Tag Archives: late antique architecture

The danger of the “Byzantine”

I’ve already commented on this blog about the pitfalls of the word Byzantine, especially in relation to the mosaic art of Late Antique and Early Mediaeval Rome. I stand by that perspective. Indeed, after a conference I was at earlier this year, I am even more deeply entrenched in my anti-Byzantine position.

One of the many difficulties besetting the use of this word is its strong association with Greek and the Eastern Mediterranean (indeed, I think of Byzantine as Greek mediaeval, or mediaeval Greek, personally). This is combined with the fact that, despite the great cultural and political ruptures of the seventh century, historians of ‘Byzantium’ and the ‘Byzantine’ Empire like to start their story with Constantine or something like that (in which case we are far enough back in time to be clearly in the Late Roman East).

Why are these two things problems?


I haven’t dealt with him in my ‘Discover Late Antiquity‘ series yet — not properly. Nevertheless, Justinian reconquers North Africa, a bit of Spain, and Italy. His (re)conquest of Italy ran from 536 to 554. As a result, the heartland of the Roman West was reunited with the Roman East. This increases the cross-cultural exchange between East and West — traditional Italian artwork of Late Antiquity thus maintains ties with the traditional Hellenic artwork of Late Antiquity (that is, the ‘Byzantine’). Eastern craftsmen can make their way West within a united empire.

Let me now circle back to how the Hellenic, eastern-focussed use of this word and its application to art can cause problems.

In 553, the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of St Mary — the Basilica Eufrasiana — was rebuilt in Porec, Croatia. As Wikipedia will tell you, this basilica ‘is an excellent example of early Byzantine architecture’. Having observed lovely photos of this basilica, it strikes me as an excellent example of early Christian architecture. Indeed, a basilica of similar style to its comrades in Rome:

Photo by Wikimedia user JoJan

Photo by Wikimedia user JoJan

Central apse, by Wikimedia user JoJan

Central apse, by Wikimedia user JoJan

Nevertheless, Wikipedia is not the only source that will tell you that the Basilica Eufrasiana is ‘Byzantine’. At the aforementioned conference, one of the papers discussed the basilica’s images of female saints — all well and good. Indeed, given the fact that the Istrian Peninsula was part of the Byzantine world, I’d even be willing to grant limited use of the word Byzantine to the artistic style.

However, from being used of the art, this word began to applied to the cultural context and worldview of the people who commissioned it and used the basilica. And this simply will not do. Istria is not Greek. Istria was not Greek. The cultural worldview of the sixth-century, Late Antique people of Istria was not Byzantine.

Female Martyrs on triumphal arch, photo by Wikimedia user JoJan

Female Martyrs on triumphal arch, photo by Wikimedia user JoJan

The reason this is a problem is because the presenter kept on finding Greek sources to corroborate her interpretation of the mosaics and the artistic scheme of the basilica. However, one glance at those same mosaics will show the viewer quite a lot of Latin — because that is the language of the Late Antique Istrians.

Ecclesiastically, in fact, the Istrian Peninsula was under the archiepiscopal oversight of the Bishop of Aquileia. And, along with that bishop and some others, was among the places that, around this time, entered into schism with the Bishop of Rome over the Three Chapters (on which I’ve blogged here). Therefore, Greek canon law is not germane to any discussion of how Istrians viewed women; Latin canon law, however, is. As are the writings of the ecclesiastics of Aquileia. Nonetheless, the paper to which I am referring continually resorted to Greek, ‘Byzantine’ sources.

I can only guess that the reason was because of the overuse of this word to refer to all Late Antique art of a certain style, and a confusion between politics (yes, this was then part of the Eastern Roman Empire) and culture (but it was not, therefore, Greek).

Byzantine is a word that can be very useful. But I find that the earlier it is applied, or the farther West it journeys, the more it simply confuses matters.

Roman Basilicas: Hunting Late Antiquity

Santa Sabina

Santa Sabina, fifth-century basilica on Aventine Hill, Rome

The Mausoleo di Santa Costanza, as discussed here, was not the only Late Antique building I found on my hunt through Rome. On the day I visited Santa Costanza, I also visited several basilicas and the Baths of Diocletian — not to mention a variety of artefacts on display in the Museo Nazionale Romano. Now for basilicas.

When we think of basilicas today, we immediately think of St Peter’s in Rome or Sacré Coeur in Paris; that sort of basilica, especially the latter, is not so much an architectural term any more as it is a special type of church that has a special papal blessing, if memory serves me right. However, our earliest Christian basilicas are not of that sort.

The architectural origins of the Christian basilica, as with so much other early Christian art and architecture, are classical. (The argument about alleged pagan tainting of Christianity can be had over at this blog, not here.) A basilica is a big, public building in the Roman world. They served many functions — social, economic, judicial. Stuff went down in basilicas.

