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What Is Byzantine Architecture?

C. K. Lanz
C. K. Lanz

Byzantine architecture is the building style characteristic of the Turkish city known today as Istanbul, formerly Byzantium and later Constantinople, after 330 AD. Initially an eclectic style heavily influenced by features of Roman temples, distinctive characteristics like the domed roof, open interior spaces, and embellished decoration eventually emerged. This architectural style was primarily influential between the mid-4th century and 1453 but remained en vogue in some regions such as Russia beyond the Byzantine age.

This architectural style has several distinctive characteristics. Arguably the most unique feature is the domed roof that often rests on a massive square base like the Hagia Sophia, a former basilica and mosque in Istanbul. Semi-domes are also often used to cover the hemicycles, and small windows filter light through a thin layer of alabaster that ensures soft interior illumination.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

Rather than carved decoration, interiors are embellished with gilded mosaics such as those in the Palatine Chapel in Palermo, Italy. Mosaics may cover extensive portions of the interior, including the vaults, and can represent Byzantine emperors, religious saints, and Biblical events, among other themes. Figures in Byzantine mosaics are typically presented in a slightly abstract or non-naturalistic way.

Interior spaces in Byzantine buildings tend to soar upward into curved dome roofs supported by marble columns. Byzantine craftsmen and builders adapted the Roman system of construction with concrete and brickwork by adding a surface sheathing of marble. Coffered ceilings are also common.

The Greek cross plan church is arguably the most characteristic structure of Byzantine architecture. The building’s plan is in the form of a Greek cross anchored by a central square with four arms of equal length emerging from all sides. Seen from above, the church is in the shape of a large Greek cross.

The epicenter of Byzantine architecture was the city known as Constantinople, until the early 20th century when the government of the Republic of Turkey officially adopted the name Istanbul. The style emerged in the wake of the Roman Emperor Constantine relocating the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to Constantinople in 330 AD. The capital of Constantinople endured for more than a thousand years.

Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire on 29 May 1453. This event marked the end of the Roman Empire and the conversion of the city into the Ottoman Empire’s new capital, today known as Istanbul in Turkey. This date is also used by many to mark the end of the Byzantine age and the apex of its architectural style.

Although Constantinople was captured by Sultan Mehmed II’s forces, Byzantine architecture had spread to other regions where its influence remained evident. Romanesque and Gothic architecture are indebted to the Byzantine style. Byzantine architecture has also persisted in areas where the Orthodox church is prominent, including Bulgaria, Russia, and Ukraine. Finally, a neo-Byzantine style emerged in the late 19th century best exemplified by Westminster Cathedral in London, England and the Cathedral of Saint Sava in Belgrade, Serbia.

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