light on this amazing period in architectural history. Byzantine architecture expanded the possibilities of construction, engineering, and art.

Byzantine Architecture
Byzantine Architecture ©Midjourney

What is Byzantine Architecture?

Byzantine architecture refers to structures built by artisans during the Byzantine Empire (330 AD-1453 AD), which influenced most of Europe. This architectural style may still be found in cities such as Athens, Greece, and Sofia, Bulgaria. Though medieval art and architecture took various shapes, Byzantine architecture established the foundation of several diverse styles that would become prominent during the time.

Who were the Byzantines?

The Byzantine Empire, a remnant of the Eastern Roman Empire, existed from the fifth century CE until the fall of Constantinople in 1453 CE.

Byzantine Mosaic
Byzantine Mosaic from the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna ©Petar Milošević

Despite their similarities, the Byzantines and Romans were powerful nations with similar political structures and cultural ideals.

Byzantine Empire
Byzantine Empire ©Midjourney

The title “Byzantine Empire” only appeared after the empire’s demise in 1453. The Byzantine Empire differed from the Roman Empire in three ways: its capital was Constantinople, communication was mostly in Greek, and the majority of its population were Eastern Orthodox Christians.

Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia indoors ©Travel.Earth

A Brief History of Byzantine Architecture

Time Period

  • Byzantine era spanned from the 4th to the 15th centuries.
  • Many Byzantine buildings have since become museums.

Beginning of the Byzantine Era

  • Roman Emperor Constantine moved the Roman Empire’s capital to Byzantium in 330 AD.
  • The Eastern Roman Empire became known as the Byzantine Empire.
  • Byzantium was renamed Constantinople in honor of Constantine.
  • Byzantine art and architecture spread from east to west across Europe.

Association with Eastern Orthodoxy

  • After the Great Schism in 1054, Byzantine architecture became closely linked with the Eastern Orthodox Church.
  • Early Byzantine architecture influenced church architecture throughout Europe, including Gothic and Romanesque styles.
  • Iconoclasm (the banning of icons) led to alterations in some Byzantine churches during the middle Byzantine period.

Fall of the Byzantine Empire

  • Byzantine architecture continued to develop and spread until the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire in 1453.
  • Constantinople was renamed Istanbul.
  • Many Byzantine churches were converted into mosques.
Byzantine Era
Byzantine Era ©Greek Boston

Characteristics of Byzantine Architecture

  • Mosaics: Mosaics were a central element in Byzantine architecture, depicting religious scenes and historical figures. They were used in churches built by the Byzantine Empire, Venetians, and Norman Kings of Sicily. The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul houses one of the largest collections of mosaics, many of which are covered by plaster from the Ottoman Empire.
Mosaics
Mosaics illustrated religious scenes and important historical figures ©Walks Of Italy
  • Round Arches: The round arch, a key feature in Byzantine architecture, was a key characteristic of the Romanesque style, heavily influenced by Byzantine works. It was used in most openings in buildings, including the Basilica of San Vitale, and remained prevalent even after Europe adopted the pointed Gothic arch.
Basilica of Monreale
The glittering Basilica of Monreale in Palermo, Sicily ©Walks Of Italy
  • Roman and Greek Influences: Roman and Greek architecture significantly influenced Byzantine architecture, evident in column capitals in Byzantine buildings. These capitals evolved from the original Greek Columns, Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. The Hagia Sophia column has similar proportions to other Ancient Greek Columns but is uniquely Byzantine, featuring leaves, symbols, and insignias with deep recesses for depth. The sculpture’s overall structure is a testament to Byzantine influence.
Byzantine architecture
Capital with Protom of Pegasus Osama ©Shukir Muhammed Amin
  • Orthodox Christian Influences: The Eastern Orthodox Church, based in Constantinople for over 1,000 years, heavily influenced Byzantine architecture. Eastern Orthodox art and iconography are found in all Byzantine churches, with most decorations in the Chora Church in Istanbul completed between 1315 and 1321. The art of Eastern Christians differed from the rich, decadent art of Latin Christians in the West, leading to the Great Schism of 1054.
Byzantine mosaic
Byzantine mosaic in Ravenna’s Basilica di Sant’Apollinare in Classe ©Walks Of Italy
  • Domes: Byzantine-style churches and buildings often feature vaults, pendentives, and columns to support large domes, interlocking in an octagon figure for stability. Half-domes, known as apses, sit above the altar, while the central dome lifts overhead.
Byzantine-style churches and buildings
Byzantine-style churches and buildings ©Arquitectura
  • Greek cross plans: Byzantine churches, rooted in Orthodox Christianity, featured cross-shaped floor plans with a long walkway leading to the narthex and a sideways area near the pulpit, a practice common in many Latin churches.

Types of Byzantine Churches

  • The Basilica Style, the earliest type of Byzantine church, features a long linear space within the central nave, evolving from Roman civic buildings.
  • The centralized plan and pendentive dome, an innovative design, revolve around a large centralized gathering space, atop multiple arches over a square foundation.
  • This style evolved from older Roman Mausoleums and rotunda-style temples, and heavily influenced later Orthodox Cathedrals, often built in a Greek Cross Plan.
Types of Byzantine Churches
Types of Byzantine Churches ©architectureofcities

Evolution of the Pendentive Dome

  • The three types of pendentive domes are:
    • Dome atop four flat walls.
    • Dome atop two flat walls and two half-domes.
    • Dome atop four half-domes.
Type 01 (4) Flat Walls; Type 02 (2) Flat Walls & (2) Half-Domes; Type 03 (4) Half-Domes
Type 01 (4) Flat Walls; Type 02 (2) Flat Walls & (2) Half-Domes; Type 03 (4) Half-Domes ©architectureofcities

Examples of Byzantine Architecture

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey

Constructed: 537 CE
Emperor: Justinian I

The Hagia Sophia, built under Emperor Justinian the Great, is considered a high point in Byzantine history. Constructed in just 5 years and 10 months, it was the world’s largest building at the time of its completion.

