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Byzantine Architecture - Architectural Character

( Originally Published 1921 )



The character of Byzantine architecture, which dates from the fourth century to the present day, is determined by the development of the dome to cover circular, polygonal, and square plans for churches, tombs, and baptisteries (p. 227) . The practice of placing many domes over one building is in strong contrast to the Romanesque system of vaulted roofs. The change from Roman and Early Christian forms was gradual, but in the course of two centuries the East asserted its influence ; and though no exact line separates Early Christian and Byzantine styles, yet the basilican type, inherited from pagan Rome, is characteristic of the former, and the domed type, introduced from the East, of the latter. The system of construction in concrete and brickwork introduced by the Romans was adopted by the Byzantines. The carcase of concrete and brickwork was first completed and allowed to settle before the surface sheathing of unyielding marble slabs was added, and this independence of the component parts is characteristic of Byzantine construction. Brickwork, moreover, lent itself externally to decorative caprices in patterns and banding, and internally it was suitable for covering with marble, mosaic, and fresco decoration. The Byzantines therefore took great pains in the manufacture of bricks, which were employed alike in military, ecclesiastical, and domestic architecture. The ordinary bricks were like the Roman, about an inch and a half in depth, and were laid on thick beds of mortar. This general use of brickwork necessitated special care in making mortar, which was composed of lime and sand with crushed pottery, tiles, or bricks, and much of it remains as hard as that in the best buildings of Rome, while the core of the wall was sometimes of concrete, as in the Roman period. The decorative character of external facades depended largely on the arrangement of the facing bricks, which were not always laid horizontally, but sometimes obliquely, sometimes in the form of the meander fret, sometimes in the chevron or herring-bone pattern, and in many other similar designs, giving great variety to the facades. An attempt was also made to ornament the rough brick exteriors by the use of stone bands and decorative arches. Walls were sheeted internally with marble (p. 223 L), and vaults and domes with coloured glass mosaics on a golden background (p. 225 B). The churches of Constantinople, Nicaea, and Salonica show the perfection to which this scheme of decoration was carried.

The dome, which had always been a traditional feature in the East, became the prevailing motif of Byzantine architecture, which was a fusion of the domical construction with the Classical columnar style. Domes of various types (p. 223) were now placed over square compartments by means of " pendentives " (pp. 223, 224, 225 B, 232 B, 233), whereas in Roman architecture domes were only used over circular or polygonal structures. These domes were frequently constructed of bricks or of some light porous stone, such as pumice, or even of pottery, as at S. Vitale, Ravenna (p. 231 D). Byzantine domes and vaults were, it is believed, constructed without temporary support or " centering " by the simple use of large flat bricks, and this is quite a distinct system probably derived from Eastern methods. Windows were formed in the lower portion of the dome which, in the later period, was hoisted upon a high " drum "a feature which was still further embellished in the Renaissance period by the addition of an external peristyle or colonnade (p. 545). The grouping of small domes round the large central dome was effective (pp. 223 M, 225 A), and one of the most remarkable peculiarities of Byzantine churches was that the forms of the vaults and domes were visible externally, undisguised by any timber roof (p. 224 A, D) ; thus in the Byzantine style the exterior closely corresponds with the interior. In S. Sophia is seen the fully developed Byzantine style: for the columns are not merely ornamental, but really support the galleries, and semicircular arches rest directly on columns with capitals suitable for supporting the springers of arches of which the voussoirs were rectangular blocks, not set in receding moulded planes as in Mediaeval architecture (p, 267 B). The Byzantine capital was shaped to form a simple transition from the square abacus to the circular shaft. The numerous shafts in S. Sophia exhibit the remarkable and beautiful structural expedient of surrounding the shafts, both under the capital and above the base, by bronze annulets (pp. 223 N, 226 A). Monolithic shafts which, owing to the height required, had to be set up contrary to the stratification of the quarry, were therefore liable to split, and these bronze annulets not only overcame this danger, but also prevented the lead " seating " from being forced out by the superincumbent weight. Although marble columns from old buildings were utilised, the importation of newly quarried columns and rare marbles for decorative purposes continued, and the Theodosian code encouraged and regulated this industry, so that coloured marbles were employed to a greater extent than in preceding styles. The interiors were beautified by pavements in " opus sectile " or " opus Alexandrinum " (p. 137), and in domes and apses by coloured mosaics, which were of glass rendered opaque by oxide of tin, an invention which had also been employed in the Early Christian period. This use of rich marbles and mosaics resulted in the rounding of angles and in an absence of mouldings and cornices, so that the mosaic designs and pictures might continue uninterrupted over wall surfaces, piers, arches, domes, and apses. Marble and mosaic were used broadly to make a complete lining for a rough carcase, and mouldings were replaced by decorative bands formed in the mosaic. One surface melts into another as the mosaic is continued from arch and pendentive upwards to the dome, while the gold of the background was even introduced into the figures, and thus unity of treatment was always maintained.

The Greek church in Moscow Road, London, designed by Oldrid Scott, and the Roman Catholic Cathedral, Westminster, by John F. Bentley, are examples of the Byzantine treatment applied to churches in England. The character of Byzantine architecture shows development in its three main periods : (1) A.D. 324600, including the reigns of Constantine and Justinian. (2) A.D. 8501200, including the Macedonian and Comnenian dynasties. (3) A.D. 1200 to the present day. The character was also affected by local influences, as seen in examples found in Turkey, Italy, Greece, Macedonia, Armenia, Syria, Russia, Serbia, and France.



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