AP®︎/College Art History
- Introduction to the middle ages
- Christianity, an introduction for the study of art history
- Architecture and liturgy
- The life of Christ in medieval and Renaissance art
- A New Pictorial Language: The Image in Early Medieval Art
- Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome
- Basilica of Santa Sabina, Rome
- Santa Sabina
- Jacob wrestling the angel, Vienna Genesis
- Rebecca and Eliezer at the Well, Vienna Genesis
- A beginner's guide to Byzantine Art
- San Vitale, Ravenna
- Justinian Mosaic, San Vitale
- Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
- Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
- Theotokos mosaic, apse, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
- Hagia Sophia as a mosque
- Deësis mosaic, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
- Virgin (Theotokos) and Child between Saints Theodore and George
- The Lindisfarne Gospels
- The Lindisfarne Gospels
- The Bayeux Tapestry
- The Bayeux Tapestry - Seven Ages of Britain - BBC One
- Church and Reliquary of Sainte‐Foy, France
- Chartres Cathedral
- Bible moralisée (moralized bibles)
- Saint Louis Bible (moralized bible)
- The Golden Haggadah
- Röttgen Pietà
- Röttgen Pietà
- Giotto, Arena (Scrovegni) Chapel (part 1)
- Giotto, Arena (Scrovegni) Chapel (part 2)
- Giotto, Arena (Scrovegni) Chapel (part 3)
- Giotto, Arena (Scrovegni) Chapel (part 4)
Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
by Dr. William Allen
Constantine the Great presents the city (Constantinople) and Justinian the Great presents Hagia Sophia to the Virgin, mosaic, probably 10th Century, Southwestern Entrance, Hagia Sophia (photo: byzantologist, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
A symbol of Byzantium
The great church of the Byzantine capital Constantinople (Istanbul) took its current structural form under the direction of the Emperor Justinian I. The church was dedicated in 537, amid great ceremony and the pride of the emperor (who was sometimes said to have seen the completed building in a dream). The daring engineering feats of the building are well known. Numerous medieval travelers praise the size and embellishment of the church. Tales abound of miracles associated with the church. Hagia Sophia is the symbol of Byzantium in the same way that the Parthenon embodies Classical Greece or the Eiffel Tower typifies Paris.
Isidore of Miletus & Anthemius of Tralles for Emperor Justinian, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, 532–37, photo: Steven Zucker (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Each of those structures express values and beliefs: perfect proportion, industrial confidence, a unique spirituality. By overall impression and attention to detail, the builders of Hagia Sophia left the world a mystical building. The fabric of the building denies that it can stand by its construction alone. Hagia Sophia's being seems to cry out for an other-worldly explanation of why it stands because much within the building seems dematerialized, an impression that must have been very real in the perception of the medieval faithful. The dematerialization can be seen in as small a detail as a column capital or in the building's dominant feature, its dome.
Basket Capital, Hagia Sophia (photo: William Allen, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Let us start with a look at a column capital
The capital is a derivative of the Classical Ionic order via the variations of the Roman composite capital and Byzantine invention. Shrunken volutes appear at the corners decorative detailing runs the circuit of lower regions of the capital. The column capital does important work, providing transition from what it supports to the round column beneath. What we see here is decoration that makes the capital appear light, even insubstantial. The whole appears more as filigree work than as robust stone capable of supporting enormous weight to the column.
Ionic Capital, North Porch of the Erechtheion (Erechtheum), Acropolis, Athens, marble, 421–407 B.C.E., British Museum (photo: Steven Zucker CC:BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Compare the Hagia Sophia capital with a Classical Greek Ionic capital, this one from the Greek Erechtheum on the Acropolis, Athens. The capital has abundant decoration but the treatment does not diminish the work performed by the capital. The lines between the two spirals dip, suggesting the weight carried while the spirals seem to show a pent-up energy that pushes the capital up to meet the entablature, the weight it holds. The capital is a working member and its design expresses the working in an elegant way.
