“Walking through the great doors from the narthex, we entered into a chamber so massive it left me stupefied. Drawing my eyes upward I saw not a roof above me, but a cascade of brilliant golden domes and arches that glistened and shimmered in the sunlight; light which poured into the scene as a series of blue tinged shafts that emanated from the windows above me to my right. Hanging over it all was a ribbed dome that seemed not to be so much a part of this expansive interior but a celestial body floating above it. The brilliance of the light pouring through its clerestory windows gave the impression I was not looking up at an object created by man but a portal leading to the very gates of heaven itself.”
The current Hagia Sophia (or church of the Holy Wisdom) is actually the third church of that name to be constructed on that site. The first was built during the reign of Constantius II and consecrated in 360 CE. It is believed to have followed the form of a Roman basilica which was a typical Christian church design at that time and was probably built of brick with a timber roof. In 404 CE the church was burned to the ground during a riot and replaced by the second church in 415 CE under the rule of Theodosius II. This second church more than likely followed the same basilica design as the first and only lasted slightly longer than a century before suffering the same fate as the first as a result of the Nika revolt in 532 CE. This time, the current emperor, Justinian I, took the opportunity to not just replace what was there but replace it with something so spectacular that it would have no equal for the next nine hundred years.
Designed by the mathematician Anthemius of Tralles and engineer Isidore of Miletus, it was built to completion in the staggeringly short span of five and half years and was at that time the worlds largest interior space and among the first to employ the pendentive to support it’s enormous dome. The dome that soared above the nave originally was built with a much shallower pitch. Because of this, the weight of the dome didn’t translate directly downward and during an earthquake in 558 CE parts of the main dome along with one of the semidomes collapsed. The hemispheric dome that replaced it is what we see today.
Points of Interest
1. Mosaic Tiles
Every inch of the walls and ceiling above the second story were covered in millions of glass mosaic tiles. The majority of which were backed with thin sheets of gold leaf which helped to amplify the amount of light that illuminated the interior spaces.
2. The Dome
The original dome was much flatter than the dome that replaced it. In addition, the windows that ringed the bottom of the dome as well as the ones along the side walls and semi domes were quite a bit larger than the ones we see today. The reason for both was light. Despite the massiveness of the sanctuary, it was illuminated with a surprising amount of natural light. The shallowness of the dome acted as a reflector of the light coming through the clerestory windows and the larger windows obviously allowed more light to come in as well. Over the centuries, not only was the shape of the dome changed but the size of the windows became smaller as a result of added buttressing and repairs that were inevitably needed to address the occasional earthquake damage.
3. The Eye of the Dome
No one knows for sure what the inside of the original dome looked like but it is likely that it wasn't ornately decorated, at least not by todays standards. Looking to other churches that were built around this time, I decided to paint the eye in a motif that was consistent with those.
A pendentive is an architectural element that elegantly transfers the weight of a dome to four supporting piers below it. It's basically a hemisphere with the top cut off and four half circles punched through its sides. Hagia Sophia was one of the first large scale buildings to incorporate this engineering device. An alternate to the pendentive is the squinch which serves the same purpose as a pendentive but isn't nearly as elegant to look at.
5. Sparse Decoration
Over the centuries the ceiling of Hagia Sophia has been decorated and redecorated with different forms of art ranging from strictly ornamental to figurative to ornamental again. Given the scene in this painting takes place a few years after the church was consecrated, I thought it probable that the ceiling decorations would have been fairly limited at that time.
6. The Upper Aisles
Men and women worshiped at the same time in Hagia Sophia but the women were relegated to the upper galleries while the men roamed freely below.
7. The Cross in the Apse
If you visit Hagia Sophia today you will see above the apse a mosaic depicting the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus in her lap. No one knows when this mosaic was originally created but it is doubtful it existed before the era of Byzantine Iconoclasm. Most likely what was there at the time of the church's completion was a large red mosaic cross.
A templon is a barrier that separates the sacraments at the alter from the rest of the nave and is the predecessor of the iconostasis found in eastern orthodox churches today. Usually made of wood or marble the templon in Hagia Sophia was made of silver. The templon I created for this painting is based on the one described by Paul the Silentiary in the 6th century of the templon he saw inside Hagia Sophia. His description wasn't terribly specific so the ornamentation you see here is purely my invention.
An ambo is a raised platform with stairs on the front and back. It is from this platform that the scriptures where read during the Divine Liturgy. Meant to simulate a small hill, its origins date back to ancient Greece where orators stood on a raised platform called a bema.
An exedra is a raised, semicircular architectural feature found at the base of the apse. A possible use of the exedra was as a seating area for the clergy.
The exedra inside Hagia Irene in Istanbul