Imperial churches 2

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ARH 2050
4 April 2022
Imperial Churches: Old St. Peter’s and Hagia Sophia
With the rise of Christianity in the domains of the Italian peninsula, the Christian Roman
and Byzantine periods would see a reborn image of their architectural structures, particularly in
the sense of renovating and introducing new churches to their townships. Encompassed in these
are the Old St. Peter’s church of the Imperial Roman Christians and the Hagia Sophia of the
Early Byzantine period, both of which were built on the foundation of these eras of increased devotion. Although, both structures had some differences with the services and intricacies on the
grounds of their creations—that which include emphasizing the prosperity and hardships of the
empire for the latter and the different principles of political/religious presence in different rooms
for the prior.
Succeeding structures of Greek empires, where temples served as sacred grounds for their
gods’ treasury (with an outdoor altar ceremony) the rise of the new era of Christianity in Rome
gave way to fresh architectural demands for a place of devotion. When Constantine granted acceptance for anyone to worship any deity of their faith, intricate philosophical systems formed,
drawing from the thoughts of Greek and Roman pagans. Along with the development of Hebrew
and Greek versions of the Bible, the Roman Christians were in need of private institutions that
allowed for confidential devotions, proper burials, and baptisms. Subsequently, the age of Constantine brought forth new model plans for these churches and for central-plan tombs.
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Formulas for the longitudinal-plan basilicas—which are essentially churches built in rectangular shape and a longitudinal axis for multiple purposes, including business endeavors and
legal matters—began development. It is important to note that the basilica was not necessarily a
new form of architecture, as it had been developed throughout palace complexity in Roman cities
for centuries; it is only a matter of emphasis on these structures that grew, as architecture focusing on the interior worked better than the treasuries and outdoor sacrifices temples offered for the
mystery behind Christianity and its practices. In the article “Early Christian Art and architecture
after Constantine” Dr. Allen Farber further details the purposes behind this interior design idea
and its uses. He notes, “Basilicas…housed..the apse…these semi-circular forms project from either end of the building…magistrate…would sit in a formal throne in the apse and issue his judgments. This function gave an aura of political authority to the basilicas” (The basilica). This
brings forth the authoritative spaces of the structures within these interior plans, which should be
denoted as a representation of multi-purposed blueprints of basilicas.
Many basilicas in the Roman Empire were built over graves of martyrs along the forums
of towns, their cross-shaped structures incorporating main arms of longer length than those that
would cross it. This includes the Old St. Peter’s church. As it specifies in the Pearson Revel Art
History text, “An atrium, or courtyard, in front of the basilica…entrance end provided a place for
people who had not yet been baptized…Constantine’s architects added an innovative transept-a
perpendicular hall crossing in front of the apse…provided additional space for the large number
of clergy serving the church, and it also accommodated pilgrims visiting the tomb of St. Peter…”
(Imperial Christian Architecture and Art in Rome). Essentially, this construction was on the basis
of written descriptions and drawings made prior to and in the process of its dismantling, as well
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as marked somewhere St. Peter was believed to be buried. It considered a grand amount of space
for the objectives of devotion and legal matters to take action within the walls.
With focus on the Early Byzantine empire, the Hagia Sophia or “Holy Wisdom” served
as a renovation campaign in Constantinople under the reign of Emperor Justinian I and Empress
Theodora in what would be considered one of the three golden ages of Byzantine art. In their
reign, the Byzantine empire would reach the pinnacle of political power and wealth, among cultural prosperity. Like the Old St. Peter’s Church’s successor, it was built as a replacement of a
fourth-century church obliterated under a revolt. Similarly, it was also based on longitudinal
planning but with a mix of central planning in architecture. The Hagia Sophia came under the visionary of Justinian and the execution of geometric and optics specialist Anthemius along with
physics specialist Isidorus. The Pearson text continues to describe it as a, “…hybrid of longitudinal and central architectural planning…flanking conches-halfdomes-extend the central space into
a longitudinal nave that expands outward from the central dome to connect with the narthex on
one end and the halfdome of the sanctuary apse on the other. This processional core…the naos…
is flanked by side aisles with galleries above them” (Early Byzantine Art). The two scholar-theoreticians would envision a design so miraculous, it was said to be crafted from the hands of divine intervention, angels who made the church’s massive dome “hang suspended in a golden state
from heaven.”
Furthermore, the intricacy in which the detailed designs of the Hagia Sophia display not
only an aesthetic factor, but it also objectively adds strength to the overall structure. As an example, Dr. William Allen—in his article “Hagia Sophia, Istanbul” compared one of the church’s
capital to that of a Classic Greek Ionic capital: “…lines between the two spirals dip…the weight
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carried while the spirals seem to show a pent-up energy that pushes the capital up to meet the entablature, the weight it holds…The stone is deeply drilled, creating shadows behind the vegetative decoration. The capital surface appears thin. The capital contradicts its task rather than expressing it.” The purpose, of course, was to showcase the deep rooted carvings as decoration,
suggestive of experimental techniques holding the building together. To the subjective eye it may
seem an allusion to the prosperity of the Byzantine empire in its golden ages, its many attempts
by outside factors to diminish its reign through revolt and destruction—interestingly enough, this
structure has withstood the likes of conquests, crusades and even quakes.
To reiterate, both the Old St. Peter’s church and the Hagia Sophia resurface old visionaries into their wealthy and prosperous cities. Though, the locus in which both structures situated
ideologically affected their renovation plans through different subtleties and bases. The prior emphasizes the political and religious side of Rome with rooms spacious and private enough to hold
meetings and devotions, while the latter places grander attention on the ideologies and philosophies behind the prosperity of the Byzantine empire. Still, they both present golden structures for
eras worth noting in the historical art of architecture.
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Works Cited
-Allen, William. “Hagia Sophia, Istanbul.” Smarthistory, 8 August 2015. 1 Accessed April 2,
-Farber, Allen. “Early Christian art and architecture after Constantine.” Smarthistory, 8 August
2015, Accessed March 22, 2022,
-Stokstad, Marilyn. Cothren, Michael W. “Revel Art History, 6e, Volume 1.” Pearson. Chapter
Imperial Christian Architecture and Art in Rome. 2018.
-Stokstad, Marilyn. Cothren, Michael W. “Revel Art History, 6e, Volume 1.” Pearson. Chapter
Early Byzantine Art. 2018.

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