Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.02.30 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.02.30

Vasileios Marinis, Architecture and Ritual in the Churches of Constantinople: Ninth to Fifteenth Centuries.   New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2014.  Pp. xvii, 243.  ISBN 9781107040168.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by Philipp Niewöhner, Deutsches Archäologisches Institut (


Vasileios Marinis's book appears to have been conceived as a later Byzantine counterpart to Thomas F. Mathews’ immensely successful volume on the The Early Churches of Constantinople: Architecture and Liturgy (University Park, PA 1971). However, Marinis stresses one important difference: he understands Mathews to imply that the shape of (early) Byzantine churches was determined by the form of the early liturgy (p. 6). In contrast, Marinis reaches the opposite conclusion that changes in (later) Byzantine church architecture do not reflect and have not been brought about by changes in the liturgy (p. 114-118).

Marinis's essentially negative conclusion is somewhat of an anti-climax and appears at odds with the title of his book. Mathews earlier account would hardly seem to call for such a fundamental rebuke, considering that Mathews avoids the issue and does not establish any simple ‘form follows function’-type of connection between architecture and liturgy.1 Such a correlation does in fact seem as unlikely for the early as for the later Byzantine period. Take for example the “prominent longitudinal character [of the early Byzantine basilica], correlating with the longitudinal course of the celebrants’ and the people’s procession during the Liturgy” (p. 16): Some early Byzantine basilicas in Syria were divided transversally from south to north, each section was entered through a separate door from the south, and the liturgy appears to have been focused on a raised platform in the centre of the nave rather than the eastern sanctuary.2 Elsewhere, low or high barriers between or across the aisles confirm that the interior space of an early Byzantine basilica could be interpreted in various ways.3 Architecture and liturgy seem to have always been separate entities, which makes their interrelation so very interesting and brings us back to book.

Marinis—as opposed to Mathews, who starts out with the architecture—approaches the issue through the liturgy. The first chapter summarises the later Byzantine liturgy and other rites (p. 10-24), mostly on the basis of the work by Robert Taft. The next three chapters are each dedicated to liturgical spaces as defined by the written sources, ‘The sanctuary and the templon’ (p. 25-48), ‘The naos’ (p. 49-63), and ‘The narthex and the exonarthex’ (p. 64-76). Each chapter starts with a short definition of the space according to its liturgical significance, followed by an overview of the various architectural forms that it could take. Their great variety is an important point in the argument against a ‘form follows function’ correlation with the liturgy. The architectural survey is restricted to such churches that were newly built during the later Byzantine period, because that is where a dependency on liturgical change should become apparent, if it existed. In addition, the cathedral church of St Sophia and other early Byzantine churches continued to form the largest and most prominent venues for the liturgy and thus also remained important points of reference for the later Byzantine rite (p. 12-13). In contrast, most of the later foundations were monastic or funerary, which goes a long way in explaining their small sizes and other characteristics, without reference to the liturgy.

Similarly, it is far from certain that the three-part sanctuary, when it became standard in later Byzantine churches at Constantinople, was a response to the introduction of the prothesis liturgy (p. 33-38): First, it is not clear whether the prothesis liturgy was already established when the churches started to be built with three apses that could function as three-part sanctuaries. Second, the liturgy requires one subsidiary space only, the so-called prothesis, normally on the north side; the other, southern side that is today commonly referred to as the diakonikon remains to be explained, and the three-part arrangement seems to make more sense in terms of architecture than it does in terms of liturgy. Third, three-part sanctuaries outside Constantinople date from the early Byzantine period, before the introduction of the prothesis liturgy. Early Byzantine templa typically had three doors, also at Constantinople,4 and a three-part arrangement thus appears to have been established in architecture well before it was charged with liturgical meaning.

After dealing with the architecture, each chapter presents a collection of textual references to the ritual uses of liturgical space. These collections constitute the heart of the volume and seem to have been closest to the heart of the author, too. The information is presented in great detail, brings the spaces alive and makes for an interesting read. Particular attention is given to religiosity, for example pious reasons for building a chapel (p. 80-83) or theological explanations why lay people should not see the sanctuary, as the insertion of icons turned the templon into an opaque iconostasis (p. 47). Other, more worldly reasons like reputation and prestige that would not have been spelled out in writing, as well as the material culture of the chapels and the icons themselves, which required ever more space—on the walls as well as on the iconostasis—receive less attention. One may ask whether the development may have been driven by a desire to display icons rather than by theological considerations. Compare the case of iconoclasm and its theological writings, which some believe to have formed the later Byzantine iconography, whilst others attribute the later icons as well as the icon theology to an earlier and continuous image tradition.5

