BMCR 2020.06.39

Die byzantinische Sakralarchitektur der Dunklen Jahrhunderte

Sabine Feist, Die byzantinische Sakralarchitektur der Dunklen Jahrhunderte. Spätantike - Frühes Christentum - Byzanz, Band 46. Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag, 2019. 256 p., 111 p. of plates. ISBN 9783954904204 €110,00.

Byzantine ecclesiastical architecture between Justinian in the sixth century and the “middle” Byzantine period starting in the tenth century is often overlooked, except by specialists. No building of this period appears in the major art history survey books, for example. Significant changes in church design did occur in this period as the Byzantine world transitioned away from the religious buildings of the early Christian world to a new type of structure that, with variations, was the norm for its later centuries.

This book attempts to explain in part the key transition that occurred in Byzantine ecclesiastical architecture during what the author terms the “dark centuries,” or the period between late antiquity and the “medieval” period, roughly 700 to 900. Church design in the Byzantine world, building upon innovations that took place in late antiquity, particularly under Justinian in the sixth century, largely abandoned the basilica type in favor of more compact types with vaulted interiors including a central dome, beginning a new tradition that would evolve through a number of variations in the medieval Byzantine period and is still commonly used in Orthodox church construction today. The transition is seen both in the adoption of the new building type in the course of the eighth and ninth centuries, but also in the retrofitting of earlier basilicas with a dome and the necessary structure to support it.

The author has a particular goal in this study. Rather than continue the methodologies of earlier studies of the ecclesiastical architecture of these two centuries, the author chose to move away from earlier studies that have tried to explain the changes in design as perhaps reflecting changes in liturgy, rejecting the Miesian axiom of “form following function.” Specifically, the author attempts to show that rather than using designs created ex novo, these buildings represent a natural evolution of architectural design and decoration rooted in the late antique buildings that the new churches replaced. To do this, the author focuses on seven churches from the period, choosing ones that were replacements of earlier basilicas in order to find examples of continuity between the two phases.

The book is divided into two parts. The first examines the chosen buildings, both in terms of their late antique predecessors and in analyzing the “dark century” building, focusing on their structural changes in comparison to the basilicas they replaced as well as documenting surviving elements from the original building incorporated into the new one.

The first example in Part I, illustrating the domed architecture of late antiquity, is the Justinianic church of Hagia Eirene in Istanbul, a basilica with a dome over the eastern part of its nave that, following damage from an earthquake in 740, was strengthened and given a sail vault to cover the western part of the nave. The author argues that the new arrangement of the gallery level and the design of the new vaults covering the spaces anticipated the cross domed churches of the middle Byzantine period.

Chapter 2 examines the transitions seen in churches in Antalya and Amorium, Turkey, from late antique church types into domed structures during the period under discussion. The replacement buildings took advantage of some existing foundations and structures, but abandoned the basilica type. Chapter 3 covers similar developments in the church of St. Mary in Ephesos and that of St. Nicholas in Myra, in which new domed and vaulted churches were inserted into the remnants of their earlier buildings, keeping the location of the sanctuary in the same place. Chapter 4 looks at the impressive church of Hagia Sophia in Thessaloniki, which replaced an even larger basilica, and the much smaller and simpler church of the same dedication in Vize in Thrace.

Part 2 consists of three chapters that look at these transitional buildings in terms of their architectural characteristics, with particular emphasis on their space and how visitors might experience the buildings in terms of sight, light, and even sound. The first chapter examines the exteriors, considering topography, façades, and sightlines of the exterior of the dome. The second chapter looks at features of the church’s entrance areas, including nartheces, secondary entrances, lighting and sightlines to the interior of their domes. The third chapter is about their interiors – the organization of space, the accommodation of images and the incorporation of elements from the structures they replaced.

The book is generally well-documented in terms of research. It is also nicely illustrated, with illustrations not only of the architecture and architectural elements of the churches, but their decoration as well. The illustrations include color coded plans of the churches, some large and folded, found in a sleeve inside the back cover. These very nicely illustrate the late antique and transition period phases of each of the buildings.

The main issue with the book is that although it proposes a new interpretation of the origins of the new church type, known as the cross-dome type, it does so with just a few case studies. The advantage of using a select number of case studies is that it allows the author to discuss each of them in some depth and therefore make the comparisons of the second part more detailed. The disadvantage is that it leaves the reader wondering if the insights to the phenomenon of this transitional architecture apply equally to the other churches of the same period that have been omitted from the discussion or barely mentioned. Even among the examples under discussion, the new churches do not seem to have a close design or even scale connection with their predecessors. The “dark age” churches of Ephesus and Thessaloniki have nothing in common with the basilicas they replaced except their location and some reuse of materials. Their size, arrangement of interior spaces and use of vaulting are independent of the design of the earlier basilicas.

The argument that the design of the new buildings is rooted in late antique architecture is valid to some degree, and especially to the buildings of Justinian, including Hagia Eirene, but also many others that are not discussed. Ultimately, however, the new methodology does not fully explain the change to the new architecture design. One wonders why, in addition to new churches being built with compact plans and vaults, were significant numbers of basilicas retrofitted with vaulting during this period. This group would include, for example, the several churches that underwent these types of changes at the same period in Cyprus that are not mentioned. (See Charles A. Stewart, “The First Vaulted Churches in Cyprus,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 69 (2010), 162-89). Why did the Byzantine world prefer vaulted buildings over timber roofed basilicas like those that continued to be used in the West? The author suggests that one factor may have been rising costs of timber, but could there have been other factors, such as an attempt at improved acoustics?  Why are the new buildings significantly smaller? Furthermore, the new type and the related types that evolved in the Byzantine period and is still used in Orthodox church design today, has proven functional for centuries leading one to think that functionality did have some role in the architectural evolution of churches in eastern Christianity.

Ultimately, this book does make an important contribution to the study of Byzantine church architecture in its employment of a new methodology, but also in the analysis of each of the buildings under discussion. The links with the architecture of late antiquity, which the author demonstrates are present in the later buildings, can be further explored.  As to what drove those changes, there remains plenty of room for further study.