Monday, 16 February 2004

Byzantine Studies, Kilkenny, 2004:
5: Byzantine Culture and the Arts

Patrick Comerford

Liberal Studies Group,

Maynooth University Campus

Saint Kieran’s College, Kilkenny,

Monday, 16 February 2004

Byzantine Culture and the Arts


*** Music for El Greco ***

The music I have been playing in the background is part of a symphony by the great modern Greek composer Vangelis Papathanassiou, with Montserrat Caballe as the soprano, inspired by and written to commemorate of one of the great Greek painters of the Renaissance, El Greco.

In El Greco, we find inspiration for modern Greek music. But in him, Byzantium met Europe of the Renaissance, our Byzantine world met the modern world, the East turned West and the West was able to look East. The cultural life of Byzantium continued, survived, prospered, long after the fall of Byzantium in 1453 and continues to live today. This is the cultural world that nurtured, enlightened and informed the paintings of El Greco in Venice, Rome and Toledo, the writings of Doestoevsky and the music of Rachmaninov in Russia, the poetry of Cavafy in Egypt at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the music of Vangelis Papathanassiou in Greece or John Tavener in Britain today.

Byzantium did not die with the fall of the City in 1453. Its cultural creativity continued in the immediate aftermath in Crete, blossomed in Eastern Europe, in the centuries that followed, and continues to live today.

This morning, let us sail once again to Byzantium and explore some of those riches together.

Byzantine culture:

Let us look at the architecture and art, the poetry and the literature of Byzantium: the world of Aghia Sophia and the world that gave us El Greco.


Many of you are familiar with pictures of the interior of Aghia Sophia, even if you have never visited Istanbul.

[*** Handout of architectural cutaway of Byzantine architecture ***]

Every city of the eastern Roman Empire required an ample number of churches and it was only fitting that the capital should have more than usual. We have the names of 34 churches that the Emperor Justinian built or rebuilt.

The most famous of these was Aghia Sophia (the Church of Holy Wisdom) rebuilt after a fire brought the old one down on 13 January 533. There was also Aghia Eirene (the church of the Peace of God); four churches to the Virgin Mary; one of Saint Anna; four churches of the Archangel Michael, who had a special cult in Constantinople and was venerated as a wonder worker; a church of Saint John the Baptist; one of All the Apostles and another of Saint Peter and Saint Paul; and churches of joint dedication to Saint Sergius and Saint Bacchus; to Saint Priscus and Saint Nikolaos.

Justinian built other churches for Panteleimon, Tryphon, Ia, Zoe, and Laurentius.

The list also includes the Church of the Holy Apostles, replacing a building of Constantine the Great. This church occupied a special place among churches in that it had been intended by Constantine the Great as a burial place for his dynasty, and a mausoleum had been built outside the apse of the church. Here lay the tomb of Constantine surrounded by members of his family and successors. By Justinian’s time the mausoleum had become full, and so Justinian constructed a new tomb near it for himself and his successors. As a result, the church of the Holy Apostles was regarded as second in importance after Aghia Sophia.

Architecturally, Justinian’s churches illustrate the final development of a design in church building that was to be typical of Greek Christianity. After the official recognition of Christianity, the first churches to be built were based mainly on the plans of the Roman public basilicas. But slowly this fashion went out of style in the territory of the Eastern Roman Empire, in favour of the building of square or cruciform plan designed around a central dome. This design gave the church both liturgical function and a symbolical significance which were much more congenial than the basilica to the Greek religious mind. It was in churches of this design that Justinian’s architectural ambition reached its fullest realisation, and set an example for future builders.

The church of this type was essentially either a square or a cross surmounted by a central dome. The structure below the dome might be conceived as a cube or a cross with equal arms that could be inscribed geometrically within the cube. Occasionally there might be a cross with a lower member longer than the others. The octagonal plan was also developed. [HERE DRAW ON FLIPCHART]

The dome stood alone over the centre of the square, or over the intersection of the arms of the cross; or a great central dome might have been accompanied by smaller domes built over the arms of the cross. But it was in the central dome that the significance of this new design lay. The dome unified the whole structure of the church and brought all its areas and spaces together around one central focus. The hemisphere of the dome, which rose above this central spot symbolised heaven. It was meant to be visible, at least partially, to all worshipers in the church and served to bind the entire congregation.

The altar or holy table (or even ‘throne’, θρόνος, thrónos) in Greek Orthodox language) was usually placed in an apse in the east of the building, and in the square or cruciform plan, the congregation was closer to the altar than they had been in churches of the elongated basilica plan. In some buildings the altar stood under the central dome, giving an even greater feeling of unity to the congregation.