Left: Basket Capital, Hagia Sophia (photo: William Allen, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0); right: Ionic Capital, North Porch of the Erechtheion (Erechtheum), Acropolis, Athens, marble, 421–407 B.C.E., British Museum (photo: Steven Zucker CC:BY-NC-SA 2.0)
The relationship between the two is similar to the evolution of the antique to the medieval seen in the mosaics of San Vitale. A capital fragment on the grounds of Hagia Sophia illustrates the carving technique. The stone is deeply drilled, creating shadows behind the vegetative decoration. The capital surface appears thin. The capital contradicts its task rather than expressing it.
Deep Carving of Capital Fragment, Hagia Sophia (photo: William Allen, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
This deep carving appears throughout Hagia Sophia's capitals, spandrels, and entablatures. Everywhere we look stone visually denying its ability to do the work that it must do. The important point is that the decoration suggests that something other than sound building technique must be at work in holding up the building.
A golden dome suspended from heaven
We know that the faithful attributed the structural success of Hagia Sophia to divine intervention. Nothing is more illustrative of the attitude than descriptions of the dome of Hagia Sophia. Procopius, biographer of the Emperor Justinian and author of a book on the buildings of Justinian is the first to assert that the dome hovered over the building by divine intervention.
"...the huge spherical dome [makes] the structure exceptionally beautiful. Yet it seems not to rest upon solid masonry, but to cover the space with its golden dome suspended from Heaven."
from "The Buildings" by Procopius, Loeb Classical Library, 1940, online at the University of Chicago Penelope project
The description became part of the lore of the great church and is repeated again and again over the centuries. A look at the base of the dome helps explain the descriptions.
Hagia Sophia Dome, Semi-Dome and Cherubim in the pendentive (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
The windows at the bottom of the dome are closely spaced, visually asserting that the base of the dome is insubstantial and hardly touching the building itself. The building planners did more than squeeze the windows together, they also lined the jambs or sides of the windows with gold mosaic. As light hits the gold it bounces around the openings and eats away at the structure and makes room for the imagination to see a floating dome.
Windows at the Base of the Dome, Hagia Sophia (photo: byzantologist, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
It would be difficult not to accept the fabric as consciously constructed to present a building that is dematerialized by common constructional expectation. Perception outweighs clinical explanation. To the faithful of Constantinople and its visitors, the building used divine intervention to do what otherwise would appear to be impossible. Perception supplies its own explanation: the dome is suspended from heaven by an invisible chain.
Advice from an angel?
An old story about Hagia Sophia, a story that comes down in several versions, is a pointed explanation of the miracle of the church. So goes the story: A youngster was among the craftsmen doing the construction. Realizing a problem with continuing work, the crew left the church to seek help (some versions say they sought help from the Imperial Palace). The youngster was left to guard the tools while the workmen were away. A figure appeared inside the building and told the boy the solution to the problem and told the boy to go to the workmen with the solution. Reassuring the boy that he, the figure, would stay and guard the tools until the boy returned, the boy set off. The solution that the boy delivered was so ingenious that the assembled problem solvers realized that the mysterious figure was no ordinary man but a divine presence, likely an angel. The boy was sent away and was never allowed to return to the capital. Thus the divine presence had to remain inside the great church by virtue of his promise and presumably is still there. Any doubt about the steadfastness of Hagia Sophia could hardly stand in the face of the fact that a divine guardian watches over the church.*
Damage and repairs
Hagia Sophia sits astride an earthquake fault. The building was severely damaged by three quakes during its early history. Extensive repairs were required. Despite the repairs, one assumes that the city saw the survival of the church, amid city rubble, as yet another indication of divine guardianship of the church.
Extensive repair and restoration are ongoing in the modern period. We likely pride ourselves on the ability of modern engineering to compensate for daring 6th Century building technique. Both ages have their belief systems and we are understandably certain of the rightness of our modern approach to care of the great monument. But we must also know that we would be lesser if we did not contemplate with some admiration the structural belief system of the Byzantine Age.