The earliest named basilica is the Basilica Porcia, mentioned by Livy as being built by Cato the Elder in 184 BC. People kept building them for everyday, secular purposes throughout antiquity; there is one that served basically as a throne room at Trier, the Aula Palatina, and the giant remains of the Basilica Nova of Constantine and Maxentius are a very prominent feature of the Roman Forum today.
Basilica of MaxentiusWhen Constantine made Christianity definitively legal ca 312/3, Christian basilicas started popping up as places for public worship. The basilica at Tyre, for example, opened in the year 316 with a homily by Eusebius — and from as early as that Christian theology of space and buildings was already infusing what went on in basilicas.

The city of Rome is filled with basilicas, popping up all over the place. They started with St John’s Lateran — of which basilica (not counting the baptistery next door) nothing ancient remains, although the current Renaissance building is striking — and continued being built throughout the Late Antique and Early Mediaeval worlds.

My first basilica after visiting Constantina’s lovely, fourth-century mausoleum, was down the hill at Sant’Agnese Fuori le Mura, a seventh-century basilica built by Pope Honorius I that houses the remains of St Agnes in a tiny crypt beneath the apse large enough for five devout Korean women:


Basilica di Sant'Agnese

Saint Agnes flanked by Pope Honorius and some other dudeIt is a classic basilica design — a large, central nave with two smaller aisles to the side, ending in an apse. The orientation, as with all ancient Christian basilicas, is East. Before Vatican II, the priest and people would together have faced East with Saint Agnes, dressed as a Byzantine queen, and Pope Honorius looking down on them. As St Basil the Great says in a famous quotation:

For this reason we all look towards the East in our prayers, though there are few who know that it is because we are in search of our ancient fatherland, Paradise, which God planted towards the East. We fulfil our prayers standing upright on the first day of the week, but not all know the reason for this. –De Spiritu sancto 66, quoted by Andrew Louth in ‘Experiencing the Liturgy in Byzantium’, p. 83.

Louth, in the essay wherein the Basil quotation is found, observes that facing East is as old as our records of Christian worship can take us.

I like Sant’Agnese. We see in this church beautiful, Late Antique mosaics as well as the late ancient innovation of placing arches directly on top of columns. Most of the decoration, save the mosaic, is later, but the effect is undoubtedly much the same as it would have been in the 600s.

My next basilica took me back further in time to the mid-400s (my playing field!). This was San Pietro in Vincoli. The fabric of the basilica is essentially fifth-century. However, none of the ancient decoration is left, and there is a lot of Renaissance embellishment in the way. Nonetheless, San Pietro in Vincoli is much wider, brighter, and airier than Sant’Agnese. This is the sort of space a newly-relocated imperial court or an ascending papacy would like to show off.

Worth noting are St Peter’s alleged chains housed in the church, brought back to Rome from Constantinople during the papacy of my dear Leo the Great, although my trip to the basilica was the first I’d heard of it! Also worth noting is a seventh-century mosaic of St Sebastian:

St SebastianOh, and if you dig things Renaissance, there’s always Michelangelo’s Moses as part of the unfinished tomb of Pope Julius II …

From San Pietro in Vincoli, I took a trip to Santa Maria Maggiore. This basilica dates from the fifth century as well, prior to the papacy of Leo. The apsidal mosaics, stunning as they are, date from 1294. However, the triumphal arch segmenting the apse from the nave sports fifth-century mosaics, and the series of mosaics running along the nave above the columns are also fifth-century originals, sporting scenes from the Old Testament.

Second trip to Santa Maria Maggiore

Triumphal Arch

Triumphal Arch

Triumphal ArchMy final basilica of the day was San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura. This basilica is an interesting bit of architecture, as you can see:

The Late Antique NaveThe Late Antique basilica from the 580s — dating to the period of Byzantium’s rule over Rome — has had a 13th-c nave added onto it at a higher level, then was bisected horizontally, and turned into an apse-cum-crypt. So you can’t really get a feel for sixth-century Roman architecture here. But you can get close to the capitals, which strike me as reused old ones:

Classical capitalAnd you can see the sixth-century mosaics on the triumphal arch:

Byzantine mosaicsThese are the four Late Antique basilicas I saw that day in April — two fifth-century, one sixth-century, and one seventh-century. The mosaics were that Late Antique style typically called ‘Byzantine’, and they all followed the same architectural layout, a wide nave with two side aisles and an apse; all save Santa Maria Maggiore face East.

Other Late Antique basilicas of note in Rome: Santa Sabina (5th-c, stripped of Baroque accretions) and Santa Cecilia in Trastavere (4th-c, lovely 9th-c mosaics and many modern interventions).  The highly traditional, ‘Byzantine’, decoration in Santa Prassede (9th-c) makes it also a basilica of note in this regard. And if you really like mosaics and are going to Rome, don’t miss Santa Maria in Trastavere and San Clemente — the latter has Late-Antique-inspired, 13th-c apsidal mosaics and is on top of what’s left of a fourth-century basilica on top of a Temple of Mithras and an old Roman house.

