Monday, July 7, 2008

Introducing Myself to the Hagia Sophia

To be completely honest, I had never once heard of the Hagia Sophia before coming to Istanbul. As mentioned earlier, I had never had an extensive education on the Byzantine Empire or the Byzantine monuments that have left such a lasting impression on the Anatolian area. As guilty as I feel about my lack of knowledge, it has given me a deeper appreciation for its historical and architectural elegance.

Despite class discussions prior to our visit to the Hagia Sophia, I still found it difficult to pick out which parts of the church were later additions by the Ottoman sultans and not the original work of Justinian’s architects Isidore and Anthemius. The obvious additions that are consistent with Islamic art are the four minarets flanking the church. Being preferential to the authenticity of a structure, I find it difficult to understand why the Ottomans felt the need to add these pieces because I feel they detract too much attention from the center of the Hagia Sophia and her dome. However, I will admit that the buttresses do add an interesting gothic appeal. The pointed arches of the Islamic style give the illusion that the narthex is much wider than it really is adding to the extravagance of the building.

Of all of the mosaics that have survived the Ottoman Empire and the many centuries since their creation, my favorite is the Deësis where John the Baptist and Mary are shown beside Christ Pantocrator shown in the upper gallery. Their images are evidence of the Byzantines' move to more classical images by the shadowing of their hair, clothes, and skin. This mosaic is believed to have been completed in the thirteenth century and preserved under plaster by a sultan who wanted to save it from deterioration or vandalism from Islamic enthusiasts. The following link contains a very informative site about the history, preservation, and technique used for the Deësis mosaic: http://www.pallasweb.com/deesis/. The realism of these figures made them, for me, the most memorable image of the Hagia Sophia in comparison to the other mosaics. The mosaic of the royal family of Emperor John II Komnenos, his wife Eirene, and their son and expected successor shows very stiff figures. Though still beautiful, these mosaics, completed during the 12th century, are not as realistic or classical as the Deësis.

I also found it interesting that the elaborate mosaics were hidden in the upper gallery behind the marble wall. Being hidden from the other members of the church and visible only to council members sends a statement that these mosaics were more politically and religiously motivated than they were for artistic appreciation.

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