Arts in Architecture and the Byzantine Empire

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Arts and architecture have been passed through different period of acme and decline during the 1000 years of Byzantine history. Individuality was used to characterize each of them and this included differences in forms, techniques, materials and of course the aesthetic result. Justinian's reign (527-565) was one of the most important periods in the history of Byzantine. The unequivocal center of the Empire that retained much from the Roman administrative structure by now was Constantinople. Restoring the lost empires called Imperium Romanum was Justinian's ambition. He had a great success in uniting the Mediterranean Sea region which by the Visigoths, Ostrogoth and Vandals had been conquered. He undertook military campaigns at the two ends of the empire with the aim to recover the west and protect the east from the Persians. Like Constantine I, emperors of the sixth century were major patrons of architecture. In this way, they were following ancient traditions by combining practical needs with political expediency.

The art of the Byzantine period was always linked to cultural-political demands. The emperor played a significant role in the erection of churches as well as in inner decoration. The themes were chosen according to the patron and depicted historical figures for certain purposes. Piety was a great virtue from the formation of the Byzantine society and the funding of churches or monasteries was considered as the proof of this. Influenced by this view, emperors, nobility, and clergy were trying to get involved in the ecclesiastical programs. Byzantine institutions were seen as granted by God and presided over by the Emperor. Justinian’s passion for architecture and his will to sponsor large projects for the embellishment of the Empire led to a distinct architectural style and the formation of the so-called ‘Golden Byzantine Era’.

During this period the architectural production changes and moves away from the types used in the Early Christian period. The basic elements that change are the way the floor plan is structured and the roofing. Therefore, the conception of internal space in correspondence to the decoration is reformed and becomes the flagship of Eastern architecture. However, as one goes deeper in research, he can do no less than realizing that there are certain obscurities as regards the interpretation of Byzantine architecture. Whereas there are a great number of Byzantine monuments, the texts related to these monuments are few and they do not help us understand Byzantine architecture, meaning that there has been no architectural theory written down during the Byzantine era, something like the writings of Vitruvius “De architectura”; at least none has survived. Byzantine texts, which provide information on modern or older buildings, usually aim at praising the founder. Never do they offer a critical consideration of the object itself. The historian Procopius wrote the book ‘On Building’ in which he presented descriptions on numerous ecclesiastical or public buildings in Constantinople, Thessaloniki, and Ravenna. However, it is an uneven work, giving details on a few buildings, mainly in Constantinople, but only vague or cursory description. The problems related to the production of architecture in the Byzantine world also remain obscure. No architectural designs, not even secondary rough designs have survived. Furthermore, no church models have survived, despite the fact that there is a wide range of murals or mosaics depicting church founders who hold in their hands models of the edifices whose construction they financed.

During each Byzantine period, architectural examples appear particularly homogenous. Byzantine architecture performs a traditional function within an already stabilized society. The Byzantine church turned into some kind of microcosm of the universe, a steadfast analogy of the form representing mankind’s redemption. This model was expressed perfectly in the cosmography of Cosmas Indicopleustes. Eliade summed up the view which established the crucial role architecture in harmonizing the distance between human essence and the transcendent scale of the infinite in the phrase: ‘To understand the symbolism of a church is above all, to understand the religious value of space, in other words, to know the structure and function of sacred space’.

In Justinian’s period, the dominating church type becomes the domed basilica. The basic engineering problem that troubled the masons during the roman period was the transition from the sphere to the rectangular basis of the building. The solution was applied for the first time during Justinian’s period with the introduction of a complete vaulting system which transfers the weight of the dome through smaller domes, arches, and vaults to the ground. The transition from the dome to the side arches is done through four elements called pendentives. The dome is supported by 4 piers and the remaining vaulting system by a series of columns.

Haghia Sophia, which is the church under discussion in this essay, is the greatest example of the domed basilica type and a symbol of Justinian’s reign. It is located in the old city of Istanbul, on the ‘crossroad’ of Bosphorus, the Sea of Marmara, and the Golden Horn. His ambition was to leave a monument that will retain his name to eternity. He supervised the procedure and before the inauguration of the church, he shouted ‘Solomon, I have outdone thee’, implying that Haghia Sophia was more exquisite than the church of Solomon. Haghia Sophia defined the symbolic center of the city and it served as the seat of the Orthodox Patriarch for 900 years. It was constructed in between 532-537 by the architects Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore from Miletus. In contemporary terms, they would have been civil engineers specialized in mechanics, with an excellent academic background. They were called mechanikoi which meant that they had received not only a technical education but also theoretical knowledge and they were considered as equals to professors and had immediate access to the emperor.

