What Is Byzantine Architecture? Look at Early Christian Churches

East Meets West in Byzantium

The 6th century Byzantine Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy
The 6th century Byzantine BasilicaChurch of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. Photo by Angelo Hornak/Corbis Historical/Getty Images (cropped)

Byzantine architecture is a style of building that flourished under the rule of Roman Emperor Justinian, between 527 AD and 565 AD. In addition to an extensive use of interior mosaics, its defining aesthetic is the result of the engineering behind the dome height. Byzantine architecture dominated the eastern half of the Roman Empire during the reign of Justinian the Great, but the influences spanned centuries, from 330 AD until the fall of Constantinople in 1453 AD—and on into today's church architecture.

Much of what we call Byzantine architecture today is ecclesiastical, or church-related. Christianity began to flourish after the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, when Roman Emperor Constantine (c. 285-337 AD) announced his Christianity and legitimized the new religion. With religious freedom, Christians could worship openly and without threat, and the young religion spread rapidly. The need for places of worship expanded as did the need for new approaches to building design. Haghia Eirene (also known as Hagia Irene or Aya İrini Kilisesi) is the site of the first Christian church ordered built by Constantine in the 4th Century AD. Many of these early churches were destroyed but rebuilt atop their rubble by Emperor Justinian.

Characteristics of Byzantine Architecture:

Byzantine architecture often includes these features:

  • Square-shaped, central floor plan churches, designed after the Greek cross or crux immissa quadrata instead of the Latin crux ordinaria of Gothic cathedrals
  • Central domes of great height, rising from a square base on half-dome pillars or pendentives
  • Mosaic decorations and narratives (for example, the mosaic image of Justinian in the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy)
  • Clerestory windows
  • Renouncement of the Classical Order in favor of columns with decorative impost blocks inspired by Middle Eastern designs
  • Experimentation with building methods

Construction and Engineering Techniques:

How do you put a huge, round dome onto a square-shaped room? Byzantine builders experimented with different methods of construction—when ceilings fell in, they tried something else.

"Sophisticated methods for assuring structural solidity were developed, such as well-built deep foundations, wooden tie-rod systems in vaults, walls and foundations, and metal chains placed horizontally inside masonry."—Hans Buchwald, The Dictionary of Art Volume 9, ed. Jane Turner, Macmillan, 1996, p. 524.

Byzantine engineers turned to the structural use of pendentives to elevate domes to new heights. With this technique, a dome can rise from the top of a vertical cylinder, like a silo, giving height to the dome. Like the Church of Hagia Eirene in Istanbul, Turkey, the exterior of the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy is characterized by the silo-like pendentive construction. A good example of pendentives seen from the inside is the interior of the ​Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya) in Istanbul, one of the most famous Byzantine structures in the world.

Why Call This Style Byzantine?

In 330 AD, Emperor Constantine relocated the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to a part of Turkey known as Byzantium (present-day Istanbul). Constantine renamed Byzantium to be called Constantinople after himself. What we call the Byzantine Empire is really the Eastern Roman Empire.

The Roman Empire was divided into East and West. While the Eastern Empire was centered in Byzantium, the Western Roman Empire was centered in Ravenna, in northeast Italy, which is why Ravenna is a well-known tourist destination for Byzantine architecture. The Western Roman Empire in Ravenna fell in 476 AD, but was recaptured in 540 by Justinian. Justinian's Byzantine influence is still felt in Ravenna.

Byzantine Architecture, East and West:

The Roman Emperor Flavius Justinianus was not born in Rome, but in Tauresium, Macedonia in Eastern Europe in about 482 AD. His place of birth is a major factor why the reign of the Christian Emperor changed the shape of architecture between 527 AD and 565 AD. Justinian was a ruler of Rome, but he grew up with the people of the Eastern world. He was a Christian leader uniting two worlds—construction methods and architectural details were passed back and forth. Buildings that previously had been built similar to those in Rome took on more local, Eastern influences.

Justinian reconquered the Western Roman Empire, which had been taken over by barbarians, and Eastern architectural traditions were introduced to the West. A mosaic image of Justinian from the Basilica of San Vitale, in Ravenna, Italy is testament to the Byzantine influence on the Ravenna area, which remains a great center of Italian Byzantine architecture.

Byzantine Architecture Influences:

Architects and builders learned from each of their projects and from each other. Churches built in the East influenced the construction and design of churches built elsewhere. For example, the Byzantine Church of the Saints Sergius and Bacchus, a small Istanbul experiment from 530 AD, influenced the final design of the most famous Byzantine Church, the grand Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya), which itself inspired the creation of Blue Mosque of Constantinople in 1616.

The Eastern Roman Empire profoundly influenced early Islamic architecture, including the Umayyad Great Mosque of Damascus and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. In Orthodox countries such as Russia and Romania, Eastern Byzantine architecture persisted, as shown by the 15th century Assumption Cathedral in Moscow. Byzantine architecture in the Western Roman Empire, including in Italian towns such as Ravenna, more quickly gave way to Romanesque and Gothic architecture—and the towering spire replaced the high domes of early Christian architecture.

Architectural periods have no borders, especially during what is known as the Middle Ages. The period of Medieval architecture from roughly 500 AD to 1500 AD is sometimes called Middle and Late Byzantine. Ultimately, names are less important than influence, and architecture has always been subject to the next great idea. The impact of Justinian's rule was felt long after his death in 565 AD.