Architecture in Early Christian Italy and Byzantium

Early Christian Architecture

Right after the Christianity appeared as an official religion in Rome and appropriated by Emperor Constantine, the formation of churches became a crucial subject. The classic Roman temple models would not be applicable since they were designed for a pagan religion and it was putting more emphasis on the exterior than the function of interior space. On the opposite, Christianity was a religion in which the worship was maintained in enclosed areas. This meant that it was a religion of interior spaces. Unlike the colonnaded and ostentatious facades of Roman temples, Christian churches emerged simple and unornamented on the facades, yet very garish with their large interiors, wall paintings and marble colonnades.
The early examples of churches remind of the basilica of Constantine in Trier. Constantine’s basilica was made of brick and supported by wooden beams on the roof. The basilica is in the form of rectangle and has an axis through its longer sides. At the end of the axis there appears a throne placed beneath a semi-dome.  The first church sponsored by Constantine was the St John in Lateran. It was clearly  taken examples from the Roman basilica as being a meeting hall and the basilica of Constantine in Trier . It has 4 aisles and a nave at the center as making an axis through the apse at the end. Roof of the nave was raised to be creating clerestory lightning. Later on Constantine constructed a baptistery near the St John basilica in the form of an octagonal with a central octagonal space enclosed with an ambulatory not separated with walls, but colonnades. Similar to the St John basilica, the central dome was raised to be creating space for clerestory windows in the baptistery.
The church of Santa Sabina resembles the Lateran and others in many perspectives however it differs at one point. Between the columns enclosing the central aisle (nave) , use of arches draws attention unlike the columns in Lateran and in Santa Maria Maggiore which carry flat entablatures.
One of very interesting and unusual of all is the church of Santo Stefano Rotondo reminds me of the baptistery in Lateran with its cylindrical core and vaulted ambulatory surrounding the central core two times. Around the central domed space it extends through four cardinal points in rectangular forms. Again similarly to the baptistery central dome raised for clerestory windows.

Byzantine Architecture

After Constantine started to built a new capital in Byzantium the city plan was rethought for the needs of christian culture and architecture and Christian churches became the most significant structure of urban design. The shift from colonnaded extroverted spaced to introverted, introspective spaces and  modest facades was highly diverging the new capital from previous ones.
Another structure that dominated the urban plan was “the Mese” called colonnaded pathway which extends in the shape of a circle at some points where the shop are located and reaches to hippodrome, palace and forum of Constantine at the end. During this time imperial mausoleums were added to church design as observed in the Apostoleion – a church Constantine built for his own mausoleum-. The church was strictly differing from others as having baths, dining halls etc. and it was in the form of a cross-shape with its five domes at the each ends of the cross.
Hagia Sophia the imperial church was at first designed have be a five aisle basilica plan like those in Lateran. However it differs with its apses at the each corner of the nave, two at the sides of the central dome and one at the end. Hagia Sophia is the symbol of Byzantium which took its shaped (almost, before transferred to a mosque) today in the era of Emperor Justinian. It is a perfect combination of architecture and engineering. Two engineers Anthemius and Isidorus in the era of Justinian redesigned the dome due to its collapse. They placed the dome on a belt with clerestory windows so that the dome would seem like suspended and the four arches around the nave lifted the thrust of the central dome. Unlike those in Roman architecture where the thrust of the dome to the walls is very visible, Hagia Sophia was able to hide it.
The Holy Sepulchre where the tomb of Christ is located shares much with the church of Santa Constanza. They both have a central point in the form of a martyrium like that in Santo Stefano Rotondo. the center of Holy Sepulchre is surrounded by colonnades however the Santa Constanza have twin columns instead. Additionally the Holy Sepulchre has a basilica before one enter the domed martyrium and in between a court which serves as a transitional space.

Ravenna is a Roman city plotted on a grid and later on with the interventions of Galla Placidia, it is reformed with Byzantine style. Her cruciform shaped church is very special because of being one of the initial attempts to a church in the shape of Christian emblem.
The Mausoleum of Theodoric is a great work made of stone in Ravenna. The first story is made of hefty columns creating arches in between and placed to be making a ten sided polygon. Te most remarkable and weird part of the structure is its dome with twelve spurs on the periphery of dome, each attributed to an apostle.
Sant’Apollinare is a tree aisle basilica which resembles the design of Santa Sabina. The nave of Sant’Apollinare is lined with arcades supported by columns like that of Santa Sabina and appealingly the place beneath the apse is raised by stairs.
The church of San Vitale made for the first bishop of Ravenna, is designed to be a martyrium which forces the structure to be central oriented and its double-shelled octagonal plan shares much with those of previous martyriums. The interior is highly decorated and ornamented with golden mosaics and illustrations.San Vitale is a great work expressing the Byzantine style in Ravenna, like Hagia Sophia which is the most significant structure as an example of Byzantine expression.


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