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"The rich incrustation of William Butterfield's All Saints', Margaret Street (1849-59), was seen by many as Byzantine in its character" (Crinson 85).
yzantine influence first came to Britain via Italy, to which the style had travelled in the early fourth century from the new seat of the Roman Empire, Constantinople, with the result that the first great churches in Rome were basilicas, with saucer domes over impressive rectangular naves, round-topped arches and increasingly richly decorated apses. Matthew Digby Wyatt's lecture "On the Polychromatic Decoration in Italy from the 12th to the 16th Century" (1850) gave an early indication of Victorians' interest in this kind of work. But the real milestone was John Ruskin's Stones of Venice (1851-53). Before this, J. B. Bullen explains, "Venetian Byzantine and Gothic architecture, mosaic and painting were ignored as representing a barbarous interlude before civilization returned with the Renaissance"; but Ruskin's "lyrical, impassioned, almost erotic account of the view of San Marco from across the piazza ... opened the eyes of thousands of readers to the beauty of Byzantine art and helped to place it securely in the history of post-classical architecture and culture" ("The Byzantium Revival"). Taking many a clue from Ruskin, also persuasive were J. D. Seddon's praise for the style in his Progress in Art and Architecture (1852); Matthew Digby Wyatt's Byzantine Court at the Crystal Palace in Sydenham (1854); and Owen Jones's The Grammar of Ornament (1856), which includes a range of Byzantine decorative motifs from mosaics, marble pavements, illuminated manuscripts and so forth (see Owen 148-53).
However, there was still resistance to the style. On the one hand, it was associated with Russia, with its own Byzantine onion domes, and this was the period of or immediately following the Crimean War. On the other hand, as far as church architecture went, the Ecclesiologists feared that buildings sporting central domes and other Byzantine features might suggest "a confusing oriental affiliation" with Islam (Crinson 86). After all, the key building in this style, the church of Hagia Sophia commissioned by the Christian Emperor Justinian and inaugurated in 537, had become a mosque after the Ottoman Conquest. Such were the uncertainties surrounding the style that William Burges's fine plans for the Crimean Memorial Church in present-day Istanbul, which had originally won the competition for it in the mid-1850s, were later considered too "Eastern Constantinoplan" and discarded in favour of a new set of plans in a thoroughly Gothic design by the runner-up, G. E. Street (see "Drawing"). Similarly, when George Gilbert Scott, who had met Ruskin in Venice in 1852, presented his second, Byzantine-influenced design for the Foreign Office in 1860, it fared no better than his first Gothic design, and he had to draw up a more conventionally classical one instead. A Royal Albert Hall of his own design would have had "a tinge of the Byzantine" too (qtd. in Steegman 289); but this, as with his second plan for the Foreign Office, was not to be.
Left to right: (a) George Gilbert Scott's chapel for King's College, London, on a basilican plan with rich ornamentation. (b) Close-up of the apse, with a painted copy of a Salviati mosaic of Christ in Majesty. (c) Sir William Blake Richmond's God Creates the Dry Land in the Creation sequence in St Paul's Cathedral, London.
Both Burges and Scott found other outlets for their interests. For example, while the Battle of the Styles over the Foreign Office was still going on, Scott wrote to the Secretary of King's College London on 22 December 1859 about the proposed new chapel there, urging "the adoption of the form, and in some degree the character, of an ancient basilica" (qtd. in "A Brief History"). His final work of 1864 is indeed a basilica, magnificently restored in the present century: the spandrels of the nave glint afresh with portraits of important churchmen and Anglican Divines, and a painted copy of a Salviati mosaic of Christ in Majesty shines forth from the apex. This is one of London's most impressive "hidden interiors" (see Davies 186-87). For his part, Burges was able to employ his Byzantine taste in Worcester College Chapel in Oxford, and in his work for the Marquess of Bute, himself a great enthusiast for it. But his (and Bute's) influence went beyond that. Despite the continuing disapproval of too much colour in the Anglican church, Burges declared, "What building would not look well covered in mosaics on a gold ground?" (qtd. in Bullen, Byzantium Rediscovered, 147). Singling out William Blake Richmond early on to help with it, he became "a key figure in the St Paul's project" which, after initial opposition, eventually resulted in the London cathedral's mosaic scheme. Bullen is at some pains to stress that "the real inspiration" for this came from Burges rather than from Dean Gregory and Richmond himself (Bullen, Byzantium Rediscovered, 147, 152).
