Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 18, 2001
Robert Ousterhout Master Builders of Byzantium Princeton University Press, 1999. 318 pp.; 209 b/w ills. Cloth $67.50 (0691005354)

Byzantium lies far removed from most twenty-first-century sensibilities, an exotic historical relic of the premodern world. No doubt its most enduring architectural legacy is its churches, scores of which still stand in crowded neighborhoods or rural isolation across the east Mediterranean. These are typically small, frequently domed, and elaborately decorated structures that shape a truly distinctive liturgical environment. The survival of this basic idea in many Orthodox churches today suggests the persistence of a fundamental cultural truth, an almost mystical embodiment of the cosmos as conceived by the medieval mind. Viewed less sympathetically, these compact buildings represent the meager fruit of a historical tradition rather lacking in architectural imagination.

Both views can find support in this new book by Robert Ousterhout, one of our foremost apologists for Byzantine architecture. The author is well known for his studies of medieval churches in the Mediterranean region, and over the past 20 years has produced a series of articles on major monuments ranging from Italy to Jerusalem. His main focus has long been the imperial capital of Constantinople, where he has worked extensively at the Chora and Pantokrator monasteries. His close, searching analysis of the design logic and structural fabric of these and other churches forms the basis of this systematic investigation of Byzantine building from the experimental years following Justinian through its Palaeologan twilight.

This is not a conventional architectural history (although the 30-year-old narratives by Richard Krautheimer and Cyril Mango arguably do need updating) but an attempt to bring attention to the very process of building, to the materials, methods, and workmen engaged in construction. Sources are generally sparse and uneven. For textual evidence, we have a mixed bag of rhetorical ekphraseis, (semi-)historical chronicles, saints’ lives, and foundation typika—these include various constructional references, of which few enjoy straightforward interpretation. For pictorial illustration we have formulaic scenes of laborers busily assembling the Tower of Babel, for example, or Solomon’s Temple in manuscripts, fresco, and mosaics, the latter mainly in Sicily and Italy. Obviously the most important documents are the buildings themselves.

The Byzantine built environment was as diverse as any medieval culture’s and a broad range of structures—from palaces and baths to warehouses, shops, and private dwellings—is known from contemporary authors and modern excavations. Most are as poorly understood as they are preserved. What survives, however, are primarily the churches. The variety of standing examples seemingly reflects myriad interpretations of an ideal temple developed during the 7th-9th century Dark Ages (Ousterhout’s “Transitional Period”). The hierarchical massing of interior volumes found in the cross-in-square plan coincides with the broader cosmology of Orthodox belief, simultaneously influencing its development and being shaped by it. By the early 10th century, a complex program of representational imagery had become associated with this framework and was rendered in fresco or mosaic on the upper walls.

The typological approach long favored by Byzantinists has certainly emphasized points of similarity at the expense of formal differences, yet its ready applicability also reveals something important about this medieval society.

Ousterhout’s main concern is with the high end of the architectural spectrum, and he follows an inductive path to recover what he can of the “master builders” behind these well-known structures. After establishing a working definition of the church he turns to investigate the main actors of the architectural drama, the “mysterious disappearing architect and his patron” (Ch. 1-2). The latter naturally gets greater press with written sources not infrequently referring to imperial, aristocratic, and clerical sponsors. Far fewer builders are named and most were civic or clerical overseers appointed to superintend a project and pay the bills. Few of the theoretically trained mechanikoi of late antiquity appear to have survived the 6th century. Documents note various tradesmen (e.g., masons, bricklayers, carpenters, plasterers) were supervised by a site manager; late sources even give salaries for these laborers. Workmen apparently were organized—for specific projects—into seasonal gangs or workshops under the direction of a local maistor. It is unsurprising that such ephemeral groups should have left so little evidence of design and working drawings apart from quick sketches incised on floors or walls (Ch. 3).

More useful information about on-site decision-making comes from individual structures. Case studies of how certain churches evolved demonstrate the penchant for adaptive reuse of medieval buildings, a practice that continued from late antiquity into Ottoman times (Ch. 4). Such efforts make economic sense but also attest the flexibility of enduring structural combinations. For these reasons domed central bays could be added to early basilicas like the Ephesus Council church and the Amorium basilica. The cross-in-square plans of the Chios Nea Moni, Constantinopolitan Chora, and Arta Parigoritissa similarly could be rearranged into complex domed buildings. Well-known churches like the Phocis Hosios Loukas and the Constantinopolitan Lips and Pantokrator katholika preserve the accumulation of structural parts into ecclesiastical agglomerations that met special needs. For all the stability of the liturgical core, the bewildering complexity of plan and profile at these prestigious monuments evidently reflects not simple happenstance but a desired outcome.

Technical details form the heart of the book (Ch. 5-7). Brick and stone were the most important materials although their availability and use varied regionally. Texts refer frequently to kilns for bricks and roof tiles, which evidently followed Roman production methods on a smaller scale; further comparison with Roman and post medieval manufacturing may refine this view. The basic technology of lime-making similarly has changed little since antiquity in parts of the east Mediterranean. Preference for building stone underwent more profound change as imperial quarries were abandoned in favor of smaller sites closer to hand. Sculptural spoils were widely used in both intact and modified form; recent investigations of the practice in late antiquity suggests that there also may have been ideological as well as practical motives at work in Byzantine times also.

The least well-known parts of most standing buildings include the foundations that range from simple grids to vast masonry substructures and platforms. Rising walls were assembled in distinctive ways that offer some of our clearest glimpses of individual workshops working within the parameters of economy and convenience. Buildings were often completed with brick arches, vaults, and domes—lightweight and flexible shells that could be erected with a minimum of scaffolding. A thoughtful selection of drawings and original photographs illustrates many such aspects of otherwise familiar buildings. The subtlety with which different vaulting forms were employed deserves a series of explanatory diagrams and a glossary; even without these, Ousterhout’s analysis provides the best available discussion of a distinctive structural aesthetic that anticipated aspects of Gothic and modern design. Covered with revetment, frescoes, and mosaics and articulated by sinuous cornices, the Byzantine interior was transformed into an otherworldly environment of sleekly flowing forms (Ch. 8).

Master Builders will surely stimulate discussion. Its broadly ahistorical approach relegates most innovation to the 7th-9th centuries while stressing continuities through the Middle and Late Byzantine periods. This allows little room for the far-reaching social changes brought about by the empire’s economic expansion in the 11th-12th centuries and its shifting military fortunes. The primacy of first-hand observation inevitably prioritizes certain regions, and a map of sites mentioned in the text would make clear the centrality of the capital and areas under its sway. The Aegean islands, Thessaly, Epirus, and inland Asia Minor are largely untouched; Athens, Kastoria, and Monemvasia are not mentioned. Kievan Russia is discussed more than Georgia, Armenia, Bulgaria, and Serbia combined. This selectivity is economic as well as geographic, and the emphasis on domed buildings allows little room for other building forms like the cross-vaulted church and regional ambulatory plans. The focus on deluxe buildings moreover leaves behind the many small, timber-roofed basilicas of the hinterland. The model of metropolitan workshop organization proposed here is a challenge that needs to be taken up in the provinces.

The Byzantine church is a unique and enduring creation that occupies an uncertain place in most architectural histories. Its traditionalism has puzzled many western observers, who have perceived an air of playfulness and inconsequentiality among its later examples. This book responds to such views by approaching these buildings on their own terms as individual responses to specific needs, occasions, and resources. It marks an important step in recovering the creative social environment of which Byzantine churches once formed a vital part.

Marcus Rautman
University of Missouri-Columbia