By Alice Isabella Sullivan
The work of art “has more memory and more future than the being who contemplates it.” – Georges Didi-Huberman (2003)
One of the most original architectural achievements of all time—the building dedicated to Holy Wisdom—has graced the skyline of Constantinople, now Istanbul, since the 6th century. Hagia Sophia has had a rich and turbulent history, changing hands between Christians and Muslims and having its doors open to all as a secular building from 1935 to 2020. The recent change in jurisdiction to Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs came on the 126-year anniversary of the 1894 earthquake that greatly damaged the building. Hagia Sophia’s museum status is now reversed, ushering in a new era in which the monument can serve again as a mosque. How the physical building and its exceptional decorations will be transformed in this process remains to be determined.
Hagia Sophia was rebuilt in the aftermath of the Nika Revolt of 532 by Emperor Justinian I (r. 527–565) on the site of a 4th-century church erected by the first Christian Emperor, Constantine the Great (r. 306–337). Justinian’s new building was dedicated in 537 and served from the outset as a symbol of imperial power. The church was ingeniously designed by architects Anthemios of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus. The engineering feat successfully juxtaposed a longitudinal basilican axis with a centralized one. In its layout, Hagia Sophia was designed with a narthex, a naos with side aisles, and a semicircular apse facing east. Its elevation consists of a gallery above the side aisles, half domes, and the main dome over the central space. The image it offers within is one of monumentality and breathtaking splendor.
The building is an architectural icon originally further embellished with exquisite mosaics, marble revetments, spoliated columns, icons, textiles, metalwork, and other furnishings. The spaces, images, sounds, and lights of Hagia Sophia offered ephemeral impressions, overwhelming all those who stepped inside and participated in its ritual celebrations. “[The] details, fitted together with incredible skill,” wrote the scholar and historian Procopius of Caesarea (500–565), “produce a single and most extraordinary harmony in the work, and yet do not permit the spectator to linger much over the study of any of them…[T]the vision constantly shifts suddenly, for the beholder is utterly unable to select which particular detail he should admire…though they turn attention to every side…still unable to understand…they always depart from there overwhelmed by the bewildering sight.”
In the 12th century, Benjamin of Tudela (1130–1173) marveled at the building’s treasures: “all the other places of worship in the whole world do not equal Hagia Sophia in riches. It is ornamented by pillars of gold and silver and by innumerable lamps of the same precious materials…” Similarly, Anthony (d. 1232), Archbishop of Novgorod, visited Hagia Sophia and described its many lavish images, furnishing, and relics. In the 14th century, Russian travellers to Hagia Sophia noted that “it is impossible to describe its greatness and beauty.” The building has overwhelmed its visitors both visually and sensorially for centuries, transposing all those who have stepped within it as if to another world. Unfortunately, much of that splendor is no longer, but the architecture remains.
The architectural feature that most contributed to this awe-inspiring experience of Hagia Sophia was its dome—the culmination of the spatial experience. Rising close to 56 meters in height, the dome covers the longitudinal central space. Lateral half domes and exedrae complete the scheme. The transition from the rectilinear space below to the circle of the dome above was made possible by the innovative inclusion of pendentives into the design of the building. These curved triangular sections mediated the intersection of the dome with its supporting arches below.
Moreover, forty windows at the base of the dome seem to support the massive structure above. As natural light penetrates inside, the mosaics in these sections dematerialize the surfaces offering from below the impression that the dome is suspended from the heavens. Procopius also commented on the dome’s incredible appearance: “…marvelous in its grace, but by reason of the seeming insecurity of its composition altogether terrifying. For it somehow seems to float in the air on no firm basis, but to be poised aloft to the peril of those inside it.” The original dome was lower than the current one and collapsed during an earthquake shortly after its completion. It was then reconstructed in 562, and again restored in later centuries. A large image of Christ Pantokrator (“all-powerful judge”) originally adorned the central section Although this no longer survives, the Pantokrator mosaic in the dome of the church at Daphni Monastery (11th century) offers a glimpse of what it may have looked like.
Hagia Sophia in fact received numerous lavish mosaic decorations, especially in the upper portions of its walls and in the galleries. The extant examples postdate the 9th-century iconoclastic period during which the building greatly suffered. The Virgin and Child mosaic in the apse is regarded as the first post-iconoclastic figural image to be set up in the building, although it was restored in 14th century. Monumental in scale, the figures of the Virgin and Child appear dwarfed by their gold background and the impressive surrounding architecture. Images of the archangels Gabriel and Michael on the arch of the apse frame this important central duo.
The tympanum of the imperial gate leading into the building preserves a mosaic of Emperor Leo VI (r. 886–912) kneeling before Christ, and the tympanum of the south entrance into the narthex shows the “Mosaics of the Donors”—emperors Justinian and Constantine offering a model of Hagia Sophia and the city of Constantinople, respectively, to the enthroned Virgin and Child.
