Sunday 6 May 2012


“It is the neglect of timely repair that makes rebuilding necessary.” - Richard Whately

Hagia Sofia (Aya Sofya) is the legendary Church of Holy Wisdom in Istanbul, Western Turkey. Dedicated on December 26th, 537 AD by the emperor Justinian, the great church of Haghia Sophia was the religious centre of the Byzantine Empire for nine hundred years, in what was then the capital of the Empire, Constantinople (now Istanbul). After the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453, The Hagia Sophia served as an imperial mosque of the Ottoman Empire. After the foundation of the Turkish Republic, it was turned into a museum in 1935.

The present structure dates from the reign of Justinian (527-565 AD), and was built by his architects Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus. Isidorus the Younger, nephew of Isidorus of Miletus, supervised significant restoration after an earthquake in Justinian’s time. Buttresses were erected much later by Emperor Andronicus Palaeologus in 1317 and minarets were added by Sultan Mehmet II (the Conqueror), Beyazit II, and Murat III.

The church was sumptuously built with rich carvings, marble facings, semiprecious stones, a solid silver iconostasis, and richly decorated with frescoes and mosaics throughout the centuries. The mosaics either depicted the Virgin Mother, Jesus, saints, or emperors and empresses. Other parts were decorated in a purely decorative style with geometric patterns. During the Sack of Constantinople in 1204, the Latin Crusaders vandalised valuable items in every important Byzantine structure of the city, including the golden mosaics of the Hagia Sophia. Many of these items were shipped to Venice, whose Doge, Enrico Dandolo, had organized the invasion and sack of Constantinople.

Following the building’s conversion into a mosque in 1453, many of its mosaics were covered with plaster, due to Islam’s ban on representational imagery. This process was not completed at once, and reports exist from the 17th century in which travellers note that they could still see Christian images in the former church. In 1847–49, the building was restored by two Swiss Italian brothers, Gaspare and Giuseppe Fossati, and Sultan Abdülmecid allowed them to also document any mosaics they might discover during this process. This work did not include repairing the mosaics and after recording the details about an image, the Fossatis painted it over again. In some cases, the Fossatis recreated damaged decorative mosaic patterns in paint, sometimes redesigning them in the process.

The Fossati records are the primary sources about a number of mosaic images now believed to have been completely or partially destroyed in an earthquake in 1894. These include a great mosaic of Christ Pantocrator in the dome, a mosaic over a now-unidentified Door of the Poor, a large image of a jewel-encrusted cross, and a large number of images of angels, saints, patriarchs, and church fathers. Most of the missing images were located in the building’s two tympana. The Fossatis also added a pulpit (minbar) and the four large medallions on the walls of the nave bearing the names of Muhammad and Islam’s first caliphs.

Illustrated here is a particularly fine 12th Century mosaic (most likely from 1118 AD) of the Virgin Mary and the infant Christ flanked by Emperor John II Comnenus and the Empress Irene (Eirene). The inscription above the emperor reads: “John, in Christ the Lord faithful Emperor, Porphyrogenitus and Autocrat of the Romans, Comnenus”. The term porphyrogenitus means “born in the purple”, i.e. a legitimate son of the reigning emperor. Keep in mind that the first son of the preceding emperor did not always live long enough to be crowned himself (in fact, John’s two eldest sons died before him).  Also known as Kaloiannis (John the Beautiful), he was apparently quite ugly (the term beautiful apparently referring to his pious character). He married the daughter (later to be the Empress Eirene) of King Ladislaus I of Hungary. The inscription above her head reads: “Eirene, the most pious Augusta”.

This mosaic exemplifies the high art and technical expertise reached by the mosaic artists of the Byzantine era, who created shimmering, sparkling works with vivid and fresh colours. Mosaics have a high degree of permanency and that these mosaics survived for centuries and numerous attempts at defacement is a credit to the skill of the artists and craftsmen, as well as the permanency of the medium of mosaic.

With the Greek Election occurring today it is perhaps appropriate that one considers the persistence of the Greek people and the ever-recurring resurrection of a country and people that has been conquered, enslaved, subjugated, razed and humiliated on numerous occasions. The recent economic crisis and its numerous attendant misfortunes is yet another of these obstacles that will be overcome and Greece will rise from its ashes once again. It will be like a mosaic obscured by time, neglect, daubing with plaster, which is revealed by loving restoration.

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