Chances are, you wouldn’t recognize Byzantine + Early Christian architecture if you saw it. Truth is, these styles don’t tend to stand out and that was part of their charm. Dating from around 400-800 CE, the simplicity of these structures is directly related to their use as an underground place to gather and worship. These buildings featured simple masonry exteriors made from locally-sourced stone, and dramatic, yet peaceful interiors filled with vibrant religious art designed to tell the story of the Bible to the mostly illiterate parishioners.
DRAMATIC INTERIOR NATURAL LIGHT
Hagia Sophia + Casa Chinkara
Byzantine structures brought light into the interior of a space through the use of strategically placed windows, like those at the spectacular Hagia Sophia. Now used (and decorated) as a mosque, the Hagia was originally built in 532 BCE. It multiple levels of windows surrounding the main dome allow light to stream into the building in different ways depending on the time of day and time of year. The oculus in this residence is positioned to provide the perfect amount of light to feed the live tree that has been placed in the interior of the home.
BYZANTINE + EARLY CHRISTIAN USE OF LOCAL, NATURAL MATERIALS
Arian Baptistry + Chontay House
Early Christian buildings were simple, functional buildings made of locally sourced and modest materials. Decorations were modest and mainly there to help tell the story of the Bible for the largely illiterate parishioners. This home, called the Chontay House, in the mountains of Perú was constructed using locally-sourced stone, adobe, eucalyptus and cane. The home features a humble exterior designed to complement the natural setting rather than compete with it.
WOOD TRUSS ROOF
Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe + Harber College
One of the primary design elements of Early Christian churches that did not survive through the Romanesque period were wooden truss roofs. Prone to fire and not particularly long-lasting, they were replaced by vaulted ceilings in future periods. This remodeled cottage in Michigan uses exposed truss roof to add depth and interest to an otherwise basic interior.
I love when the connections just jump right out at me even though they really aren’t obvious – like the next two examples.
Arian Baptistry + @Large by Ai Wei Wei
Early Christians used tesserae in the interior of churches to tell the story of the Bible and introduce important figures and events to a largely illiterate population. The @Large installation on Alcatraz by Chinese artist and political prisoner Ai Wei Wei ran from September 2014 through April 2015. For it, Ai Wei Wei created 176 “tesserae” style portraits, actually made of colorful Legos, to raise awareness of other political prisoners whom he called, “heroes of our time.”
Early Christian Basilica + Subiaco Oval
Early Christian Basilicas included an atrium, or public open courtyard, surrounded by a colonnade. This contemporary home was designed to blend with the existing early 1900s-era architecture with its small their pitched roofs, and reclaimed brickwork, but much like the Early Christian churches before it, stepping past the simple exterior reveals an elliptical courtyard.
The interior includes another common Byzantine element – the truss roof.