Whilst we might not be able to experience England’s heritage in person at the moment, here’s our virtual guide to the influence of ancient Byzantium on English architecture.
Byzantium was originally the name of an ancient Greek city that became the title of the eastern Roman Empire.
In the year 330, Byzantium was chosen as the capital city of the Eastern Roman Empire (also known as the Byzantine Empire). The emperor Constantine the Great changed its name to Constantinople (and today the city is called Istanbul).
Over the following centuries, a new architectural style emerged characterised by rich mosaics and high-rising domes. The style spread and original examples can still be found in places like Rome and Ravenna.
At the edge of the western Roman Empire, Britain never saw the major influence of Byzantium, but the style finally made an unexpected mark in the 19th-century as part of a mini-revival across Europe.
Here’s where you can find examples in England.
Westminster Cathedral, London
The most ambitious Byzantine style building in England is Westminster Cathedral.
Built between 1895 and 1903, the cathedral was designed in the early Christian style by architect John Francis Bentley. For Roman Catholics, the Byzantine style was seen as an alternative to Gothic, which had been favoured by Anglicans (Church of England).
By going back to the early Christian style still found in Rome, Ravenna and Istanbul, Catholics suggested they had a longer history than the Anglicans.
Christ Church, Brixton, London
You might think that the design of Westminster Cathedral would have influenced many churches across England, but the only notable example is Christ Church in Brixton, which shares significant stylistic similarities.
The church was built in 1907 and is one of the best examples of the work of architect Beresford Pite. It’s made of red and yellow brick in bands and features a dome over the centre.
Saint Sophia’s, Moscow Road, London
Santa Sophia’s in Bayswater is perhaps the most stunning example of a Victorian building in the Byzantine style.
The cathedral was designed by John Oldrid Scott and built between 1878 and 1879. It’s inspired by the mother-church of Orthodox Christianity, Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, and features lavish use of marble, mosaic and terrazzo.
The cathedral was the fifth Greek church in London, built for a growing Greek community who lived in the new west London suburbs of Paddington, Bayswater and Notting Hill. In 1922, it became a Greek Orthodox Cathedral and the seat of the bishop of Thyateira.
Crystal Palace Subway, London
When the Crystal Palace in Sydenham opened in 1854, it drew an average of two million visitors per year. Railway companies sought to capitalise on this potential and a new station was opened in 1865.
The adjoining subway is a striking Byzantine-style construction, with dramatic fan vaults in red and cream brickwork. It’s said to have been built by Italian cathedral bricklayers and was intended as an exciting prelude to the Palace itself.
After the Crystal Palace was destroyed in 1936, the subway became one of the few surviving related structures.
The Church of Jesus Christ and the Wisdom of God, Lower Kingswood
This church in the village of Lower Kingswood in Surrey is an unlikely building in an unlikely location.
Designed by architect Sidney Barnsley and built between 1890 and 1892, the church is somewhat based on the 4th-century Church of St Irene in Istanbul. The interior features a beautiful mosaic apse with an ostrich egg suspended in front of it.
The church has been interpreted as an Arts and Crafts response the Byzantine style, as opposed to that used by Bentley at Westminster Cathedral.
This blog wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the ‘Bristol Byzantine’ movement.
The term was coined by the architectural historian John Summerson to describe several industrial buildings built in the city during the 19th-century, reflecting Bristol’s mercantile and seafaring traditions.
The Granary is considered to be the finest example, although its beautiful arches share more in common with Gothic and Moorish architecture than that of the early Christians.
Ilkeston School, Ilkeston
Although not Byzantine by design, the grammar school in Ilkeston features an octagonal hall with a domed roof, reminiscent of early Byzantine basicallas.
The school was designed by architect George Widdows between 1911 and 1914 following an extended cruise around Turkey and the eastern Mediterranean. The results are a combination of Byzantine, Islamic and Moorish influences.
St John the Baptist Church, Rochdale
Henry Chipp, the Catholic priest in Rochdale from 1897 to 1936, presided over the building of the St John the Baptist church. Inspired by the example of Westminster Cathedral, he wanted a new church in the Byzantine style of the Hagia Sophia, Istanbul.
The sanctuary is completely covered in a mosaic scheme designed by Eric Newton, a mosaic craftsman in 1914 known to have studied early Byzantine mosaics in Venice, Ravenna and Rome.
What have we missed? Let us know where you’ve seen examples of Byzantine architecture in England in the comments below.