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Hagia Sohia

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Marie Louise Nielsen

Art History I

Professor Hill

Research Paper - 30 June 2011

Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia has been visible from the across the Sea of Marmara, rising up from the city that was Byzantium, became Constantinople and is now Istanbul. Its enormous buttresses and soaring minarets, symbolize a cultural collision of epic proportions. The structure stands not only as a magnificent architectural treasure, but also as a complex accretion of myth, symbol and history. The landmark entwines the legacies of medieval Christianity, the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman Empire, resurgent Islam and modern secular Turkey (Bordewich 1). Hagia Sophia represents the very essence of the history of Turkey and the continuous transformation it has undergone throughout the ages, standing as a visual testimony to the heritage of the region. Once a great symbol of Christianity, it demonstrated superiority over pagan religions and political alliance with its use of spolia (Freyhauf 1). Through conquest, it became a representation of dominance and legitimization of Islam to the world. Upon the secularization of the country, Hagia Sophia became a museum to both Christianity and Islam, frozen in time, trying to complete the ultimate goal of balancing these faiths. Hagia Sophia was and is a visual art with widespread and enduring influence both architecturally and liturgically.

Hagia Sophia is one of the great architectural accomplishments of its time. Its exterior silhouette hints at the interior space, however the visual power and success of the dome, is best appreciated from the inside. Hagia Sophia is the third church built on the site; originally designed by Constantine, the first Christian Emperor, and built by Constantius, his son. It opened in 360 CE as grand symbol of Christianity. Constantine wanted to make Constantinople the New Rome with the Hagia Sophia, known the as Megale Ekklesia, or "Great Church", the seat of Christianity. This idea would lay the groundwork that eventually divided the Western and Eastern Church. Constantine's church was destroyed in 404 CE during a riot when Emperor Arcadius sent the Patriarch of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, into exile for his open criticism of the Empress (Parkyn 21-22). In 415 CE, the second church was built by Theodpsius II in the same location, next to both the Great Palace of the Byzantine Emperors and the Hippodrome. Its status as a public symbol of imperial power led to the fire during the Nika riot in January of 535 CE (Parkyn 22).

After the revolt, Emperor Justinian commissioned two architects to design a church that would embody imperial power and Christian glory. It was to be a new style of church in the early Christian world. Instead of architects he chose two scholar-theoreticians, Anthemius of Tralles, specialist in geometry and optics and Isidorus of Miletus, specialist is physics (Stokstad 234). The fact that they were not trained primarily as architects or builders may partly account for the fresh approach, which enabled them to design an unprecedented domed structure. The brief given to Anthemius and Isidorus demanded the construction of a sacred place unprecedented in any other church, which had to be appropriate for the regular celebration of the Byzantine liturgy as well as for state and ceremonial pomp (Parkyn 22). Its great scale and novel design must soon have become almost frighteningly apparent to all observers as work started on the construction of the piers that were to carry the high vaults of the nave. Their clear spacing was half again greater than the span of any known building in the Eastern Empire and considerably greater even than the most nearly comparable structure in Old Rome, the Basilica Nova of Maxentius and Constantine, built two centuries earlier. Here there was to be no progressive development of a new form through a sequence of related experiments, such as that which produced the great Gothic cathedrals of the Ile de France, but a venture to be likened only to the construction of the dome of Florence Cathedral (Mainstone 9).

Prior to Hagia Sophia, churches were designed in accordance with the traditional Roman basilican plan, consisting of a rectangular shape, and apse, a timber truss roof and no dome (Raezer 19). This all changed with Emperor Justinian, the inspiration behind the paradigm-shifting third version; Byzantine churches were based on a central plan, with the primary nave based prayer space enclosed by an enormous dome. One of the reasons for the break from the basilican plan was because the liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Church based in Constantinople was very different from that of the Western Catholic Church based in Rome. In Rome, presiding priests had been relegated to the apse of the church for services; the congregation filled the large majority of the churches interior, occupying the nave and aisles. However in Constantinople, the congregation was relegated to the aisles and galleries above them; the entire nave and apse was the exclusive domain of the priests. This was due to the importance of processions in the Orthodox faith, whereby important religious figures would enter the church and the elements of the Eucharist would be retrieved in the middle of the service; as a result, the key elements of the mass were celebrated in the center of the nave. Thus, in order to assure viewing for the entire congregation, a centralized plan was optimal (Raezer 19-22).

One characteristic of much Byzantine architecture is a clear preference for domes on both basilican and centrally planned churches. Like the Romans, the Byzantines saw the dome as symbolic of heavenly sphere, complementary to the earthly realm of floor and walls below (Moffett 148). Justinian was extremely religious and, as Emperor, viewed himself as having a direct link to God, consistent with the pre-Christian imperial Roman tradition. Accordingly, Justinian perhaps gained inspiration from pagan architecture and symbolic of such a link; centralized, domed plans were characteristic of temples or imperial halls. By contrast, in the absence of a strong secular power in Rome, the basilican plan prevailed, with no reversion to pagan architectural designs (Raezer 16). Thus, the precedent basilican plan was in large part abandoned with the third iteration of Hagia Sophia, which was based on a central plan. An enormous dome, reaching 56 meters above the floor level and spanning 31.2 meters in diameter, covered the primary prayer space. To put this in perspective, the largest dome in antiquity of the Roman Pantheon, has a height and diameter of 43 meters. However, Hagia Sophia is not a pure central plan church, in that



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