Second Golden Age of Byzantine Art (Introduction)

After the era of the Theodosius and Justinian’s dynasties, the Byzantine Empire lasted eight more centuries. Despite that Byzantium lasted for a long period, it was always governed by the fundamental principle of establishing a Christian Empire as had been imagined centuries before by the emperor Constantine. For this reason, the Byzantine art had its own clearly established types, which were faithfully repeated through the centuries. The historic period of Byzantine art includes at least four well characterized styles that correspond to the four major periods of its political history: the first, from the foundation of Constantinople until the time of the iconoclastic emperors; the second covers the period of persecution of the images known also as Byzantine Iconoclasm; the third, from Basil I to the sacking of Constantinople by Crusaders in 1204; and the fourth, from 1204 until the capture of Constantinople by the Turks. In the brief period between each of these four styles, entirely new art forms appeared, and ancient artistic types were also renewed thus giving rise to new Byzantine styles. All these events happened as a consequence of the times of political and social turbulence that marked the transition between historical periods throughout the history of the Byzantine Empire.

External view of the church of the Holy Apostles in Athens, Greece

As for the architecture, it is interesting to see how after the period of Byzantine Iconoclasm the shape of the domes changed. These were then raised on a cylindrical drum* so that the building, seen from the outside, had a more pleasant appearance. The introduction of the cylindrical drum brought as a consequence that these domes could no longer be as large as those of Hagia Sophia or St. Eirene.  However, the number of domes present in a given building multiplied. As a result in Byzantine architecture, domes continued being the main element that covered a temple, but in this period they no longer constituted the only concern of the architects as they were in previous times.

The church of St. Theodore also known as Vefa Kilise Mosque, in modern Istanbul, Turkey. (“VefaKiliseCamii20070531 01” by I, Alessandro57. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http: //

Many churches still exist showing this new architectural style in which different construction procedures were used. These churches were usually preceded by a porch or narthex with domes built at different levels thus allowing the back domes (which crowned the church itself) to be taller than the domes resting on the narthex at the entrance. The drums of these domes were polygonal, with windows sometimes divided by small columns and their exterior walls were decorated with a combination of stones alternated with strips of brick. These domes were decorated inside with the same decorative style of rich mosaics and frescoes that would resemble those decorations present on the early Byzantine churches, except of course for the highest domes. Examples of such churches are: St. Theodore, the Fethiye-Camii (or St. Mary Pammakaristos), and the Kariye-Camii (or St. Savior of Chora) all in Constantinople and built between the X and XIII centuries. Other churches with these same characteristics are found in Greece, particularly in Athens, which at that time was a Byzantine province.

The Pammakaristos Church or “Fethiye Camii” in modern Istanbul, Turkey


A depiction of the Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora also known as Kariye Camii (ca. 1900)

Contemporary to this architectural renaissance, in Byzantium were added new premises to the Imperial Palace and built with more lavish than the initial buildings projected for the complex. The floor plan of this palace was a rambling collection of buildings amidst gardens, like the palaces of Syria and Persia: during the X century the emperors Theophilus and Basil built new premises with the purpose of faithfully mimic the layout of the Caliphate palaces of Samarra and Baghdad.

Floor plan of the Imperial Palace of Constantinople as it was in the XII century: 1. Mese (or Constantinople’s main street; 2. Augustaion; 3. Senate; 4. Halls for the Imperial guard; 6. Hippodrome; 7. Tribunal; 8. Triclinium; 9. Church of the Savior; 10. Reception gallery; 11. Magnaura (Senate); 12. The Tzykanisterion or “polo” field; 13. the New Church or Nea Ekklesia; 14. Church of St. Demetrius; 15. Church of St. Mary of the Pharos; 16. Church of St. Elias; 17. The Triconchos palace.

Together, the buildings and gardens of the Imperial Palace, also known as “Sacred Palace”, occupied an area of about 400.000 square meters. Within this area there were seven colonnades, eight courtyards, and two porches which served as entrance to the complex.  It also included four great churches: St. Stephen, Our Lord, St. Mary of the Pharos, and the so called New Church plus other chapels, oratories, and a baptistery, a total of 23 buildings dedicated to the Christian cult. The complex also had halls for guards, reception galleries, tricliniums*, throne rooms, a library, and countless other private apartments for the emperors, bathrooms, a small hippodrome, terraces, and a pier in the sea of Marmara, called the Boukoleon because it included an ancient statue of a bull and a lion that adorned its entrance.

Reconstruction of the Boukoleon (or the Bucoleon) Palace in Constantinople.


One of the lions that used to be located at the entrance to the Bucoleon harbour in ancient Constantinople, (Istanbul Archaeological Museums, Turkey).


*Drum: Also called tholobate, it refers to the upright part of a building on which a dome is raised. It is generally in the shape of a cylinder or a polygonal prism. In the earlier Byzantine churches, the dome rested direct on the pendentives and the windows were pierced in the dome itself; in later examples, between the pendentive and the dome an intervening circular wall was built -the drum-, in which the windows were pierced, and this is the type which was universally employed by the architects of the Renaissance.



*Triclinium: (Plural: triclinia). A formal dining room in a Roman building. In form of a couch, each couch was wide enough to accommodate three diners who reclined on their left side on cushions while some household slaves served multiple courses rushed out of the culina, or kitchen, and others entertained guests with music, song, or dance.