Post-classical history

The Church of Hagia Sophia

Rising above this circle is an enormous spherical dome, which makes the building exceptionally beautiful. It seems not to be founded on solid masonry, but to be suspended from heaven by that golden chain and so to cover the space.

Procopius, The Buildings, c. 560

Although Yeats chose the title ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ for his poem of 1928, he never went to Istanbul, the Turkish name for Constantinople. He visited Ravenna and saw the Byzantine mosaics there, but did not experience the thrill of arriving at Byzantium by sea. Approaching from the Dardanelles through the Sea of Marmara, the first signs of the old city are eagerly anticipated. Eventually, the land and sea walls announce the enclosing defences and soon the minarets surrounding the dome of Hagia Sophia come into view. This is a strangely exciting moment. It was how I first caught sight of it when I was a student and the experience remains, despite the skyscrapers that now dominate the modern quarter. The power of the church’s profile dominates the skyline, the sheer bulk of the immense structure grows as one approaches by sea (plate 16). Its great dome is amazing at a distance and becomes even more striking as the enormous buttresses that support it are revealed. Beyond it, around Seraglio point and within the harbour of the Golden Horn, the same church can be seen from the north.

If the exterior of the building amazes, its vast interior is awesome. Lit by the sun through the windows of the dome and at gallery level, the distant heights of the church reflect the glowing gold mosaics, while the lower levels remain darker. Once accustomed to this contrast, the multi-coloured marble decoration of the walls and floor can be appreciated, and the finely carved capitals set on magnificent columns carry the eye back up to the dome (plate 18). This monument is the paramount symbol of Byzantium.

For medieval visitors, amazement at the scale of the building and its beauty in Christian use was even more pronounced because they knew few large buildings. It was lit by thousands of candles and lamps hung in front of icons, illuminating the coloured marbles and gold and blue mosaics. From a central ambo, a carved platform like a pulpit, in front of the decorated curtains which separated the main body of the church from the sanctuary around the altar, the deacon read the lessons and the patriarch preached. The ambassadors of Prince Vladimir of Kiev told him:

We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendour or such beauty… We only know that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations.

At the time of its consecration on 27 December 537, there was no figural decoration on the walls, apart from the four great seraphim which still peep out from their long wings covering the pendentives. The dominance of gold mosaic in the side aisles and galleries was echoed in the dome decorated with a huge cross in a medallion.

Its form was utterly novel. Most early Christian churches adopted the plan of a basilica, based on imperial reception halls. These long, tall constructions, which survive as St Sabina at Rome and the basilica built by Constantine at Trier (in Germany), were readily adapted for ecclesiastical use with the addition of a raised platform at the east end for the altar. The shrines of martyrs, often constructed round the tomb, prompted an alternative form, with galleries surrounding the central focus, as at St Costanza, Rome. While the dome was known to Roman architects and was used to great effect at the Pantheon, with its oculus open to the sky, there is little evidence of it in the east Mediterranean. Precursors to the dome of Hagia Sophia have been sought in small domed buildings in Isauria, which demonstrate the technical skill required. But no one in the city had ever tried to raise such a vast cupola until Justinian commissioned the new church of Holy Wisdom.

To understand how extraordinary his order was, I will first look at the pre-Christian artistic traditions, which Byzantium used to create its own distinctive styles. The most obvious inheritance of antiquity was imperial art: the depiction of rulers (statues, reliefs, and portraits in mosaics and on coin) and their regalia (jewelled crowns, orbs and sceptres, marriage belts, and costumes made of imperial purple and red boots). Byzantium also adapted for Christian use decorative artistic techniques for sculpting architectural elements such as columns and capitals and reliefs to decorate funerary monuments and sarcophagi. Similarly, Byzantine craftsmen continued ancient skills of working in precious metals, enamel, ivory and rock crystal. They were supremely good at these technical matters: striking coins, carving elephant tusk, cutting different coloured marbles to form polychrome pavements and wall coverings, and weaving complex multi-coloured patterns in silk.

