Neither Islamic nor Arab

This could be a very good article if it weren’t so angry and consequently sloppy and misleading. Consider this quote by a Diana Darke, introduced as “Middle East specialist”:

“Notre-Dame’s architectural design, like all gothic cathedrals in Europe, comes directly from Syria’s Qalb Lozeh fifth-century church.”

OK. Let’s take her word for it (for now). Oliver Wainwright, the author of the piece, adds:

Gothic architecture as we know it owes much more to Arab and Islamic heritage than it does to the rampaging Goths.

Not that anyone today can seriously credit the Goths with starting a new architectural style. As for the churches of Qalb Lozeh and the so-called Dead Cities of Syria, they are neither Islamic – being churches and predating Muhammad – nor Arab:

The church [in Qalb Lozeh] represents the development of a Syrian style of architecture as an offshoot from the Byzantine.

There’s not much we know for certain about Syriac Christianity but we can safely assume the architects of the Qalb Lozeh church spoke Aramaic and/or Greek. The Arabs’ expansion out of the Arabian peninsula had not yet started when the church was designed.

On a side note, early churches in Syria and Jordan have been studied extensively (see Kennedy 2000, Tchalenko 1953-58). One could argue they were descendants of the Roman architectural tradition, specifically of its late, Byzantine phase. But then you could say the same about much Ottoman architecture. In a sense, European borrowing from Middle Eastern architecture was a “back to Rome” move more than an orientalist deviation.

The piece also neglects to mention the most obvious and greatest influence on Venice from the east: Byzantium. St. Mark’s was literally built and decorated with spoils of the Fourth Crusade – whose apex was the sack of Constantinople, the Rome of Eastern Christianity:

The capitals and column shafts in the church are partly material plundered from Constantinople and partly mediaeval imitations or creations produced for St. Mark’s.

As Carole Strickland put it in The Annotated Arch,

It [St. Mark’s] houses miscellaneous plunder, since trading ships were charged with bringing home loot to embellish the edifice. Among the booty are four Roman gilded-bronze horses, stolen from the hippodrome in Constantinople during the fourth crusade in 1204.

Now this is ex- and appropriation, physical and real, not just “cultural.” But St. Mark’s is a also a great fusion of Byzantine and Western European styles and approaches. According to the Britannica,

The design is distinctly Byzantine, and it is likely that both Byzantine and Italian architects and craftsmen were employed in the construction and decoration.

To quote Chuck LaChiusa of Buffalo Architecture and History:

In Venice, Italy, the Basilica of San Marco is an extravaganza of Byzantine magic.

The interior of St. Mark’s is Byzantine in effect, although the domed bays are modified slightly by Western Romanesque elements. The light effects and the rich cycles of mosaics, however, are entirely Byzantine.

St. Mark’s Basilica is designed on a Greek cross floor plan and modeled after Constantine’s Church of the Holy Apostles (now destroyed) and the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.

Not that it’s new stuff – if you’ve been both to Venice and Istanbul, you’ll probably find it obvious, and if you haven’t, you may try a textbook on architectural history.

Discover more from Winterings in Trans-Scythia

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading