Out of shadows: The mosaics of Hagia Sophia

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Pictured above: Imperial Gate mosaic. All photos are in the public domain.

Matt Hanson chronicles the history of the mosaics at Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey, which was originally built as a Christian basilica nearly 1,500 years ago and is currently a mosque.

By Matt A Hanson

At the southern end of the Bosphorus strait, overlooking the Marmara Sea on the cape of Istanbul’s historic peninsula, construction began on Hagia Sophia in 532 CE. By then, it was the third church to stand over what archaeologists surmise may have been a temple to Poseidon in ancient Byzantium. Under the reign of Emperor Justinian I, the spiritual heart of Eastern Christianity was rebuilt on an ocean of blood.

After disputes over pagan and Christian representation at the former church, built by Theodosius II in 415 CE, the dictatorial Justinian I extinguished the Nika riots with an iron fist, killing what historians evidence as over 30,000 of his subjects with a medieval ruthlessness, diminishing the population of half a million dwellers within the massive expanse of walls around the largest of all Roman cities by nearly ten percent. 

That was the cost for upholding rule over the premodern megalopolis. Yet, nationalist and religious communities continue to vie for ideological supremacy on the ground that still serves as a pivotal nexus for a bustling urban core, where some 16 million Turkish citizens call home. 

Justinian, however, while viciously unkind to dissenters, locking them in the hippodrome and unleashing his army on his own people, deferred to his wife, Theodora, whose reputation as a street walker who rose to the highest court of the land has fired the imagination of artists, novelists and academics for the last fifteen centuries. 

Theodora believed in Monophysitism. To her, Christ had only one nature; divine. She was utterly opposed to Justinian’s sympathies for the Dyophysite camp, who thought of Christ as human too, and so, portrayable in physical form. In turn, she forbade figurative mosaics. 

Comnenus mosaics at Hagia Sophia

After Justinian I died in 565, mosaic artists returned to work under the dome of Hagia Sophia, the second-largest pendentive structure of its kind only outmatched by St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The earliest extant mosaic icon appears only after the 840s. 

In two periods, in the 8th and 9th centuries, Iconoclastic movements outlawed representations of the sacred, resulting in the destruction of figurative mosaic works. The Archaeology Museum in Istanbul has only one surviving mosaic from this time. The oldest Christian mosaic icons remain in the Monastery of St. Katherine in Egypt, which prospered under tolerant Muslim rule. 

The first figurative mosaic panel in the historical record at Hagia Sophia is the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child, a 9th-century relic looking down from the apse, the holiest part of the interior. Geometric mosaics survived from as early as the 6th century, including such abstract designs as crosses and flowers. 

Empress Zoe mosaic

The latest figurative mosaic in Hagia Sophia is from the 14th century. It is in poor condition in the Great Eastern Arch, depicting St. John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary. Many of its pieces fell after successive earthquakes. And for most of their rule, Ottomans had no urgent need to restore them. But that does not mean that they were hostile to Hagia Sophia’s Christian art. 

In fact, it was the Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan, whose savvy in earthquake-prevention buttresses amplified support for the building’s structure. Seamlessly integrated, they are part of the signature aesthetic of the distinctive complex, chronicling overlapping civilizations. 

Since the reconversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque in the summer of 2020, a pinnacle of political symbolism under Turkey’s current Islamist regime, there has been significant outcry, particularly from Orthodox and Greek Christian voices who never lost hope in the reclamation of their history’s most revered place of worship. 

But their determination has been outstripped by the ruling Muslim populace who overturned Kemal Ataturk’s secularist reform that made Hagia Sophia a museum in 1935. Returning its religious function to Turkey’s Muslims as Istanbul’s chief mosque fulfills a prophetic passage in the Quran and affirms its nearly 500 years of Ottoman heritage. 

“Despite popular opinion, while mosaics on the ground floor were covered after Mehmed II conquered the city in 1453, the upper sections of Hagia Sophia were consistently visible to travelers and the prayerful throughout Ottoman rule.” 

Many critics, either bemoaning the loss of Christian glory or emphasizing the site’s universality for all of humanity, have demonized Turks, both in retrospect, looking back to Ottoman times, and with respect to the prevailing agenda. But such lines as have been drawn by bigots abroad and ultranationalist revisionists in current-day Turkey blur as scholars excavate the past. 

Despite popular opinion, while mosaics on the ground floor were covered after Mehmed II conquered the city in 1453, the upper sections of Hagia Sophia were consistently visible to travelers and the prayerful throughout Ottoman rule. This is clearly evident in engravings and the accounts of Turkish explorer Evliya Çelebi, who, in the 17th century, wrote about the face of Jesus in the mosaics that gleam from the center of the dome. 

During Ottoman times, conservationists used a special plaster that protected these artworks, some of which are a thousand years old. To the unknowing eye, they might appear brand new. Although unfamiliar with mosaic art, as Ottoman artists were not productive in the medium like their Christian predecessors, they did significant preservation work. 

The Deesis mosaic

Sultan Abdulmecid, who ruled during the 19th century, famed for building Dolmabahçe Palace, employed two Italian architects, the Fossati brothers, to restore Hagia Sophia and uncovered such mosaics depicting the emperors Constantine I and Justinian I. Amazed by their intricacy, he apparently said that he also wanted his portrait in mosaic relief too. 

When the restoration finished, he ordered the mosaics to be covered again so as not to distract Muslim worshippers. But because the Fossati brothers had produced an album detailing all of the mosaics, future restorative work commenced with greater facility. In 1931, before officially designating Hagia Sophia a museum, Thomas Whittemore of the Byzantine Institute of America led a team of researchers, uncovering the rest of the major figurative mosaics.  

Mosaic in the northern tympanum depicting Saint John Chrysostom

Nowadays, only the Virgin Mary and Child mosaic in the apse is obscured during prayer times, by a moving, electronic curtain. The mosaics in the upper gallery, the narthex and throughout the multicultural, interfaith structure still gleam in the soft, Byzantine light that glows orange and purple, gold and emerald, reminiscent of that eternal world of visions that, like the heavens imagined by its bygone artists are, at times, invisible, just out of reach.  

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