Mosaic of Saints Cecilia, Barbara, and Dorothea, by Burne-Jones, in St Paul's Within-the-Walls, Rome.
As for Street, he made only superficial concessions to the Byzantine in the interior of the Crimean church: "his vision of Byzantine was of a mechanical means to ornamental richness according to the precise and all-encompassing diktat of the designer" (Crinson 85). But he could hardly go further in this direction when he was taking over from an architect whose plans had been deemed too "East Constantinoplan." Later on, as the climate of opinion began to change, and colour became more permissible in the Protestant Church, Street had more scope, and took advantage of it too, turning to Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones to provide the mosaic scheme for his Roman basilica of St Paul's Within-the-Walls after the church was consecrated in 1876. Street did not live to see the outcome, but this was to be "the most ambitious, and arguably the most successful, scheme of mosaic decoration carried out by any British artist in the 19th century" (Sladen 89).
With the spread of Ruskin's influence, the growing eclecticism of the later part of the century, and the collaborative mind-set of the Arts and Crafts Movement, the Byzantine Revival style of interior enrichment was now becoming not only more acceptable but more appreciated:
It was the sensuous quality of the decorative detail — the rippling patterns in the marble, the ebonised furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl, the saucer domes glittering with gold mosaic, the metalwork set with semi-precious stones and the intricacy of the polychromatic paving — that appealed most deeply to those who adopted the style. [Sladen 85]
In 1874 Seddon himself had finally been able to design a church with Byzantine features. Simon Jenkins describes St Catherine's, in Hoarwithy, Herefordshire, with its campanile, cloister, domed central bay, rich marble columns and central apsidal mosaic as "a complete work of revivalist art, rare for its date and an astonishing creation" (314). In fact, as was the nature of this kind of decoration, much of the interior work, including the large mosaic, was completed later.
William Morris's high praise of the Byzantine in his well-known lecture, "Gothic Architecture," first delivered on 11 February 1889, confirmed the trend. Of Byzantine art, he said,
Its characteristics are simplicity of structure and outline of mass; amazing delicacy of ornament combined with abhorrence of vagueness: it is bright and clear in colour, pure in line, hating barrenness as much as vagueness; redundant, but not florid, the very opposite of Roman in spirit, though it took so many of its forms and revivified them. Nothing more beautiful than its best works have ever been produced by man.
This glowing testimony was backed up by Morris's promotion of the decorative arts in general, and the now established ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement. Adding to its appeal was the fascination of the contemporary artistic community with the East. More British visitors had started going to the Middle East from the 1840s, and indeed John Frederick Lewis had painted the vast Interior of Hagia Sophia, the fifth-century church that powerfully influenced both the original Byzantine style and its revival, as early as 1840/41 (see Tromans 163, 171). The same fascination started drawing architects too into the area of the old Byzantine empire. One of the earliest was Burges, because of his involvement with the Crimean War Memorial Church: he actually went out to lay the foundation stone for it. In 1864 had come the first book dedicated to the style, by Charles Texier (1802-1871) and Richard Popplewell Pullen (1825-188): Byzantine Architecture, which was illustrated with finely detailed examples and commentaries. Even more influential was a later traveller, William Lethaby (1857-1931), who went out in 1893, and whose close architectural studies combined specifics with mysticism: "Both the empirical and the imaginative aspects of neo-Byzantinism came together in one man" (Bullen, Byzantium Rediscovered, 169). His and Harold Swainson's The Church of Sancta Sophia, Constantinople: A Study of Byzantine Building (1894) is seen as a key text in this area (see Jeffreys et al. 10).
