John Alexander Salifoglou
Academic year 2017-2018
The Byzantine Empire, following the conquest of Constantinople in 324 AD and long after the division of the Roman State in 476 AD, created a new State, with Constantinople being the political epicenter. In the years of Justinian in 565 AD, the State achieves its greatest territorial expansion, with the Mediterranean becoming a Byzantine basin and the land of the empire extending from the depths of Asia Minor to Spain and from northern Africa to northern Italy. The state of Byzantium, although considered to be the natural continuity of the Roman empire, differentiates itself through interactions of two important (f)actors, Christianity and Hellenism, and becomes the “richest Roman State of the Hellenic Nation” (Heisenberg).1
From the beginning of the 4th century A.D. Christianity is proclaimed by Emperor Constantine as the official state religion. Christianity spreads to the East, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Asia Minor. Thus, a new quaint type of Byzantine art is created, which varies with indigenous influences akin to the classical Hellenistic traditions. The dominant type of temples is the Basilica, whose roots originate in the Hellenistic spacious buildings combined with the public Roman buildings of the congregations. The Basilica is a rectangular room divided into 3 or 5 aisles with colonnades, with the central one being taller and larger and leading to the eastern semicircular arch of the Altar. The central aisle is intended for the squirearchy and the heads of church, whereas the aisles of the temple for the faithful parishioners.
The churches built during that period, apart from the type of Hellenic rectified basilica with a wooden roof, are cruciform, octagonal and circular, and borrow elements, such as the dome, from Iran. Justinian’s era is characterized by two such types. The first one with a polygonal arrangement, mainly octagonal, with the circular base of the dome resting on 8 pillars and the second one with the circular base supported by four columns with special supports through spherical arches and halves. In both types, the central vertical axis is the basic element of the design, so that the believer experiences spiritual uplifting and tranquility under the aegis of God.2
Justinian, after Nika’s Revolt, decides to erect God’s Sophia “Hagia Sophia” (532 AD), in the place of the homonymous temple destroyed by fire. The geographical location had been chosen by Constantine the Great as the “beacon” of the Christian religion in both East and West that symbolically and physically separates Europe from Asia. Justinian assigns engineers Anthemios from Tralles (a mathematician) and Isidorus from Miletus (a physicist) to resurrect a magnificent temple that will be the symbol of the religion of Christianity. The “Great Church” had to overcome in style, volume and monumentality that which existed until then (Fig. 1). For that reason, the best materials, gold, silver, ivory, precious stones, green marble from Karystos and Mani, red marble from Egypt and Phrygia, come to Constantinople from all over the Empire. Over 10000 craftsmen are employed and within six years of incessant work the temple is ready.
Fig. 1 Hagia Sophia, Constantinople
Fig. 2 Hagia Sophia plan Fig. 3 Section of Hagia Sophia
The main body of the temple has a rectangular shape, 71.82 m wide and 78.16 m long. The architectural style is Basilica with a dome (a combination of basilica and the pericentral rhythm) (Fig. 2-3). The dome, 31 m in diameter, is 55 m high from the ground level of the temple and rests on four arches supporting four spherical triangles. The dome inside transforms into a vast sky by the diffusion of light through the 40 perimeter windows present in the circular ring, which render it floating in space. As Prokopios notes “…it gives the impression that it is a piece of the sky hanging on the earth …”. The believer, who stands under such a tall and large-diameter dome, experiences the greatness of the divine space and at the same time feels that he is under the great aegis of Pantocrator God. The 100 windows of the temple provide inside the devout atmosphere of a divine space, isolated from the outside world, and the sense of mysticism.
The interior of the temple was initially decorated with a multitude of wall paintings, hagiographies and mosaics commemorating and praising the life of Christ. Few survive today, following the vandalism of the conquerors Franks and Turks. The glamor of the elaborate decoration of the 107 columns of white and colorful marbles, with the Corinthian capitals projecting special light effects on them, results in the creation of a supernatural atmosphere.3 At the inauguration of the temple, Emperor Justinian, when he laid his eyes on this magnificent architectural design, exclaimed the well-known saying “???????? ?? ???????” (Solomon, I have overcome you).
Hagia Sophia is the supreme example of excellent Byzantine architecture that translates the elements of the Hellenistic period and the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Church. Until today, despite all subsequent additions or disasters that it has suffered, Hagia Sophia stands as the universal symbol of Christianity.4
Justinian, however, did not stop at his great achievement of Hagia Sophia. At the same time, through the Greek banker Julius Argentarius, considered to be a Justinian agent, he finances the construction of a church dedicated to San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy (Fig. 4). That way, Justinian wanted to reaffirm his political and cultural power in Italy. Building of the church began by bishop Ecclesius in 526 AD and ended with bishop Maximian.
Fig. 4 San Vitale, Ravenna
The temple has an octagonal shape. It combines Roman and Byzantine elements (dome, narrow bricks, and buttresses). The hemispherical dome of the temple is supported by eight large arches sitting on eight columns (Fig. 5). The central space of the dome is intended for the upper class and the peristyle for the lower class parishioners.
Fig. 5 plan of San Vitale, Ravenna
Fig. 6 Interior view of exedras and matroneum, San Vitale Church
The temple is known for its famous frescoes that are still preserved (Fig. 6).5 Its mosaics are of political and cultural importance. In the mosaic depicting Justinian and Bishop Maximian of Ravenna, Justinian appears, with a halo and a crown, with members of his imperial administration. On his side, the bishop and the clergy carry the cross and the gospel. Justinian carries the bowl with Eucharist bread. This clearly shows his administrative, military and religious authority, similar to that of the Roman emperors (Fig. 7). The tension, during that specific period, between the church and authority of the emperor is apparent from the observation of the feet of the bishop and Justinian.
Fig. 7 Mosaic portraying Justinian and Bishop Maximian
The Byzantine art created in Constantinople to praise God and the Emperor combines both the Hellenistic and Asian cultures. The construction of the architectural masterpiece of the church of Hagia Sophia is the epitome of all cultural elements of the influence of a great empire and it has since influenced the entire future world architecture.
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