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Byzantine Architecture – A Quick Overview

330 AD to 1453

Roman life focused on pleasures which are well illustrated by the Roman Baths. The baths served three vital functions:

  • Needs of the body in the pools and exercise gardens.
  • Feed the mind in libraries
  • Visual interest by the spaces filled with multi-colored marble.

After Constantine, the primary concern of Roman life and the Roman Empire shifted to religious concerns from secular concerns. Christianity was a new force transforming the entire Roman Empire. As a result, many new buildings (Courts, Administrative buildings, houses) came to light. Church Buildings solved the problem of communal worshipers. The architecture of earlier new church buildings was much simple primary elements without any elaborate forms or details. 

After struggling and defeating the Eastern and western Caesars, Constantine was the sole ruler of the united Roman Empire in which he has given Christianity equal rights with other religions. 

Byzantine architecture
St. Peter’s Basilica ; Image source – st-peters-basilica-tickets.com

Early Christian Architecture

During the early periods, there was no particular architecture for the churches. The Christian disciples were gathering at Roman houses for congregations. Then these houses were converted for the use of such congregations. And whenever there was a Mass congregation when Paul visited them, a suitable hall was rented for their activities.

Constantine selected the Greek city of Byzantium and built new Christian capital called Constantinople with new administrative buildings and churches. As Christianity was considered an official state religion and the growth of large communal gatherings, there was a necessity for a building type to be developed both functionally and symbolically.

Building types selected by the church officials

  • -Basilicas
  • -Centralized plans (round, octagonal, square) derived from royal tombs

Byzantine Architecture

Byzantine architecture was the architecture of the Byzantine Empire.

Codification of Roman law and church buildings were the most lasting achievements of Justinian. (Emperor)

Features and Characteristics of Byzantine Architecture

Byzantine Architecture was prominent for its use of domes, which were considered the symbols of heaven. Early churches were remodeled after Roman temples. This church design included a central square section with four arms of equal length extending from it and a dome sitting above the square. An arch was placed in each corner of the square to hold up the dome. The result of the design was a Greek cross plan.

Central spaces of the church were huge and the decorations were impressive – marble columns, mosaics, and sometimes even gold detailing.

Materials used:

  • The use of lime concrete continues from the times of the Romans.
  • Concrete and masonry – adapted from Roman Architecture.
  • Brickwork for the construction of walls and Domes.
  • Marble – varied colors of white, blue, and green marble were acquired from different parts of Rome. Used for flooring and cladding walls.
  • Mosaics – use of mosaics in interiors

Basilica of St. Peter

Basilica of St. Peter was the main Constantine church of Rome. It was one of the largest basilicas of Rome. The plan was in the form of “T”; the cross plan became symbolic of early Christians. The main features of the Basilica are:

  • Axial plan with a central nave and two aisles along the sides.
  • The central nave rises in a clearstory with many tall windows.
  • The cross arm(transept) attached to the nave at the west gives the plan a “T” Shape.
  • From the center of the transept, a semicircular apse extends capped by a half dome.

These secular churches were entered from the middle of long sides.

New church Basilicas, In addition to the above features, the plan

  • Entry was from one end where the narthex was created, with the altar placed at the far end of the semicircular apse.
  • A large atrium with a colonnade was added outside Narthex.
  • The entrance to the atrium was through an imposing propylon or gate.
Byzantine architecture
Image source – ohiostate.pressbooks.pub

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia or the church of holy wisdom was an architectural masterpiece. The architects were Isidore of Miletus and Anthemios from Tralles. Considered a model of the universe, it was a marvelous achievement of architecture with geometry, balanced masses, and extraordinary harmony.

Image source – pallasweb.com
Image source – pallasweb.com

The features of the early church were-

  • The Church plan was rectangular measuring 230x250ft.
  • It was a double-shell building, the center was a square with four massive piers to a side.
  • The central square was covered by a central dome and the dome was carried by Pendentives.
  • The plan was centralized as well as axial along the principal axis.
  • The inner squares were extending into semicircular apses rising to half domes.
  • Along the principal axis, the outward thrust of the central dome was carried downward by a series of half domes and barrel vaults.
  • On the cross-axis, the walls were flat with the presence of windows.
  • Forty windows were pierced at the base of the dome.


  • the pendentives of the dome were covered with mosaics with a gold-leaf background.
  • The interiors of the walls were cladded with different colored marbles.
  • Materials were reused from ancient temples.
  • Interiors were illuminated with hundreds of windows with reflections of the Sun’s rays from the marble.

It was a former church, later converted to a mosque and now a museum in Istanbul, Turkey.

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