New York Landmarks Conservancy
Common Bond October 1997

The Byzantine Style

Noted for its rich use of ornamental domes, colorful mosaics, and lavish decorations, the Byzantine style of architecture has found new life on American soil due to its structural integrity and cultural associations.

Perhaps no other single style of architecture combines ancient ecclesiastical forms with sacred artworks as lavishly as the Byzantine. And throughout New York State, one can find magnificent examples of the style in its purist form as well as in adaptations that have been used in the designs of religious properties of all denominations. The style developed during the Byzantine Empire (500 A.D. and thereafter) and is characterized by complex vaulting with domes, large open spaces, and lavish decoration with mosaics, gilding, and paintings of Christian subjects. Today, the style is most strongly associated with Orthodox Christian Greek immigrants, who beginning in the early 20th century built churches that expressed their cultural traditions.

In 323 A.D., Constantine the Great moved the capital of the Roman Empire to the Greek town of Byzantium and established a formal culture of church and state. Byzantium was renamed Constantinople (current day Istanbul) and became the seat of this ecclesiastical government. Today, the term "Byzantine" refers to the entire Eastern Roman Empire and Byzantine art represents the final, Christian stage of Antiquity. The relocation of the capital to Byzantium resulted in the division of the Roman Empire by the beginning of the 5th century followed by a religious split: the Eastern, or Orthodox Church, was headed by the Emperor and his appointed patriarch; and the Western, or Catholic church, was headed by the Bishop of Rome and separate from the powers of the state.

Early Christian architecture, the first built expressions of the new faith in Constantinople, was based on a new building type called the basilica. The form and use of this building, derived from Roman courthouses, became the basic model for Western medieval church architecture and remained important in Byzantine architecture. The basilica form featured a rectangular nave with columns supporting a pitched roof; an altar and apse at the east end; and an atrium or narthex at the west end, often with an exonarthex (an open porch with columns).

The leading monument of the age and prototype of Byzantine architecture is the Hagia Sophia (St. Sophia or the Church of Holy Wisdom), Istanbul, constructed between 532 A.D. and 537 A.D. Its vast pendentive dome - a distinctive element of the Byzantine form - floats on spherical triangles (called pendentives) that are located between the dome and four supporting piers. The interior glitters with mosaics that create an open, weightless space. The domed, central-plan for churches dominated the architecture of the Orthodox Christian world. By the late 9th century, the typical plan for a church contained a Greek cross (a cross with arms of equal length) within a square, flanked by a narthex on the west and an apse on the east. The central feature of the church was the dome on a square base, often resting on a cylindrical drum with tall windows.

Constantinople was the source of inspiration and guidance for the Orthodox Christians of the Byzantine Commonwealth, which included Asia Minor, the Balkan states, Greece, eastern Italy and Sicily; it also influenced Slavic, Carpatho-Russian, and North African cultures. Furthermore, Byzantine art, at its zenith when the Romanesque style emerged in Europe, permeated Romanesque ornament and even intermingled with Celtic art in Scotland and Ireland. The Empire lasted in reduced size until 1453, when the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople. Characteristic Byzantine forms, structures, and designs have been applied continuously in the old empire, even through the Ottoman occupation.

The Byzantine style is characterized by the dome and the cruciform shape, round arches, and circular windows. Buildings are formal and symmetrical, with compact, functional plans. Exterior walls are smooth and plain. Popular materials include buff brick in large, flat sizes; light-colored stone, often in bands; and stucco or plastered and painted concrete.

Interiors strive for a dematerialized effect, with floating domes over open spaces, ethereal light, and shimmering mosaics or gold leaf. Iconographic murals are typical. Ornament is inspired by historical precedent, often reinterpreted in an original manner. Carving is simplified, in low relief.

In the late 19th century, American architects looked to the Byzantine style for new forms and solutions for urban churches and synagogues, often combining the Byzantine with the more prevalent Romanesque and Gothic styles. The spatial qualities of Byzantine domed churches provided the perfect model for large houses of worship that required a centralized plan with a vast volume and few supports. Books on Byzantine and Romanesque architecture by European historians and articles in architectural journals provided references that were adapted by architects for new designs.

Samuel Gruber, Director of the Jewish Heritage Council, has noted that a central dome over the sanctuary became a common feature in synagogues from the early 20th century and especially after the First World War. Important Jewish houses of worship were often designed in the Byzantine and Romanesque mode.

Greek immigrants, who were strongly identified with Eastern Orthodoxy and Byzantine culture, erected their first American church, Holy Trinity Church, in Lowell, Massachusetts between 1906 and 1908. Initiating a pattern that would be followed throughout the century, the local architect visited Byzantine churches in Istanbul and elsewhere as sources for the domed, cruciform-plan building. The first Greek Orthodox church built in New York State, the Cathedral of Sts. Constantine and Helen in Brooklyn Heights (architect unknown, 1916), is an excellent representative of the Byzantine style.

Greek immigrant communities also purchased existing churches or synagogues for conversion to Orthodox houses of worship. This often necessitated the addition of liturgical necessities such as chancel screens and icons.

Newly built Greek Orthodox churches, schools, and community centers proliferated after the Second World War. Architects and congregations were attracted to both traditional and modern interpretations of Byzantine architecture. "In the psychology of the prosperous immigrant, Byzantine architecture was his greatest ethnic offering to the new homeland which had enabled him to prosper economically and socially," writes architect Stephen P. Papadatos in the History of the Greek Orthodox Church in America (1984). Papadatos, the leading practitioner of the Byzantine style in America today, refers to specific Early Christian and Byzantine models as well as generic types.

For newly built and existing churches, Greek-trained iconographers are employed to paint or add icons. More costly mosaics are often imported from Greece. Similar windows appear in many Byzantine-inspired churches, although some congregations install stained glass windows with images of saints.

In contrast to the ubiquitous revival styles found in 19th-century churches, such as the Greek Revival, Gothic, and Romanesque, the Byzantine style began much later and is much less known. Remarkably, a style that emerged 1,500 years ago in the vast and powerful Eastern Empire has found new life on American soil because of its structural ingenuity and cultural associations.

Special thanks to Stephen P. Papadatos and Sophia Gatanos for providing valuable source material.