The structure and appearance of Byzantine churches changed dramatically over the empire’s thousand-year history. Early churches drew heavily on Roman civic and religious architecture for inspiration. Churches built during the Byzantine Empire’s middle years tended to have a unique architectural plan with large, ornately decorated domes. During the last years of the empire, Byzantine churches became less ornately decorated and began to include a wall of icons.
Because the Byzantine Empire was the Eastern Roman Empire, the first Byzantine churches were built on a Roman model. The layout of these churches was usually that of a basilica. Twin rows of columns partially separate aisles along the side of a rectangular structure and also support the roof in this type of floor plan. The basilica’s end is usually marked a curved apse. Wings were occasionally added to this structure, forming a cruciform shape, but they were usually shorter than the basilica’s main hall.
A new style of Byzantine church emerged as the Byzantine Empire’s culture became more thoroughly Greek. The Hagia Sophia, perhaps the most famous Byzantine structure, exemplifies the style’s key characteristics. There is a central dome in this church, and four equal-length wings radiate from it. This is a significant departure from traditional basilica design, made possible architectural advancements that allowed for the construction of larger domes.
The majority of visible surfaces in Byzantine churches were decorated with rich materials. Mosaics would be used to cover entire churches in wealthy areas, a skill that the Byzantines excelled at. Glass shards and gold leaf were combined to create vibrant colors and to enhance the impact of the improved dome construction that allowed more light into Byzantine churches. Marble and other costly materials were used to enhance the beauty of churches, and while some churches included religious frescos, mosaics were preferred.
Byzantine churches had a lot of art that depicted stylized religious figures. Rather than accurately depicting the human form, these figures were meant to convey a symbolic and spiritual message. Human figures were occasionally depicted in early churches, such as San Vitale in Ravenna, but this became much less common in later years. Even for religious reasons, depicting the human form was controversial in the Byzantine church, and in the 700s, a period of iconoclasm began, during which much church art was destroyed. Churches built during this time were rarely ornamented with human images, even if they were stylized.
Icons were once again embraced in the Empire’s final years. Built in the last centuries of the Byzantine Empire, Byzantine churches included not only religious images on their walls, but also a front wall of icons. This wall was eventually covered entirely in Byzantine icons, painted in the stylized style that had become popular centuries before. Because the Empire’s fortunes were fading, church decoration was generally less lavish during this time.