What Is Byzantine Architecture?

After 330 AD, Byzantine architecture became the dominant architectural style in the Turkish city of Istanbul, formerly Byzantium and later Constantinople. Initially an eclectic style influenced Roman temple features, distinctive features such as the domed roof, open interior spaces, and embellished decoration emerged. This architectural style was most popular between the mid-fourth century and 1453, but it remained popular in some areas, such as Russia, after the Byzantine period ended.

There are several distinguishing characteristics of this architectural style. The domed roof, which often rests on a massive square base like the Hagia Sophia, a former basilica and mosque in Istanbul, is arguably the most distinctive feature. Small windows filter light through a thin layer of alabaster, ensuring soft interior illumination. Semi-domes are also commonly used to cover the hemicycles.

Interiors are adorned with gilded mosaics rather than carved decoration, as seen in the Palatine Chapel in Palermo, Italy. Mosaics can cover large areas of the interior, including vaults, and depict Byzantine emperors, religious saints, and Biblical events, among other subjects. Figures in Byzantine mosaics are typically abstract or non-naturalistic in appearance.

Byzantine buildings have interior spaces that soar upward into curved dome roofs supported marble columns. Byzantine craftsmen and builders modified the Roman system of concrete and brickwork adding a marble surface sheathing. Ceilings with coffered designs are also common.

The Greek cross plan church is arguably Byzantine architecture’s most recognizable structure. The structure is designed in the shape of a Greek cross, with four equal-length arms emerging from all sides and anchored a central square. The church appears to be in the shape of a large Greek cross when viewed from above.

Until the early twentieth century, when the government of the Republic of Turkey officially adopted the name Istanbul, Constantinople was the epicenter of Byzantine architecture. The style arose after the Roman Emperor Constantine moved the Roman Empire’s capital from Rome to Constantinople in 330 AD. Constantinople was the capital of the Roman Empire for over a thousand years.

On May 29, 1453, Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire. This event marked the end of the Roman Empire and the transformation of the city into the new capital of the Ottoman Empire, which is now known as Istanbul in Turkey. Many consider this date to be the end of the Byzantine era and the pinnacle of its architectural style.

Despite the fact that Sultan Mehmed II’s forces captured Constantinople, Byzantine architecture had spread to other parts of the world, where its influence could still be seen. The Byzantine style influenced Romanesque and Gothic architecture. In areas where the Orthodox church is prominent, such as Bulgaria, Russia, and Ukraine, Byzantine architecture has survived. Finally, in the late nineteenth century, a neo-Byzantine style emerged, which can be seen in Westminster Cathedral in London, England, and the Cathedral of Saint Sava in Belgrade, Serbia.