Monday, 14 March 2011


W. B. Yeats published 'Sailing to Byzantium' in his collection The Tower (1928), at the age of sixty three. In it he deals with growing old, his unease with his native Ireland and his desire to find some state of being outside or beyond the failing human condition. He discovers this in the ancient city of Byzantium, and in doing created some of the most famous images of that world.

That is no country for old men. The young

In one another's arms, birds in the trees
Those dying generations---at their song,

The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,

Fish, flesh, or fowl commend all summer long

Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

Caught in that sensual music all neglect

Monuments of unaging intellect. 

An aged man is but a paltry thing,

A tattered coat upon a stick, unless

Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing

For every tatter in its mortal dress,

Nor is there singing school but studying

Monuments of its own magnificence;

And therefore I have sailed the seas and come

To the holy city of Byzantium.


O sages standing in God's holy fire

As in the gold mosaic of a wall,

Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,

And be the singing-masters of my soul.

Consume my heart away; sick with desire

And fastened to a dying animal

It knows not what it is; and gather me 

Into the artifice of eternity.


Once out of nature I shall never take

My bodily form from any natural thing,

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of hammered gold and gold enamelling

To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;

Or set upon a golden bough to sing

To lords and ladies of Byzantium

Of what is past, or passing, or to come. 

By the time that Yeats was writing, British interest in Byzantine art, architecture and culture was well established, yet in comparison with Classical or Medieval cultures it retained (as Yeats' poems suggests) an air of the remote, the exotic , and the mysterious. Yet that interest was less than one hundred years old. The Enlightenment, and particularly the writers Voltaire and Gibbon, condemned Byzantine culture as a tissue of superstition and barbarism, and art historians looked upon its art as childish, awkward and undeveloped.

It was not until the sudden destruction by fire of the Byzantine basilica of San Paulo Fuori le Mura by fire in 1823 that people began to consider the contribution of Byzantium to Christian history.


The image on the left is of San Paolo as it appeared on 15 July 1823. That on the right as it appeared on 16 July.

At this point it is necessary to distinguish the two dominant forms for Byzantine churches: the  'domical' and the 'basilican'

The domical has the dome as its centre and has, in the twentieth century, come to be associated most strongly with Byzantine architecture.

In the nineteenth century the basilican was also identified with Byzantine architecture and indeed there were many of these long churches built within the Byzantine tradition. In the twentieth century, however, when the Romanesque style was considered separately from the Byzantine, many of these basilican churches were placed in the category of 'Romanesque'.


The first European figure to take a real interest in Byzantine architecture was the cultured, swashbuckling, colourful figure of Ludwig I of Bavaria who, having visited Palermo before he came to the throne in 1825, urged his architect, Leo von Klenze to build him the Royal Chapel in Munich in a Romanesque/ Byzantine style.

Allerheiligen-Hofkirche (1826-37)

This interest was taken up by Ludwig's Protestant brother-
in-law, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, who adopted Ravenite Byzantine style almost as an emblem of his Prussian state.

Ludwig Persius, Heilandskirche, Potsdam (1841-3)
Ludwig Persius, Friedenskirche, Potsdam (1843-8)

Friedrich also made moves to investigate, record and repair Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.

One of the most striking Byzantine revival buildings, however, was constructed by Ludwig II or Bavaria, the grandson of Ludig I. A reluctant monarch he created environments into which he could escape from the pressures of civic life. 

Neuschwanstein (1868-1883)

Encouraged by Richard Wagner and the story of Parsifal he sought refuge in fantasies of the Byzantine Empire, and at huge cost built Neuschwanstein: Gothic outside, Byzantine inside.


Britain had to wait until the 1840s for the first interest in Byzantine art and architecture. The pioneer in this field must be the remarkable Sara Losh, scholar, philanthropist and architect who lived near Wreay in Cumberland. Her St Mary's Chapel of Ease was completed in 1842. To our eyes it appears Romanesque, but to contemporaries who had not yet identified Romanesque as a separate style, it was indisputably Byzantine. 

Losh was almost entirely overlooked in her own day, so it was left to the giant of British art criticism, John Ruskin, to open the eyes of the British to Byzantine architecture and Byzantine mosaic. 

Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice, published 1851-53, was enormously influential.

Before Ruskin, Venetian Byzantine and Gothic architecture, mosaic and painting were ignored as representing a barbarous interlude before civilization returned with the Renaissance. St Mark’s was abhorred as a monstrous blot. 

Ruskin’s views were deeply conditioned by his psycho-sexuality and his life-long attachment to Venice and Byzantine building was connected with an adolescent experience of love there. From 1841 onwards Ruskin drew, measured and sketched Byzantine and Gothic Venice, and some of those drawings are in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. 

Furthermore he felt that art and architecture were a barometer of the spiritual and moral health of a society. His dithyrambic account of the decoration and architecture of Byzantine St Mark's appeared in the second volume in a section entitled 'First of Byzantine period'. This began to change attitudes to Byzantium all over Europe. Above all his 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. He wrote: 

… beyond those troops of ordered arches there rises a vision out of the earth, and all the great square seems to have opened from it in a kind of awe, that we may see it far away;-a multitude of pillars and white domes, clustered into a long low pyramid of coloured light; a treasure-heap, it seems, partly of gold, and partly of opal and mother-of-pearl, hollowed beneath into five great vaulted porches, ceiled with fair mosaic, and beset with sculpture of alabaster, clear as amber and delicate as ivory,-sculpture fantastic and involved, of palm leaves and lilies, and grapes and pomegranates, and birds clinging and fluttering among the branches, all twined together into an endless network of buds and plumes; and, in the midst of it, the solemn forms of angels, sceptred, and robed to the feet, and leaning to each other across the gates, their figures indistinct among the gleaming of the golden ground through the leaves beside them, interrupted and dim, like the morning light as it faded back among the branches of Eden, when first its gates were angel-guarded long ago. And round the walls of the porches there are set pillars of variegated stones, jasper and porphyry, and deep-green serpentine spotted with flakes of snow, and marbles, that half refuse and half yield to the sunshine, Cleopatra-like, "their bluest veins to kiss"-the shadow, as it steals back from them, revealing line after line of azure undulation, as a receding tide leaves the waved sand; their capitals rich with interwoven tracery, rooted knots of herbage, and drifting leaves of acanthus and vine, and mystical signs, all beginning and ending in the Cross; and above them, in the broad archivolts, a continuous chain of language and of life-angels, and the signs of heaven, and the labours of men, each in its appointed season upon the earth; and above these, another range of glittering pinnacles, mixed with white arches edged with scarlet flowers,-a confusion of delight, amidst which the breasts of the Greek horses are seen blazing in their breadth of golden strength, and the St. Mark's Lion, lifted on a blue field covered with stars, until at last, as if in ecstasy, the crests of the arches break into a marble foam, and toss themselves far into the blue sky in flashes and wreaths of sculptured spray, as if the breakers on the Lido shore had been frost-bound before they fell, and the sea-nymphs had inlaid them with coral and amethyst. Stones of Venice, (1851-3) Vol. 2, Chapter 4. 

One of those who fell under the spell of Ruskin's powerful prose was the high priest of the British Gothic revival, George Gilbert Scott, perhaps best known for his Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras station. He met Ruskin in Venice in 1852 and tried a number of projects in the Byzantine style. In 1860 he offered a Byzantine design for the Foreign Office in Whitehall.

But it was soundly rejected by Lord Palmerston. On a smaller scale he suggested a Byzantine chapel for Worcester College, Oxford.

But this was too strange for the master and fellows, and it too was rejected. Scott even suggested a design for the Royal Albert Hall based on Hagia Sophia at Constantinople, but the commission was given to an architect/engineer with more sobre tastes!
But some artists and architects found in the Byzantine (and the Romanesque with which it was so closely linked), a viable alternative to the Gothic style that was beginning to tyrannize all public building. This push in the direction of the new was given considerable impetus by Matthew Digby Wyatt's Byzantine Court, Crystal Palace in 1854.  But the style also appealed to private passions, such as those of Thomas Combe, printer to Oxford University Press who funded from his own means St Barnabus Oxford (1869). 

