Byzantine Churches: Architecture, Ornamentation & Famous Works

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  • 00:00 Byzantine Churches
  • 00:53 Hagia Sophia
  • 3:02 The Katholikon
  • 4:08 San Vitale
  • 5:20 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Churches are one of the most important parts of Byzantine architecture, and in this lesson, you will explore the architecture and decoration of these structures. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Byzantine Churches

Who's ready to go to church? Or, should I say churches? Personally, when I'm traveling, I love touring churches. The architecture, the art, the history; there's a lot that goes into a church. Well, today we are taking tours of several churches built during the Byzantine Empire, which was the major power in the Eastern Mediterranean from roughly 330-1453 CE.

Based in Constantinople, today the city of Istanbul, this empire became the dominant religious power in the Western world after the fall of Rome, supporting the spread of the Orthodox religion, a branch of Christianity. So, churches were a major part of Byzantine culture and in many areas, the most important way that Byzantine art was introduced into new areas. And this means that Byzantine churches make for some pretty fun tours.

Hagia Sophia

To start our tour of Byzantine churches, there's no better place than Hagia Sophia, right here in Constantinople. This was the primary church of the Byzantine emperors and the church that really set off a centuries-long project to build massive Orthodox churches around the Byzantine world. It was built for the emperor Justinian from 532-537, and originally stood 270 feet long, 240 feet wide, and 180 tall. It was remodeled in the 9th and 14th centuries, meaning that is it even larger today.

Architecturally, this thing is marvelous. Besides just being massive in size, it features a massive dome that is able to support its own weight, even with the 40 windows that allow natural light to pour into the sanctuary. This dome was a problem to build because the church is on a square plan but needed a circular dome. The solution was the invention of pendentives, a dome formed from the triangles between arches above a square. See how that works? It was one of the most incredible innovations of Byzantine architecture, which allowed engineers to build large spaces with spacious interiors.

Pendentives support the dome of the Hagia Sophia

So, the building itself is amazing. But the outside is really pretty modest, without much decoration. And then you walk inside. Boom. Walls of polished marble and ceilings plastered in gold, all accentuated by plenty of natural light. Now, originally, the interior was covered with mosaics featuring religious scenes. After a few eras of political struggle in Byzantine history and the conversion of the church to an Islamic mosque in the 15th century, many of them have been lost. But, there are few examples that remain. These mosaics show very typical Byzantine styles with flat gold backgrounds, strong lines, and somewhat abstract figures. Byzantine art and architecture was not meant to reflect the natural world but a heavenly paradise, an effect created by pure gold, natural light, and slightly abstract figures.

A mosaic from the Hagia Sophia
Mosaic inside Hagia Sophia

The Katholikon

The Hagia Sophia was one of the most important churches built by the Byzantines. But it was far from the only one. Byzantine churches popped up across the Eastern Mediterranean and they did have notable differences from Catholic churches. Typical Catholic churches are based on a basilica cruciform plan, meaning they make the shape of a cross like a lower-case t. Orthodox churches, on the other hand, tended to look like this.

The Greek cross plan
Greek cross plan

This is a Greek cross plan, where all four arms of the cross are the same length, like a plus sign. Here's a great example and the next stop on our tour: the Katholikon, built in Greece during the 11th century. And here's the plan of the church, which is technically two churches joined as one.

The Katholikon follows the Greek cross plan
Picture and floor plans of the Katholikon

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