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Byzantine Architecture - Influences

( Originally Published 1921 )



I. Geographical.—Byzantium, renamed Constantinople after its Imperial founder, and also called " New Rome," was inaugurated as capital of the Roman Empire in A.D. 330. Like Rome in Italy it stands on seven hills, and is at the junction of the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmora, where Europe and Asia are only divided by a narrow strip of water. This gave it a commanding and central position for the government of the expanding Roman Empire. It was also at the intersection of two great highways of commerce, the water highway between the Black Sea and Mediterranean, and the trade route between Europe and Asia ; and thus it controlled the corn trade from the northern shores of the Euxine. The large, natural harbour of the Golden Horn possesses unusual advantages for commerce ; for it is four miles in length, unaffected by tides, and of sufficient depth to render its quays accessible to ships of deep draught. Byzantine art pervaded all parts of the Eastern Roman Empire and was carried by traders to Greece, Russia, Asia Minor, North Africa, and even farther west, where it is found in Venice, Ravenna, and Perigueux, and it had consider-able influence on the architecture of these districts. Venice, especially by her situation, was a connecting link between the Byzantine and Frankish Empires, and a depot for merchandise from both East and West.

II. Geological.—Constantine possessed no good building stone, and local Materials such as clay for bricks and rubble for concrete were employed.

Other materials more monumental in character had therefore to be imported : marble was brought from the quarries in the islands and along the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean to Constantinople, which was the chief marble-working centre and supplied all parts of the Roman Empire. Byzantine architecture was further considerably influenced by the multitude of monolithic columns of such sizes as were obtainable from the different quarries. These were even introduced into the underground cisterns for the water storage of this Imperial city.

III. Climatic.—The Romans adapted their methods of building to the Eastern climate of their new capital and to those conditions of life which had there already created traditional forms in art : thus flat roofs for summer resort are combined with oriental domes, and these, with small windows often high up in otherwise unbroken walls, form the chief features of the style, and sheltering arcades surrounded the open courts.

IV. Religious.—Constantine established Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire (B.C. 323), and it followed that the chief buildings erected in Byzantium, his new capital, were churches for the new religion, and they naturally, as time went on, came under the influence of their environment and so the basilican Early Christian type of church was merged in the domical Byzantine type which had originated farther east. Disputes and differences soon sprang up in the Church and became so rife that the Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325) was only the first of a series called to suppress heresies. The political division too between East and West was followed by a division of Churches, due to the " Filioque controversy " which arose in A.D. 589 and eventually culminated in the " Great Schism " in A.D. 1014. The Western Church held that the Spirit proceeded from the Father and Son, while the Eastern Church maintained that the Spirit proceeded from the Father only. The Eastern and Western Churches had been further divided by the " Iconoclastic movement," which resulted from the decree of the Eastern Emperor, Leo III (A.D. 717-741), who, fearing that paganism would be fostered by the use of sculpture, proscribed all representations of human or animal forms. Many Greek artists thereupon left Constantinople for Italy, where, under Pope Gregory II, they could carry on their art unmolested by Imperial decrees. This movement resulted in the admission of painted figures in the decoration of Eastern churches, but all sculptured statues were still excluded. These controverises and other differences in ritual have vitally affected Byzantine church architecture up to the present day. Byzantine architecture, devoid of statues, has always been and still remains the official style of the Greek or Orthodox Church of eastern Europe which has conserved unchanged its doctrines and ritual, and therefore the architecture also became stereotyped in form through all periods, in sharp contrast with the changes and additions which characterise the developments of Mediaeval architecture to suit it to the varying requirements of church economy and ritual in western Europe.