Prior to the sixth century, silk cloth imported from China and Persia was so highly appreciated that it was unravelled to provide thread for Roman and Byzantine looms. According to Theodoretus of Cyrrhus, the ‘nimble fingers of women and children’ were employed in this activity. When the secret of the silk moth’s life cycle was discovered, allegedly by monks who smuggled some silk worms out of China and presented them to Justinian, the planting of mulberry trees to provide their essential foodstuff initiated a new industry in Byzantium. After the Arab conquest of Persia and the Near East in the seventh century, the silk workshops of Tyre and Sidon were moved back behind the Taurus Mountains frontier and later to the capital. Some provincial production was permitted and the making of purple dye from tiny murex shellfish harvested off the coasts of Greece and Asia Minor was encouraged by tax exemptions.

Silk weaving was then concentrated in imperial workshops in Constantinople, where the processes were carefully protected as a state monopoly. Strict controls applied to every stage of production, which was organized by groups of skilled workers. Silks traditionally displayed natural, secular and imperial subjects: pairs of lions, eagles, griffins, hunters, amazons or charioteers, in vivid colours (plate 7). Christian themes, such as scenes from the life of Christ, were much less common. During the seventh and eighth centuries, production within the empire developed so dramatically that bishops of Rome listed gifts of Byzantine silks such as those carried to Rome by Lazaros, the Khazar icon painter, in 857/8. An embassy sent to the western Emperor Louis the Pious in 824 included ten silks of different colours among the diplomatic gifts.

Among other luxury artefacts, enamels and gold jewellery were made, including marriage belts and rings with traditional images of Homonia (Concord), to which images of Christ blessing the married couple were added. Gold filigree and enamel earrings, pendants and bracelets continued the same mixture of ancient and Christian themes. Similar associations of holy authority with secular power are clear on coins and ivories, where Christ crowns the emperor and thus conveys heavenly approval to his worldly representative (plate 14). In the production of manuscripts, dyeing parchment purple and writing on it with silver ink also preserved an ancient practice. Illustrated copies of the Iliad and Odyssey, usually on papyrus, provided models for the biblical texts illustrated by medieval painters, often using an almost strip-cartoon style.

After an initial emphasis on the symbolic features of Christianity – loaves and fishes, the sign of the cross – artists began to depict its leaders, Christ, His Mother and the martyrs. These Byzantine portraits of holy persons used the technique of painting in encaustic (heated wax coloured with a wide range of tones), which had been employed for Roman funerary portraits. Religious icons are often considered the quintessential feature of Byzantine art. How they became so dominant is much disputed; I discuss the problem in chapter 9. Some of the earliest survive in the monastery of St Catherine at Mount Sinai, which holds three magnificent icons often associated with the emperor’s patronage: the celebrated image of Christ Pantokrator (Ruler of All) (plate 21); of the Virgin and Child with military saints and angels; and of St Peter. The icon of Christ was over-painted later and thus not identified as a work of the sixth century until its restoration. It appears to regard the viewer with huge all-seeing eyes differentiated by shape and function: one seems to sternly condemn while the other forgives. The icons of the Virgin and St Peter do not address the viewer so directly. In all three the figures are set against an architectural frame. Such paintings in encaustic are extremely striking, bold and powerful; they are also works produced fast to capture human features, particularly the eyes and flesh tones in lifelike colours. The technique does not appear to have survived into the medieval period, when it was replaced by the use of egg white to fix the colours.

In all these artistic fields, Byzantine craftsmen adapted ancient techniques to new ends. But for the construction of Hagia Sophia they attempted something unheard-of. The context for this novel experiment lies in the early years of Justinian’s rule. Justinian became emperor in 527 after the death of his uncle Justin, who had brought him to Constantinople and prepared him for the succession. In contrast to Justin, who was a successful military commander but not an educated man, Justinian had a sure grasp of imperial administration, law, theology and court ceremonial. During his uncle’s ten-year rule, he played an influential role and took responsibility for major changes of policy. As we have seen, he insisted on revising the law against senators marrying commoners in order to make Theodora his wife, over the strong disapproval of his aunt Empress Lupicina Euphemia. As soon as he became sole ruler he took initiatives: to reform the law, to enforce higher taxation, to renew warfare with Persia. He appointed generals to fight for the empire and spent most of his life in the capital. Where and how he acquired his passion for building remains unclear.

