Illustrated Architecture Dictionary

Byzantine / Byzantine Revival Architecture


Byzantine Revival


Architecture developed from the fifth century A.D. in the Byzantine Empire, characterized especially by massive domes with square bases and rounded arches and spires and much use of glass mosaics.

The architectural and decorative style begun in Constantinople spread throughout the fourth, fifth and sixth century Christian world until the fall of Constantinople to the Turks (1453).

Reprinted from
A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method, by Sir Banister-Fletcher, New York, 1950, pp. 238, 240, 242

Byzantine Architecture

The character of Byzantine architecture, which dates from the fourth century to the present day, is determined by the novel development of the dome to cover polygonal and square plans for churches, tombs, and baptisteries.

The practice of placing many domes over one building is in strong contrast to the Romanesque system of vaulted roofs. The change from Roman and Early Christian forms was gradual, but in the course of two centuries the East asserted its influence; and though no exact line separates Early Christian and Byzantine styles, yet the basilican type, inherited from pagan Rome, is characteristic of the former, and the domed type, introduced from the East, of the latter.

Roman Concrete and Brickwork

The system of construction in concrete and brickwork introduced by the Romans was adopted by the Byzantines. The carcase of concrete and brickwork was first completed and allowed to settle before the surface sheathing of unyielding marble slabs was added, and this independence of the component parts is characteristic of Byzantine construction. Brickwork, moreover. lent itself externally to decorative caprices in patterns and banding, and internally it was suitable for covering with marble, mosaic, and fresco decoration.

The Byzantines therefore took great pains in the manufacture of bricks, which were employed alike in military, ecclesiastical, and domestic architecture. The ordinary bricks were like the Roman, about an inch and a half in depth, and were laid on thick beds of mortar.

This general use of brickwork necessitated special care in making mortar, which was composed of lime and sand with crushed pottery, tiles, or bricks, and much of it remains as hard as that in the best buildings of Rome, while the core of the wall was sometimes of concrete, as in the Roman period.

The decorative character of external facades depended largely on the arrangement of the facing bricks, which were not always laid horizontally, but sometimes obliquely, sometimes in the form of the meander fret, sometimes in the chevron or herringbone pattern, and in many other similar designs, giving great variety to the facades. An attempt was also made to ornament the rough brick exteriors by the use of stone bands and decorative arches.

Walls were sheeted internally with marble and vaults and domes with coloured glass mosaics on a golden background...


The dome, which had always been a traditional feature in the East, became the prevailing motif of Byzantine architecture, which was a fusion of the domical construction with the Classical columnar style. Domes of various types were now placed over square compartments by means of "pendentives," whereas in Roman architecture domes were only used over circular or polygonal structures.

These domes were frequently constructed of bricks or of some light porous stone, such as pumice, or even of pottery, as at S. Vitale, Ravenna.

Byzantine domes and vaults were, it is believed, constructed without temporary support or "centering " by the simple use of large flat bricks, and this is quite a distinct system probably derived from Eastern methods.

Windows were formed in the lower portion of the dome which, in the later period, was hoisted upon a high "drum" - a feature which was still further embellished in the Renaissance period by the addition of an external peristyle.

The grouping of small domes or semi-domes round the large central dome was effective, and one of the most remarkable peculiarities of Byzantine churches was that the forms of the vaults and domes were visible externally, undisguised by any timber roof; thus in the Byzantine style the exterior closely corresponds with the interior.

Interior decoration

... in domes and apses by coloured mosaics, which were of glass rendered opaque by oxide of tin, an invention which had also been employed in the Early Christian period. This use of rich marbles and mosaics resulted in the rounding of angles and in an absence of mouldings and cornices, so that the mosaic designs and pictures might continue uninterrupted over wall surfaces, piers, arches, domes, and apses Marble and mosaic were used broadly to make a complete lining for a rough carcase and mouldings were replaced by decorative bands formed in the mosaic. One surface melts into another as the mosaic is continued from arch and pendentive upwards to the dome, while the gold of the background was even introduced into the figures, and thus unity of treatment was always maintained.

Church features

When the Emperor Constantine made Christianity an official religion, Christians were at last free to erect permanent buildings instead of worshiping in catacombs and private homes. There were two prototypes:

Basilica, which was a Roman civic building, with a roof supported on two rows of columns, and extended on both sides by lean-to additions. The altar was placed in the apse, a semi-circular recess in the far end wall. This model was favored in the West.

Centralized or Circular Plan where the center of the structure was surmounted by a dome,  Altar and lectern were placed geometrically central. The plan generally worked because the congregation was not seated; people were free to stand around on all sides at their convenience. This model was favored in the Eastern Byzantine Empire.

Excerpts from
Britannica Concise Encyclopedia, Byzantine Architecture

Their [Byzantine architects] combination of the basilica and symmetrical central-plan (circular or polygonal) religious structures resulted in the characteristic Byzantine Greek-cross-plan church, with a square central mass and four arms of equal length.

The most distinctive feature was the domed roof. To allow a dome to rest above a square base, either of two devices was used: the squinch (an arch in each of the corners of a square base that transforms it into an octagon) or the pendentive.

Byzantine structures featured soaring spaces and sumptuous decoration: marble columns and inlay, mosaics on the vaults, inlaid-stone pavements, and sometimes gold coffered ceilings.

The architecture of Constantinople extended throughout the Christian East and in some places, notably Russia, remained in use after the fall of Constantinople (1453).

The two greatest examples of Byzantine churches are Hagia Sophia - pronounced ah YEE ah so FEE ah -  (532-537) in Constantinople, and St. Mark's Basilica (830) in Venice.

Byzantine church architecture is concerned almost exclusively with a decorated interior. The intention was to sculpt out a holy space where the congregation would be confronted with the true nature of the cosmos, cleared of all worldly distractions The mosaics and frescoes portraying the whole body of the church, from Christ downwards, have a dual purpose: they give inspiration to the worshiper and are windows to the spiritual world.

Every Byzantine church features an altar behind the iconostasis through whose doors only the clergy are admitted in the eastern apse

Russian Byzantine Churches

Orthodox Christianity was adopted as the state religion in 988.  Early Eastern Orthodox churches were mainly made of wood with the simplest form of church becoming known as a cell church. Major cathedrals often featured scores of small domes.

In the sixteenth century, the key development was the introduction of tented roof into brick architecture. Tent-like roof construction is thought to have originated in the Russian North, as it prevented snow from piling up on wooden buildings during long winters. 

In the course of the seventeenth century, cathedrals with five onion-like cupolas (suggesting candles) were surrounded with tents of bell towers and aisles. Cupolas were  decorated with polychrome tiles.

Byzantine architecture examples:

Byzantine Revival
Second half of the 19th century

The re-use of Byzantine forms in the second half of the 19th cent., typically in churches,


  • Multiple domes
  • Round-arched windows
  • Ample decoration

Examples from Buffalo architecture:

Other examples:

Photos and their arrangement 2001 Chuck LaChiusa
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