An Apologia for Byzantine Architecture Essay

Published: 2021-09-12 00:45:10
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A session at tltc 1992 College Art Association was entitled “The Byzantine and Islamic ‘Other: Orientalism and Art History.” Among many related issues, it examined the marginalizations of Byzantine studies within the discipline of an history: Byzantium has become exoticizod, isolated from Western European developments, and identified as the “Other” In a provocative paper. Robert Nelson pointed out that no survey tcxtlxsok presents the Byzantine period as contemporaneous w ith medieval Europe. Byzantium is cither viewed as the end of Antiquity or as ihe beginning of the Dark Ages.
Eater Byzaniinc developments—those coeval with the Romanesque and Gothic styles of Western Europe — are usually omitted, not lilting into a neatly encapsulated, linear view of European cultural history. Most textbooks sim ply stop with Hagia Sophia in Constantinople or with San Marco in Venice But the separation of Byzantium from medieval Europe goes beyond the textbooks. Many medieval ists are now of the opinion that Byzantine civilization is not a pan of European history, thus justifying its complete omission from their teaching.
I’ve often suspected that there was more interchange of ideas between Byzantium and West during the Middle Ages than there is between scholars of the respective areas today My own view is that Byzantine studies have noi be come marginalized—for if they had. they would now hold a more commanding position in our post-structuralist dis courses. Rather, they have only been semi-marginalized, fall ing through the cracks between the main line and the truly exotic. Part of the fault for this lies with the Byzanlinists. under the authoritative guidance of Dumbarton Oaks we have learned to emphasize cultural history: thus. Byzantine  architecture is best understood as a reflection of the liturgy, monasticism. and imperial ceremonial rather than as a part of larger developments in European or world architecture. At the same time the sweeping generalizations of scholars like Rivoira. Stray gowski, and others have long since been discounted.
 For example, wc don’t need the monuments of Early Christian Syria to explain the origins of the Roman esque twin-towered facade: the church at Qalb Lozch and St.-Etienne at Caen arc separated by centuries and by thou sands of kilometers, and they must represent independent developments.-‘ Nor do wc need the basilica of liagios Deni etnos at Thessaloniki to justify the Western European devel opment of the alternating support system prevalent in German Romanesque churches, such as those at Gcmrodc and Hil desheim. And in spite of Siraygowski’s enthusiasm, Arme nian church architecture has not proven to be the missing link for the origins of Romanesque structural articulation. Byzantine architecture is by today’s view more distant from Western Europe than it appeared to be one hundred years ago.
It may be better viewed as a parallel development, but it was certainly not without some degree of interchange. The domed churches in Southern Italy and in Aquitaine may only be properly understood w ith a Byzantine prototype The use ol the square bay topped by a hemispherical dome on pcnilcn lives is characteristic of all of these buildings, and the fivc domcd plans of St.-Front at Ptfrigueux and S Marco ai Venice ultimately derive from the church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople.
Similarly, the appearance of the flying but tresses in Byzantium must reflect Gothic construction during die Latin Occupation of the thirteenth century : for example, die form of the single flying buttress bracing the apse of the Chora in Constantinople is somewhat similar to those at Luon Cathedral.” Stained glass and heraldry also may appear in Byzantium as Western introductions, although both of these arc problematic.’ Ncvcrthclc.vs. the idea persists that the Byz antine period preceded the medieval: I suspect that in many instances Byzantium is dismissed precisely because it can no longer be systematically mined for sources and “influences. In spite of the objective distancing that has occurred in recent scholarship, it is nevertheless difficult to view Byz antine architecture without preconceptions based on a knowl edge of Western medieval architecture.
That is to say. our picture of Byzantine architecture has been colored by the development of Western European architecture in the same  period. Wc arc consequently programmed to expect some thing like a linear pattern of evolution, new structural achievements, and building on the grandest of scales. Byzan tine architecture fails to live up to such great expectations, and. accordingly, it has been dismissed by medievalists as small, stugnant. and dull.’ Arc such accusations justified, or do they simply reflect the cultural baggage we carry as medievalists? In this paper. I shall attempt to rescue Byzan tine architecture from utter disregard by correcting several popular misconceptions. First misconception: Byzantine architecture is small be cause the masons were incapable ol building anything larger (Figs. 1-2). In the study of medieval architecture, creativity is often linked with size: big is seen as better, and archi- tectural inventiveness is tied to structural innovation on the grandest of scales Limited scale becomes equated with limited skill.