In 532, the Greens and Blues, the groups responsible for Hippodrome entertainment, organized a serious challenge to the emperor’s power. Normally rivals, on this occasion the groups united in their hostility to Justinian’s financial policies and proclaimed Hypatius, a nephew of Emperor Anastasius I, as a rival emperor. Over his wife’s objections, Hypatius reluctantly served their purposes, and crowds gathered in the Hippodrome to witness his acclamation and robing in the imperial purple. The rebellion was called ‘Nika’ from the word for ‘Conquer’, which was chanted by the participants. To heighten the threat, the Greens and Blues set fire to the centre of the city and burned down a large area, including the basilica church of Hagia Sophia. As Procopius recounts the incident, Justinian met with his advisers inside the palace to consider what to do. Within earshot of the chants of the massed crowd, plans for flight on boats from the palace harbour were detailed. Then Empress Theodora – she who had been the master of the crowd and its applause – stepped forward to declare that she was not prepared to leave. ‘Purple makes a fine shroud,’ she said, quoting ancient authors such as Isocrates: ‘I would prefer to die in this imperial cloth.’ Inspired by her resolute determination, her husband was, it seems, persuaded to use force rather than negotiate with the rebels or flee. He ordered troops into the Hippodrome and a massacre of unarmed Byzantines followed.

Theodora was not the first but certainly one of the most striking of a series of forceful women who exercised great power in Byzantium. Often they were outsiders speaking for an autocratic power they had bent to their will, and were responsible for great bloodshed. Imperial wives and widows took initiatives unthinkable in other medieval societies. Even if the precise wording of Procopius’ account was invented, stories of Theodora’s intervention must have circulated within the palace and among the city’s residents. Her example is cited as one that other women wanted to follow. Empresses like Irene (780–90, 797– 802), Theodora (842–56), Zoe (914–19) and Theophano (963–9), although they were always patronized by men and documented only by male writers, evidently shaped and directed imperial power.

Those like Theodora who married into the ruling dynasty, rapidly learnt to exploit court tensions to their own benefit. Irene’s career provides striking evidence of this ability: she cultivated the support of court factions and the Church to rise to the position of emperor, blinding her son Constantine VI and ruling for five years alone (see chapter 10). In contrast, those born into the imperial family, Zoe and her sister Theodora in the eleventh century or Anna Komnene in the twelfth, for example, were trained in ceremonial routines and philanthropic customs from an early age. But they too surprised their contemporaries by taking a much larger role than that allowed to women in general. Zoe and Theodora dominated the period from 1028 to 1056, when they ruled together or alone and promoted five different men to the imperial office. After Zoe’s death, Theodora assumed sole control of the empire, which she in turn bequeathed to her husband. The legacy of Justinian’s wife can thus be traced down the centuries, reflecting memories of a powerful individual and an unlikely but highly successful marriage.


On the burned-out spaces created by the fire in central Constantinople, Justinian envisioned a grand rebuilding plan, laid out around the Augusteum, a large square dedicated to the emperors. To the north he placed both of the most important churches, the cathedral dedicated to Holy Wisdom, Hagia Sophia, commonly called the Great Church, and its neighbour, Holy Peace (Hagia Eirene, St Irene). To the south and west he planned the restored Senate House, parts of the patriarchate, the hospice of Samson (a charitable institution), and the Chalke Gate, which formed the principal entrance of the Great Palace. Close by he rebuilt the public baths, named after Zeuxippos, and the area of colonnaded stoas on either side of the main thoroughfare, the Mese, extending as far as the Forum of Constantine.