The position of construction was not selected randomly as this space was sacred since ancient times when a pagan temple functioned on site. When Christianity started to develop it was demolished and a church took its placed, sponsored by Constantine I. This church was called also Haghia Sophia which means Holy Wisdom, the Wisdom of God in Greek. It was destroyed by a fire in the second banishment of the Patriarch Saint John Chrysostom and it was rebuilt in 404, only to be totally destroyed during the Nika riots in 532. The speed of rebuilding was phenomenal since it was consecrated only six years after works started. In 558 an earthquake led to the destruction of a part of the dome which was rebuilt a little higher than the original one. The restoration architect is also known; it was Isidore the Younger, nephew of the original architect. Again, in 989 and 1346 there were problems in certain parts of the dome. In 1453 with the Fall of Constantinople it became a mosque. The current building supports all the additions from the Ottoman conversion into a mosque. Work done by the Swiss architects Gaspare and Giuseppe Fossati between 1847 and 1849 helped to preserve the structure and the mosaics that have survived today. Until 1931 it remained a mosque. Since 1935 it is considered a historical, archeological monument protected by UNESCO.

The dimensions of Haghia Sophia are 72*79 meters. The dome has 32 meters diameter and its height reaches 62 meters. It has the formation of a basilica but is virtually a central plan. The church is a squat rectangle in plan, fronted at the west end by a narthex and exonarthex, the latter originally part of an atrium. The interior has the divisions of a three-aisled basilica, with the nave separated from the aisles by columnar arcades. The aisles and narthex have galleries so that the nave is enclosed on three sides by a two-storey structure. The existence of two levels shows that people were divided according to their social class or gender. In Haghia Sophia part of the gallery was reserved for the emperor or empress whenever they attended a ceremony. The main nave from west to east is more than twice its width for about 30 meters. The dome has forty windows where light gives the impression that it floats in the air. Four enormous piers which create four arches support the dome. The two piers are the beginning of two rows of columns and the other two create conches. The central space is framed by a perimetrical aisle. The impact of Haghia Sophia relied in great part on its enormous height and width. The structural challenge was to work on this scale and to cap a building of stone, brick, and mortar with a great dome. A radical departure from the basilical form is made by the vaulting of the nave, which consists of the dome flanked by half domes which cover the rectangular space. The success of this architectural project is the integration of three scales: the human scale, the internal scale, and the scale of decoration. The human scale is preserved by the use of certain architectural elements in a human size. The result is the projection of its enormous internal dimensions in comparison with the scale of the decoration which is mainly mosaic and marble plating.

Haghia Sophia is a fusion of two architectural ideas, the double shell domes church, observes in Saints Sergius and Bacchus in Constantinople, and the domed basilica, which appeared in the capital by the first quarter of the sixth century. It is most likely that the synthesis was spontaneous, rather than part of a gradual development since besides all its wonders Haghia Sophia has imperfections symptomatic of an experiment.

The architecture of the sixth century suggests a background of conservatism, with the standard basilica in use. Against this background, two strands of architectural development were taking place. One was the experiment with the domed interior in relatively small buildings and the other the use of domed vaulting in larger scales. Towards the mid-sixth century the important buildings exhibit a shift towards centralization, domed vaulting, and complexity of interior spaces. These are all features that will become more pronounced in middle Byzantine churches, so the sixth-century developments and the example of Haghia Sophia constitute the beginning of a radical change in the direction of Byzantine ecclesiastical architecture.

The sixth-century interior decoration apart from the mosaics was lighter than today. However, it had to stand up to the architectural masterpiece. The interior surfaces were covered by mosaics, marble in green and white, and purple porphyry The eight porphyry columns were reused, but all the other columns and marbles were quarried for the building, including Thessalian green marble and white Proconnesian marbles. The walls were covered with veined marble revetments. The capitals had deeply etched and undercut acanthus designs and personal monograms of Justinian and his wife Theodora. The carving was meant to give the impression that the forms spread out over the colonnades and cornices like plants. The ermanent decoration was completed with liturgical objects of high artistic mastery such as vessels, icons, chandeliers, and golden furnishing.

The remaining parts of the interior decoration of Haghia Sophia originate from two different artistic periods. The primary decoration under Justinian’s supervision avoids figural representations. Fragments of the Justinianic mosaic decoration remain on the soffits of the nave arcades, the vaults of aisles and galleries and on the rim of the apse. The decoration is aniconic consisting of foliage ornament and geometric patterns set against gold backgrounds. The mosaic of the main vaults has been lost, some of earthquake damage, some replaced by the redecorations of the ninth century. The dome was covered by cross surrounded by spirals which sprang out from silver craters. The decoration on the semi-circular surfaces that united the nave with the side aisles and the arches above the windows was discovered in 1930 after restoration procedure that occurred under the auspices of the Byzantine Institute of the USA. The restoration process removed the plaster and revealed crosses of different shapes on a golden background. According to Flavius Corippus, the second phase of mosaic decoration was ordered by Justinus II (565-578). The conch of the apse depicted the Virgin and the Child and the dome was decorated with the motif of Christ Pantokrator. In addition, the sudjects of the Nativity, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, and the Ascension alongside with busts of saints were created under Justinus’ reign.[9] However, these mosaics were destroyed or replaced by crosses during Iconoclasm.

