Heaven on Earth

BYZANTINE IS A BYWORD for bureaucracy, backstabbing, and decadence. Yet the Byzantine Empire survived a millennium after the collapse of the Roman Empire.

Its name comes from the Greek city of Byzantium, which was renamed Constantinople in 330AD when the first Christian emperor, Constantine, chose it as the new Roman capital.

In place of the pagan temples of ancient Rome, Constantine and his successors filled the New Rome with domed churches. The greatest one to survive is Hagia Sophia (‘the Holy Wisdom of Christ’), built in 526-537.

With a 33m dome flanked by two small half domes, the outside looks a mess, more like an enormous jelly mould than one of the world’s greatest buildings.

Windows pierce the dome like twinkling stars. Its interior walls were encrusted with coloured marbles and mosaics, but the Turks destroyed most of them as Constantinople fell in 1453. The city then became Istanbul and the building became a mosque. The most impressive Byzantine interior is now St Mark’s in Venice, where mosaic figures of saints appear to float on a shimmering gold background, dissolving the impression of solid walls.

Britain’s best example of Byzantine architecture is Westminster Cathedral. Begun in 1895, the interior includes more than 100 colours of marble and acres of mosaic. The principal donor was the third Marquess of Bute. Besides the family chapel at Mount Stuart on Bute, he built the tiny copper-domed St Bennet’s Chapel in Edinburgh and the startling red-brick St Sophia’s in Galston, Ayrshire.

Domestically, mosaics and marbles work well in bathrooms, kitchens and gardens. Today, the Turkish company www.pietrakaikos.com skillfully adapts Byzantine style for modern tastes.

Back to the top of the page