In considering the form of the cathedral church, Justinian may have been influenced by the building activity of a wealthy senatorial lady, Juliana Anicia, who had recently completed an extremely grand church dedicated to St Polyeuktos on her property near the aqueduct of Valens. While it is not clear if this church had a dome or a pitched roof, Justinian was determined that the church of St Sophia would be larger and even more beautiful. The emperor spared no expense in the construction, which began immediately after the riot. He commissioned two engineers, Anthemius of Tralles (also known as a mathematician) and Isidore of Miletos, to raise a huge dome, 31m in diameter, over the nave of the church at a height of 55m from the base, a feat never before attempted. In his panegyric for the emperor, The Buildings, Procopius described the technique used to construct this unprecedented building, which seems to have been completed within five years of the riot. He was probably one of the congregation who attended the inauguration of the new church just after Christmas 537. But he was at a loss to explain how the structure supported such a broad dome, pierced by forty windows through which the sun filtered into the vast cavern below. He described it as a structure that floats.

While the existence of earlier domes indicates that the necessary engineering skills were familiar, the scale of Hagia Sophia was exceptional. To raise its roof required very substantial structures at each corner of the square base, from which half-diamond-shaped pendentives curved upwards to support the circular base of the dome. To the east and west, semi-domes at a lower level sheltered the apse and covered the double narthex, through which people entered the church through seven doors. The central and largest set of doors was reserved for the patriarch and emperor, who would greet each other here before stepping into the main body of the church. Inside, the multi-coloured marble floor extended to the lower levels of the side walls, and the multitude of coloured columns supported a decorative carved panel which ran all round the building. The capitals preserved the letters of the imperial names, Justinian and Theodora, and the ceilings of the galleries were covered in gold tesserae. When the emperor first saw the finished building he is alleged to have declared, ‘Solomon, I have surpassed thee.’ Clearly, he wished to be considered in the same category as one of the greatest builders ever known. The result of Anthemius’ and Isidore’s work is a justly famous architectural innovation that remained unrivalled for about a thousand years.

In the square of the Augusteum, decorated with classical statues of emperors, Justinian erected his own column topped with an equestrian statue. He was shown wearing Persian military uniform, in a reference to Roman victories over Persia achieved by Belisarius. He reconstructed the Senate House, with magnificent white marble columns supporting a portico embellished with coloured marbles, its roof topped by numerous statues. He also commissioned two new hospices, as well as the huge cistern now called Yeri Batan Saray, to the west of Hagia Sophia. By all this rebuilding, Justinian left his mark on the centre of the city of Constantine.

Twenty-one years later, an earthquake caused cracks in the dome. When they were being repaired, the eastern part of the semi-dome over the altar collapsed. With other expert builders, Isidore the Younger, son of the original engineer, decided to secure the dome by raising it by 7 metres, making it narrower and steeper. It was redecorated with the same gold mosaic design of a monumental cross, and the rebuilding was commemorated in a lengthy verse description by Paul, a court official. This gives a sense of the mixture of colours achieved by using varied marbles for the columns: green from Karystos, Lakonia and Thessaly; speckled from Phrygia; white from Prokonnesos in the Sea of Marmara; purple from Egypt; and other imports from Libya and Lydia. Paul documents the use of onyx, of much precious metal and curtains shielding the main body of the church from the area of the apse (bema), which were decorated with images of Christ, his Mother and saints. The chancel also had silver discs engraved with similar images, and the ambo was entirely sheathed in silver.

