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Byzantine Architecture - Comparative Analysis

( Originally Published 1921 )

A. Plans.—The domical method of construction governs the plan of Byzantine churches, which are all distinguished by a central space, covered with a dome on pendentives (pp. 223, 224). Short arms on each side form a Greek cross, and the filling in of the angles brings the plan nearly to a square (p. 234). Opposite the entrance was the apse for the altar in the sanctuary, which was screened off by the characteristic " Iconostasis " with its three doors, and there were also lateral ritual chapels. The narthex formed an entrance vestibule and was frequently crowned with domes. The essential difference in plan between a Byzantine and an Early Christian church may be summed up as follows : Byzantine churches, unlike Early Christian churches with their campanili, had no bell-towers. The Byzantine church, because of the grouping of subsidiary domes round a central dome,- gives a vertical impression ; for the eye is gradually drawn upwards towards the central culminating dome (p. 225 B). The Early Christian church, because of the vista of columns, entablatures, and simple timber roof, gives a horizontal impression ; for the eye is led along these horizontal lines to the apsidal sanctuary which is the important feature.

B. Walls.—The walls were usually constructed of brick and internally encrusted with rich coloured marbles and shining glass mosaics, which swept from wall to arch and arch to vault almost to the exclusion of mouldings and sculptured ornament. In this lavish application of colour to a flat surface all the oriental love of magnificence found full expression. Externally the walls were comparatively plain and depended largely for effect on the brilliant oriental sunshine which clothed them with a garment of glowing colour. The facades were often thrown into prominence by alternate layers or bands of brick and stone, reminiscent of the strata of a quarry (pp. 225 A, 234 D, E). This simple device further accentuated the connection of the building with the ground in which it had its foundations.

C. Openings.—Arcades of semicircular arches on monolithic columns with convex capitals were largely employed in churches, especially to support the galleries (p. 225 B). Doors are usually spanned by semi-circular arches (p. 232 A), but flat, segmental, and horse-shoe arches were also used. Windows, similarly spanned, are small and grouped together (p. 225), while sometimes they are arranged in tiers within the semicircular arch beneath the dome. The encircling ring of windows at the base of the dome or in the " drum " upon which the dome was raised was often the chief source of light in the church (p. 225 B). The problem in the East was to exclude rather than to admit light, and windows were therefore small, so as to make the interior restful and cool, in welcome contrast to the external glare of the Eastern sun, and consequently large unbroken wall spaces were available for brilliant mosaic pictures. Windows were also occasionally formed of a thin frame, 3 ins. thick, of translucent marble, filled in with glass (p. 240 K) and creamy, golden-hued alabaster which the brilliant sunshine wrought into colour like stained glass. The Gothic architects of Northern Europe, where large windows were necessary owing to dullness of the climate, adopted a translucent scheme of decoration by means of painted glass pictures in the large traceried windows instead of sheathing their walls with mosaics.

D. Roofs.—The method of roofing was by domes of brick, stone, or concrete, often with no further covering (pp.223, 224, 234). In S. Sophia the vaults are covered with sheets of lead, a quarter of an inch thick, fastened to timber laths resting on the vaults. Hollow earthenware jars were sometimes used in order to reduce the thrust on the supporting walls, as at S. Vitale, Ravenna (p. 231 D). The Byzantines practised the system of placing the dome over a square or octagon by means of pendentives (p. 223 M), which had only been employed tentatively by the Romans, as in the Minerva Medica, Rome (p. 231 B). Domes are of three types : (i) Simple, (ii) compound, (iii) melon-shaped (p. 223). In the simple type of dome, pendentives and dome were part of the same sphere. A good idea of this type is obtained by halving an orange, cutting off four slices, each at right angles to the last, to represent the four arches and then scooping out the interior ; the portion above the crown of these semicircles is the dome and the intervening triangles are the pendentives. Such a form of dome is, however, rare, and perhaps the only example in Europe is that over the Tomb of Galla Placidia (p. 223 B, C). The compound type of dome gives greater height and was of two varieties, in the first of which the dome ceased to be part of the same sphere as the pendentives, but rose independently above them (p. 223 D), and in the second the dome was raised on a high drum pierced with windows (p. 223 E). The melon-shaped type of dome consists of convolutions, as in S. Theodore and SS. Sergius and Bacchus, which avoided the necessity for pendentives (p. 223 F, K).

