The Development of Early Christian and Byzantine Church Architecture Essay

The Development of Early Christian and Byzantine Church Architecture


The first great style of the dome architecture in history existed in the vast territory, which was under the rule of the Byzantine Empire as well as under its political and cultural influence. The period of active development of Byzantine architecture lasted from 6 th to 15 th centuries, and in 4 th -6 th centuries. it was preceded by a formation stage. From the middle of 15th century, a period of derived styles development had begun. The origin of Byzantine architecture is a subject of discussion (Swainson 56).

A common important element is the brick dome (often on the drum) with polychrome mosaics on inner surface. Its weight, by means of sails (spherical triangles with apex pointing down) is transmitted to four massive pillars inside the building. Among other similar design elements are semi-domes, tromp (conical segments, transferring the load from the round or polygonal structure), arches, vaults, columns. 

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Byzantine style is the first and only one among the western styles, which managed to combine the fullness of color wealth with powerful and rationally verified constructive forms with a high degree of functional integrity. Hagia Sophia in Constantinople is one of the best examples of this style (Alchermes 343-375).

Architectural Plan and the Size of the Building

The mentioned temple is one of the world's wonders. It is a masterwork of architectural art and construction equipment. It is already 1,500 years old. Extraordinarily, the unprecedented boldness of its structures, enormous size and splendor of the temple decorations eclipsed everything that had been created before in the construction industry.

The term of "domed basilica" was first used to refer to the Hagia Sophia; on "pandantifah" of the building, the cherubim's figures (14th century) were also the first used and made its fame in the history of architecture.  The Dome stands for 55.6 meters in height and is considered one of the most perfect not only in Istanbul and Turkey, but it is also listed in the top five highest domes in the world. After the earthquake of 553 AD, between 558 and 562, the Dome was rebuilt again and increased by 6.5 m (Swainson 214).

The incomplete roundness of the dome is more elliptical in shape; the size of the first axis is 31 m and the second axis is 33 m. The construction area has 7,570 square meters, the length of it is 100 m, and the main part is measured from 70 to 75 m. There is a narthex at the entrance with a length of 60 m and width of 11 m. This part of the building, devoid of any decorations, was assigned to prepare for prayer rituals. Mosaic plates, decorating the building, were brought from different places (Swainson 58).

Mosaic of the Temple

Here there are relief images of the 12th century. The increased degree of humidity had a negative impact on the ceiling of the building that included 9 cross arches. Three entrances of the building out of nine were opened for people. The largest medium entrance belonged to the emperor, and the side entrances belonged to imperials of the highest rank and their entourage.

Gold coating of the temple's door and silver coating of two other doors disappeared during the Latin invasion. Over the door there is a mosaic dating from 9th century and depicting Jesus Christ in the center and St. Mary and Archangel Gabriel to the right and left to him.Furthermore,the mosaic plate depicts the kneeling Emperor Leo VI (886-912). Jesus blesses the people with one hand, holding with the other a book with the inscription: "I am the light of the world." Above the door under the mosaic panel, there is a metal plate, and below is a throne waiting for Jesus .

Following from the inner narthex to the main part, the attention is firstly attracted by the pomposity of the dome as it was built on the top of the church in complete isolation from the rest of the construction. There is the image of Jesus in the center of the dome. His figure is surrounded by 40 windows (Byzantine period). After capture of the city by Turks, it was coated and covered with writing from Koran. On the triangular pendentives, supporting large dome and between the arcades from all four sides, there are images of winged cherubim. Faces of the cherubim (that are in length 11 m) in the form of a lion, eagle and angels are covered with polygonal star. On the left, at the side wall entrance under the window, there are images of Patriarch of Constantinople (9th century), Ignatius, Patriarch John Grisostomosa (4th century), and Patriarch Antioch (Antakya today, 2nd century).

To the right and left of the main entrance, there are giant-sized marble balls, brought here in the 16th century from Pergamum. To the left, at the side of the suite, there is a "crying column" or "sweating column" — the rectangular marble column. It is believed that a Weeping Column has a miracle hole in which you must draw a circlewith your finger and make a wish to be certainly fulfilled (Swainson 75).

On the capitals of the columns located around the main room, the monograms of Emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora are engraved. The column called "Capital basket" is made by hand. On the side walls and corners, there are the giant posters with slogans in Arabic. To the right of the mihrab, there is Allah; to the left — Muhammad; on the sides there are the names of the four caliphs: Ebu Bakr, Omar, Othman, and Ali. On the both sides of the front door there are the names of the Prophet's grandson Hasan and Huseyn. The posters (measured at 7.5 m) are considered to be the most outstanding inscriptions in the Islamic world. The area under the dome, lined with colored marble, served as a place of ritual coronation of the Byzantine emperors (Alchermes 343-375).

