Compare and Contrast Two Byzantine Architectural Works

Subject: Art
Type: Compare and Contrast Essay
Pages: 3
Word count: 875
Topics: Art Comparison, Architecture, Art History, Design

The golden age of Byzantine art started in 537 AD when Justinian ascended the throne. He declared that Christianity and the Orthodox Christian doctrine as the only lawful religion. He patronized construction of churches and many art works in marble and ivory. Some of the famous churches are the Hagia Sophia and the San Vitale (Kleiner 255). This paper compares and contrasts these two structures. 

Hagia Sophia, the Church of Holy Wisdom in Constantinople is a domed basilica with a great central dome. Eastern and western half domes buttress the central dome and descend into smaller half domes surrounding columns. The structure is 270 feet long and 240 feet wide with the central dome of 108 feet diameter, with crown rising 180 feet above the ground. Additions, repairs and modifications were made after the central dome collapsed in 558 AD (Cormack 85). The Turks converted it into a mosque and added four minarets, and Islamic motifs now cover the walls. However, the original beauty is still evident. The inner space are covered with phrygian stone and, rosy white, purple, and silver flowers all engraved in the marble, and it appears like a sky filled with bright stars (Kleiner 257). A special mystical quality of light floods the interior, and the dome dominates the structure, shedding a halo of light from 40 small windows at the base of the dome. It appear as if the dome is floating on a bed of mystic light that flitters in the mosaics, shines from the marbles and pervades the inner spaces. The architects used pendentives and squinches to transfer the weight from the dome to piers and not to the walls. This allowed a number of windows to be built (Kleiner 259).

The architects joined two architectural traditions, the vertically oriented central plan and the longitudinal oriented basilica. This was done by installing the hemispherical dome on a square base and not on a circular base. The innovative method needed external buttresses and huge northern and southern wall piers with eastern and western half domes (Kor 39). Structural lines are marked by ornamental surfaces and many decorative columnar arcades. The structure is made of bricks and the eight supporting piers are ashlars masonry with screen walls made of bricks (Kleiner 260).

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San Vitale was constructed in Ravenna in 526 AD. It is not a basilica but it is a centrally planned Justinian church of Saint Sergius and Bacchus. It has a dome covered clerestory with a central lit space, supported by piers and curved colonnaded exedrae in an eight leaf plan. A cross vaulted choir before the apse creates axial stability. The exterior has an orthogonal shape and two concentric octagons are integrated. The inner octagon is covered by the dome and it rises above the surrounding octagon and provides the interior with clerestory lighting. Rectilinear viewers are placed in alternating pattern with columned exedrae (Krautheimer 49). Arches loop over arches and curved flattened spaces and the walls change with the viewer’s position. The walls are decorated with mosaics that announce Christ’s second coming. Christ is shown sitting on the top of an orb and holds a scroll with seven seals. Four rivers of paradise flow beneath him, while rainbow clouds float above. Position of figures on the walls is important and they indicate precedence and rank. Emperor Justinian is at the center and on the left is Bishop Maximianus (Kleiner 264).

There are very few similarities in both structures and the main one are the use of natural light to illuminate the inner spaces. While both structures are dedicated to Church, Hagia Sophia is now a mosque and ancient frescos are not available. Differences are seen in the structure and construction. Hagia Sophia is a domed basilica while San Vitale is centrally planned structure with orthogonal central structures (Mango 50). The central dome of Hagia Sophia dominates the structure and 40 small windows at the based create a diffused light pattern, giving a luminous effect. San Vitale uses light but not as effectively since the central dome with windows is absent. Hagia Sophia uses pendentives and squinches to build a taller and lighter structure where horizontal and vertical elements are combined and placed on four huge arches. The plan is square and all elements are placed geometrically. San Vitale has an orthogonal plan with eight sides, skewed to one side. The structure is made of bricks and marble, with large exterior windows, interior columns and arched spaces (Mango 95).

To conclude, the two structures have many differences and these are seen in the plan, load carrying members, domes, and arches. On a comparative note, Hagia Sophia appears to be grander and more elaborate with wide open inner spaces. San Vitale on the other hand has beautiful art work, frescos and paintings. Both structures highlight Byzantine art.

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  1. Cormack, Robin. “Byzantine Art“. Oxford University Press, 2000. 
  2. Kleiner, Fred. “Gardner’s Art through the Ages: A Global History, Volume I, 14th Edition“. Wadswoth Cengage, 2013. 
  3. Kor, Kis. “Early Byzantine Art.” Yiss Kor. 2013. 
  4. Krautheimer, Richard. “Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture, 4th Edition”. Yale University Press. 1984. 
  5. Mango, Cyril. “The Art of the Byzantine Empire 312-1453: Sources and Documents“. University of Toronto Press. 1984. 
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