Byzantium Revisited: The Mosaics of Hagia Sophia in the Twentieth Century

Byzantium Revisited: The Mosaics of Hagia Sophia in the Twentieth Century

Helen C. Evans (Curator of Early Christian and Byzantine Art The Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The Modern Greek Program, University of Michigan, 4th Annual Pallas Lecture • February 9, (2006)

Constantine and Justinian lunette mosaic

In March 1944, “The Metropolitan Museum Bulletin” had a royal purple cover showing in color the plaster cast of one of the most important images of the Virgin and Child in the Byzantine world, that of the apse of Hagia Sophia. The church, the great monument of Byzantine Constantinople and contemporary Istanbul, was built in the sixth century by the Emperor Justinian after the Nike riots of 532 had destroyed the earlier church dedicated to Holy Wisdom on the site. His Empire, that we call Byzantium, had been established  with the transfer of the imperial capital of the Roman Empire from Rome in Italy to the New Rome of Constantinople in 330 A.D. Under his reign its territories once again stretched around the Mediterranean, evoking the imperial territories of ancient Rome. In ordering the rebuilding of Hagia Sophia, Justinian sought to create a powerful symbol of his power and that of the religion of the state. Designed by the leading mathematician/architects, Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus, the vast dome rose more than 100 feet into the air. Procopius, Justinian’s contemporary, was so overwhelmed at the sight that he wrote that the dome appeared “as though suspended from heaven by a golden chain.”

The impact of the building, the seat of the patriarch of the Orthodox Church, did not diminish over time. In 988, the envoys sent by Vladimir, ruler of Rus’ to Constantinople, would report that he and his people should become Christians in the Orthodox tradition because “they did not know if they were in heaven or on earth” when they attended services at Hagia Sophia. In the 12th century, Abbot Suger who built St. Denis, the burial church of the kings of France and one of the wellsprings of French Gothic art, would ask to be reassured by returning Crusaders that the liturgical objects of St. Denis were as grand as those of Hagia Sophia. And between the ninth and thirteenth centuries, Byzantine emperors would frequently add monumental mosaics to the interior, the mosaics that I am going to discuss today.

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