Islamic Elements of the Cathedral

The imperial throne was placed in the center of a large circle, and the imperial entourage took their seats in the small circles. In the interior of the abscissa, decorated during the Ottoman period with colored marble slabs, a mihrab was directed towards Kaaba, and many posters in Arabic script were built in. The discrepancy between the pivot point of the mihrab with the central part of the church building was the result of a religious custom of Muslims performing the ritual prayer. They turned their bodies in the direction of the holy Mecca, which is the southeast of Istanbul. To the left of the abscissa, there is mahfil hyunkara (space reserved for the governor) dating back to the 19th century, and to the right of it there are mimbar and pulpit, from which imam preaches on Friday . Opposing mimbar, there is a monument of the 16th century of the mahfil myuedzina, servant of the mosque, who called to prayer from the minaret. To the right of the abscissa, at the intersection of the main enfilade with the right one, there is an image of a hand of Our Lady, decorating the wall near the columns of porphyry granite. Before bringing here, this piece of granite adorned the Byzantine monument, which is located in Istanbul in the Church of Theotokos (Harris 50-52). 

On the right side of the suite, there is a library of Hagia Sophia, transported here in 18th century during the reign of Sultan Mahmud I. The books are ranked on the shelves, decorated with ceramics of a rare work. The stands for Qur'ans, being in sight at the same part of the building, are very original and are of great interest to visitors. Above the side door, which served at the Byzantine period as an entrance of the imperial door (today's main entrance), there is a well-preserved mosaic. It depicts the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus. To her right, there is Emperor Constantine, and the Emperor Justinian is to the left. There is a layout of the city in the hands of the Emperor Constantine, and in Justilian's hands is a church layout. Both creations, which take place in the center of mosaic, are dedicated to the ancestors. Both Emperors (who lived in the 4th and 6th centuries respectively) are standing together on a mosaic from the 10th century.

The sloping road leading to the upper tier, which was used for the rite of worship for women and church synods, passes through the left side of the suite. This road with a noticeable slope, served to carry the empress on a palanquin and avoid unnecessary shocks while moving through the gallery, where the ritual worship took place. The north gallery, on the left side of the upper tier, has been barely preserved.

On the middle gallery, located in front of the mihrab between the arcades, there are wooden crucifixions. Such crucifixes are only available in the monastery of Katerina on the peninsula. The gallery to the right from the main entrance, which is located in the southern part, is a rare example of architectural art. 

According to the legend, there was an inscription on marble tablets to the left, which tells about visiting these places by Vikings. The carved door at the right gallery entrance is called "the gates of paradise." These gates has on the outside a cross-shaped image. To the left of the entrance gate, one of the rarest beauties of mosaic plates depicts Jesus, Our Lady, and John the Baptist. Having undergone serious damage during the Latin invasion, the lower part of the mosaic had not lost its artistic value since it consists of small colored tiles giving it greater significance. On these famous mosaics dating the 14th century and referred to as "Deesis" (means "prayer"), Mary and John with sad faces pray to Jesus for sinners (Alchermes 343-375).

The Interior Decoration

At the end of the gallery, there are two mosaics depicting the emperors with their families and Virgin Mary with Jesus. One of the mosaics depicts Our Lady with baby Jesus, the Emperor Ioannes Komnenos, his wife Irene Hungarian, and on the side wall there is an image of their son Alexios. On the other mosaic, Jesus is surrounded by Empress Zoe and her third husband, Emperor Constantine Monomahos. This mosaic showed initially the empress with her first husband Romanos III. Mosaic image (11th century) transmits all the changes that have occurred with the Empress upon her marriages. If you pay close attention to the dome of the abscissa at the end of the gallery, you can see the mosaic image of the 9th century — Virgin Mary with baby Jesus and the Archangels Michael and Gabriel (Cimok 221).

The traces of Turkish rule in the interior of Sofia are primarily the four huge round shield made of camel skin hanging under the dome. The inscriptions on them are the expressions from the Koran and the names of the first caliphs. It is believed that these are the most significant samples of Arabic calligraphy. Ataturk, turning Sofia from a mosque into a museum, ordered to take them off. Immediately after his death in 1938, the inscriptions were restored. In the altar apse, a prayer niche, mihrab was built. There are other lovely things of Muslim culture like huge pot-bellied jugs for ablutions near the entrance. Bronze structure in the south gallery is a library, arranged in the 18th century. However, all these additives were completely alien to the great temple as well as four minarets and the moon above the dome (Cimok 218).