Certainly nothing like llagu Sophia was at tempted after tire sixth century, but it really wasn’t necessary. Built to be unique. Ilagia Sophia remained a white elephant through most of its later history. To expect later architec ture to follow suit ignores some basic functional consider ations Students of the Byzantine liturgy have emphasized the “privatization” of Byzantine worship: both lay turd mo nastic congregations were small, even in urban areas.” The architectural response took the form of numerous small-scale churches with annexed chapels Within the churches a series of independent, subsidiary spaces w as created, enveloping the naos—as at St. Panteleimon ai Nerezi (1164). where the four corner bays arc filled by domed chapels .
This stands in contrast to Western developments such as the cbcvcl and side aisle chapels Thai similar concerns were addressed in very different manners in the Last and in the West may be instructive. For example, in the eleventh century the Holy Sepulchre in Je rusalem was rebuilt bv the Byzantine emperor Constantine Monomachus in a typical Byzantine manner .1 The founh-ccntury Basilica had been destroyed and was not re built; instead, the Anastasis Rotunda, containing the Tomb of Christ, became the focus of the complex A system of sub- sidiary chapels on two levels was joined to the Rotunda, the most important connected by a porticocd courtyard. This series of independent, private devotional spaces served the needs of the Byzantine visitor.
Following the successful com pletion of the First Crusade in 1099, much of the Byzantine addition was replaced, in spite of its relative newness. Tire Crusader “improvement” actually attempted a Western solu tion to the same problem the Byzantine reconstruction had addressed: the unification of tle numerous sites within the complex. The major chapels were joined under one roof as a transept and pilgrimage choir replaced the courtyard, and an ambulatory with radiating apsidioles replaced the portico and chapels.”
It is important to emphasize that both the eleventh-century Byzantine plan and the twelfth-century Romanesque modification were addressing the same set of concerns. Second misconception: Byzaniinc architecture is stag nant and repetitive. A typological emphasis, based on the Western model, has led to numerous attempts to squeeze Byzaniinc architectural developments into a linear pattern of evolution. It simply hasn’t worked: Byzantine architecture developed in a diirerent way. with many different building types existing side by side.
Moreover, the standard, typo logical approach has emphasized what is static rather than what is dynamic in the architecture This approach tells us.  for example, that the cross-in-square or four-column church was the standard building type, used for a variety of pur- poses. but it doesn’t tell us why there arc so many different versions of the same building type, why no two Byantine churches arc identical. As Cyril Mango has noted. “The chief contribution of Middle Byzaniinc architecture consisted in the elaboration of a type of church that was. in its own way. perfect.” Examples of the cross-in-square plan from a single region, such as Bithynia. Bulgaria, or even Cappa docia. often exhibit variations so extreme as to resist easy categorization.
Moreover, architectural analysis is often re duced to a comparison of floor plans, and the insistently three dimensional character of the Byzantine church is over looked. Certainly, masons did not create a “formula” and repeat it blindly. Above all. Byantine architecture was a responsive architecture—responsive to the special require ment of location, function, and decoration. Byzantine architecture may be best viewed as a dyna mic interplay between elements that were necessary and fixed by religious usage and elements that were variable and intro duced by the architect for other than purely functional rea sons. Standard features, dictated by liturgical usage, would include the basic spaces: the narthcx. the naos topped by a dome, and the three part sanctuary.
‘ Elements such as types of vaults, decorative articulation, proportions, ad ditional chapels, and so on. were variable. The constant  interplay of standard features and variables has created an ar chitecture of diversity. Few examples will illustrate the flexibility and small-scale experimentation that characterized Byzantine architectural creativity. New plans and building types were introduced, but the basic schema was never lost. The cross-in-square format often seems to have been a starting point in the conceptual process, easily adaptable to certain special requirements, such as liturgical necessities. For example, the katholikon of Lavra Monastery on Mount Athos began as a cross-in-squarc church in the late tenth century.
It was subsequently enlarged with lateral apses, or choroi. for the choirs of monks to sing antiphonally across the central space .’ In later modifications, two domed chapels were added, as well as an extra narthcx. In later buildings, such as the Profitis Lhas in Thessaloniki of the late fourteenth century, all of these ele ments were incorporated into a church of a single construc tion period. Thus, the gradual transformation of a single building introduced new building types into the architectural mainstream. Structure was also an important concern. Byzantine ar chitecture often has the structural clarity associated with the Romanesque, with pilasters—and occasionally engaged col umns—emphasizing the structural system, as at the tenth century Myrvlaion in Constantinople.
-‘ Occasionally there is a conscious mannerism to this type of articulation—as at the fourteenth-century Chora in Constantinople, where half columns and responds appear illogically “supporting” win dows .
– Structural concerns were also an outgrowth of scale, as at the eleventh-century kathohkon of Hosios Louka. where the expanded central space is covered by a large dome raised on eight points of support. In fact, throughout the building, the bearing wall is virtually eliminated and replaced by a sophisticated system of point support .*’ At the Chora monastery, archaeological investigations have clarified a structural transformation in response to site requirements. The clcvcnth-ccntury. cross-in-squarc church apparently collapsed in the twelfth due to the unstable terrain on which it had been constructed. In its reconstruction, the four columns were replaced with large stout piers, moved to the comers of the naos. The result was a more unified, cru ciform plan, lopped by a larger dome. Although an aesthe tically satisfying transformation, the new plan came as a direct response to the practical necessities of the site.  Certainly aesthetic considerations arc significant.
To a certain extent, both the clear expression of structure on the facade as seen at I Mynelaion and the negation of struc- ture by a decorative surface as seen at the early fourteenth- century Pammakaristos monastery were aesthetic responses. But most important in a Byantine church is the proper housing of the decorative program of the interior, and in the best Byantine churches there is a direct relationship between architectural form and decoration. For example. I have hypothesized that at the eleventh-century church of Nea Moni on Chios. a radical transformation was undertaken during the process of construction’ An octaconch was in- troduced above a square naos. thereby making the transition to a large dome that spans the entire space .
The oc taconch creates a ring of curved surfaces close to the viewer on which the mosaic scenes of the life of Christ could be represented. I concluded that the transformation in the design.  of the building came about in order to create a proper frame work lor display of the rich mosaic program with its imperial overtones.36 In the example of the fourteenth-century Chora, the selection of vaulting types may have been a response to the decoration. We see. lor example, pumpkin domes em ployed for mosaics, but a ribbed dome with flatter surfaces used for fresco—both media displayed to their best advan tage In addition, sail vaults are consistently used to create a flattish surface for the narrative scenes.
The funeral chapel at the Chora perhaps best demonstrates the small-sculc “ar chitectural jewelry-work” that characterizes By antine archi tecture at its best. The fresco program spreads out before the visitor, cascading from high dome to domical vault to apse. The unique placement of the Last Judgment in a domical vault both unities the composition and extends it to include the space it envelops. The faithful buried in the ar cosolia of the funeral chapel arc thereby included in the scene. It is not so much a fresco program set into an architectural space as an architectural space that has become an integral and iconographically significant part of its decorative program.
The attempt to develop a typological framework for Byzantine architecture based on a Western European model may have also misdirected our interpretation ol Bvzantmc monasticism. and the subject deserves a brief excursus. From the ninth century’ onward. European monasteries follow a carefully constructed typology that corresponded in many ways to requirements for monastic life set forth in the Rule of St. Benedict. Beginning with the St. Gall plan, a standard organization of church, cloister, and refectory was estab- lished In contrast. By antine monasticism. following tire Rule of St.
Basil, was not so rigidly organized, nor were the units so large—nor, unfortunately, are they so well-preserved as their Western European counterparts. Seeking an archi tectural typology lor Byzantine monasticism. Orlandos and others have focused almost exclusively on Post-Byzantine monuments, such as the monasteries of Mount Athos. New excavations, such as those on Ml. Papikion in northern Greece and at numerous sites in the former Yugoslavia, only serve to emphasize the lack of an established system of or ganization for Eastern monasticism. The translation and commentary of all Byzantine typika (monastic rules), now in preparation for publication by Dumbarton Oaks, should greatly assist our investigations.
I suspect that the view of Byzantine monasticism from a Western perspective has led to the willful misidcntihca tion of well-organized architectural complexes as monastic. Stephen Hill has recently suggested the removal of Alahan Manastir and several other Anatolian complexes from the category of monasteries, and others arc long overdue for reassessment.” In a recent book Lyn Rodlcy examines the rock-cut monasteries of Cappadocia. a region in which con siderably more evidence is preserved than elsewhere in the Byzantine Empire.- She divides the monasteries into two types: courtyard monasteries and refectory monasteries.
