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Byzantine Architecture - Examples

( Originally Published 1921 )



SS. Sergius and Bacchus, Constantinople (A.D. 527) (p. 234), erected by Justinian, is nearly square on plan, 109 ft. by 92 ft., and the arrangement of the interior is similar to that of S. Vitale (p. 231 C), but it has only four colonnaded exedrae to the central octagon, which is enclosed in a square. The church would resemble S. Sophia in plan if it were cut in two, and a dome on pendentives placed over an intervening square and the whole doubled in size. The dome over the central space, 52 ft. in diameter and 69 ft. 6 ins. high, is visible externally, for there is no outer timber roof, and it is of a peculiar, melon-like form with ridges and furrows from base to summit (p. 223 H, J, K). Picturesquely situated on the shores of the Bosphorus, the church was in a ruinous condition before it was partially .restored, but the beautiful frescoes and mosaics have been irreparably damaged by damp.

S. Sophia, Constantinople (Hagia Sophia = divine wisdom) (A.D. 532–537) (PP. 224, 225, 226), was built by order of Justinian by the architects Anthemius of Tralles and Isodorus of Miletus, on the site of two successive basilican churches of the same name, erected respectively by Constantine (A.D. 360) and Theodosius II (A.D. 415). It now forms the most important mosque in Constantinople. The noble atrium forming the approach to the church, now destitute of its marble columns, leads through the great triple portal to the outer narthex, and beyond is the imposing main narthex, 200 ft. by 30 ft., which is in two storeys, the lower of which was used by catechumens and penitents, while the upper forms part of the gallery to the church. The plan of the church proper consists of a central space 107 ft. square, with four massive stone piers 25 ft. by 6o ft., pierced by arches for aisles and gallery, supporting four semicircular arches upon which rests the dome, 107 ft. in diameter and 18o ft. above the ground. East and west of this central area are great hemicycles, crowned with semi-domes, and off these are exedrae, in their turn covered with semi-domes—the whole area thus enclosed forming a great oval nave, 225 ft. by 107 ft., being about 28 ft. wider than the huge vaulted tepidarium of the Thermae of Caracalla. North and south of this nave are two-storeyed aisles over 50 ft. wide, the upper storey being the " Gynceum " or women's gallery, reached from the outside by sloping ascents at each corner and by stone steps in the interior. These aisles bring the main building approximately to a square which, excluding the eastern apse and the narthex, measures 250 ft. by 220 ft. North and south, forming continuations of the four great piers already mentioned, are massive buttresses 25 ft. wide by 6o ft. long, which take the thrust of the main arches and central dome on the two sides where there are no semi-domes (p. 223 M). The two principal semi-domes, east and west, abut against the great supporting arches and thus act as buttresses to the central dome.

The monumental interior (p. 225 B) gives the impression of one vast domed space, but the detailed effect, with the great hemicycles and smaller exedrae, is one of extreme intricacy, in spite of the simplicity of the general scheme. Scale is obtained by the gradation of the various parts, from the two-storeyed arcades of the aisles to the lofty dome which rests, with little apparent support, like a canopy over the centre, or, as Procopius described it, " as if suspended by a chain from heaven." The gigantic pendentives to the central dome overhang 25 ft. and are them-selves over 6o ft. high (p. 224 C), above which the dome itself rises only 50 ft. The dome is constructed of bricks about 27 ins. square in the lower part and 24 ins. square at the crown, and z ins. thick, with mortar joints of nearly the same thickness. The joints do not radiate from the centre of the dome, but have a flatter inclination, in order to diminish the thrust. Walls and piers are sheeted with marbles of Phrygian white, Laconian green, Lybian blue, Celtic black, besides Thessalian and Bosphorus marbles, all fixed by metal clips (p. 223 L). Floors are laid with coloured mosaics in various patterns, and vaults and domes are enriched with glass mosaics representing apostles, angels, and saints on a glittering golden ground. Although many of these are now concealed by matting, covered with plaster, or are replaced by quotations from the Koran, yet the four pendentives still exhibit the six-winged seraphim, whom Mahometans acknowledge under the names of the archangels Gabriel, Michael, Raphael, and Israfil, and when the light is favourable the figure of Christ can be dimly discerned above the apse which now contains the " mihrab " pointing towards Mecca. Columns of many-coloured marbles, to the number of 107, are used constructively to support the groined vaults under the galleries, and moulded bronze rings encircle the column shafts at their junction with capitals and bases, while the outward pressure of the arches is counteracted by tie-rods (pp. 223 N, 226). The lower storeys of the aisles north and south of the central space are supported by four columns of dark-green marble from the Temple of Artemis, Ephesus (pp. 102, 226), while the upper storeys have six columns of the same marble. Each of the four exedrae (p. 226 n) has two large columns of dark-red porphyry from the Great Temple, Baalbek (p. 145), and six smaller columns on the upper storey. It is a coincidence that there are 107 columns (40 below and 67 above), and that the dome measures 107 ft. in diameter. The capitals are mostly of the cubiform type, with small Ionic angle volutes and delicately incised carving, in which is sometimes woven the monogram of Justinian, while a variation of the dosseret block on the lines of the Classical abacus is generally used above the capital. The lighting is partly effected by forty small windows in the lower part of the dome (p. 225) and by twelve windows grouped in the spandrel walls north and south under the great arches (p. 225 B) which support the dome, while there are windows in the lower part of the domes of the exedrae and of the apse. Many of the windows are small and spanned by semicircular arches ; others are more elaborate, as in the " Gynaeceum " in which large semicircular-headed openings are divided into six by columns in two heights, between which marble lattice screens admit light through glazed openings about 7 ins. square.

