Hagia Sophia - View from the South

The Church of Hagia Sophia, was the Cathedral of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople for more than one thousand years. Originally known as the Great Church, because of its large size in comparison with the other churches of the then Christian World, it was later given the name of Hagia Sophia, the Holy Wisdom of Christ.

The church of Hagia Sophia, associated with one of the greatest creative ages of man, had also been identified with the Ecumenical Patriarchate for more than one thousand years. The church of Hagia Sophia is believed to have been founded by Constantine the Great. The initial building was erected over the ruins of an ancient temple of Apollo, situated on a hill commanding a magnificent view of the Sea of Marmara.

Only scant information is available on this first, timber-roofed, Hagia Sophia. The historian Socrates, writing in 440 his ecclesiastical history of the years 305 to 439, attributes the completion of the church in 360 to Constantius II (337-361), son of Constantine the Great. The consecration ceremony was conducted by the Patriarch Eudoxius (360-370), in 360.

The Second Ecumenical Council was convened in Hagia Sophia in 381, during the reign of Theodosius I (378-395). Some twenty years later, on 20 June 404, the people angered by the banishment of John Chrysostom burned down the church.

Rebuilt by Theodosius 11 (408-450) and consecrated in 415, the church was again burnt to the ground by the rioting crowds during the Nika Revolt (15 January 532). After the repression of the frightful revolt, Justinian conceived the grandiose project of rebuilding the Great Church from its foundations. This time it was to be built on plans well in advance of the times, using new daring vaulting techniques and statics. The men for the task were available. The mathematician Anthemius of Tralles and the architect Isidorus of Miletus worked with imagination and scientific accuracy to create a new design and build a masterpiece that stands unique throughout the centuries. Nothing like it was ever built before or after.

Justinian conceived the grandiose project of rebuilding the Great Church from its foundations. Nothing like it was ever built before or after. Construction work lasted five years [532-537] and on December 27, 537, Patriarch Menas consecrated the magnificent church.

The new Hagia Sophia belongs to the transitional type of the domed Basilica. Its most remarkable feature is the huge dome supported by four massive piers, each measuring approximately 100 square m, at the base. Four arches swing across, linked by four pendentives. The apices of the arches and the pendentives support the circular base from which rises the main dome, pierced by forty single-arched windows. Beams of light stream through the windows and illuminate the interior, decomposing the masses and creating an impression of infinite space. Twelve large windows in two rows, seven in the lower and five in the upper, pierce the tympana of the north and south arches above the arched colonnades of the aisles and galleries.

The thrust of the dome is countered by the two half-domes opening east and west, the smaller conchs of the bays at the four corners of the nave, and the massive outside buttresses to the north and south. The esonarthex and exonarthex, to the west, are both roofed by cross vaults. Two roofed cochliae [inclined ramps], north and south of the esonarthex, lead up to the galleries. The vast rectangular atrium extending west of the exonarthex had a peristyle along its four sides. At the center stood the phiale [fountain of purification] with the well known inscription that could be read from left to right and from right to left: “Cleanse our sins, not only our face” (NI?ONANOMHMATAMHMONANO?IN).

The church measures 77 x 79 m. and the impressive huge dome soaring 62 m. above the floor has a diameter of about 33 m. According to R. van Nice, a scholar well versed in the problems posed by the architecture of Hagia Sophia. The nave is 38.07 m. wide, more than twice the width of the aisles, which measure 18.29 m. each. The vertical planes formed between the two north and the two south piers by the arcades of the aisles and galleries and the tympana above them are aligned flush with the side of the piers facing the nave. Thus, the mass of the piers is pushed aside into the aisles and galleries. By this clever arrangement the bearing structure is hidden from the eye, creating the impression that space expands in all directions and that the dome floats in the air.

By the end of the 5th century the basilical type of church had spread over the entire Mediterranean region with the exception of a few centralized buildings. From the early 6th century, however, the Christian world was preparing the ground for a major change in art and particularly in architecture. New methods of vaulting and statics were tried. Barrel-vaults, half-domes and domes prevailed in building techniques. The one great problem that found its solution in the age of Justinian was the transition from the square to the circle i.e. the raising of a circular dome over a square base.

This new technical achievement, tried first in the church of St. George at Ezra. Syria, then in that of the Sts. Sergius and Bacchus at Constantinople, found its most perfect expression in the Hagia Sophia, this masterpiece of Christian architecture. Polychrome marbles, elegant columns and fine wall revetments, gold vessels and ornaments, exquisite mosaics, the huge dome, half-domes, vaults and arches, the elaborately carved capitals, friezes and cornices, the arcades, the one hundred windows and the interplay of light and shade, all dissolve substance, filling the faithful with awe and delight and revealing to the beholder the everlasting beauty of perfection.

Some twenty years after the consecration of the church, a severe earthquake caused serious damages to the dome and the eastern half-dome. During repairs these structures partly collapsed, destroying the Lord’s Table, the ciborium and the ambo (May 7, 558). Reconstruction was entrusted to Isidorus the Younger. The dome was rebuilt steeper and of lighter materials and the supporting base was reinforced. The church was re-dedicated on December 23, 563.

