Byzantine Church Architecture

We note from scripture that certain elements of worship were evident in the life of the early Christians.  It is written in Acts 2:42-46 that the early Christians continued in the Apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, attended temple daily and broke bread from house to house.

Throughout the history of the Israelites and the early Christians, humans experienced a deeper narrative regarding faith in sacred places through the senses.  Early church worship in an architecturally sacred place (temple or home), where everything in the sacred space had purpose and intentionality, were significant contributors to attracting others to God within the Christian perspective.[1]

Christian temple architecture really did not exist until around 200AD because it was the practice of Christian communities to gather in homes or other inconspicuous places since temples were only erected for religious groups that were accepted by the state.[2]

Richard Krautheimer writes that there were two major persecutions of the Christians in 250 and 257-260 AD.  Christians were forbidden to assemble and their properties were confiscated.[3]  But, by this time in history, Asia Minor was sixty percent Christian, Rome had 30,000-50,000 Christians, and North Africa had hundreds of small village congregations.[4]

Krautheimer documents that there is evidence that ancient records indicate that Emperor Gallienus ended the persecution in 260 AD and restored the Christian church properties, their building of worship and cemeteries, and their right of assembly which confirms the notion that Christian worship centers had evolved from 200 to 260 AD in that part of the world.[5] Since Christianity was not a state religion at this time, there is speculation that congregations incorporated as funeral associations and held property by proxy, through a member of the congregation or a bishop.  In general, although Christianity was not a state religion, it was nevertheless tolerated and they did not live in hiding.  They had church services, trained catechumens, baptized, buried their dead, assisted the needy and owned property either legally or without interference.[6]

Around 375 AD, religious constitutions were written giving instructions for construction of the ideal church which could only be realized in certain areas of the Orthodox Christian world due to secular issues.[7]  It is written in this constitution that if it is possible, the structure should be elongated (resembling a ship), turned to the east with small temple areas (called pastophoria παστοφόρια) on either side towards the east[8].  This early description seems to indicate a basilica architectural plan with a modification on both sides that could form a cross shape as the ideal church construction.

Alexander Van Milligen writes that by the beginning of the fifth century, three principle church layouts were used:  the Basilica, the Octagonal or Circular plan, and the Cross plan.[9]  These three basic plans were used to derive various schemes on which the churches of the Byzantine Empire were planned.[10]

Byzantine architecture was primarily concerned with large surfaces for display of marble, paintings and mosaics which were of primary importance.[11]   Various structural areas were incorporated into the Byzantine church architecture depending on the size of the church and its location.[12] The dome was incorporated into the Byzantine structures and iconography was exhibited on the interior of the dome to provide a feeling of closeness to God, God’s presence in our lives, thereby creating an enhancement of the look and feel of a sacred place to be with the Lord.  The most popular icon in the domed area of a church is Christ the Pantocrator (Almighty).  He is shown very large looking upon us from heaven and we intern, through His icon, can look upon Him.

Neo-Byzantine architecture is new construction of Byzantine styled architecture that is fashioned after the architecture of Constantinople (Istanbul) that was prevalent between the fifth and the eleventh centuries.

As Orthodox Christianity was embraced by other countries, the culture and in some cases the political situation in a country, dictated the evolution of the traditions for the construction and embellishment of an Orthodox temple.

Orthodox Christianity today is considered the second largest Christian faith in the world with approximately 250 million believers.  It was always the tradition of the Orthodox Church to establish itself in other countries in the language of the people incorporating certain customs and traditions in those regions without altering Doctrine.  Some examples of local customs and traditions that were incorporated into the Orthodox faith in different countries is the beautiful art of Pyzansky for Easter Eggs in the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox tradition, Red Easter Eggs in the Greek and Antiochian traditions, embroidered icon scarves in the Slavonic traditions, and church architecture. 

Church architecture varied in different countries as the churches were planted throughout Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia to meet various social and political criteria that may have been imposed by the secular culture of the area.  When the early Church fathers were considering appropriate sacred space requirements for the faith, it was done so with the social and political criteria surrounding them at that time.   Essentially, this condition of conforming to the cultural situation in which the church was being planted has not been altered over the centuries and exists to the present day being witnessed now in the USA.

Initial Byzantine temple construction emerged primarily with Emperor Constantine but not all Orthodox cities could implement this type construction.  The Holy Fathers of the early church could have never envisioned the complex pluralistic society we live in today, but they did experience a certain degree of it from the earliest times in Christian history which affected their worship experience and the erective of their houses of worship.   One reads in Robson’s work about Orthodox Old Believers temple construction in Russia as compared to Russian Orthodox temple construction and comments on how the secular influence surrounding the believers in this region dictated certain sacred space structural requirements to conform to the social and political conditions yet also meet the needs of the believers.[13]

Iconography became a very important aspect of creating the sacred space appeal of the evolving Byzantine architecture in the early Christian world and continues to this day.  Through the icons, believers could have the feeling of standing in the presence of God who is revealing Himself through the beauty and sacred space that the icons delineate and to learn about the faith through this sacred imagery.[14]

Within the context of learning from the imagery as it applies to icons, Anton Vrame writes that Orthodox theologians often speak of “reading icons”.  Vrame views this as a process of viewing icons and reflecting on the imagery conveyed in order to understand the wisdom contained in it.   He notes that Iconographers refer to their work as “writing” an icon and when a signature of an iconographer is placed on an icon, it generally says, “Written by the hand of….”[15]  Icons are didactic and have always been used as a means of catechism, but they are also more than a pedagogical approach to teaching.  Vrame writes that the icons provide the lenses that open up our ability to visually communicate with God in our space and time, to experience His presence, and to enter into communion with Him.[16]

To learn more, access the Byzantine Church Architecture Video


[1] Darrell L. Bock, Acts, 153

[2] Richard Krautheimer, Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture (The Yale University Press Pelican History of Art), 4 ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), 24

[3] Richard Krautheimer, Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture, 25

[4] Richard Krautheimer, Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture, 24

[5]Richard Krautheimer, Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture, 25

[6] Richard Krautheimer, Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture, 25

[7]Cyril Mango, The Art of the Byzantine Empire 312-145, 24-25

[8]Cyril Mango, The Art of the Byzantine Empire 312-145, 24-25

[9]Alexander Van Milligen, Byzantine Churches in Constantinople their History and Architecture,  (London, England:  Macmillian and Co., Limited, 1912), 1

[10]Alexander Van Milligen, Byzantine Churches in Constantinople their History and Architecture, 2

[11]Alexander Van Milligen, Byzantine Churches in Constantinople their History and Architecture, 13

[12]Alexander Van Milligen, Byzantine Churches in Constantinople their History and Architecture, 13

[13]Roy R. Robson, Old Believers in Modern Russia, 53-74

[14] Anton C. Vrame, The Educating Icon: Teaching Wisdom and Holiness in the Orthodox Way, 111

[15] Anton C. Vrame, The Educating Icon: Teaching Wisdom and Holiness in the Orthodox Way, 15

[16] Anton C. Vrame, The Educating Icon: Teaching Wisdom and Holiness in the Orthodox Way, 108