The exterior is less impressive than the interior, for the brick walls are plastered over and distempered red and white in alternate bands in imitation of brick and stone. The actual shape of the domes and semi-domes is visible, as there is only a covering of lead, - in. thick, resting on wooden battens placed immediately on the outer surface of the brick domes. The immense buttresses and the deeply recessed spandrel wall between them are imposing features in an exterior which depends for effect entirely on the massiveness and general symmetry of its proportions, but lacks that dignity which would be secured by the addition of a drum to the central dome. The lofty minarets were not part of the original design, but were added by the Mahometans after the capture of Constantinople, and they frame in the subsidiary buildings of the Turkish period. S. Sophia stands unique and was never subsequently imitated in the Byzantine style either in plan or general treatment, and, as the Parthenon is the masterpiece of Greek architecture and the Pantheon of Roman, so it remains for all ages the masterpiece of Byzantine architecture.

S. Irene, Constantinople (A.D. 740) (p. 239 A), was originally erected by Constantine, but was several times destroyed and finally rebuilt. It is one of the twenty-one Christian churches which still remain in Constantinople, though diverted to other uses. It preserves the basilican plan of nave and aisles with eastern apse and western atrium, and the dome is believed to be the earliest example raised on a high drum, pierced with windows, which was found to give dignity to the church, and so became the usual treatment.

S. Theodore, Constantinople (c. A.D. 1100) (p. 234), is a perfect specimen of a miniature Byzantine church, although now a mosque. It has a double narthex crowned with domes leading into a nave 29 ft. 6 ins. square, with central dome formed with convolutions and set on a drum 13 ft. in diameter (p. 223 F) and with an apse semicircular internally and polygonal externally. The exterior is one of the most elaborate of all Byzantine churches in Constantinople, built of brick and stone in bands, with columns supporting semicircular arches surmounted by windows within a second tier of similar arches recessed in rings, while over the outer narthex are the three octagonal tile-covered domes on high drums.

S. Saviour in the Chora, Constantinople (c. A.D. 1050), was founded in the fourth century. The central area has a dome on a high drum, 17 ft. 6 ins. in diameter, pierced by windows, and the nave has semicircular windows on three sides and an apse at the sanctuary end. The inner and outer narthex, with their domes, are richly ornamented with fine early mosaics, and hence it is known as the " Mosaic Mosque." The facade in brick and stone banding is generally supposed to have served as a model for that of S. Mark, Venice.

The Church of the Apostles, Constantinople, founded by Constantine the Great, was rebuilt by Justinian and destroyed in A.D. 1463 to make way for the mosque of Sultan Mahomet II, and has a special interest, as with its lengthened western nave and five domes it is said to have been the prototype of S. Mark's, Venice.

S. Vitale, Ravenna (A.D. 526–547) (pp. 231, 239 B), was founded by Justinian to commemorate his recovery of Ravenna and was designed on the model of the " Minerva Medica," Rome ; but Byzantine influence is everywhere evident. An inner octagon of 54 ft. 9 ins. is enclosed by an outer octagon of 115 ft. The apsidal chancel is successfully designed to open direct from one side of the inner octagon, while the other seven arches enclose columns placed on a half-circle carrying the gallery usual in Eastern churches. The dome is singular, as it rests on pendentives formed of small arches (p. 231 D) and is constructed of earthern pots fitted into each other, those in the upper part being laid horizontally, thus producing a lightness of structure which did not require the arches and buttresses found necessary in SS. Sergius and Bacchus and S. Sophia, Constantinople. This remarkable construction in pottery is protected by a timber roof, thus differing from Roman usage and approximating to the practice which prevailed among Mediaeval architects (p. 231 D). The interior is remarkable for the beauty of its carved capitals with dosseret blocks (p. 240 C), while the mosaics which line the vaults of the sanctuary are unique in this form of Christian art inasmuch as they are a most valuable record of the costumes of the period. Here are life-size figures of Justinian and the Empress Theodora at the consecration of the church in all the glittering array of state panoply and surrounded by the ladies of the Court. Prominent in the centre of the apse is the commanding figure of Christ seated on an azure globe and holding the Crown of Life and the seven-sealed book. The exterior in large thin bricks with thick mortar joints is characteristic of the plain external treatment of so many Byzantine buildings. The fine cathedral of Aix-la-Chapelle (p. 231), which was built by Charlemagne as a mausoleum, much resembles S. Vitale, and in all probability was derived from it (p. 290), while SS. Sergius and Bacchus is also similar in plan, but consists of an octagon enclosed in a square (p. 228).

S. Mark, Venice (A.D. 1042–1071) (pp. 232, 233), reflects the art of Byzantium which so largely influenced the architecture of Venice, situated midway between East and West. The glittering, resplendent facade of the narthex faces the great Piazza of San Marco, which was, like the Forum in ancient Rome, the centre of city life, with the soaring campanile and the Palace of the Doge, all surrounded by stately arcades. This vast open space, paved in marble, forms, in fact, a great public atrium to the church dedicated to the sea-city's patron saint. The history of this city planning, which swept- away the waters of an intruding canal and pushed back the buildings to give space to the cathedral, reveals the pride of the prosperous Republic in her glorious religious monument, which was, in its architectural style, an assertion of the independent spirit of a freedom-loving people who were always intolerant of the domination of the Popes of Rome. This world-famous edifice stands on the site of the original basilican church, which was founded in A.D. 864 to receive the body of S. Mark, and partially burnt down in A.D. 976. Between A.D. 1042 and 1071 the plan was completely transformed to resemble that of the Church of the Apostles, Constantinople (p. 230) : transepts were added, the sanctuary was extended, the narthex was continued along the north and south sides, and the interior altered from the basilican to the Byzantine plan of a Greek cross surmounted by domes. The plan (p. 233 C) has a central dome, 42 ft. in diameter, and a dome over each arm of the cross. The great square piers, 28 ft. by 21 ft., which carry the dome are pierced both on the ground and gallery levels, and arcades support passages connecting the central piers to the extremities of the nave and transepts. The addition of the narthex and baptistery makes the church approximately square on plan.

The interior (p. 232 B) is gorgeous in coloured marbles and brilliant glass mosaics which, extending in one continuous surface over vault and dome, picture the story of the Creation, the fall of man, and the Redemption, the miracles of Christ and the legends of the saints, all enshrined in a glowing golden background. Mosaic is here, as also in the vaulted narthex, the real and essential decoration, to which all architectural detail is subordinated, and it is used like the stained glass of Mediaeval churches to produce a popular representation of incidents from the Old and New Testaments.

