BYZANTINE ARCHITECTURE

   Byzantine culture produced an architectural style that spans over a thousand years and can be found mainly in eastern Europe and the eastern Mediterranean. It originated in modern-day Istanbul when the Roman Emperor Constantine established his Eastern Empire there and named the city Constantinople. The city's earlier name, Byzantion, continued as the name of this culture and denotes an architectural style that, although widely adopted in western Europe from the 400s onward, was originally an eastern form of construction that predated the establishment of Constantinople and was instead influenced by Ancient Greek and Ancient Near Eastern sources. Byzantine architecture is divided into three broadly defined periods. Early Byzantine style begins with the era of Constantine, the fall of Rome and its reestablishment in Ravenna, and ends with the Iconoclastic Controversy of the 700s and early 800s. The Middle Byzantine starts with the reign of the Empress Theodora, who reinvigorated the iconic culture, and ends with the occupation of Constantinople by the Christian Crusaders in 1204. Late Byzantine style developed with the reestablishment of the Byzantine Empire; after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, it spread across Europe and can be found employed even today in Greek Orthodox churches across the world.
   After the fall of Rome, for the next several hundred years much of western Europe struggled with political and economic crises and religious controversy. In contrast, during this time Constantinople flourished economically under a strong political system and enjoyed a thriving art culture. During the reign of Justinian I and Empress Theodora, architects were hired to complete a building campaign larger than the vast Roman constructions orchestrated by Constantine over 200 years earlier. It was during this time, from AD 532 to 537, that the famous church of Hagia Sophia was built in the center of Constantinople. Constructed by Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus, this massive church is characterized by a centralized plan covered by a huge dome, while smaller domes and exedrae, or attached chapels with half-domes, surround the structure and provide additional support to the monumental dome. Because Anthemius was a geometrician and Isidorus was known for his vault designs, together they were able to construct a vast dome surrounded by windows in the drum and a painted gold interior. Thus, when the light shone in, the dome seemed to hover weightlessly, high above the interior processional space.
   This drum fenestration was made possible by pendentives, which are the four triangular shapes created by the integration of the circular dome on its square base to provide additional support to the dome. Although the origin of pendentives is obscure, their appearance at Hagia Sophia marks their earliest use on such a vast scale. Two half-domes then flank the main dome, while four smaller half-domes located at the four corners of the square nave offer additional support. The smaller domes cover exedrae, which act as internal chapel space surrounding the main core. What makes the dome of Hagia Sophia so innovative is the row of windows along the drum of the dome, a daring feature that weakens the wall structure and was therefore never attempted in such Ancient Roman buildings as the Pantheon. After the first dome fell in 558, a newer, steeper dome with additional but-tressing was built; it continues to be stable today. Lacking the strongly axial direction of a western-designed church, this multidomed, centrally planned structure directed the visitor's attention upward to the heavens and thus came to typify Byzantine style and religious symbolism.
   Ravenna, Italy, was established as a Byzantine base by Emperor Justinian I in AD 540, and from there the Byzantine style spread across the peninsula and endured until the beginning of the Renaissance. In Ravenna, the Church of San Vitale best reflects the Byzantine style. Commissioned by the Bishop of Ravenna in 526, this centrally planned church was dedicated to an Early Christian martyr venerated in Ravenna, and the interior of the church is decorated with mosaics honoring the saint and Christ. After Justinian established control over the city in 540, a processional mosaic featuring Justinian and Theodora was created at the high altar. San Vitale is similar to Hagia Sophia in its centrally planned space with an octagonal dome supported by surrounding exedrae. An ambulatory allows for the free flow of visitors around the processional area. A narthex demarcates the entrance into the church, while the opposing wall features the rectangular sanctuary. Therefore, although the structure lacks a strong axial direction, the visitor is still provided with visual cues to the lay-out of the church.
   From Ravenna, in the Middle Byzantine period the style spread to the northeastern port city of Venice, where the famous Cathedral of San Marco, begun in 1063, features the same proliferation of domes and a centralized gilded, mosaic-covered interior. During this time, Byzantine Christianity was adopted by the rulers of Russia and the Ukraine, descendants of Vikings who had been Christianized in the ninth century. The Cathedral of Santa Sophia, built in Kiev around 1017, offers a well-preserved regional variant to the Byzantine style. Greece was also a Byzantine outpost during this time, and the Monastery of Hosios Loukas, near Stiris, is a good example of the Middle Byzantine style. It reveals a more compact ground-plan than found at Hagia Sophia. Byzantine influences continued to expand in the Late Byzantine era but increasingly featured more and more diversity and regional variants. Today, the Byzantine style endures in the context of the Greek Orthodox Church.

Historical Dictionaries of Literature and the Arts. . 2008.

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