Those which possess a refectory (or tmpeza) with a rock-cut tabic and benches tend to be small and disordered, but with the church and refectory in central positions. The so-called courtyard monasteries have a well organized grouping of rooms around a rock cut court with portico along the main facade and the church if one is included—off to one side. The latter type usually have a large, iransversally or longitudinally-planned hall and fre quently a centrally-planned hall in tire main suite of rooms, but they have no clearly identified refectory. Traditionally Cappadocia has been viewed as an area of monastic settlement. This view was expressed as a romantic reaction to the harsh landscape by early Western visitors, and it was further developed by Father Jerphanion. who began the systematic study of the region His focus was the Ciflreme Valley, which clearly a high density of mon- asteries. As scholars have explored and recorded other set tlements of the region, they inevitably identify them as monastic, and one might begin to believe that Cappadocia was inhabited solely by monks.
Were all of these settlements actually monasteries .The presence of a refectory i» a good indicator, but what about the so-called courtyard monaster ies? Rodley notes that several of the courtyard complexes lack churches: that the quality of the painted decoration  By antinists lo look lor similar forms and a similar organiza tion in the East. Bui. as with church planning. Byzantine monasteries followed their own direction. In Byzantium as sociations between monastic planning and domestic archi tecture may be closer than in the West. Paul Magdalino has noted the similarities between By/antine household organi zation and monastic organization, and there arc recorded in stances of palaces being converted to monasteries without signiticant change.
All of this goes to say that a typology based on Western European models or a similarity of forms may provide an erroneous picture of Byzaniinc monasticism Third misconception. Byzantine architecture is dull. In their introductory textbook to the history of architecture. Trachtenberg and Hyman dismiss later Byzantine architec ture because “nothing truly radical was built.” complaining that “space no longer ‘breathes’ but seems almost airless.
Ar chitectural gestures arc no longer bold, but nervous and in hibited.” According to them, these Byzantine developments cannot rightly be called medieval, but arc merely dehydrated Hagia Sophias. Arc these fair criticisms for an introductory textbook? Perhaps we expect Byzantine architecture to be something that it isn’t. As fur as I can tell. Trachtenberg and Hyman expect it to be Gothic. Byzantine descriptions of architecture may help to refocus our view, because they tell us what the medieval viewer found noteworthy. In most descriptions, the details are given precedence at the expense of the clear delinea- tion of live structure. Plans arc never dcscribcJ. vet the dif ferent types of marbles are itemized, and certain impressive furnishings arc presented in detail. In a description of the monastery of Kauleas at Constantinople. leo VI (886-912) paid special attention to the mosaics and the marbles, con cluding. “These have a beauty that corresponds exactly to that of the rest of the church. “40 A building becomes a sum of components, described close-up and selectively, whereas the overall form remains nebulous. The same emphasis on detail is evident when wc exam ine the architecture.
It may be cxprcvscd through a concern for individual components, tor the decorated surface rather than the unification of architectural forms, or simply through architectural changes carried out on a small scale and in volving only certain parts of a building. To properly under stand Byantioc architecture. I suspect we should be looking at the little picture rather than the big picture. Understood on its own terms. Byzantine architecture has not only charm, but a valuable position in the history of architecture It is possible to view Byzantine architeciure as a parallel to the Western European developments: scale and form may differ, but similar structural and aesthetic concerns arc ad dressed in both cultures, with varying results.
For example, the structural clarity of the Nlyrclaion parallels that of the Romanesque. The sophisticated structural system of Hosios Loukas might Ire compared to an early Gothic system. The unity of aesthetic and structural concerns, seen in the intenor design of the Chora, may parallel the High Gothic The em phasis on formal concerns at the expense of structural clarity, seen at the Pammakarislos. corresponds to Hite Gothic But this is not to say that one necessarily depended upon or influenced the other Rather, it suggests (hat both addressed the specific needs of societies in more-or-less similar stages of development, albeit with different social and economic structures. In the final analysis, the differences in the archi tecture arc as illuminating as the similarities. But our under standing of one culture should not limit our interpretation of the other—or of the ‘ Other.”

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