In The Buildings, Procopius provides a detailed account of Hagia Sophia and many churches in other cities, fortifications, baths, roads, bridges, and inns at which the imperial post changed horses, all constructed by Justinian. The empire’s finances had been improved by Emperor Anastasius, and apparently unlimited resources were available to finance the imperial mania for construction. The army provided engineering techniques and muscle for military constructions, while hundreds of builders and craftsmen must have been engaged for the mosaic and marble decoration that adorned the emperor’s numerous churches dedicated to the Mother of God, such as the New Church at Jerusalem. Justinian demanded the best technicians, the most skilled craftsmen, and challenged them to realize his grand ambitions. The cost of all his buildings must have strained imperial finances, although calculating the budget is extremely difficult (see chapter 14). Procopius’ account is a eulogy of the emperor, possibly written to gain an imperial position. The same author also recorded the emperor’s campaigns against the Persians, the Vandals and the Goths in The Wars. Since he accompanied the general Belisarius in a civilian capacity, his eyewitness account of many battles and negotiations forms a remarkable history in the classical style. It is full of detailed information about Justinian’s strategy for restoring the Roman Empire. Yet we know very little about the author.

In the Anecdota, or Secret History, on the other hand, Procopius records what he could not include in his other writings: the empress’s origins as a circus performer; her callous treatment of courtiers and determined persecution of religious opponents are related to the emperor’s weakness in resisting his wife and to his own devilish practices. Justinian’s ability to go without sleep, needing little food, is here related to supernatural powers and a wicked intention of destroying the social fabric of the empire. Both empress and emperor, who came from the lower classes, distrusted the engrained powers of the aristocracy and tried to reduce its traditional superiority. But Procopius’ extreme condemnation here stands in marked contrast to his measured account of the military campaigns or the uncritical praise of the buildings. The Secret History is so called because it remained unpublished in his lifetime and was only discovered in the seventeenth century in a manuscript in Rome. At first, scholars believed it to be written by another Procopius, but now Averil Cameron has shown that all three works are clearly by the same author. Procopius was evidently a many-layered author and his motives for using such contrasting approaches remain a challenge to modern readers.

During his long rule of nearly forty years, Justinian achieved much, but nothing was more glorious or lasting than Hagia Sophia. On important feasts, when the imperial couple would attend services in the cathedral church, the emperor with the patriarch, the empress seated in the southwest gallery, they could witness the brilliance of the Byzantine liturgy in Hagia Sophia. Unlike other lay people, rulers could also enter the sanctuary reserved to the clergy, for instance when they changed the altar cloth or presented crowns to the church. Descriptions of the church all stress the glittering effect of the light of innumerable lamps, some suspended from the dome, others outlining the structures, which made such an unforgettable impact.

The amazement expressed by later visitors was common among the Byzantines themselves, who wondered how on earth such a structure could have been erected. Arab visitors recorded their admiration for the great clock in Hagia Sophia with twenty-four doors that opened and shut to mark the hours. The monument generated a series of legendary stories which extend from the Account of the Construction (probably of the second half of the tenth century), through Russian pilgrim texts and on into modern Greek folklore. The Account describes how Justinian planned the monument, using the wood of the Ark of Noah for the doors; how an angel watched over the building to make sure it would not collapse and demanded that the workers construct a triple window in the apse to honour the Trinity. These tales passed into popular memory and resurfaced in different centuries with slight variations and embellishments. Hagia Sophia, for centuries the largest church in Christendom, continued to astonish and to provoke imaginative explanations.

The church of Holy Wisdom also inspired the mosque constructed by Sultan Mehmet II on the site of the imperial mausoleum and church of the Holy Apostles after the occupation of Constantinople in 1453. It was an important symbol of the fundamental change. Yet the new domed mosque, named after the conqueror, celebrated a form of building that was clearly Christian. Similarly, when approaching Istanbul from the sea, the Sultan Ahmet Camii, known as the Blue Mosque from the colour of its tiles, appears to rival Hagia Sophia, yet it was built a thousand years later, and as it is set a little farther down the slope, it lies below its great prototype. After 1453, four minarets added to the corners of Justinian’s church marked the conversion of the ancient monument for Islam, but if anything they confirm the strangeness of the mosque named Ayasofya, and the enormous scale of the structure beneath its dome remains a physical symbol of Constantinople’s claim to rule the world. While it stands, Byzantium will always be present.

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