The dome also created an impression of vast space, and gave the whole interior of the church a majesty and dignity that inspired a sense of inner peace and intellectual detachment. On the dome was usually painted a great portrait of Christ Pantocrator (Christ the Almighty).

The architecture and imagery of the dome conspired with one's mind to give the illusion of bringing heaven to earth. In many ways the dome created the sensation of exposing a realm, the realm of the divine, to which we could look to for truth and holy wisdom. In this sense the design of the Byzantine church incorporated much of the imagery of the Platonic realm of absolute ideals, the ultimate of which was the Holy Wisdom of God.

The Church of Aghia Sophia

In none of the churches of Constantinople could the mind reach a greater sense of spiritual depth and nobility than in the so-called ‘Great Church’ of Aghia Sophia. This was almost certainly Justinian's greatest architectural achievement. It is very characteristic of the spiritual life in the Eastern Roman Empire in the days of Justinian that the Emperor chose to build, as his own greatest church – which was also intended to be the greatest church in the world – a shrine dedicated to ‘Aghia Sophia’ or the Holy Wisdom of God. Christ, the Wisdom (Sophia) and Power (dynamis) of God, in the Apostle Paul’s words, was a manifestation of the Holy Trinity, projecting the action of God from the realm of the divine to the world of humanity.

But Sophia could also mean the Holy Spirit as the Wisdom of God, following the Septuagint and Philo of Alexandria.

It is by no means a coincidence that the chief temples of Pagan Athens and Christian Constantinople were both dedicated to Wisdom. The Parthenon as the shrine of the Goddess Athena, Goddess of Wisdom, and Justinian’s Great Church both showed respect for ‘Sophia,’ which has always been one of the chief traits of the Greek mind. Christ as the Wisdom of God was a familiar idea to Greek Christianity; the ‘Hymn of the Resurrection’, sung during the Eucharist, invokes Christ as ‘the Wisdom and the Word and Power of God.’

Near Aghia Sophia stood Aghia Eirene, representing the Peace of God. Like Aghia Sophia, Aghia Eirene had been originally built by Constantine the Great. It is highly indicative of the Eastern Roman Empire’s connection with its Classical Greek roots, that when both Aghia Sophia and Aghia Eirene were burnt down and rebuilt, Wisdom was given first place.

Just as Justinian had found skilled legal scholars (Tribonian) to recodify the laws, as well as skilled generals to recapture lost lands (Belisarius), so too he was fortunate enough to have found two builders of the highest talents to build Aghia Sophia: Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Melitus. As well as builders they were also noted mathematicians, which was to be of basic importance in the accomplishing the task Justinian set for them.

Aghia Sophia was built in the traditional Greco-Roman style, but it represented a design and scale never before attempted. The main area of the interior, designed for the services, was a great oval 250 by 107 ft; with side aisles, the main floor made almost a square, 250 by 220 ft. The nave was covered by a dome 107 feet in diameter, rising 180 ft high above the ground.

The design created the impression of a vast enclosed space. This was made possible by an intricate series of supports, all arranged so to lead the observer’s eye from the ground level up to the dome. At the east and west of the nave were hemicycles crowned by semi-domes, which provided some support for the superstructure. Each hemicycle was flanked and supported by two semicircular exedras carrying smaller semi-domes. At the eastern end the hemicycle opened into the apse with its semi-dome. With rows of columns supporting the upper galleries on the north and south of the naive, and numbers of clear windows in the walls, in the semi-domes, and around the base of the main dome, the supporting elements looked incredibly slender and light. The ring of 42 arched windows placed close side by side at the springing of the main dome seemed almost to separate the dome itself from the main building.

The historian Procopius in his accounts of Aghia Sophia, tells of the astonishing effect of these details. The weight of the upper part of the building appeared to be borne on terrifyingly inadequate supports, although it was very carefully braced. The dome itself, Procopius tells us, seemed not to rest upon solid masonry at all; instead it appeared to be suspended by a golden chain from heaven. The bold conception and design of the building were matched by the skill with which it was constructed. A structure of such size and plan were never again attempted in Constantinople.

As with the design and fabric of the building, its decoration was chosen to produce a transcendent spiritual effect. Typically, in Greek Orthodox churches, applied ornament was concentrated on the inside leaving the outside to show the mass of the structure and bring out its geometric patterns of curves and lines, which the Byzantine mind so greatly appreciated. The interior decoration was sumptuous but risked being gaudy. It contained a richness indicative of the prosperity of the empire as a whole.