At the moment, only six mosaics remain in Haghia Sophia. Over the Imperial Gate, which opened only when an Emperor was entering the church, the mosaic shows the Emperor Leo IV is depicted kneeling before Christ who is sitting on a golden throne. Both Christ and the Emperor have a halo around their heads, showing a connection between divine and secular royalty. The throne is surrounded by two medallions which represent the scene of the Annunciation with the Virgin Mary and the Archangel Gabriel holding. This mosaic is dated to the ninth century according to its stylistic details.

The mosaic over the southwestern entrance depicts the Virgin Enthroned and dates from the tenth century. On her side, we can see the Emperors Constantine and Justinian who offer models of the city and the church. The two emperors wear the same garments, a deep purple chiton, and golden stole. The choice of the emperor is not random, as Constantine the Great was the emperor who transferred the capital of the Roman Empire in Constantinople and offers a model of the city and Justinian was the emperor who commissioned the erection of Haghia Sophia.

The conch of the apse is covered with a mosaic of the Virgin and the Child. The Virgin sits on a golden throne holding Christ on her lap. This particular mosaic was the first that was created after the turbulent iconoclastic period. However, the new figures were placed on the original golden background from the sixth century. The Archangels who were part of the original synthesis are now destroyed.

The mosaic of Deisis dates from 1261 and commemorates the return of Constantinople after 57 years of Latin occupation. It is located in the upper gallery and depicts Christ Enthroned holding the Gospel. On his sides, we can see the Virgin and John the Baptist. The two figures are drawn in a three-quarters position turning their bodies towards Christ whose figure is larger. The Deisis panel is a simpler representation of the Judgment theme which was used to remind the need for justice and the road to redemption. Later, during the Middle Byzantine period, this panel became part of the Last Judgment depiction. The lower part of this mosaic is destroyed.

Since the period of Constantine I, the emperor became cut off from the old pantheon of deities and he was placed in a close relationship to the Christian God. The successful ruler was always partnered by Christ, a composition that was expressed with imagery that derived from imperial rituals. In Haghia Sophia one can see two examples of emperors alongside Christ in the six mosaics that remain. The mosaic which represents Empress Zoe and Constantine IX Monomachus dates from 1030 and it is located on the eastern wall of the southern gallery. Initially, in the position of Constantine Monomachus was Zoe’ first husband, Romanos III. When he died they replaced his head with her second husband. This representation imitates the motif of Deisis with Christ Pantokrator in the middle, Empress Zoe on His right and the Emperor on His left side. Christ seats on a jeweled stool on a golden background, wearing a blue robe. He holds the Bible and gives his blessing. Constantine Monomachus and Zoe wear ceremonial garments and they offer a purse and a scroll linked to the donations they made for this church. The same motif is presented in the mosaic of the Emperor John II Comnenus and his wife the Empress Irene. The only difference from the above mosaic is that on Christ’s place we can observe the Virgin Mary. The royal couple offers a purse with gold coins and a scroll as a commemoration to their donations.

After the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, Haghia Sophia was transformed to a mosque. The Ottomans added four minarets in the exterior, many mosaics were covered by yellow layers of paint, and monographs of caliphs were placed on pillars. However, Haghia Sophia became an inspiration and changed the way Ottoman architecture treated the design of mosques. The type of a square, domed plan became characteristic after the fourteenth century, and gradually those domes became increasingly large. Architect Mimar Sinan was the one who incorporated many structural elements to his work, such as the Mosque of Bayazid II (1481-1512) and the Mosque of Suleiman. Haghia Sophia gave inspirations to the Ottoman builders who continued to build examples of the ‘Great Church’.

The decision of the Turkish government to transform Haghia Sophia into a museum in 1935 gave room for restoration. Research by numerous scholars around the world and restoration procedures continues until today. The great monument of Haghia Sophia became an inspiration not only for the Byzantine but the Ottomans as well. Lately, a rivalry has begun again between the Greek and Turkish side, with immense pressure from the Turks to reform again Haghia Sophia as a functioning mosque. On the 11th of April 2015, the Quran was heard for the first time inside the church after 85 years. The discussion has been evoked among several countries and the US State Department. It remains to be seen if the generally admitted as the most important monument in Byzantine architecture will become the center of political interests or it will remain a symbol of artistic production free to all visitors and scholars.


Cormack, Robin. Byzantine Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Eliade, Mircea. Symbolism, the Sacred, and the Arts. New York: Crossroad, 1990.

Krautheimer, Richard. The Pelican History of Art: Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture. Harmondworth: Penguin Books, 1986

Mainstone, Rowland. Haphia Sophia: Architecture, Structure, and Liturgy in Justinian’s Great Church. London: Thames & Hudson, 1988.

McDonald, William Lloyd, Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture. New York: G. Braziller, 1962.

Ousterhout, Robert. Master Builders in Byzantium. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Rodley, Lyn. Byzantine Art and Architecture: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Cormack, Byzantine Art, 114.

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