Designed by Willliam Blomfield, its interior looked back to San Clemente in Rome and its exterior was a reminiscence of Santa Maria Assunta on Torcello, a very early Venetian Byzantine building.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century the monumental, unadorned simplicity of Byzantine work with its fine decorative features appealed to Arts and Crafts architects, who were hugely stimulated by William Morris. In a much repeated lecture given in 1889 and entitled 'Gothic Architecture' he extolled the Byzantines as the pure and primitive Goths and that it was in Constantinople that early Christian architecture and design had its roots.


William Morris, 'Gothic Architecture'.

The first expression of this freedom is called Byzantine Art, and there is nothing to object to in the name. For centuries Byzantium was the centre of it, and its first great work in that city (the Church of the Holy Wisdom, built by Justinian in the year 540) remains its greatest work. The style leaps into sudden completeness in this most lovely building: for there are few works extant of much importance of earlier days. As to its origin, of course buildings were raised all through the sickness of classical art, and traditional forms and ways of work were still in use, and these traditions, which by this time included the forms of Roman building, were now in the hands of the Greeks. This Romano-Greek building in Greek hands met with traditions drawn from many sources. In Syria, the borderland of so many races and customs, the East mingled with the West, and Byzantine art was born. 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 architecture in spirit, though it took so many of its forms and revivified them. Nothing more beautiful than its best works has ever been produced by man, but in spite of its stately loveliness and quietude, it was the mother of fierce vigour in the days to come, for from its first days in St. Sophia, Gothic architecture has still one thousand years of life before it. East and West it overran the world wherever men built with history behind them. In the East it mingled with the traditions of the native populations, especially with Persia of the Sassanian period, and produced the whole body of what we, very erroneously, call Arab Art (for the Arabs never had any art) from Isphahan to Granada. In the West it settled itself in the parts of Italy that Justinian had conquered, notably Ravenna, and thence came to Venice. From Italy, or perhaps even from Byzantium itself, it was carried into Germany and pre-Norman England, touching even Ireland and Scandinavia. Rome adopted it, and sent it another road through the south of France, where it fell under the influence of provincial Roman architecture, and produced a very strong orderly and logical substyle, just what one imagines the ancient Romans might have built, if they had been able to resist the conquered Greeks who took them captive. Thence it spread all over France, the first development of the architecture of the most architectural of peoples, and in the north of that country fell under the influence of the Scandinavian and Teutonic tribes, and produced the last of the round-arched Gothic styles, (named by us Norman) which those energetic warriors carried into Sicily, where it mingled with the Saracenic Byzantine and produced lovely works. But we know it best in our own country; for Duke William’s intrusive monks used it everywhere, and it drove out the native English style derived from Byzantium through Germany.

Delivered at a meeting sponsored by the Arts and Crafts Society, New Gallery, Regent St, London  November 1889

As the scholar Peter Faulkner points out, the young W. B. Yeats had met and been befriended by the famous figure of William Morris two years before this lecture was written, and they undoubtedly discussed the issue of Byzantine architecture. Only a couple of years later William Lethaby, again under the influence of Morris published the very first book on Hagia Sophia, Constantinople, The Church of Sancta Sophia, Constantinople, a study of Byzantine Building (1894), and in 1895 J. F. Bently began construction of the spectacular Westminster Cathedral in Byzantine terms. 

Yeats, however, was actually influenced by a neo-Byzantine building far removed from those in London. In 1923 he sailed to Stockholm to received the Nobel Prize for Literature, and while he was there he was deeply impressed by the recently opened Stockholm City Hall by Ragnar Ă–stberg.


Yeats was full of admiration this architecture, though it was remote in style from Byzantine originals. He was impressed with its simplicity, the quality of the mosaic, and the involvement of the whole community, including members of the Royal Family in its decoration. On returning to Ireland he promptly took a journey to Palermo to experience Byzantine work in its earlier form.

In this way, the Cappella Palatina that had so impressed Ludwig I of Bavaria in the early years of the nineteenth century now worked on the imagination of W.B.Yeats to inspire some of the most haunting lines in English about Byzantine culture.