Bibliography (because I’m that kind of nerd)

Dodge, Hazel. ‘Basilica‘, in Grove Art Online, part of Oxford Art Online, accessed 22 June, 2014.

The Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. Booklet available for purchase at the basilica.

Louth, Andrew. ‘Experiencing the Liturgy in Byzantium’, in Experiencing Byzantium, Claire Nesbitt and Mark Jackson, edd.  Pp. 79-88.


Late Antique Rome: Mausoleo di Santa Costanza

The Mausoleo di Santa Costanza was the first stop on my hunt for Late Antique Rome four weeks ago (although I’d seen the Baths of Diocletian [298-305] several times from the bus window already!), given that it’s only a ten minute walk from where I’m staying. I tried going after work on a Friday night, but got there at 6:09 — nine minutes after closing! Alas. I peeked around at the seventh-century (and beyond) Basilica di Sant’Agnese at the bottom of the hill and returned the next morning to see Santa Costanza at the start of a long day of churches and museums!

Mausoleo di Santa Costanza

As you can see, the mausoleum, like similar, larger ones elsewhere in Rome (Castel Sant’Angelo [Hadrian’s] & Augustus’ spring to mind) is basically a large, brick cylinder on the outside. I understand that it was initially faced in coloured stone.

This mausoleum was built for the daughters of the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century. The real showcase is not the exterior, I can assure you, although it does look a lot like the mausoleum built by Maxentius for his son in 307 (in the Forum, originally mistakenly identified as the ‘Temple of Romulus’):

It's Forum Time!

The mausoleum of Maxentius’ son is on the right, over my left shoulder.

The real show case is the lightness of the interior, now a church (although Constantina was not a saint), with its circle of pillars supporting arches and a dome; the fresco is not original, although I think I read somewhere that the theme of it is.

Mausoleo di Santa Costanza

Mausoleo di Santa Costanza

Mausoleo di Santa CostanzaIn the background of the first of these three photos, you can see a reproduction of Constantina’s porphyry sarcophagus, the original of which is now in the Vatican Museums. When they moved it, the cart required four oxen to pull it! Porphyry is a very heavy, very dense stone.

Not my photo (but I have seen it in person!)

Architecturally, Santa Costanza reminds me of the Late Antique roots of Romanesque architecture. Italian Romanesque is never as heavy as it is somewhere like Durham Cathedral or Dunfermline Abbey, and I’ve read that some people refuse the name to Italian architecture of the Middle Ages. Be that as it may, Italian mediaeval architecture such as that visible in San Clemente or San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura or the churches of Verona is visibly and tangibly linked to this Late Antique style; tradition runs strong in Italian art and architecture.


Sant’Agnese Fuori le Mura; 8th-century, just down the hill from Santa Costanza

Verona Cathedral

12th-c Cathedral of Verona

For me though, the real star of Santa Costanza is the interior decoration. The ambulatory — that is, the space between the pillars and the outer wall — still has a good supply of the original mosaics. And I love mosaics, especially Late Antique and Early Mediaeval ones.

The ceiling of the ambulatory contains these very lovely designs, and the image of the people partying (?) in the last one is my favourite. Mausoleo di Santa CostanzaMausoleo di Santa CostanzaMausoleo di Santa CostanzaThe star of the show, however, is Jesus. First, here is a beardless Christ from the eastern niche of the ambulatory:

Mausoleo di Santa CostanzaMausoleo di Santa CostanzaAnd a bearded Christ in the western niche:

Mausoleo di Santa Costanza

I like that the people, including Jesus, are all dressed as Romans in these images. And bearded Jesus even has on a purple toga, which is fitting for the King of Kings. The others, too, have togas. Sometimes people criticise these old, encultured images of Jesus and the Apostles; sometimes those same people get excited about new, encultured images. These images are portals into the mindsets of fourth-century Romans. They are also portals into upper-class fashion of fourth-century Rome!

In a Late Antique mosaic, every stands out sharply. There is enough naturalism that these people do not look like children’s drawings, but there is a growing preference for showing things head-on. This is especially the case for Christ, who is the main attraction, after all. This is part of a wider movement of making a beautiful whole that is made up of smaller, brilliant pieces, each interesting in its own right — a stylistic departure from ‘classical’ modes of balance and proportion.

Finally, beardless Jesus is not surprising, since the Good Shepherd in the catacombs is himself beardless! I am not sure what the interpretation of him beardless is, though. Nonetheless, already in the 300s he has a halo.

Romanesque and Byzantine art are only a short step away…