Left to right: (a) William Lethaby's drawing of a Byzantine capital from the Mosque of Damascus, frontispiece of Mediaeval Art from the Peace of the Church to the Eve of the Renaissance, 312-1350 (1904). (b) West entrance to Bentley's Westminster Cathedral (1895-1903), "the most ambitious Byzantine Revival building in Britain" (Sladen 95), with its grand pedimental mosaic preparing us for the splendours within. (c) Interior of the Cathedral, marble-lined and highly decorated.
The Roman Catholic architect J. F. Bentley carried the book on The Church of Sancta Sophia with him when he went on a study tour of Italy and Constantinople prior to designing Westminster Cathedral, saying that it told him all he needed to know about the famous building (see de l'Hôpital 35). Colour and ornamentation had never been such an issue for the Catholics (witness the interiors of A. W. N. Pugin's churches, especially at Cheadle and Birmingham), and Bentley was able to give it full play in his masterpiece. Lethaby's later, equally inspiring Medieval Art, from the Peace of the Church to the Eve of the Renaissance, 312-1350 (1904), took his and others' interest in the relationship between eastern and western art to a new level. Not unnaturally, then, later architects working in this style tended to take their inspiration from further east than Ruskin's Venice.
Left: Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, by Edward Rierdel and Georg von Dollman; foundation stone laid on 5 September 1869. Right: The Church on the Spilled Blood (or Church of the Resurrection), St Petersburg, Alfred Parland and Archimandrite Ignaty (1883-1907).
Neo-Byzantianism influenced architecture not only in Britain but all over Europe. This included Germany, to which Bullen has traced the first impulse towards the Byzantine. A famous example of it here is the opulent throne hall of Ludwig II of Bavaria's Neuschwanstein Castle, inspired by the Hagia Sophia itself, and deliberately drawing on the religious sources and connotations of the style to represent Ludwig's grandiose idea of his role. So ambitious was the project that the castle "took 17 years to build ... and was all the same never fully completed" (Desing 14). The Church on the Spilled Blood (or Church of the Resurrection) in St Petersburg (1883-1907) is another iconic building which took years to decorate, of special interest because its principal architect was the Scottish-German Alfred Parland (1842-1919). Working with Archimandrite Ignaty (Ignaty Malyshev), Parland produced this Russian monument to the assassinated Emperor Alexander II at a time when the Byzantine Revival was at its height in Britain. It is as dazzling inside as out, with glittering mosaics covering almost every inch of wall (see Popova 175-83).
Left: Exterior of Santa Sophia in Bayswater (started 1877). Right: Interior of the church, with mosaic work in the dome, tympanum and spandrels, designed by the artist Arthur George Walker (1861-1939).
The Byzantine Revival produced few buildings in Britain as immediately striking as these. The most eye-catching is Westminster Cathedral, though even this is fundamentally a plain rectangular plan in outline. In other cases, such as Sidney Barnsley's Church of the Wisdom of God in Lower Kingswood, the exterior tends to be so deceptively simple that the the interior, exhibiting the "amazing delicacy of ornament" that Morris found in the style, comes as a surprise. In this case, so through-going is the church's neo-Byzantinism that Dr Edwin Freshfield, patron and benefactor of the church, felt the need to place a lion and a unicorn from Sir Christopher Wren's church of All Hallows, Staining, on the ends of the carved wooden Freshfield seats by the west door, to indicate that it really is an Anglican church ("The Church of the Wisdom of God"). But perhaps the most handsome example of a complete Victorian building in the Byzantine style, certainly in London, is that of Santa Sophia in Bayswater. More properly designated as the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Aghia Sophia, this church in Bayswater is the most notable work of Scott's younger son John Oldrid Scott (1841-1913). Built in 1877-79 and consecrated in 1882, it was completed in 1892, making it a totally Victorian production — though there have been later additions, such as the marble lining and mosaics seen in the narthex, and, most importantly, the Russian-born Boris Anrep's mosaics on the arches supporting the dome, and the Sanctuary apse ceilings.
