BMCR 2020.11.26

Transforming sacred spaces

, Transforming sacred spaces: new approaches to Byzantine ecclesiastical architecture from the transitional period. Spätantike - Frühes Christentum - Byzanz, Band 48. Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag, 2020. Pp. 276. ISBN 9783954904198 €98,00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Perhaps the least understood phase of Byzantine architecture is the period between the seventh and ninth centuries, variously known as the “Dark Ages,” the “Iconoclastic Period,” or the “Transitional Period.” It is an era that saw the construction of churches that were for the most part domed and significantly smaller than those built through the sixth century. There are few literary and epigraphical sources linked to these buildings, leaving the question of their chronology and developmental sequence open to debate. The present volume collects papers delivered at a colloquium held at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich in 2014, which “aimed to critically question” previous scholarship on the churches of the transitional period and “explore new paths for the investigation of this field of research.”

Nine papers are presented in the book, with varying lengths and an uneven level of completeness. Luca Zavagno’s contribution examines the urban system in the Byzantine empire, especially considering economic and social factors. He argues that cities had declined in previous centuries to some extent, but that the decline was followed by a period of rebuilding and growth in the seventh and eighth centuries, including the construction or reconstruction of churches and administrative buildings. In her paper, Eleonora Kountoura Galaki examines networks of patronage during the first period of iconoclasm (eighth century), focusing on the relationships between the emperors and their supporters in government, the church, and the army. It offers only a few observations about architectural patronage but suggests that church building was part of the broader phenomenon of patronage. Marie-France Auzépy’s contribution surveys the monasteries of the transitional period in a one region, Bithynia, that she has studied extensively. She notes that although many monasteries in this period are mentioned in the literary sources, they have either been heavily transformed in later periods or have disappeared. A large portion of her paper is a catalogue of known Bithynian monasteries from the period in question.

Papers more directly connected with the architecture of the transitional period include Michalis Kappas’ detailed overview of the development of church architecture in Greece, noting both regional trends and influences from the capital. He points out that there are more than sixty churches from the era remaining in Greece, though many are poorly studied. Among these are a few basilicas, showing that the type did not completely disappear after the sixth century. He identifies the church of Hagia Sophia in Thessaloniki as the most important building of the period, accepting its redating to the mid eighth century. Other important churches include Hagios Titos in Gortyna, redated to the early ninth century, and the Panaghia church at Skripou (Orchomenos) of the second half of the same century, the design of which he connects to developments in Constantinople. Most of the surviving churches are modest domed buildings in small towns and on islands such as Naxos, which has over twenty churches from the period. The majority of them are crudely constructed and show the development of local architectural traditions.

Sabine Feist, one of the organizers of the colloquium and the editor of the present volume, looks at the relationship between the older late antique basilicas and their rebuilt forms from the transitional period, using the church of Hagia Eirene in Constantinople as her case study. A fuller version of this examination appears in her book, Die byzantinische Sakralarchitektur der Dunklen Jahrhunderte (Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag, 2019, reviewed in BMCR 2020.06.39). Two papers look at architectural symbolism. In one, Vasileios Marinis examines the relationship between architecture and liturgy in the seventh and eighth centuries. Using Germanos I’s Ecclesiastical History and Mystical Contemplation, Marinis notes that while the author explicates the rich symbolism of the liturgy, he reveals very little about church design. The exception is locating the skeuophylakion, where the Eucharist was prepared and which represents the place of Christ’s crucifixion, in proximity to the altar, where the Eucharist was blessed and which represents the tomb of Christ. In her paper, Jelena Bogdanovic examines the concept of architecture as an icon seen through the lens of the iconoclastic debate. She points to literary sources that discuss the ciborium/canopy as a symbol marking the location of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, linking the representation of these places with their actual prototypes just as an icon is linked with the holy person it represents. These arguments were further developed in her book, The Framing of Sacred Space: The Canopy and the Byzantine Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).

