Use of Spolia in Byzantium

Essay by spaghettiCollege, UndergraduateB, August 2007

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In the early Byzantine period there was an accelerated progress toward the use of spolia; a term used to describe the reuse of earlier building material or decorative sculpture on new monuments. From the fourth century and on, this type of "recycling," involving the dismantling of monuments was common. This process started with Constantine the Great. The reuse of relief's from triumphal monuments (eg., Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius) in Constantine's arch in Rome has been interpreted as conveying a specific political message. The use of spolia was one of Constantine's ways of claiming the legitimacy of a great Roman emperor. However, the use of other spolia (eg. capitals and friezes) from other buildings, in Constantine's arch was considered merely decorative. In the Lateran church built by Constantine, a new aesthetic principle was introduced called varieties; in that the orders of the re-used capitals (eg., Corinthian and Ionian) alternate.

This asymmetrical arrangement is found in many early Byzantine churches, and it was expressing a new artistic style. Later Byzantine texts praise the "variety" achieved in church decoration by the use of diverse columns from other buildings. Therefore, it is clear that, spolia could serve the new artistic principle of "diversity" in contrast with the symmetrical discipline of classical art at the time.

The abandonment of temples and of municipal buildings on account of the Christianization of the empire and changes in government administration created favorable conditions for the reuse of building material in the early Byzantine period. The imperial legislation perfectly illustrates this trend. Imperial constitutions imposed restrictions on provincial governors who transferred statues, slabs of marble, or columns to their cities of residence to decorate them. In 397, a decree ordered that building material from temples is used for the construction of bridges, aqueducts, and walls. Dilapidation...