Also known as the Eastern Roman Empire or the new Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire left behind a rich cultural world throughout Europe, one that can be traced today by its beautiful ancient mosaics and take you on a journey back in time.
The Empire, which dated from 330-1453 AD and included Turkey, Greece, Italy, the Balkans, Egypt, Syria, Spain and Russia, is still famous today for its distinctive mosaics and architecture that can be found throughout Europe. The 1,000-year-long Empire left its impressive architectural mark in some of Europe’s most well-known cities, including Athens, Istanbul and Venice in Italy. While the Empire was largely based in Istanbul, Turkey, some of its Ancient Mosaics in Europe can still be seen today in these cities and capture a time of opulence and wealth.
Many of the mosaics had an imperial or religious theme, or both, and were such a popular form of art for high emperors and empresses that the creation of Byzantine art continued up to the 14th century and onwards. Early Byzantine art and architecture was intended for Christian worship and to compete with rival artistic traditions in places like Rome and Alexandria, and many Byzantine churches interiors were completely covered with golden mosaics and symbolic Christian imagery.
A number of important Byzantine churches and buildings didn’t survive, after years of war and destruction, but an incredible collection of artwork and architecture still remains to this day.
Explore Byzantine architecture in these top European destinations:
The most famous surviving mosaic of the Byzantine era is the sixth-century Hagia Sofia. Once a church, then an imperial mosque and now a museum, this historic building in Istanbul is one of the pinnacles of the Empire in its home of Turkey. The exterior of the building is considered to be the “epitome” of Byzantine architecture. With its distinctive dome the Hagia Sofia was also one of the largest cathedrals in the world for almost a thousand years. The interior of the building is decorated with marble pillars and incredible mosaics, most often depicting the Virgin Mother, Jesus, saints or emperors and empresses. During the building’s time as a mosque many of the mosaics were covered in plaster and later restored. Here in the museum you can find the most famous of the all of the remaining Byzantine mosaics, the Christ Pantocrator, which can be found on the upper walls of the southern gallery.
The Blue Mosque
Known as the Blue Mosque by foreign visitors for its interior tiles, the Mosque of Sultan Ahmet I is the perfect example of an Imperial Ottoman mosque. Built between 1603-17 on the site of the Great Palace of Byzantium, its architectural design is reminiscent of the Byzantine era, with its domes and minarets. The mosque is still a working mosque, so be aware of the times of prayer when visiting. The mosaics remained hidden until the Republic of Turkey commissioned a restoration of the artworks in 1935, and revealed their historic origins to the world.
This octagonal brick structure was originally built around the 4th or 5th century, during which time the famous mosaic decorations for which the church known for are said to have been added. The mosaics, many of which are located on the ceiling of the building, are said to be some of the most beautiful Byzantine art in Italy. Its central mosaic, the Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist in the River Jordan, remains remarkably intact and is one of the highlights of the church.
St. Mark’s Basilica
The famous city cathedral church is one of the best known examples of Italo-Byzantine architecture in the world. Its opulent exterior design is clearly aligned with its Byzantine counterparts, while its gold ground mosaics has earned the church the nickname of the “Church of Gold”. The upper levels of the church are decorated with bright mosaics covering a massive 8,000 square meters! The cathedral is also home to an 11th century mosaic that is in a very pure Byzantine style and can be found in the main porch of the church.
This 11th-century Byzantine monastery is located 11 km from Athens and was originally founded in the 6th century, after the empire Christianized the site of the Sanctuary of Daphanios. The “Katholiokon” or principal church is a perfect example of 11th-century Byzantine architecture, and the church houses also host some spectacular and rare Byzantine mosaics from the early Komennian period. The World Heritage Site was sadly damaged by the earthquake that struck Athens in 1999 and the monastery is currently being restored.
Central Macedonia, Greece
Located in the second largest city of the Byzantine Empire, the Hagios Demetrios is a World Heritage Site and features six extant mosaic panels that date back to 730. These rare mosaics are some of the only surviving pieces from the dark age, when many were lost during the Great Thessaloniki Fire of 1917 or throughout the period when the church functioned as a mosque.
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