For the Byzantines, decoration was an integral part of what made a building a church. Only one contribution examines church decoration during this period, and it is one of the few that does not seem to be a preliminary study or a simple introduction. This is Benjamin Anderson’s “Images down low,” which looks at images and their changing position in the church. In particular, he considers evidence from the second period of iconoclasm (815-840) when images of saints located low on the walls were removed to stop their veneration, while leaving undisturbed images higher up on the wall that could not be worshipped. With few surviving examples of church frescoes or mosaics in former Byzantine territory, he makes good use of comparable surviving rows of saints in the Roman church of Santa Maria Antiqua, painted during a period of heavy Byzantine influence. This is an interesting look at an aspect of Byzantine iconoclasm that has been often overlooked – in the second phase, not all images were considered bad, just those close to the ground where people might approach, touch, and otherwise worship them.

An excellent contribution to this volume, by Robert Ousterhout, is dedicated to understanding the architecture of the transitional period, on which this scholar has also recently published an expanded version, Eastern Medieval Architecture: The Building Traditions of Byzantium and Neighboring Lands (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019). The basic issue concerning church architecture in the transitional period is the typological transition from longitudinal basilicas to domed churches during the Justinianic period (sixth century), to the cross-domed type used during the transitional period, leading to the cross-in-square type that appeared in the ninth century and became the typical church type for the middle Byzantine period from the tenth century on. Ousterhout provides a short but masterful discussion of problems of dating buildings in this period. The typological approach is useful, but as he points out, one must recognize its limitations and not assume all developments progress in a linear fashion from the basilica to the cross-in-square type. He discusses other methods to date these often-undated churches, such as dendrochronology, again noting their limitations. He also calls attention to the importance of regional developments over the assumed primacy of trends in the capital. Most helpful is his simple and convincing explication of why the typology evolved. The introduction of a dome into a basilica with inadequate buttressing led to structural problems. Transitional architecture addressed those issues with additional buttressing (barrel vaults on four sides of the dome and drum), but because of changes in the liturgy, also significantly diminished the scale of these buildings. As Ousterhout notes, the largest church of the period, Hagia Sophia in Thessaloniki, could fit inside the nave of Justinian’s Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. Most other churches were considerably smaller still. Emphasizing the change in scale, Ousterhout points out that the cross-in-square type was a natural evolution from the cross-domed type, because it maintained the structural arrangement between dome and framing barrel vaults as it accommodated even smaller buildings. The smaller scale permitted the use of four columns or piers to carry small domes while leaving the structural scheme unchanged.

Each contribution is well documented and furnished with an extensive and helpful bibliography for the interested researcher to pursue additional study. The illustrations are also of a high quality. Given the nature of the volume as the outgrowth of a conference, the unevenness of the papers in terms of size and depth of study is to be expected, as is the fact that some appear to be preliminary, not final, studies. Nevertheless, the volume as a whole provides valuable introductions to various aspects of the architecture of an understudied era, as well as important contributions to illuminating some aspects of church architecture in this transitional period.

Authors and titles

I. Historical-cultural background – breaking with traditions
Luca Zavagno, The unbearable transience of the city. Urban spaces in the Byzantine world in the transition from Late Antiquity to the early Middle Ages (ca. 550 – ca. 800 A.D.)
Eleonora Kountoura Galaki, Patronage in the transitional period of Iconoclasm (717–775)
Marie-France Auzépy, Monasteries during the transitional period
II. Monuments – revision of the archaeological evidence
Michalis Kappas, Experimenting in domed constructions: Ecclesiastical architecture in Greece during the transitional period
Sabine Feist, The impact of late antique churches on the ecclesiastical architecture during the transitional period: The case study of St. Irene in Constantinople
Robert Ousterhout, Problems of architectural typology during the transitional period (7th to early 9th century)
III. Sociology of space – searching for reasons
Benjamin Anderson, Images down low
Vasileios Marinis, Liturgy and architecture in the Byzantine transitional period (7th–8th centuries)
Jelena Bogdanović, Controversies intertwined: Architecture as icon examined through the lenses of the Byzantine iconoclastic debates