Paul the Silentiary, one of the members of Justinian’s court, wrote an elaborate description of the church in verse which shows what the magnificence of the decoration must have been like when Aghia Sophia was in its original state. Many lands, Paul tells us, sent their own characteristic marbles, each of with its distinct features; black stone from the Bosphorus region; green marble from mainland Greece; polychrome stone from Phrygia; and porphyry from Egypt and yellow stone from Syria. The different stones were used in carefully planned combinations in the columns, in the pavement, and in the revetments of the walls.

Rising above was the main dome, showing the cross outlined against a background of gold mosaic. The semi-domes were also finished in gold mosaic, and the pendentives beneath the dome were filled with mosaic figures of Seraphim, their wings like peacock feathers. Against the background of marbles and mosaics the church was filled with objects of shining metal, gold, silver, and brass. From the rim of the dome hung brass chains supporting innumerable oil lamps of silver, containing glass cups in which the burning wick floated in oil. Beside the side colonnades, which separated the aisles from the nave, hung other rows of silver lamps.

It was in the sanctuary that the precious metal was used to its fullest. The visitor would first see an iconostasis, the screen that stood in front of the altar. The screen itself was made of silver plated with gold. Depicted on it were Christ, the Virgin Mary and the apostles. At intervals in front of the screen were lamp stands shaped like trees, broad at the base, tapering at the top. In the centre of the screen was Christ, brightly illuminated. The gates leading into the sanctuary bore the monogram of Justinian and the empress Theodora.

Within the sanctuary was the Holy Table, a slab of gold inlaid with precious stones, supported by four gold columns. Behind the altar, in the semicircular curve of the apse, were the seven seats of the priests and the throne of the Patriarch, all of gilded silver. Over the altar hung a cone-shaped ciborium or canopy, with nielloed designs. Above the ciborium was a globe of solid gold, weighing 118 lb, surmounted by a cross, inlaid with precious stones. The eucharistic vessels – chalices, patens, spoons, basins, ewers, fans – were all of solid gold set with precious stones and pearls, as were the candelabra and censors.

Around the altar hung red curtains bearing woven figures of Christ, flanked by the Apostle Paul, full of divine wisdom, and the Apostle Peter, the mighty doorkeeper of the gates of heaven. One holds a book filled with sacred words, and the other the form of the Cross on a staff of gold. On the borders of the curtain, the poet Paul the Silentiary tells us, indescribable art has ‘figured the works of mercy of our city’s rulers.’ Here one sees hospitals for the sick, there sacred churches, while on either side are displayed the miracles of Christ. On the other curtains you see the kings of the earth, on one side joined with their hands to those of the Virgin Mary, and on the other side joined to those of Christ. All this design is cunningly wrought by the threads of the woof with the sheen of a golden wrap.

To the feeling of space and of regal splendour there was also joined the magnificent impression of light. If one entered Aghia Sophia by day the building seemed flooded by sunlight. Procopius tells us that the reflection of the sun from the marbles made one think that the building was not illuminated from without but that the light was created within the building. At night the thousands of oil lamps, all hung at different levels, gave the whole building a brilliant illumination without any shadows.

This effect of light had perhaps the highest effect on the worshipers. As Procopius puts it, ‘Whenever anyone comes to the church to pray, he realises at once that it is not by human power or skill, but by divine influence that this church has been so wonderfully built. His mind is lifted up on high to God, feeling that he cannot be far away but must love to dwell in this place he has chosen. And this does not happen only when one sees the church for the first time, but the same thing occurs to the visitor on each successive occasion, as if the sight were ever a new one. No one has ever had a surfeit of this spectacle, but when they are present in the building men rejoice in what they see, and when they are away from it, they take delight in talking about it.’

Paul the Silentiary also records us how that the Great Church, with its light shining through its windows at night, dominated the whole of Constantinople. The lighted building, he tells us, rising above the dark mass of the promontory, cheered the sailors who saw it from their ships in the Bosphorus or the Sea of Marmara.

It took five years to complete Aghia Sophia. Tradition has it that it took 10,000 workers, under the direction of 100 foremen. Before it was completed, Justinian fixed the staff of the church at 60 priests, 100 deacons, 40 deaconesses, 90 subdeacons, and 100 readers and 25 singers to assist in the services. There were also 100 custodians and porters.

The story of the dedication of the church is that when the building was ready to be consecrated, the Emperor walked in procession from the gate of the palace across the Augustaeum to the outer doors of the church. Preceded by the Cross, Justinian and the Patriarch then entered the vestibule. Then the Emperor passed into the building alone and walked to the pulpit, where he stretched his hands to heaven and cried, ‘Glory be to God, who has thought me worthy to finish this work! Solomon, I have surpassed thee!’

Next: 6, Byzantine Literature and the Arts

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