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History of the Christian Church, Volume III: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 311-600.
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§ 107. The Byzantine Style.


Procopius: De aedificiis Justiniani. L.i.c. 1–3. Car. Dufresne Dom. du Cange: Constantinopolis Christiana. Venet. 1729. Salzenberg und Kortüm: Altchristliche Baudenkmale Constantinopels vom V. bis XII Jahrh. (40 magnificent copperplates and illustrations). Berlin, 1854.


The second style which meets us in this period, is the Byzantine, which in the West modified the basilica style, in the East soon superseded it, and in the Russo-Greek church has maintained itself to this day. It dates from the sixth century, from the reign of the scholarly and art-loving emperor Justinian I. (527–565), which was the flourishing period of Constantinople and of the centralized ecclesiastico-political despotism, in many respects akin to the age of Louis XIV. of France.

The characteristic feature of this style is the hemispherical dome, which, like the vault of heaven with its glory, spanned the centre of the Greek or the Latin cross, supported by massive columns (instead of slender pillars like the basilicas), and by its height and its prominence ruling the other parts of the building. This dome corresponds on the one hand to the centralizing principle of the Byzantine empire,11791179   Kurtz, in his large Handbuch der K. Gesch., 3d ed. i. 372, well says: “The Byzantine state, in that maturity of it which Constantineintroduced and Justinian completed, was, in polity, as astonishing, gorgeous, majestic a centralized edifice, as the church of St. Sophia in architecture. The imperial power, as absolute autocracy, was the all-ruling, all-moving centre of the whole state life. The main dome, over-topping all, the full expression of the majesty of the centre, towards which all parts of the building strove, to which all were subservient, in the splendor of which all basked, was the court and the residence; on it the provinces and the authorities set over them leaned, as the subordinate side-domes or half-domes on the main one.” but at the same time, and far more clearly than the flat basilica, to that upward striving of the Christian spirit from the earth towards the height of heaven, which afterwards more plainly expressed itself in the pointed arches and the towers of the Germanic cathedral. “While in the basilica style everything looks towards the end of the building where the altar and episcopal throne are set, and by this prevailing connection the upward direction is denied a free expression, in the dome structure everything concentrates itself about the spacious centre of the building over which, drawing the eye irresistibly upward, rises to an awe-inspiring height the majestic central dome. The basilica presents in the apse a figure of the horizon from which the sun of righteousness arises in his glory; the Byzantine building unfolds in the dome a figure of the whole vault of heaven in sublime, imposing majesty, but detracts thereby from the prominence of the altar, and leaves for it only a place of subordinate import.”

The dome is not, indeed, absolutely new. The Pantheon in Rome, whose imposing dome has a diameter of a hundred and thirty-two feet, dates from the age of Augustus, b.c. 26. But here the dome rises on a circular wall, and so strikes root in the earth, altogether in character with the heathen religion. The Byzantine dome rests on few columns connected by arches, and, like the vault of heaven, freely spans the central space of the church in airy height, without shutting up that space by walls.

Around the main central dome11801180   Θόλος. stand four smaller domes in a square, and upon each dome rises a lofty gilded cross, which in the earlier churches stands upon a crescent, hung with all sorts of chains, and fastened by these to the dome.

The noblest and most complete building of this kind is the renowned church of St. Sophia at Constantinople, which was erected in lavish Asiatic splendor by the emperor Justinian after a plan by the architects Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus (a.d. 532–537), and consecrated to the Redeemer,11811181   The Wisdom, the Logos, of God; called in Proverbs and the Book of Wisdom σοφία. Hence the name of the church. There is still standing in Constantinople a small church of St Sophia, which was likewise erected by Justinian. but was transformed after the Turkish conquest into a Mohammedan mosque (Aja Sofia). It is two hundred and twenty-eight feet broad, and two hundred and fifty-two feet long; the dome, supported by four gigantic columns, rises a hundred and sixty-nine feet high over the altar, is a hundred and eight feet in diameter, and floats so freely and airily above the great central space, that, in the language of the Byzantine court biographer Procopius, it seems not to rest on terra firma, but to hang from heaven by golden chains.11821182   In 557, the 32d year of Justinian, the eastern part of the dome fell in, and destroyed the altar, together with the tabernacle and the ambo, but was restored in 561. A similar misfortune befell it by an earthquake in the twelfth century, and again in 1346. The Turks let the grand structure gradually decay, till finally, by command of the Sultan, a.d. 1847-’49, a thorough restoration was undertaken under the direction of an Italian architect, Fossati. This brought to light the magnificence of the Mosaic pictures which Mohammedan picture-hatred and Turkish barbarism had in part destroyed, in part plastered over. The Sultan now caused them to be covered with plates of glass, cemented with lime; so that they are secure for a time, till the pile shall come again into the service of Christianity. The most costly material was used in the building; the Phrygian marble with rose-colored and white veins, the dark red marble of the Nile, the green of Laconia, the black and white spotted of the Bosphorus, the gold-colored Libyan. And when the dome reflected the brilliance of the lighted silver chandeliers, and sent it back doubled from above, it might well remind one of the vault of heaven with its manifold starry glories, and account for the proud satisfaction with which Justinian on the day of the consecration, treading in solemn procession the finished building, exclaimed: “I have outdone thee, O Solomon!”11831183   Νενίκηκά σε Σολομών. Comp. the descriptions in Evagrius: Hist. Eccl. l iv. cap. 31; Procopius: De aedific. i. 1; and the poem of Paul Silentiarius: ̓Εκφρασις ναοῦ τῆς Σοφίας(a metrical translation of it in the above cited work of Salzenberg and Kortüm). The church of St. Sophia stood thenceforth the grand model of the new Greek architecture, not only for the Christian East and the Russian church, but even for the Mohammedans in the building of their mosques.

In the West the city of Ravenna, on the Adriatic coast, after Honorius, (a.d. 404) the seat of the Western empire, or of the eparchate, and the last refuge of the old Roman magnificence and art, affords beautiful monuments of the Byzantine style; especially in the church of St. Vitale, which was erected by the bishop Maximian in 547.11841184   Comp. on these Byzantine churches Kinkel, l. c., i. p. 100 sqq. and p. 121 sqq., and the splendid work of Salzenberg and Kortüm, Altchristliche Baudenkmale Konstantinopels, etc.

In the West the ground plan of the basilica was usually retained, with pillars and entablature, until the ninth century, and the dome and vaultings of the Byzantine style were united with it. Out of this union arose what is called the Romanesque or the round-arch style, which prevailed from the tenth to the thirteenth century, and was then, from the thirteenth to the fifteenth, followed by the Germanic or pointed-arch style, with its gigantic masterpieces, the Gothic cathedrals. From the fifteenth century eclecticism and confusion prevailed in architecture, till the modern attempts to reproduce the ancient style. The Oriental church, on the contrary, has never gone beyond the Byzantine, its productivity almost entirely ceasing with the age of Justinian. But it is possible that the Graeco Russian church will in the future develop something new.



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