*Helen C. Evans, Ph.D., "Byzantium Revisited: The Mosaics of Hagia Sophia in the Twentieth Century," Fourth Annual Pallas Lecture (University of Michigan, 2006).
Historical outline: Isidore and Anthemius replaced the original 4th-century church commissioned by Emperor Constantine and a 5th-century structure that was destroyed during the Nika revolt of 532. The present Hagia Sophia or the Church of Holy Wisdom became a mosque in 1453 following the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans under Sultan Mehmed II. In 1934, Atatürk, founder of Modern Turkey, converted the mosque into a museum.
Essay by Dr. William Allen
Want to join the conversation?
- I was just wondering why Beth and Steven didn't do a video on this church. Is it not open to the public? Thanks for your help!(20 votes)
- It is open and we hope to make a video about it early next year.(30 votes)
- Is the Hagia Sophia similar to the Pantheon, in that were the dome continued on to form a perfect sphere exactly just touching the ground?(10 votes)
- From the author:In Hagia Sophia the dome rests on pendentives - it comes down onto a square, and the pendentives are shapes that make that transition.
In the Pantheon the dome rests on a cylinder - so there are no pendentives.
THis might help more: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pendentive(12 votes)
- So, has this place been standing since it was built, or was it reconstructed? I know it had repairs from earthquake damage. I'm trying to process the idea of a building being 1500 yrs old. I'm wondering how many other structures have been around that long? Something like the Roman Coliseum for example; how much of that was still standing in modern times, and how much of it did we have to repair to make it look the way it does today? We see a lot of these things around the world and never think about the fact that some of them were dug out of the ground, and 'put back together'(4 votes)
- That's a great question to ask, but I think for many of these surviving buildings, the answer is as unique as their architecture and must be answered on a case-by-case basis. I don't have the answer for this particular building, but I wanted to point out that while we sometimes give too much credit to ancient buildings for their survival as you said, some buildings we don't give enough credit to. For instance the Flavian Ampitheatre/Colosseum would be much more intact, but more than 2,500 cartloads of stones were removed for the reconstruction of St. Peter's Basilica under Pope Nicholas V. Luckily, he died, ending the tragedy (what a terrible thing to say).(7 votes)
- What stone was used for the capitals? In the first picture, it looks almost metallic, adding to the ephemeral appearance. In the picture of the fragment, it looks grainer, almost like bad sidewalk.(5 votes)
- That is stone -- it simply looks metallic in that specific lighting.(2 votes)
- When the Hagia Sophia was first opened, was it open to the public?(4 votes)
- as a church (its first function), it was open to the public.
as a mosque (its second function), it was open to the public
as a museum (its current function) it IS NOW open to the public.(4 votes)
- Why in the virgin and child in the apse moasic are there spade symbols on the pillow she sits on? What does the spade symbolize? Why is it important?(4 votes)
- What technic used the artists to get the deep carving? A friend suggested that people used acid. Is that possible? I searched on the internet, but couldn't find anything about this topic.(3 votes)
- Did the Ottomans build the minarets and change anything else in the Hagia Sophia?(1 vote)
- When the Ottomans took over, they started taking down the mosaics and added the minarets. There were so many mosaic that they actually stopped taking them down, and simply covered them up (mosques are not allowed to have imagery of Humans or Animals in them, which is why they usually have tiles with floral designs). If you go visit it today, you can see where the Muslims covered the iconography with tile. It's very beautiful.(6 votes)
- Why was the boy sent away and forbidden to return?(2 votes)
- Because the Angel made a promise to guard the tools and the building as long the boy was gone. If the boy never returned, the Angel and its divine protection would still be there, guarding the site.(4 votes)
- In the last couple of weeks Hagia Sophia became a mosque again. Have the mosaics showing people, animals, plants been covered up?(3 votes)