The fifth chapter is dedicated to ‘Subsidiary spaces: chapels, outer ambulatories, outer aisles, crypts, atria, and related spaces’ (p. 77-99). These spaces are defined through their architectural forms rather than through their liturgical functions as in the previous chapters. The classification appears to have been changed because of a lack of source material about these spaces, and their definitions remain vague, for example the distinction between chapels, outer ambulatories, and outer aisles. Galleries (p. 91-93) and bell towers (p. 97 f.) are also included, and the reader may want to take additional note of the city’s only remaining Byzantine bell tower in front of St Benoît in Galata.6 Chapter six on the ‘Nonliturgical use of churches’ (p. 100-113) is a different matter entirely, mainly based on written sources, and a treasure box of curiosities, including ‘Resting, sleeping, and eating’ inside churches (p. 109-111), as well as ‘Festivals and reenactments’ with fancy dresses (p. 111-113). In addition to a section on memorial services and other commemorative rites (p. 108 f.), the book also collects much insightful information on burials and tombs, in the naos (p. 59-63), in narthexes (p. 73-76), in chapels (p. 84-86), and in outer ambulatories (p. 87 f.).

An appendix contains a catalogue of 29 later Byzantine churches in Istanbul (p. 119-208). Each entry includes a summary description of the later Byzantine structure, a bibliography, one or more plans, sometimes also an elevation, and—with few exceptions—some black and white photographs. The texts occasionally dismiss some earlier research and side with other scholarly opinion, but they are too short to argue any point. The plans have been redrawn and simplified in an attempt to reconstruct the later Byzantine buildings, without reference to earlier Byzantine or later Turkish phases. This might have been inspired by the search for a typical plan that, if it existed, could have come about in response to the later Byzantine liturgy, but it is at odds with most of the photographs, some of which are difficult to read without knowledge of the Turkish interventions, for example mihrabs in the Pantokrator Monastery (fig. VIII-4) and the Toklu Dede Mescidi (fig. XXVII-2).7 The photographs include some familiar images, mostly from the archives of the German Archaeological Institute at Istanbul and Dumbarton Oaks, as well as numerous snapshots by the author, which bespeak the difficulty of taking photographs inside mosques, to which most of the churches have been converted. The brilliant colour contrasts of the Islamic interiors have not survived the transformation into black and white. At the end follow a glossary (p. 209 f.), a bibliography (p. 211-234), and an index (p.235-243).

In conclusion, the main contribution and unique value of Marinis's book lies in the collection and presentation of source material on what went on in later Byzantine churches at Constantinople. The arrangement according to spaces meets the needs of whoever is interested in Byzantine architecture, and the text is accessible to non-specialists without previous knowledge of Orthodox rites. It paves the way for more interdisciplinary research and sets new standards for future scholarship into the history of Byzantine architecture and its relationship to the liturgy. Any such relationship will have to be accounted for, and Marinis's collection of textual references provides the tool.


1.   Cf. U. Peschlow, Rezension zu T. F. Mathews, The Early Churches of Constantinople: Architecture and Liturgy (University Park, PA 1971), Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 33/1, 1974, 82-84.
2.   E. Loosley, The Architecture and Liturgy of the Bema in Fourth-to-Sixth-Century Syrian Churches, Texts and Studies in Eastern Christianity 1 (Leiden 2012).
3.   At Miletus and elsewhere in early and later Byzantine Anatolia aisles could be screened or walled off completely: H. Buchwald, Christian Basilicas with Isolated Aisles in Asia Minor, in: Architecture of Byzantium and Kievan Rus from the 9th to the 12th Centuries,Transactions of The State Hermitage Museum 53 (St. Petersburg 2010) 35–57; P. Niewöhner, Die byzantinischen Basiliken von Milet, Milet 1, 11 (Berlin 2016).
4.   U. Peschlow, Zum Templon in Konstantinopel, in: G. M. Belenes et al. (ed.), Apμός. Tιμητικός τόμος στον καθηγητή Ν. Κ. Μουτσόπουλο 3 (Thessaloniki 1992) 1449–1475.
5.   P. Niewöhner, Vom Sinnbild zum Abbild. Der justinianische Realismus und die Genese der byzantinischen Heiligentypologie, Millennium 5, 2008, 163-190.
6.   P. Niewöhner, St. Benoît in Galata. Der byzantinische Ursprungsbau, Jahrbuch des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts 125, 2010, 155-242.
7.   For a recent in depth-study of the textual evidence for the history and use of a single monument see S. Kotzabassi (ed.), The Pantokrator Monastery in Constantinople, Byzantinisches Archiv 27 (Berlin 2013).

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