From time to time the Emperors repaired, restored and embellished the Great Church, or made generous donations, as it appears in the following list: Justin II (565-578) and empress Sophia, donations; Maurice (582-602) donations, in particular a gold crown; Michael I Rangabe (811-813) donations; Basil I (867-886) repairs and possible the mosaic of the Theotokos in the sanctuary apse; John I Tsimisces (969-976) donations; Basil II (976-1025) repairs to the dome and eastern apse that had been damaged by earthquakes in 989; Romanus III Argyrus (1028-1034) decoration of the capitals with gold and silver; Constantine IX Monomachus (1042-1055) and John II Comnenus (1118-1143) donations of money and properties. Patriarch George II Xiphilinus (1192-1199) is reported to have restored the interior decoration. The buttresses at the east wall were erected in the reign of Andronicus II Palaeologus (1282-1328).

There are interesting historical evidence about Hagia Sophia, such as:
Written sources refer to “the number of clerics appointed to the service of the most holy Great Church of Constantinople.” The records list a total of 600 persons assigned to serve in Hagia Sophia: 80 priests, 150 deacons, 40 deaconesses, 60 subdeacons, 160 readers, 25 chanters, 75 doorkeepers.

Another source reveals the extent of destruction and pillage which Constantinople suffered in the hands of the Catholic Crusaders after 1204 and the difficulties that the great church had to face from the 13th century onwards. Paspatis writes: “In 1396, during the patriarchy of Callistus II, a note was made in the second volume of patriarchal documents [Millosich-Muller] listing all the existing gold and silver sacred vessels, hieratic vestments, crosses, gospel-books and holy relics. The destitution of the celebrated church, looted by the Latin Crusaders became evident. I mention the most important objects, from which pillagers removed pearls and other ornaments of gold in later times.

The church had: nine gospel-books, two of which remained in the church for the use of the priests, while the other seven much adorned the representations of embossed gold, were kept in the Skeuophylakion; five craters ...fourteen patens and chalices; six lavides [spoons]; six silver asterisks; four candelabra by the entrance; sixteen ripidia [fans]; eight crosses containing splinters of the True Cross and adorned with gold, silver and pearls; four aer [large veils]; twenty-six chalice veils and four patriarachal staffs; also a few icons, hieratic vestments and some relics of saints that had escaped the rapacious Crusaders...”

On Tuesday, May 29, 1453, Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror entered the vanquished city late in the afternoon and rode to Hagia Sophia. He was amazed at its beauty and decided to convert the Cathedral into his imperial mosque.

In 1847-49, Sultan Abdul Mecit I commissioned the Swiss architects Gaspar and Guiseppe Fossati to carry out the first systematic cleaning of the surviving mosaic decoration. The Fossati brothers left several drawings that are valuable for the study of the successive phases in the iconographic programme, but they also made many interventions to the decoration adding painted flowers and other motifs on certain wall surfaces.

A more systematic cleaning and conservation of the mosaics was begun in 1930 by the Byzantine Institute of America. The operations were directed first by The. Whittemore and later by P. Underwood. Representations from the post-Iconoclast period form single entities and their subjects are taken from the Christological and hagiological cycles. Some are votive offerings.

The oldest of the surviving mosaics in Hagia Sophia is the enthroned Virgin and Child, “the living throne of the Pantocrator”, decorating the conch of the sanctuary apse. The representation, which replaced the earlier cross of the Iconoclast period, is assigned to the second half of the 9th century, i.e. to the reign of Michael III (842-867).

Some scholars date the mosaic a little later, to the reign of Basil I(867-886). The Virgin is portrayed seated on a bejewelled backless throne with the Christ Child, dressed in gold, on her knees. The figures are set in a background of shimmering gold. The almost contemporary mosaic decorating the front of the apse, on either side of the triumphal arch, was composed of the Archangels Michael and Gabriel, Guardians of the Virgin and Child. Of the Archangels, pictured full-length holding in their hands the globe of the world, only the figure of Gabriel has survived, showing the charming expressive face and exquisite colour combinations of the mosaic portrait.

In the second half of the 9th century the dome was decorated with a medallion containing a representation of Christ Pantocrator. Some scholars maintain that it was a full-length image of Christ seated on the arc of heaven, rather than a bust portrayal of the Pantocrator. The mosaic was destroyed in the severe earthquake of 1346 and was replaced with a similar representation after 1355. 16th century travellers attest to its existence, for until then it had not been plastered over. During the extensive cleaning and restoration works carried out by the Fossati brothers, the dome mosaic disappeared. Of the four Cherubim adorning the pendentives, only the two eastern ones have survived.

As shown by the drawings of the Swede engineer Cornelius Loos (1710), the Fossati brothers and the German architect Salzenberg, the vaults of the central compartments in the north and south galleries were decorated with a representation of Christ Pantocrator surrounded by celestial powers, and scenes from the Baptism and the Pentecost.

The lunette over the imperial doorway leading from the narthex to the nave has preserved one of the votive mosaics. Christ is shown seated on a majestic throne with a Iyre-shaped back, holding an open Gospel Book and making the sign of blessing. To the left, a crowned Emperor is pictured prostrate before Christ. Most scholars have identified the kneeling figure as Leo Vl the Wise (886-912).