V. Social.—Constantine developed the policy initiated by Diocletian (A.D. 284–305) of providing adequate civil government and military protection throughout the widespread Roman Empire and showed his statesmanship in his manner of dealing with this political problem, just as he did in securing support for himself from the growing power of Christianity by establishing it as the state religion. Diocletian's attempt, however, to solve the difficulty of managing the Eastern Empire from the west of Italy by instituting three seats of government, in addition to that of Rome, had proved ineffectual and open to abuse, and therefore when Constantine in his turn was confronted with the same difficulty he took the bold course of transplanting his capital from Rome to Byzantium (A.D. 324) because he recognised the political value of its central position in the Empire. Thus the seat of civil government, the military head-quarters, and the Imperial court were all established in an eastern city of which the population has always been described as profligate, lazy, and vicious. Such a change of capital must have introduced Eastern methods of life and corrupt conditions into the Roman social economy, and thus have further contributed to that growth of luxury and vice which precipitated the fall of the Roman Empire. Byzantium was an old Greek city, and so the new Imperial buildings were executed by Greek craftsmen untrammelled by Roman traditions. Within the fortifications of Constantine, the new city was laid out on Roman lines, so far as the hills and site allowed. There was the central dividing street running through a succession of six forums of which the original Augusteum was adjoined, not only by S. Sophia, the greatest glory of early Christendom, but also by the Imperial palace, senate house, and law courts. The Forum of Constantine, with his great porphyry column, was the centre of commercial life, while, in the Hippodrome hard by, the chariot races took place which were the chief amusement of New Rome, as gladiatorial combat had been of Old Rome. The Hippodrome held the same position in the social life of New Rome as the Colosseum and thermae did in Old Rome, and was indeed used for all purposes and on all occasions—for crowning of emperors, burning of martyrs, execution of criminals, and for triumphal processions—and so was truly termed the axis of the Byzantine world. The Romans paid the same attention to the water supply of their new as of their old capital, for water was brought by aqueducts and stored in enormous underground cisterns with roofs upheld by countless columns. As time went on and the population increased the city of Constantine was extended, and the Great Wall with its famous military gates and many towers was built by Theodosius II (A.D. 413) to set a circle of land and water fortifications against the formidable attacks of Huns and Goths. Constantine, the strong man and despotic ruler, was followed by emperors too weak to assert their authority, and thus the Empire was divided in A.D. 365. After Theodosius, the first Emperor to emerge into prominence was Justinian (A.D. 527–565), who codified the Roman laws, was a great patron of architecture, and was responsible not only for the rebuilding of S. Sophia, but also for many other churches in the city and in Syria and Palestine. During the Macedonian dynasty (A.D. 867–1057) and the Comnenian dynasty (A.D. 1057–1185) there was a remarkable outburst of building activity. In spite of its position as the bulwark of Christianity against Huns, Goths, and Saracens, and in spite, too, of its commercial prosperity and industrial activity, the Byzantine Empire was doomed to destruction. Decay from within facilitated defeat from without, for during its later period society was a tangled skein of treachery, immorality, and luxury, and the final crash came when the capital was captured by the Ottoman Turks in A.D. 1453.

VI. Historical.—Byzantium, said to have been founded about B.C. 750, is known to have been a Greek colony some three hundred years later, and in A.D. 324 became the capital of the Roman Empire. On the death of the Emperor Theodosius I (A.D. 395) the Empire was finally divided, and Byzantium continued to be the capital of the Eastern Empire, and throughout the Middle Ages was the bulwark of Christianity against the attacks of the Huns and Goths on the west, and of Saracens on the east,

Honorius (A.D. 395—423), the first Western Emperor of the newly divided Empire, removed his residence from Rome to Ravenna on the east coast of Italy (A.D. 403), and consequently there was great building activity in that city, which, from its position, was peculiarly susceptible to Byzantine influence. A further impetus was given to building when Ravenna became an archiepiscopal see in A.D. 438. During the reign of Justinian (A.D. 527—565) Sicily and Italy were recovered to the Eastern Empire, and this new connection promoted a revival of building in Italy; here again Byzantine influence came into play, and from A.D. 539 to 752 Ravenna was the seat of the Exarch or representative of the Byzantine Emperors, and its buildings of this period became of a still more pronounced Byzantine type. The history of the Byzantine Empire from the fifth to the eleventh century is one of fluctuating and gradually declining fortunes. It first lost its western provinces in the fifth century, some of which, including Italy and Sicily, were regained in the sixth century under Justinian ; while again in the following century its strength was greatly reduced by conflict with the Persians, but yet once more in the eighth century the Empire somewhat recovered itself, till in the ninth century it was again strong enough to carry on fierce contests against the Saracens, who were long kept at bay on the eastern side. In the eleventh century the decline was accelerated because, besides enemies on the east and north, it was now attacked by Normans and Venetians, till the " Latin occupation " of Byzantium was accomplished in A.D. 1204 and lasted to A.D. 1261. The old Empire still staggered on for another two hundred and fifty years, but its vitality had been sapped by internal dissensions and continuous warfare against the Persians and Turks, and it was finally captured by Ottoman Turks in A.D. 1453.



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