The Splendid Shapes of the Temple

The Byzantine Empire during the reign of Justinian reached its peak. The Emperor set out to recreate the Roman Empire in its original grandeur and borders. Hagia Sophia was supposed to embody the idea of creating an enormous new powers and the triumph of Christianity in the world. The temple has become one of the major shrines of Christianity.

The construction of the temple required huge funds. Thus, they included all the revenue of victorious war of Justinian, exorbitant taxes for the people of Byzantium, donations of the cities and pious Christians, salaries of a vast army of the officials for three years, income from maritime trade, etc. Walls and vaults of the temple were built of brick. The expensive construction materials such as granite, porphyry, marble, jasper, and some others were widely used. The marble was exquisite, of rare colors and patterns: light green, white, red, pink, veined. The walls decorated with marble seem to be covered with rich carpets.

The main thing that struck in the interior of the church is its dome. Its diameter is 32.9 m; the height from the floor to the center of the dome is 55.6 m. The shape of the entire structure is thoroughly fitted for such a huge dome. However,the matter is not only in its size. Prior to the construction of this building by Anthemios, the hemispherical domes were built only above the round structures, called rotundas, whereas here, in the church of St. Sophia, the dome was erected above the squared in shape structure for the first time in the history of architecture (Alchermes 343-375).

This has been achieved in the following way: four massive pillars, installed in the square, were blocked on all sides by arches. Intervals between adjacent arches were filled with the vaults in the form of inflated triangular sails. The upper edges of the sails have formed a circle, on which the basis of a hemispherical dome rests. This technique has been applied subsequently in all Orthodox churches. To facilitate their own weight, the vaults and the dome were built of light porous tiles, produced on the Rhodes Island.

There were forty large arched windows at the dome's basement. Southern sun pours a bright light through them, and a huge dome, ascended to dizzy heights, seems to be completely weightless, floating in the air. (Cimok 220)

The impression of extraordinary lightness and spaciousness of the interior is also created with the help of mosaics. Inside the building, the domes and arches were covered on gold and blue background with mosaic ornaments, icons and pictures on the themes of Scripture. The building has excellent acoustics. Consequently, if you stand under the dome and talk without straining your voice, it was heard well in every corner of the temple.

Justinian persistently sought for ensuring that the church had no equals in terms if the interior. In his pious zeal, he went so far that he wished the entire floor of the building to be paved with the golden tiles. He was hardly dissuaded by the court, and the floor was paved with rare beautiful multicolored marble, porphyry and jasper.

Anyway,Justinian reached his goal. The temple surpassed with its magnificence the famous temple in Jerusalem built by King Solomon. When the emperor entered the temple on the day of his consecration on December 27, 537 AD, he said: 'Glory to God, who has chosen me to carry this great cause! I have surpassed thee, Solomon!' On the celebration day at the streets of Constantinople, people were handing out money and bread. The festivities on the occasion of the consecration of the church of St. Sophia lasted for 15 days (Alchermes 343-345.

The stories of eyewitnesses about the inner splendor of the temple exceeded the boldest imagination. Gold for the construction of the throne in the altar was considered not sufficiently precious, and the special alloy of gold, silver, crushed pearls, and precious stones was used. The throne was inlaid with precious stones. Above the throne, there was a canopy made of solid gold, resting on gold and silver pillars, which, in their turn, were decorated with inlaid pearls, diamonds and gold lilies. There were the balls between these decorations with solid gold crosses weighing 30 kg, inlaid with precious stones. According to Greek custom, the throne was separated from the people by the iconostasis, decorated with saints' reliefs. The iconostasis was supported by 12 gold columns.

There were three gates leading to the altar, drawn with precious curtains. In the midst of the church there was a special pulpit having a semicircular shape and surrounded by a balustrade, above which there was a canopy of precious metals, resting on 8 columns and topped with a golden cross of 40 kg weight, studded with precious stones and pearls. marble steps were leading to this pulpit and their railings, as well as the canopy sparkled with gold (Cimok 221). 


St. Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople is one of the greatest architectural monuments in the world. Even despite the fact that  it was created 1,500 years ago, today its beauty and grandeur of the architectural form struck the imagination. Sophia Cathedral, among other monuments of the historic center of Istanbul, has been included in the UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is the world's famous monument of Byzantine architecture, the symbol of the "golden age" of Byzantium. No other monument expressed the artistic genius of Byzantium so completely and perfectly as Sophia’s Cathedral of Constantinople.

This temple is a real encyclopedia of architecture since so many architectural techniques were used here for the first time and then started to appear in many other buildings. For example, in St. Sophia church, the huge dome rests not on a round building but on the square basement for the first time in the history of architecture. Later, it became one of the most typical characteristics of the Byzantine and Christian architecture.

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