One of the mosaics in the narthex of Santa Sophia, is of St. Demetrius, a warrior saint in the Byzantine tradition, suitably placed by the entrance since one of the saint's roles was to guard churches and cities (see Walter 88).
More often, the Byzantine inspiration is felt in the incorporation of mosaic work as part of a decorative scheme. The most iconic building in Britain in this respect is St Paul's, where the mosaics added to Wren's much earlier basilican nave were the earliest in which the tesserae were individually applied to the wall by hand, making them glint and glimmer separately in the light (see Sladen 90). The plaster mouldings do intrude on the mosaics, but the effect is still dazzling. The wider and most welcome effect was to bring about "a considerable change in what British Protestants were prepared to tolerate in church interiors" (Bullen, Byzantium Rediscovered, 152). Little wonder that the technique was used elsewhere, as well, for example in the large Byzantine-inspired mosaic over the entrance to Charles Harrison Townsend's Horniman Museum.
A Brief History of King's College Chapel at the Strand. Leaflet available at the chapel.
Bullen, J. B. Byzantium Rediscovered. London: Phaidon, 2003.
_____. "The Byzantine Revival in Europe." Talk at King's College, London. 4 September 2014, with a version available here. Web. 20 February 2014.
"The Church of the Wisdom of God." 2001. Booklet available in the church at Lower Kingswood. 16pp.
Crinson, Mark. Empire Building: Orientalism and Victorian Culture. Abingdon, Oxon.: Routledge, 1996.
Curl, James Stevens. Victorian Architecture. Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1980.
Davies, Philip. London: Hidden Interiors. Croxley Green, Herts.: Atlantic Publishing, 2012.
de l'Hôpital, Winefride. Westminster Cathedral and Its Architect: Volume I, The Building of the Cathedral. 2 vols. London: Hutchinson, 1919. Internet Archive. Web. 20 February 2014.
Desing, Julius. King Ludwig II: His Life — His End. Lechbruck: Verlag Kienberger, 1976.
"Drawing" (Burges's pen and wash design of the foundation plan for Crimean Memorial Church in present-day Istanbul). Victorian & Albert Museum. Web. 20 February 2014.
Jeffreys, Elizabeth, John Haldon and Robin Cormack. The Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Jenkins, Simon. England's Thousand Best Churches. London: Penguin, 2009.
Jones, Owen. The Grammar of Ornament. 1856. London: Dorling Kindersley, 2001.
Lethaby, W. R. and Harold Swainson. The Church of Sancta Sophia, Constantinople: A Study of Byzantine Building. London & New York: Macmillan, 1894. Internet Archive. Web. 20 February 2014.
Morris, William. "Gothic Architecture." Morris Online Edition (University of Iowa). 20 February 2014.
Pevsner, Nikolaus. Cumberland and Westmoreland. London: Penguin, 1967.
Popova, Natalia. St. Petersburg. St Petersburg: P-2 Art Publishers, 2007.
Sladen, Teresa. "Byzantium in the Chancel: Surface Decoration and the Church Interior." In Churches 1870-1914, the Victorian Society's journal, Studies in Victorian Architecture & Design. Vol. III. 2011. 81-99.
Steegmann, John. A Study of the Arts and Architecture from 1830 to 1870. Paperback ed. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1971.
Tromans, Nicholas. "The Holy City." The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting. London: Tate, 2008. 162-72.
Turnor, Reginald. Nineteenth Century Architecture in Britain. London: Batsford, 1950.
Walter, Christopher. The Warrior Saints in Byzantine Art and Tradition. Aldershot, Hants.: Ashgate, 2003.
Last modified 20 February 2014