Monday, July 7, 2008

Iconoclasm Confusion

Evidence of destruction of the iconic symbols and figures at the Hagia Sophia can be found around every corner. The practices of iconoclasm by the Ottomans had a drastic effect on the d├ęcor of the church and its identity as a Byzantine basilica. After is was transformed into a mosque by the triumphant Turks, dedicated to the Islamic faith, stormed into Constantinople in 1453, the Hagia Sophia lost many images to destruction based on the belief of iconoclasts. Iconoclasm is the belief that graven images and representations of human figures associated with God are forbidden--and it was a process the Byzantines themselves endured earlier in their own history. It is curious that the Islamic faith practices iconoclasm when it is not even a written rule in the Qur’an to avoid such images, whereas in the Christian Ten Commandments it is a specified sin to worship or idolize graven images. Yet much of Christian art is based on the Christ on the cross, or during the Byzantine period, the Virgin and Child or Christ Pantocrator.

The locations of Christian imagery often appear as only shadows of their former glory among the walls of the Hagia Sophia.  I found a few silhouettes (that were nearly upsetting) up in the gallery where it was evident that the walls were lined with the Eastern Orthodox cross figurines.

Other evidence of the cross figure was a silhouette on the inner-side of the marble wall leading to the area for council members only. This is the popular image of the cross standing on the orb used by Constantine. It is sad that we must leave it to our imaginations alone as to what materials these images were made of and if or how they were adorned.

If the Islamic faith forbids such images, then I am still baffled as to why any Christian images in the Hagia Sophia exist today at all. The images of the Virgin Mary and Gabriel are very vivid and well-preserved so I don’t understand why the sultans ordered them to just be covered with plaster instead of being destroyed. It is believed that the sultan who had these images covered was doing so to prevent any more vandalism and/or to preserve these images as historical artifacts. I have a difficult time understanding this reasoning based on the iconoclastic beliefs and the measures already taken to convert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque.

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