Study Aid 6: Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture

The increasingly unstable Roman Empire underwent many changes from 286 to 500 AD. One of the most dramatic developments was the legalization of Christianity by Constantine in 313 AD, initiating the Early Christian period of architecture. Before this liberization, Christian worship was usually practiced discretely in "house churches," e.g. House Church in Dura Europas, present-day Syria, c.231 AD; or more rarely in catacombs (which began to be tunneled outside the walls of Rome, c. 200 AD). Constantine commissioned the building of the "Old" St. Peter's in Rome (c.324-, AD), which used the Roman basilican plan, that would be employed later by innumerable churches in Western Europe. Centrally-planned Christian buildings were also created, usually batisteries or chapels built over the burial sites of martyrs (called martyria) or other important figures, e.g. Santa Costanza, Rome, c. 350 AD; S. Stefano Rotondo, Rome, c. 468-483 AD. Begun under Constantine's patronage, the church of the Holy Sepulcher (the Anastasis) in Jerusalem accommodated pilgrims with a large domical building erected over the supposed site of Christ's burial and resurrection, and an attached basilica to facilitate worship services. The great church of Saint Simeon Stylites (aka Qalaat Simann, c. 450-490, in present-day Syria) featured a plan that placed four great basilicas around a central martyrium.

Constantine also moved the capital of the empire to Constantinople ( Turkey). Eventually, the Roman Empire was split into two halves. The Western empire collapsed (at least politically) by 476 AD, while the Eastern half, centered in Constantinople, continued until 1453. This latter empire is now generally known as the Byzantine empire. The most important building of the early Byzantine Empire (and one of the greatest buildings ever created) was the church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople commissioned by the emperor Justinian between 532-537 AD. Designed by Isodorus and Anthemius, the church's pendentive dome was replaced after 558 following an earthquake. Light-filled and expansive, the actual structure of the church was concealed underneath shimmering mosaics. Justinian also completed the centralized chapel of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy in 547 AD. The Byzantine quincunx plan (square plan with 5 domes) was also very influential and copied by Orthodox and even some non-orthodox churches (e.g. San Marco, Venice, begun in 1063) for over 1000 years. Although some historians see later Orthodox church architecture in the Balkans and Turkey as repetitive, some designers took Byzantine ideas and expressed them with a fresh sophistication, e.g. the church of the Dormition at Daphni, Greece, 1080-; the monastery church at Grancanica, Kosovo, 1318-.

Russia fell into the Orthodox orbit in 988 AD when King Vladimir of Kiev accepted Christianity. Architecture in the next five centuries generally followed Byzantine models (especially the quincunx plan). In the 16th century, Russian architecture evolved in remarkable ways that display a native creativity distinct from its Byzantine roots. The old Byzantine, central-domed church space was transformed into a great tower or cone (the "tent-type" or shatior church), e.g. Curch of the Ascension, 1529-, Kolomenskoe, near Moscow, Czar Vasilii III patron. Not long after, Czar Ivan the Terrible commissioned a church that combined the tent form with the traditional multiple domes. One of the most exuberant and dynamic buildings ever created, St. Basil's Cathedral (aka Church of the Intercession on the Moat) is actually eight, domed churches surrounding the central "tent" church. Built in Red Square in Moscow (1555-1561 Barma and Postnik lakovlev architects) its beautifully patterned, bulbous onion domes ("lukovitsa") were erected in 1586 after a fire destroyed the originals. Traditional wooden architecture and the Russian appreciation for pyamidical ensembles of domes were combined to create the astonishing Church of the Transfiguration, 1741, Kizhi, Lake Onega, Peter the Great patron.

House Church in Dura Europas

Date: 231AD
Location: Syria
Architect: Unknown


Birds-Eye Cut-Away View


Reconstructed Baptistry

Old St. Peter's

Date: 323-326AD
Location: Rome
Architect: Unknown
Patron: Emperor Constantine


Reconstruction - Birds-Eye View


Interior View - Before Demolition

Santa Costanza

Date: ca. 350
Location: Rome, Italy



Exterior View

Interior View

Hagia Sofia

Date: 532-537AD
Location: Istanbul (Constantinople), Turkey
Architects: Isodorus & Anthemius
Patron: Emperor Justinian


Aerial View






Reconstruction - Birds-Eye Views

Top Image - The Original Dome
Bottom Image - The New Dome






Christ Mosaic