The galleries preserve other notable donor portraits in mosaic from the 10th and 11th centuries, as well as a mosaic of the Deësis, which may have also included a patron figure in the damaged portions. These donor images, found in prominent locations within the building, were meant to be regularly seen and addressed in the context of liturgical and para-liturgical celebrations. They offer a visual testimony of the new ktetors or founders of the building at various moments throughout its long history, and models for how future generations ought to care for the monument.
The innovative design and decorations of Hagia Sophia informed Christian architecture in Byzantium and the Eastern Orthodox cultural spheres more broadly—from the Balkan Peninsula, to the Carpathian Mountain regions, and further north to Rus’ and Muscovy—yet no building replicated its monumentality, remarkable engineering, and variety of distinctive features. Although the later Christian churches displayed the general layout, and some even carried dedications to Holy Wisdom, they were reduced in scale and simplified in form in comparison to Justinian’s church. In fact, Hagia Sophia remains a bit of an anomaly in Byzantine architecture. All subsequent buildings that emulate its forms are much smaller and intimate. Their final appearances ultimately depended on the desires of the patron, funds and availability of materials, building and decorating know-how, and theological concerns.
Hagia Sophia has also experienced damages and transformations over the course of its history. Natural disasters and fires undermined its structure and the main dome on several occasions. The iconoclastic controversies of the 8th and 9th centuries stripped it of its religious images and sculptural works. After the Fourth Crusade in 1204 the building was converted to a Roman Catholic Cathedral. It became an Eastern Orthodox Church again only in 1261 when the Byzantines recaptured Constantinople from the Latins.
But the most transformative moment in its long history came in 1453 when the Ottoman Turks besieged Constantinople and brought an end to the Byzantine Empire. Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque, and the building received minarets, a minbar, and a mihrab. In the interior, the Christian furnishings were removed and the decorations destroyed, whitewashes, or plastered over. In their place, geometric designs and intricate wooden carvings were set up. Later, giant circular framed disks inscribed with the names of Allah, Prophet Mohammed, the first four caliphs (Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali), and the two grandchildren of Mohammed, Hassan and Hussain, were installed in the naos. The building served as the congregational mosque of the city until 1616 when the Blue Mosque assumed this role. Just like with Orthodox Christian churches, Hagia Sophia informed the design of mosques in the city and throughout the Ottoman Empire, with many examples emulating its forms and spatial solutions. The Süleymaniye Mosque completed in 1557, and the Blue Mosque finished in 1616, are just two notable examples.
In 1847, by order of the Sultan Abdulmejid I (r. 1839–1861), the Swiss-Italian brothers Gaspare and Giuseppe Fossati embarked on a restoration project of the building. Their work also involved the uncovering and recording of the images, after which they were concealed again. Their files document details of the mosaics and works subsequently destroyed, including in the earthquake of July 10, 1894. Further restorations carried out in the 1930s under the supervision of Thomas Whittemore uncovered more of the Christian mosaics.
In 1934, at the order of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881–1938), Turkey’s first president, Hagia Sophia became a museum. Additional restorations followed that aimed at preserving both the Christian and Islamic pasts of the building. In 1985, Hagia Sophia became an UNESCO World Heritage Site. As a secular and public institution, Justinian’s building was meant to function as a symbol of secular modernity and offer its millions of visitors each year insight into its long history, beautiful decorations, as well as complex architecture and spatial solutions. From Christian church in the 6th century, to mosque in the 15th century, to museum in the 20th century, and now back to mosque in the 21st century, Hagia Sophia continues to adapt. It awes and inspires all who are lucky to walk through its doors, and hopefully it will have more to offer for centuries to come.
“Before an image, finally, we have to humbly recognize this fact: that it will probably outlive us…before it we are the fragile element, the transient element, and that before us it is the element of the future, the element of permanence. The image often has more memory and more future than the being who contemplates it.” The words of Georges Didi-Huberman ring true for Hagia Sophia as well. The magnificent building has been through a lot, has seen a lot, and still stands. It has many histories and will have still more futures. It will live through the present transformations, the political debates in which it is entangled, and the changes that will follow. It will outlive all of us.
And so in our moment, our aim should be to preserve and protect it in its myriad forms for current and future generations to see, experience, admire, and love. It will continue to awe as it did for centuries. Hagia Sophia is, ultimately, an expression of human achievement and its responsible stewardship ought to be a collective effort and at the forefront of our concerns.
Alice Isabella Sullivan is an art historian specializing in the medieval history, art, and culture of Eastern Europe and the Byzantine-Slavic cultural spheres. She has authored award-winning publications and is co-founder of North of Byzantium. Follow her on Twitter @AliceISullivan
R. Ousterhout, Eastern Medieval Architecture: The Building Traditions of Byzantium and Neighboring Lands (Oxford University Press, 2019).
B. V. Pentcheva, Hagia Sophia: Sound, Space, and Spirit in Byzantium (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2018).
N. B. Teteriatnikov, Justinianic Mosaics of Hagia Sophia and Their Aftermath (Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2017).
N. Teteriatnikov, Mosaics of Hagia Sophia, Istanbul: The Fossati Restoration and the Work of the Byzantine Institute (Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1998).
Top Image: Photo by Dennis Jarvis / Wikimedia Commons