Sunday, June 23, 2019

Hagia Sophia

This great building, erected in its present form in 532-37 C.E. in Istanbul, stands so to speak at the junction of Early Christian and Byzantine architecture, synthesizing much of what had gone before and pointing the way to the future.  Created at the command of the Emperor Justinian, Hagia Sophia was designed by the architects Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles and   For centuries functioning as a mosque, it is now a museum and a major tourist attraction.

The building is located on a prominent site near the imperial palace at the eastern end of Constantinople, the original name of the city. 

The present church was preceded by two other buildings.  They were not not dedicated to a saint, but to the Holy Wisdom.  

The first Hagia Sophia was a colonnaded basilica inaugurated by the emperor Constantius II in 360 C.E.  It burned down in the early fifth century, and nothing survives of it.

The second building is that of Theodosius inaugurated in 415. It was burned down in the Nika Riots in 532, making way for the present magnificent structure.

Arguably the model for the new design was the church of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus (527-36), sometimes termed the Little Hagia Sophia. The interior of this small central-plan structure is dominated by a dome supported by eight piers.

After the Hagia Sophia’s dedication in 537 the upper zone was severely damaged by three earthquakes (in 553, 557, and 558; the latter causing the collapse of the main dome).  Justinian ordered a reconstruction, entrusting the supervision to Isidore the Younger, nephew of Isidore of Miletus.  The new work, completed in 562, employed lighter materials, elevating the dome by thirty feet.  In this way the interior reached its present interior height of 182 feet.

The effect of the dome, 102 feet wide, dominates the interior.  In its drum, forty windows assure an abundance of light. The dome is supported by four pendentives, which transfer the main thrust of the dome to four great piers based in the nave.  

The western entrance side and eastern liturgical side display arched openings extended by half- domes, supported by smaller semi-domed exedras; the result is a kind of vertical cascade that enhances the overall effect.  In this way an oblong dimension is added, so that the building combines the longitudinal and central-plan approaches. There are also auxiliary spaces, as the nave is flanked by aisles, surmounted by galleries. The main body of the interior is preceded by a narthex, or entrance hall.

On the exterior the great dome and semidome are clearly visible.  Yet the four minarets are additions of the Ottoman period.  Over the centuries, it was deemed necessary to add various buttresses. Some date to Byzantine times, while others stem from the Ottoman era, having been executed under the guidance of the architect Sinan.  Today twenty-four buttresses exist in total.

In addition to its breathtaking spatial vistas, the interior gloried in an extraordinary array of mosaics. Regrettably the past tense must be used, as there were major subtractions during the time of iconoclasm (ca, 726-826) and the Ottoman period (after 1453).  Still, some remarkable specimens survived to be admired by visitors.

The art of mosaic has distant origins going back to the ancient Near East.  In a version that generally involves small cubes or tesserae made of marble and glass, the technique was cultivated by the Greeks and Romans.  Alongside frescoes, figural mosaics were introduced into early Christian churches to illustrate major religious themes.  Eventually mosaics came to be preferred in the Eastern Empire because of their greater permanence.

The mosaics surviving from the Justinianic period are chiefly carpet patterns, crosses, and floral designs, complementing the ornate capitals. Recent research has clarified the fact that the original program was aniconic - without figural mosaics.  In the period prior to iconoclasm, this restriction seems unusual.  Its social and theological motivations remain uncertain.

Most of the mosaics now visible in Hagia Sophia belong to the mid-Byzantine period - that is, after the cessation of the iconoclastic disruption in 842.  After the conversion of the building into a mosque the figural mosaics of Christian subjects were covered over with layers of plaster.  Yet many have been revealed again, first with the work of the Swiss Fossati brothers (Gasparri and Giuseppe) in 1847-49, and then in the twentieth century after the conversion of the building into a museum, which occurred in 1931.

Here are some important surviving examples. The Imperial Gate mosaic inscribed in a lunette over the doorway comes from the late ninth or early tenth century.  In all likelihood it depicts Leo VI the Wise kneeling before an enthroned figure of Christ.

The southwestern entrance mosaic, also adorning a lunette stems from the time of Basil II. The Virgin is enthroned with her feet resting on a pedestal.  The Child Jesus sits on her lap, giving his blessing.  On her left side the emperor Constantine offers a simplified model of Constantinople which he founded.  On the right side stands Justinian, offering a model of the Church itself.

The half-dome of the apse bears a resplendent mosaic of the Virgin who is seated on a throne, holding the Child.  It dates to the year 867. 

The south gallery contains the hauntingly beautiful mosaic of the Deesis, depicting Mary and St. John the Baptist interceding with the mature figure of Christ.  It dates from the late thirteenth century.

After the Çonquest, the overall structure of the architecture of the Hagia Sophia served to inspire a number of purpose-built Ottoman mosques, including the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii), the Şehzade Mosque, the Süleymaniye Mosque, the Rüstem Pasha Mosque, and the Kılıç Ali Pasha Complex.

See Also: 

Medieval Cathedral Architecture (300-1100); Veneration and Production of Icons; Iconoclasm.

Further Reading:

Ken Dark and Jan Kostenec, Hagia Sophia in Context: An Archaeological Re-examination of the Cathedral of Byzantine Constantinople, Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2019.

Rowland J. Mainstone, Hagia Sophia: Architecture, Structure, and Liturgy of Justinian’s Great Church, New York: Thames and Hudson, 1988.

Nadine Schibille, Hagia Sophia and the Byzantine Aesthetic Experience, London: Routledge, 2014.

Natalia B. Teteriatnikov, Justinianic Mosaics of Hagia Sophia and Their Aftermath, Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 2017.


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