E. Columns. Columns were used constructively, but were always subordinate features and generally introduced to support galleries, as massive piers and walls supported the superstructure (p. 223). In the first instance, columns were taken from ancient buildings, but these were not so numerous in the East as in the neighbourhood of Rome, and therefore the supply was sooner exhausted. This provided an opportunity for designing monolithic shafts. For capitals, the Roman Ionic (p. 240 E) and Corinthian and Composite types (p. 240 B, n) were sometimes used, but from these were derived a new cubiform type with convex sides (p. 240 C), suited to carry a rising arch, which took the place of the horizontal entablature, and this resulted in the gradual disuse of the Roman " Orders " of architecture. Over each type was frequently placed a deep abacus or " dosseret-block," which was probably the survival of the then obsolete Classic entablature and also performed the function of enlarging the surface of the capital to support the voussoirs of the arch (p. 240 C, D, E). These capitals were carved with incised foliage of sharp outline with drilled eyes between the leaves, all contained within the general outline of the capital (p. 240 C) . An effective type is the bird-andbasket capital (p. 240 A) from S. Sophia, Constantinople.

F. Mouldings.—Mouldings were little used because the marble and mosaic wall linings ran continuously over the surface of walls and arches. Internally, decorative panels of marble and mosaic were sometimes framed in billet mouldings, probably derived from the Classic dentil course, and flat splayed mouldings, with incised ornament, were also used (p. 223 L). Externally the simple treatment of walls in flat expanses of brickwork, with occasional stone banded courses, did not leave the same scope for mouldings as in other styles. Flat stone bandings flush with the wall surface were used instead of string courses and cornices (p. 234 D, E).

G. Ornament.—The scheme of ornamentation was elaborate in the extreme, for internal walls were lined with costly marbles with veining carefully arranged to form patterns, while vaults and upper walls were sheathed with glass mosaic pictures of symbolic figures, groups of saints, the peacock as the emblem of immortal life, the endless knot as the emblem of eternity, and the sacred monogram of Christ-all forming a striking contrast to the less permanent painted frescoes of Romanesque churches (p. 250). Byzantine pavements of many-coloured marbles and mosaics were carried out in great variety of patterns, such as " opus sectile " and " opus Alexandrinum," and thus the general colour-scheme was carried throughout the church over floor, walls, arches, and vaults. Mosaic in small cubes was used broadly as a complete lining to brick structures, and mouldings were replaced by decorative bands in the mosaic. One surface melts into another as the mosaics creep from wall, arch, and pendentive to the dome, while one universal golden background gives unity of effect to the whole surface. Greek rather than Roman technique was followed in the carving, on account of the Greek origin of Byzantine craftsmen. A special character of the carving was due to the use of the drill instead of the chisel. The acanthus leaf, deeply channelled and of V-shaped section, was adopted from the Greek variety, but became more conventional in treatment with acute-pointed leaves drilled with deep holes at the springings (p. 240 D, E). The great characteristic of Byzantine ornament as compared with Classical is that the pattern is incised instead of raised and was cut into the surface without breaking the general outline. The bridal casket of Projecta (p. 240 F), the marble sarcophagus (p. 240), the well-head from Venice (p. 240 G), and the parapet panel (p. 240 H) are all typical examples of Byzantine art and show the close alliance between architecture and subsidiary arts. The screen to the bema of S. Luke of Stiris (p. 240 L), with its cubiform capitals and unending knot ornamentation, is an example of church fittings. Figure sculpture was not allowed by the Greek Church, as it was held to savour of idolatry, and so this was an additional reason for the Byzantine type of decoration which expressed itself in flat-coloured pictures and not in raised sculptured figures. In their own special way these Byzantine artists, with their miracles of colour effects, rivalled even the artists of Old Greece, whose sculpture stands unchallenged through all ages.

It was as well for the fame of Byzantine art that it had no chance of entering into rivalry with the art of Greece. It was compelled to seek another form of expression, and this necessity gave rise to the wonderful mosaic pictures which clothe Byzantine churches in the glowing beauty of surface decoration.

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