Today’s column is a continuation of my series. If you’d like a handout of the entire series along with accompanying photos, send me an email.
After extolling the impressive architectural and innovative wonders achieved throughout the Roman Empire, I’m sorry to say that it eventually collapsed. By 476 AD, the Empire had stretched over Europe, and parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Composed of peoples with disparate cultures, languages and beliefs, it could no longer sustain itself as a whole. Its weakened state opened the doors for nomadic tribes from the north, particularly the Visigoths, to invade.
The eastern half of the Roman Empire was able to survive another 1,000 years as the Byzantine Empire. It was centered in Constantinople, formerly the Greek colony, Byzantium, and today’s Istanbul. Constantinople was a crucial city as it was ideally located to serve as a trade point between Europe and Asia Minor (Turkey).
In the 5th century, Constantinople had a university that contained numerous artistic and literary treasures including more than 100,000 pieces of ancient remnants from the lost Library of Alexandria in Egypt. Because thousands of Greek and Roman craftsmen had fled to Constantinople during the Gothic invasions, their style would heavily influence Byzantine art and architecture, with added geometric complexity.
Mosaics replaced carved decoration, domes became taller, thinner and interconnected, and windows filtered light through thin sheets of alabaster that softly illuminate interiors. These Byzantine signatures influenced the Middle East by way of tile design, geometric patterns, arches, domes and colorful brick that characterize early Islamic and Moorish art and architecture.
The prime example of Byzantine architecture is Hagia Sophia (Latin for Holy Wisdom) commissioned by Emperor Justinian in 537. It was originally built as a Greek Orthodox Christian basilica in the 4th century by Constantine, the first Christian emperor and founder of the city. It later became a mosque and is now a museum. It contains two floors centered on a giant nave with a massive dome ceiling. It is 270 feet by 240 feet and the dome rises 180 feet above the pavement. This was a formidable scale for any structure not built of steel and was the largest for 1,000 years until the completion of Seville Cathedral.
Brilliant engineering enabled the dome to appear as if floating upon four great arches. All interior surfaces are sheathed with polychrome marble, green and white with purple porphyry (similar to granite) and gold mosaics. The exterior is simple stucco and during the Ottoman Empire, four 200-foot tall, slender, pencil-shaped minarets were added at each corner.
While the eastern half of the Roman Empire became the flourishing Byzantine Empire, its western half was moving into the cultural abyss of the Dark Middle Ages, which roughly lasted the same 1,000 years.
To simplify this series, I will cover Western art, design and architecture for now, and look forward to writing about Middle and Far Eastern architecture in the future. So, coming up, we’ll travel from the great city of Constantinople to Francia, or France, where Romanesque and Gothic styles are about to emerge.