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey
Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey ©Burak Kara/ Getty Images

The Dome of the Hagia Sophia was the largest in the world, surpassing the Pantheon in Rome. The Hagia Sophia was the leading Eastern Orthodox Church until 1453 when it was converted into a mosque by the Ottomans, who added multiple additions, prayer halls, and four large stone minarets.

Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia ©Lankasa (Space Eagle)
Interior of Hagia Sophia
Interior of Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque in Istanbul ©AA Photo

Basilica of Saint’Apollinare, Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy

Constructed: 561 CE
Emperor: Justinian I

Ravenna, conquered by the Byzantines in 540 CE, became their regional capital. The basilica, built by Theodoric the Great, is technically not Byzantine, but heavily influenced by Byzantine architecture.

Basilica of Saint'Apollinare, Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy
Basilica of Saint’Apollinare, Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy ©Sailko

The Byzantines later took Ravenna from the Ostrogoths and modified it to suit their preferences. The church’s plan matches an ancient Roman Basilica, with a central nave and two parallel halls. The Byzantine Mosaics in the church are some of the best-preserved examples.

Inside The Basilica of Sant' Apollinare Nuovo
Inside The Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy ©TheShowaDaily

Walls of Constantinople, Istanbul, Turkey

Constructed: 324-448 CE
Emperors: Constantine I & Theodosius II

Walls of Constantinople, Istanbul, Turkey
Walls of Constantinople, Istanbul, Turkey ©A.Savin, WikiCommons

Constantinople’s walls, a significant fortification system of antiquity, were built by Constantine the Great in the 4th century and Theodosius II in the 5th century. The walls encircled the city, creating a large land wall on the western edge and a smaller sea wall along the eastern, northern, and southern edges.

Walls of Constantinople in Istanbul Turkey
Walls of Constantinople in Istanbul Turkey ©Atlas Obscura

The sea walls defended against naval assaults from the Bosphorus and Golden Horn. The Western Land Wall, a massive, three-tiered system, was mainly constructed by Theodosius II and is still largely intact today. The Byzantine Empire defended Constantinople against numerous sieges for around 1000 years.

Constantinople's walls, a significant fortification system of antiquity
Constantinople’s walls, a significant fortification system of antiquity ©Atlas Obscura

Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy

Constructed: 547 CE
Emperor: Justinian I

The Basilica of San Vitale, built by the Byzantines in Ravenna during the 6th century, is a centrally planned church known for its exquisite Byzantine Mosaics. The church, like many other religious buildings, features depictions of Emperor Justinian the Great and his wife Theodora.

Basilica of San Vitale
Basilica of San Vitale ©wikipedia

The wealth generated from conquests, including Italy, North Africa, and Spain, funded large-scale building projects throughout the Byzantine Empire. Today, the Basilica and other notable Byzantine sites in Ravenna are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

San Vitale
Justinian mosaic at lower left and apse mosaic at the center, San Vitale ©Steven Zucker
Basilica of San Vitale
Basilica of San Vitale ©Expedia

Basilica Cistern, Istanbul, Turkey

Constructed: 532 CE
Emperor: Justinian I

A view of the Basilica Cistern, Istanbul, Turkey
A view of the Basilica Cistern, Istanbul, Turkey ©istock

Istanbul’s Basilica Cistern, located near Hagia Sophia, is a massive underground water storage tank that showcases Byzantine infrastructure and urban planning. The cistern, which can hold 2,800,000 cubic feet of water, provided water to the city, including the emperor’s royal residence.

Basilica Cistern
Basilica Cistern ©The Marmara Pera

The cistern features 336 marble columns, some decorated with column capitals, medusa heads, and ornate carvings. Today, the cistern is open to the public, offering elevated pathways between the columns.

cistern features 336 marble columns
Cistern features 336 marble columns ©IHA

FAQs

How is Byzantine architecture used today?

Byzantine architecture’s legacy is seen in the preservation and adaptation of its iconic structures like the Hagia Sophia and Basilica of San Vitale, which continue to inspire modern architectural design and restoration projects worldwide.

Which best explains the style of Byzantine architecture?

Byzantine architecture is characterized by its use of domes, round arches, intricate mosaics, and a fusion of Roman, Greek, and Eastern Christian influences, emphasizing grandeur and spiritual symbolism.

What is the difference between Roman and Byzantine architecture?

Roman architecture focused on monumental structures and engineering feats, while Byzantine architecture evolved with a strong religious and artistic focus, incorporating domes, mosaics, and intricate decoration influenced by Eastern Christian traditions.

What is the most famous example of Byzantine architecture?

The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey, built-in 537 CE under Emperor Justinian I, is renowned as one of the finest examples of Byzantine architecture, featuring a massive dome and exquisite mosaics.

What is Byzantine famous for?

Byzantine culture and architecture are celebrated for their enduring influence on art, architecture, and religious practices across Europe and the Mediterranean, shaping the development of Orthodox Christianity and medieval art forms.

Written by Isha Chaudhary

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