Architectural Studies

Early Christian & Byzantine Architecture

[We will visit all 8 Early Christian & Byzantine sites around Ravenna that make up the UNESCO World Heritage Site there, most notably the ‘Mausoleum’ of Galla Placidia, the Church of San Vitale and the two churches of Sant’Appolinare. In Rome we will visit the Mausoleum of Santa Constanza and the Church of Santa Sabina. The ‘Christ with Pomegranates’ Roman floor mosaic (the Hinton St Mary Mosaic) should be on display at the British Museum when we visit. Alas, we won’t make it to the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.]

The reign of Constantine (306-337 CE) marked a major turning point in the history of the Roman Empire, for at least two reasons.

First, Constantine initiated the religious transition of the empire from its traditional, pantheistic, Greco-Roman paganism to Christian monotheism. Previously Christianity had been a forbidden practice. Some emperors severely persecuted the Christians, in extreme cases sentencing them to public martyrdom in the Colosseum as a form of gruesome public spectacle. But during the 4th century Christianity evolved from a secret, private, cult religion to the single, established religion of the empire.

Second, Constantine shifted the principle administrative center of the empire from Rome, on the Italian peninsula in the west of the empire, to a “New Rome” in the province of Asia Minor in the east of the empire. This new capital, modern-day Istanbul, was named Constantinople after the emperor, but scholars later borrowed the original Greek name of the city, Byzantium, to label the new eastern Roman empire—the Byzantine Empire. Though the Byzantines referred to themselves as “Romans,” Greek rather than Latin became the dominant language of the empire, and its established religion did not follow Roman Catholicism but rather evolved into the Eastern Orthodox Church.

In both these ways Constantine ushered in a new era that broke away from many traditional practices and systems.

The term Early Christian architecture is generally applied to the rare physical remains of Christian buildings before the time of Constantine in addition to the first century or two of Christian Rome. Different scholars employ differing endpoints for this period, but the year 600 is a common cutoff. The Byzantine Empire is generally regarded as being founded in 330 and lasting until the Ottoman Empire seized Constantinople in 1453. Thus Ravenna’s famous structures from the 5th and 6th centuries might accurately be called either Early Christian or Byzantine.


The best-preserved example of an Early Christian basilica church is Santa Sabina from the early 5th century.

Santa Sabina (Smarthistory, 2015, 7 mins.):


The history of Byzantine art and architecture is typically divided into three distinct phases—early, middle and late. The first two periods are separated by an extended period of iconoclasm (in the 8th and 9th centuries) and the latter two are divided by a half-century of rule over Constantinople by Catholic crusaders (in the 13th century). The best-preserved examples of middle and late Byzantine work are found in the eastern Roman empire, in places such as Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) in Turkey and Thessaloniki in Greece. But the richest array of early Byzantine architecture and mosaics survives in Ravenna in Italy, where a group of 8 buildings from the 5th and 6th centuries have been inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site called “Early Christian Monuments of Ravenna,” including the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, the Neonian Baptistery, the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, the Arian Baptistery, the Archiepiscopal Chapel, the Mausoleum of Theodoric, the Church of San Vitale and the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe.


Church of San Vitale, Ravenna (Smarthistory, 2013, 10 mins.):



Hagia Sophia (Royal Ontario Museum, 2012, 2 mins.):

Hagia Sophia (Smarthistory, 11 mins.):

Hagia Sophia as a Mosque (Smarthistory, 2015, 7 mins.):

Early Christian & Byzantine Architecture Quiz

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