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Theotokos mosaic, apse, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Video transcript

images are really powerful things and they're political as well and they figure into the history of religion in the history of Christianity and the history of the Byzantine Empire very specifically there was always tension in the church about creating images of Christ's images of Mary images of God well if you think about it God is the creator and then an artist is also creating its usurping and so this was always a tricky issue icons images of Mary images of the saints of Christ had become increasingly central in the Byzantine Empire in worship there was concerned that people were in fact worshiping the images instead of venerating them or respecting them and using the images to pass through to the prototype to the divine figure that was pictured in the image in the 8th century the Emperor forbade the use of images in the church this begins a period of of iconoclasm iconoclasm is a Greek word that means breaking images and there was real violence we believe that virtually every image in the city of Constantinople was destroyed during this period this lasted from the early 700s to that mid 800 question is why why in the world were images seen as so destructive as so dangerous and really it had to do with this concern that people were venerating not the God that an image represented but the image itself and there is a commandment against creating images so artists were out of luck for quite a while you were yeah and what we're looking at here is a mosaic in the most prominent place in hiya Sophia that is the most important Church in the Byzantine Empire this dates to the period just after iconoclasm comes to an end this is an enormous ly important statement this is the Emperor and the patriarch saying no more iconoclasm we want images we think images are incredibly important and there was a resurgence of patronage of religious art during this period right after the end of class and so we see this glorious image of the Virgin Mary seated on a bench with two cushions and she holds on her lap the Christ child it certainly resembles icons that remain vast majority were destroyed some do remain and this is specifically close to an icon that is in the Church of st. Catherine in Sinai in Egypt and this is a great example of the style that we call the middle Byzantine that is the period immediately after the iconoclasm she may look small here in the Church of Hagia Sophia which is so tall and vast but in fact she's 16 feet high and it's just that she's dwarfed by the immense proportions of this architecture and by the gold of that apse and that gold of course is a way of representing the Divine Light of heaven and it's something we see very often in Byzantine art look at the way that she's right above that row of windows she really is floating she really is even above the sky throughout Hagia Sophia there's a sense of light as connected to the divine so as she rests on those windows and windows below her again and then above her in the semi dome there is a sense of her being surrounded by divine light so we've got this light we've got this gold field but we've also got a real sense of solidity and it's so different from the way we usually think of the icon as flat but look at the platform that they're seated on look at the solidity of the bench these are really solid pieces of timber and by the way very elegant in fact there's even gems and if we think about it in the context of the end of iconoclasm this is an artist that is representing these forms and saying these things are here to stay and the image is meant to reaffirm the importance of images it had originally an inscription most of which is now gone but that inscription said the images which the imposters had cast down here pious Emperor's have set up again there is a reassertion here of the importance of images in a condemning of those who destroyed images this particular image is called the Theotokos that is one who gives birth to Christ referring here to Mary this image was unveiled by the patriarch of the Eastern Church and that day he gave a sermon in which he said Christ came to us in the flesh and was born in the arms of his mother this is seen and confirmed and proclaimed in pictures the teaching made manifest by means of personal eyewitness and impelling the spectators to unhesitating ascend so this is about the power of the image to move one emotionally and spiritually to inspire and to teach