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Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey

Hagia Sophia, 532-537, Istanbul, Isadore of Miletus, architect.
In viewing Istanbul's ancient Hagia Sophia through an artist's eye, the iconic Byzantine structure looks better from a distance than it does up close. Even so, it is hard to appreciate it's beauty as one accustomed to the aesthetic nuances of Western Architecture. Even at a distance, as its pleasant proportions seem comforting and its slender minarets soar heavenward, yet there is still the unpleasant association with, for lack of a better term, a "lump." Part of this impression is an element of Byzantine architecture itself. I had the same feeling from the inside, of San Marco Basilical in Venice (also Byzantine). Whereas Western cathedrals, especially Gothic manifestations, have a light, airy, soaring look and feel, Byzantine architecture has none of that. It often seems heavy, oppressive, rather dark, and dreary. Of course, the Hagia Sophia, like San Marco, possesses many of those traits for only one reason--they're both quite old.

The Hagia Sophia interior today in its current role as a museum.
Justinian I (482-565)
Having said that, "old" is a relative term. Though you couldn't tell in visiting either of them, the Hagia Sophia is about five-hundred years older than San Marco's Basilica in Venice (1073). The current Hagia Sophia was completed in 537 by the Greek architects, Isadore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles at the behest of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. This followed the destruction of the previous structure by a mob during what has come to be known as the Nika riots. He spent 20,000 pounds of gold--that's ten tons of the stuff. The cost is not surprising in that, unlike the two earlier churches, which previously occupied the site (the first dating from as early as 360 AD. and both burned to the ground), the present Hagia Sophia was built of stone, brick, and (poorly cured) mortar--no wood.

Floor plan and cutaway elevation of the Hagia Sophia suggesting some of
the inherent problems of spanning such an enormous space (269 ft. by 240 ft.)
with brick, stone, and mortar, especially in an earthquake zone.
During the 6th century, architecture was not an art, not a career, more of a science involving masonry engineering and especially mathematics. Both of Justinian's "architects" were math professors steeped in geometry. Given the era during which the worked, they were also very good engineers. The church took five years to build and for more than a thousand years the Hagia Sophia was the largest place of worship in the world. Although they anticipated fire and riots, and took precautions to minimize both, the only factor these two math geniuses seem to have left out of their calculations was the region's tendency to host earthquakes.

The Hagia Sophia as it may have looked before 1453 when
Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks.
The first came just sixteen years after the church was completed. Cracks in the main dome developed by 557. The following year, yet another earthquake brought the dome crashing down destroying the high altar and the ciborium (the freestanding structure over the high altar). The dome, architecturally daring for its time, was, in fact, a little too daring and a little too flat. Its weight caused the deformation of the piers holding it up. Isadore's nephew was hired by Justinian to rebuild the dome from lighter materials, converting it to a ribbed structure with pendentives. More importantly, Isadore (the younger) also raised the dome's height by thirty feet, to its present elevation of 182 feet (roughly 55 meters). The restoration was completed in 562.

Virgin and Child flanked by Justinian I and Constantine I. Byzantine emperors loved  getting their pictures made with the Mary and Jesus. The Hagia Sophia
has several such examples.
It worked...for some three hundred years. Then there was another fire in 859 and another earthquake in 869 (one of the half-domes collapsed this time). An earthquake in 989 collapsed the western dome arch. This time repairs took six years, and while they were at it, the Emperor, Basil II, decided to redecorate the place as well, ripping down all the old murals and mosaics (many of them never repaired from previous earthquakes) and installing new. The dome got a new painting of Christ, while the apse got a new mosaic of the Virgin Mary holding Jesus as Justinian I and Constantine I present models of their architectural contributions to Christendom (above).

Hagia Sophia Inner Narthex, 1852, Gaspare Fossati.
(Note the iron tie rods used to reinforce the vaults in case of earthqakes.)
If the history of the architectural Hagia Sophia has been fraught with earthshattering developments, the same might be said for its religious past--an Eastern Orthodox church from its completion in 537 until the capture of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204, when it was ransacked and many of it's relics dispersed to Cathedrals in Europe (including a stone from the tomb of Christ, the Virgin Mary's milk, and lots of apostolic bones). Then it became a Catholic cathedral for the next fifty-seven years until the Byzantines recaptured in in 1261. It then remained a Byzantine church until 1453 when the Turks captured it and turned it into a mosque. Christian decorations were destroyed or plastered over to be replace by Arabic calligraphy The minarets date from this period.

The Hagia Sophia, 1852, Gaspare Fossati
Gaspare Fossati's painting of the
Hagia Sophia interior, ca. 1850.
Since 1935, the Hagia Sophia has been restored as a museum by the Turkish government, though various groups have pressed for it to once more become a church or a mosque. Unlike many such iconic architectural landmarks around the world, the Hagia Sophia has not been a mecca for artists. John Singer Sargent once painted a view of the interior (below), but mostly any artist rendering have come from the brushes of Gaspare Fossati and his brother, Giuseppe (above and at left), Swiss architects employed in the mid-1800s to oversee restoration work on the building. Photographers, however, love it, providing no shortage of present-day images of this ancient work of art, science, religion...and earthquakes.

Interior, Hagia Sophia, 1891, John Singer Sargent



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