Hagia Sophia

Research paper for History of Western Art I

If a building can be metaphor for Christianity itself, Hagia Sophia is the Trinity, existing as a church, a mosque and a museum. The cathedral, also called The Church of the Holy Wisdom, was resurrected twice after being destroyed and burned. After the completion of its definitive form in 562, Hagia Sophia was the largest cathedral for the next 1000 years and remains the fourth largest today. Attributed to Emperor Justinian I, this architectural marvel is also known for its beautiful mosaics and is the first building to use pendentives to support its large dome. It is located in Istanbul, named Constantinople at the time of the cathedral’s construction.

The first manifestation of Hagia Sophia was constructed in 360 under Constantius, son and successor of Constantine. In 404, the church was burned in a riot. Rebuilt by Theodosius II in 415, the basilica was destroyed again in the Nike riot of 532. Justinian oversaw the reconstruction and dedication of Hagia Sophia in 537. Selected as architects for this grand endeavor were Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus, a mathematician and a physicist. From 542 to 557, a series of earthquakes brought down the dome. But in 562, Justinian finished the final reconstruction, and the exterior of Hagia Sophia remains essentially the same today.

Hagia Sophia is a fusion of East and West, erected in the seat of the eastern empire, Byzantium, rather than Rome. It is 270 feet long and 240 feet wide, and the primary dome is 108 feet in diameter and 180 feet high. The arches of the nave reach 70 feet, and external buttress piers aid in the support of the innovative dome structure. Hagia Sophia has narthexes (entrances) on all sides of the church, though only two are publicly used today. On the east and west sides of the dome are two semidomes, which serve as the apse and entrance bay respectively, elongating the nave as in a rectangular basilica. The apse has a smaller semidome built east of the larger one, and all of the semidomes are perforated with windows, echoing the primary dome. On the north and south sides of the dome are wall piers with colonnades and two levels of aisles. The dome itself has ribs, like an umbrella, that run between the windows at the base of the dome.

The famous mosaics of Hagia Sophia include images of Christ, the Virgin, apostles, angels, prophets and emperors, but the bulk of them were decorative and non-figural. The expansive interior, broken up by colonnades, is not suited for cohesive mosaic portraiture and so the figures that do exist are separate from each other. The dome is gold mosaic, originally with a cross at the center, then Christ Pantocrator, and now Koranic inscription. Other mosaics of abstract designs were made in colors on a background of gold. The mosaics were created by setting bits of glass in wet plaster. The exposed plaster was gilded, and then the mosaic was sealed with a glaze. In the ninth century, after an era of iconoclasm, new mosaics were made with terra cotta and natural stone, in addition to the cut glass cubes.

Hagia Sophia utilizes over 100 columns, 40 of which are in the nave. The deep and highly detailed carving of the capitals and arches sets the columns apart from earlier classical Roman and Greek design. The marble columns vary in size depending on their location, either in the nave or the first and second tiers of aisles. The columns of the second tier match up directly with the columns of the first tier. The first tier aisles have a combination of barrel and groin vaults. The aisles, galleries, narthexes and access ramps are built around the buttress piers, apse and other piers, and are not part of the primary structural system.

In 330, Constantine officially moved the capital of the Roman Empire to the city of Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople. The senate remained in Rome, which still retained political and religious significance and was not entirely displaced as center of the empire. As of 324, Byzantium had little going for it, so Constantine had to rebuild the city walls to include a much larger area so that he could construct basic Roman infrastructure, such as baths, hippodrome, senate house, palace and houses. In order to compete with St. Peter’s in Old Rome and the churches in the Holy Land, Constantine began to focus on places of worship. He constructed shrines to martyrs and a church in memory of the Apostles. He also renovated Hagia Irene, which would evolve into Hagia Sophia, and dedicated it as the cathedral. Hagia Irene became the battleground between the Orthodox dogma of the Nicene Creed and Arian denial of the Trinity.

In 360, Emperor Constantius, son and successor of Constantine, dedicated his newly constructed Great Church, named Hagia Sophia, which was built to replace the insufficiently small Hagia Irene as the principle church in Constantinople. Some sources state that Constantine had initially laid the foundation for Hagia Sophia 34 years before its dedication by Constantius. Under Emperor Arcadius in 404, the bishop at Hagia Sophia- patriarch of the Eastern Church, a position comparable to that of the Bishop of Rome- was exiled, resulting in a riot and fire that damaged the cathedral. Sources debate whether Hagia Sophia was completely rebuilt or merely renovated by Theodosius II, who rededicated the church in 415.

It is speculated that Hagia Irene was used as the primary church while construction was underway. In 532, the Nike riot rose against Emperor Justinian. The entrance to the royal palace was set on fire, which spread to the senate house, to Hagia Irene and to Hagia Sophia. Because so little description exists of these early incarnations of the cathedral- in contrast with other significant churches of the time in Rome, Jerusalem and Antioch and the new Hagia Sophia to be built in its place- researchers concluded that Theodosius’s church must have been rather ordinary and not worth mentioning, most likely a timber-roofed basilica like the other churches in Constantinople.