The exterior, with its five portals (p. 232 A) which form the lower part of the entrance facade, has remarkable coloured mosaic panels in the tympana and spandrels of the great semicircular arches. The exterior has indeed a character peculiarly its own ; for it is a marvellous blending into one homogeneous whole of a variety of features from many foreign lands. Bronze horses from the triumphal arch of Nero, columns of porphyry, alabaster, and verde-antico from Constantinople and Alexandria, coloured marble facing from Eastern cities, all form part of the world-wide contribution which, in the twelfth century, commanders of warships and captains of trading vessels were alike bidden to levy and bring in as votive offerings for success in commerce and victory in war. In the thirteenth century a crown of gold was given to the building by the unique timber domes (p. 233 B), and finally, in the fifteenth century, the facade was further embellished by Gothic canopied niches, ogee arches, and crocketed pinnacles, all of which form a delicate stone frame-work to the glittering mosaics below. S. Mark depends for beauty externally not only on delicate sculpture, but also on subtle, variable, and indescribable colour, produced by transparent alabaster, polished marble, and lustrous gold mosaic, all set against the azure blue of the Venetian sky and bathed in the sunshine reflected from the shimmering waters of the Adriatic.

S. Fosca, Torcello (A.D. 1108), forming, with the old cathedral (p. 204) and campanile, a picturesque group rising from this island in the lagoons, is based on the Byzantine plan, with central dome supported by eight columns, while externally an arcade on five sides forms a semi-octagon. The details indicate that this simple building was constructed by Byzantine Greeks who also worked on the rebuilding of S. Mark, Venice.

S. Antonio, Padua (A.D. 1232-1307), the burial-place of S. Anthony, friend of S. Francis of Assisi, is in plan an obvious imitation of S. Mark, Venice, with the addition of a remarkable apse with nine radiating chapels producing a chevet, like that of French Gothic cathedrals. The interior suffers from the absence of mosaics, which were the necessary complement of a Byzantine interior ; but the exterior, with its seven domes and turrets, has a decidedly Eastern aspect, while Romanesque feeling is seen in the arcaded galleries, reminiscent of Lombard churches.

The Little Metropole Cathedral, Athens (c. A.D. 1250) (p. 234), is the smallest building in the world dignified by the name of cathedral, for it measures only 38 ft. by about 25 ft., and the dome, supported on a high octagonal drum, is only 9 ft. in diameter, pierced by tiny windows, and its facades are largely made up of miscellaneous marbles from old Greek buildings.

The Kapnikarea Church, Athens (A.D. 875), and S. Theodore, Athens (A.D. 1049), are similar miniature churches with small central domes raised on octagonal drums, while the Church of the Monastery of S. Luke of Stiris (eleventh century), north of the Gulf of Corinth, has two domes and is remarkable for its mosaics and screen (p. 240 L). The diminutive proportions of these churches are due to the simplicity of the ritual of the Greek Orthodox Church and to the absence of instrumental music and of chairs for the worshippers—an influence which obviously did not apply to churches in the Byzantine style erected, like S. Mark, Venice, for Roman Catholic ritual.

S. Sophia, Salonica (A.D. 560), which is believed to be one of the earliest instances of a Byzantine domed church, was considerably altered in character by the Turks, but still has some fine ninth-century mosaics.

S. Sophia, Trebizond (A.D. 1143), resembles the smaller churches of Athens in general character.

The Churches at Bozra and Ezra in Syria follow a favourite plan of a circle or octagon within a square which has niches in the angles. They are considered to be prototypes of Byzantine churches of the type of SS. Sergius and Bacchus, Constantinople (p. 234 B), and S. Vitale, Ravenna (p. 231 C).

The Church of the Assumption, Moscow (A.D. 1479), like the churches at Kieff and Novgorod, is a curious later type, because Byzantine influence had lost much of its original force after Byzantium had been conquered by the Turks in A.D. 1453, and so these Russian churches are crowned with bulbous-shaped domes derived from Tartar sources.

The Church at Gracanica (A.D. 1321), in Serbia, with its characteristic exterior of brick and stone and its domes on high drums grouped around the dominating central dome, is probably the most remarkable of all the churches in that country, where the architecture was midway between two influences, arising respectively from Constantinople on the east and Rome on the west, the former prevailing. The churches at Sopocani (A.D. 1190), Hilendar (A.D. 1196), Decani (A.D. 1330), Ravanica (A.D. 1387), and Lazarica are other Serbian examples of note.

S. Front, Perigueux (A.D. 1120) (p. 233), is an interesting product of Byzantine influence carried west along trade routes by Venetian merchants, and is an almost identical copy in plan of S. Mark, Venice. The entire absence of mosaic, however, shows by contrast how much Byzantine interiors owe to that art, for this French version, which is described in " French Romanesque " (p. 278), appears bare and plain in comparison with the pure Byzantine original.



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