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Byzantine Art and Architecture

Updated on April 28, 2013
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Byzantine art and architecture flourished for more than 1,000 years -from 330 A.D. to about 1400- in the Byzantine, or Eastern Roman, empire. The influence of Byzantine art spread to many areas outside the empire and lingers even today in eastern Europe.

Diocletian, who ruled the Roman Empire from 284 to 305, first divided its vast territories into eastern and western sections for administrative purposes. In 330, Constantine moved the capital of the empire to the eastern city of Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople (now Istanbul). While Rome in the West tottered to its fall, the Eastern, or Byzantine, empire waxed in power, reaching its climax under Justinian, who reigned from 527 to 565. His able generals, Belisarius and Narses, added North Africa, Sicily, and the eastern Gothic kingdom around Ravenna in northern Italy to the already great Byzantine domain.

Since most secular Byzantine buildings have been destroyed, the characteristics of Byzantine style are best studied in the churches that constitute the major surviving monuments of the empire. The churches are generally dominated by a brick dome, which is often combined with one or more subsidiary domes arranged in various ways. A dome emphasizes and defines the space beneath it, and, when combined with other vaults, it creates a rich spatial organization within the building.

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The liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Church and its allied churches requires a screen, or iconostasis, to separate the chancel from the space for the laity beneath the principal dome. The chancel is flanked by the prothesis, where the elements of the Eucharist are prepared, and by the diaconicon, or vestry. The exterior of Byzantine churches, at least for the first few centuries, was drab. But colored marble columns, slabs of similar material on the lower walls, and mosaics, often with gold backgrounds, made the interior resplendent.

Scholars have long debated the origins of Byzantine style. One group maintains that its sources must be sought in the eastern Mediterranean area, in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Anatolia, or even farther into Asia. In support of their thesis they point to such qualities as the luxuriant use of color common to Middle Eastern and Byzantine architecture.

Other authorities, with perhaps stronger evidence, trace the roots of Byzantine style to Rome. These scholars cite the unencumbered interior space of Byzantine structures, which is unlike the older styles of the Middle East but similar to the spatial organization originally developed in imperial Roman architecture and carried with the expansion of the empire to most of the Middle East. Rome also produced the first great style of vaulted architecture, which eastern Mediterranean cultures had studiously avoided on a large scale for important buildings. The Byzantine brick dome, lighted by windows around the perimeter, also harks back to Roman precedents, as in the domes of the caldarium in the Baths of Caracalla (211–217) and of the Temple of Minerva Medica (310–320), both in Rome.

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Other characteristics of Byzantine architecture that can be traced to Roman sources are the squinch and the pendentive, both devices to support a circular dome on a square plan. A squinch is a flat slab, arch, or arched niche built over the corner of a square structure to convert that shape into an octagon. One of the earliest examples of the squinch is found in the Villa of Hadrian (125–135) at Tivoli.

More important in Byzantine architecture than the squinch is the pendentive, which in fact became the outstanding feature of the Byzantine style. The pendentive is a segment of a hemisphere which has a diameter equal to the diagonal of the square to be covered. In less technical terms, it is a vaulted spherical triangle, whose lower apex rests upon a pier and whose curved upper surface, combined with three other pendentives, provides the circular support on which the dome can be built. Pendentives on a small scale first appear in Roman tombs of the 1st or 2d century and in large sizes in the later Baths of Caracalla.

Early Roman architecture adopted the classic Greek relationships between the column, its support, and what it carried. During the 3d and 4th centuries, however, Roman architecture began to abandon these classical orders of architecture. In the Palace of Diocletian (about 300) at Spalato (Split), arches rest directly on the column capitals, the architrave is bent into the arched form known as an archivolt, and other violations of the rules of the orders are common. This freedom in handling the orders later became typical of Byzantine architecture. The Byzantine use of colored marbles (rarely, if ever, used in eastern Mediterranean countries prior to Roman occupation) has its precedents in the marble floors and sheathing on the lower walls of Roman buildings, such as the Palace of Domitian (about 90), the Baths of Diocletian (305), and the Basilica of Constantine (306–312), all in Rome.

Byzantine architecture, despite its Roman roots, had developed a distinctive character of its own by the 6th century. The same may be said of Byzantine mosaics, manuscripts, and ivories. Roman sculpture in the 4th century abandoned the lifelike realism of earlier Roman art, producing figures that are puppetlike, with naïve modifications of normal body proportions. From this source Byzantine mosaic workers and carvers of ivory had developed by the 6th century a highly sophisticated style. A hieratic and courtly elegance found expression in stylized linear figures with sumptuous details of costume that reflect the semioriental luxury of Justinian's reign.

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