Early in the fifth century, Old Rome, followed by the remainder of the West, was sacked by Alaric and fell under barbarian control. The weak Western emperors ruled from Ravenna, but the Eastern emperors in Constantinople held the real secular power. In the West, the growing authority of the papacy began to overshadow the secular leaders. By the middle of the fifth century, a rift was developing between the Eastern and Western churches over the nature of Christ, whether he was an entirely divine entity or whether he was both divine and human. When Justinian I became emperor in 527, he took up the reigns of Constantine and once again to unite the great empire, both secularly and religiously. He reformed the legal system and initiated the military objective of re-conquering western territories. Justinian also sought religious unity and so began to suppress all non-Christian faiths. As propaganda of his greatness, Justinian directed massive architectural undertakings, which included the cathedrals of San Vitale at Ravenna and the new Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.

In order for Justinian’s new church to exceed all existing architectural achievements to date, a solution to the roof over the large nave would have to be found. It could not be made of timber, because one of Justinian’s points was to make the church fireproof. Considerations included a groin vault over the nave or a dome supported by squinches. In the end, the dome was constructed over a central square and was supported by pendentives.

Construction of Justinian’s Hagia Sophia took only six years, a fact that leads scholars to believe that he had already begun developing a plan to build a more grandiose cathedral before the riot and fire. Justinian selected for his architects Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus the elder of Miletus. The former was a mathematician, and the latter a physicist. Both were also teachers, well versed in mechanics. Built at the approximately the same time, the Church of Sts Sergius and Bacchus had a centralized form, as opposed to a basilica, and may have been a prototype used to experiment with this new design before applying it to the colossal Hagia Sophia. On December 27, 537, Hagia Sophia was dedicated; Justinian famously declared, “Solomon, I have surpassed thee!”

Twenty years after the dedication of Hagia Sophia, an earthquake shook Constantinople, and the eastern semidome and eastern arch collapsed, along with the adjoining portion of the dome. The entire dome was removed for the reconstruction, which was piloted by Isidorus the younger and took nearly as long as the original construction of the entire building. The rededication took place December 24, 562. The new dome, detailed in gold mosaic and set upon a layer of forty windows, cast a heavenly aura through the church and impressed the masses as much as its first dedication.

Hagia Sophia was affected by numerous religious and political conflicts throughout the middle ages. In the ninth century, after periods of iconoclasm finally subsided, figural mosaics started appearing throughout the cathedral. During the Latin Occupation of 1204-1261, after the Fourth Crusade to seize Constantinople, Hagia Sophia was made a Roman Catholic Church, and many of its riches were looted. Ottoman Muslims plastered over any mosaic that portrayed a human form, but there is evidence that the sultans removed the plaster from time to time in order to maintain the mosaics beneath.

Hagia Sophia popularized the central dome form of architecture in the Byzantine Empire, and other churches followed its example, including Hagia Sophias of Thessaloniki and Kiev and the Daphne monastery. After the Ottoman Turks occupied Constantinople (Istanbul), Hagia Sophia was equally influential in relation to the construction of new mosques, such as Fatih, Suleymaniye, and the mosques of Beyazit II and Sultan Ahmet.

In 1453, Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks. Sultan Mehmet II was taken with the beauty of Hagia Sophia, and so it was adapted to the Mosque of Aya Sofya. At first, a temporary minaret was constructed of wood, and the Christian furniture and cross atop the dome were removed. The mimbar and mihrab, a pulpit and niche in the wall indicating the direction of Mecca, were added, as well as a crescent on the dome. The chief architect of the mid-sixteenth century of the Ottoman sultans was Mimar Sinan. In addition to engineering the construction of hundreds of buildings, many in Istanbul, Sinan headed the most major Ottoman renovation of Hagia Sophia, the replacement of the dome and erection of the four permanent minarets that still stand today. By the nineteenth century, large panels of Arabic script were mounted on the piers of the nave, and copious oil lamps were suspended just above worshippers’ heads.

In 1934, Turkish president Kemal Atatürk secularized Hagia Sophia, and the cathedral became a museum. The American Byzantine Institute conducted the initial renovations. The restoration posed a problem, though, in that to restore some of the Christian art, Islamic art would be destroyed. Attempts were made to maintain a balance between the cultures during restoration.

Hagia Sophia is a significant historical example of architecture. It is an early specimen of a domed basilica and is the first known structure to employ pendentives. The Justinian church was the seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople, and under Ottoman rule, it was the primary mosque of Istanbul. The church inspired both Christian and Islamic architecture alike. Hagia Sophia exemplifies Byzantine architecture, orientalizing Roman canons and developing unique innovations.

Kahler, Heinz and Ellyn Childs, translator. Hagia Sophia. Frederick A. Praeger: New York, 1967.

Kinross, Lord and the Editors of the Newsweek Book Division. Hagia Sophia. Newsweek: New York, 1972.

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

Matthews, Thomas F. The Early Churches of Constantine: Architecture and Liturgy. Pennsylvania State University Press: University Park, 1980.

1 Comment

  1. Anita x.t (GR) says:

    Faith love and hope.