Monday, May 9, 2016

Mosaics in St Sophia, Constantinople

St Sophia in Constantinople has had an interesting, but also a troubling, history. From being the Imperial Cathedral in the capital of the Byzantine Empire, to becoming a mosque during the Ottoman era, it has ended up being a museum since the 1930s. This history has resulted in the destruction and covering of works of art. A reversal process is under way, which has revealed a number of beautiful mosaics; however, many are still hidden.
Upon entering this magnificent Church building one sees the prevalence of the marble. A few surfaces had and have space for mosaics and icons. The surviving ones, or more correctly the ones which have been revealed, are important works of art, easily recognizable by everyone interested in icons and iconography.

The most beautiful mosaics are located in the upper level, also known as gynaikonitis, where the Empresses went during the services. The most significant mosaic is the one of the Deisis. In the Orthodox iconographic tradition the Deisis depicts the Theotokos and St. John the Baptist petitioning, requesting Christ’s intercession for humanity on each side of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The mosaic in St Sophia dates back to 1261 AD.

Close to that one finds another mosaic. The central figure is the Virgin Mary in the middle, with Jesus Christ in her arms, as is the traditional depiction of the Theotokos. Surrounding the Mother of God we see Emperor John II Komnenos, his wife the Empress Eirene and their son Alexios. In this icon we see the Emperor and his wife donating money to Hagia Sophia.

Following the imperial tradition within Hagia Sophia, we find another icon depicting this time Christ on the throne, surrounded by Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos and Empress Zoe. The Emperor and Empress are depicted donating money to Hagia Sophia.

However, the first mosaic is seen upon entering the Church, in the narthex, through the Imperial Gate/ entrance. On the top we find Jesus Christ, blessing those entering. Below Christ, praying towards Him, is Emperor of Byzantium, Leo VI. This mosaic dates back to the 10th century AD.

Upon entering the nave, the main part of the church building, one can see the Virgin Mary, located in the semi done over the sanctuary. In Hagia Sophia the Theotokos is depicted seated on a throne, holding baby Jesus in her arms. Surprisingly, the Platytera in this instance is not that large, as is the case in other, smaller churches. Nevertheless, it is an impressive mosaic. Additionally, this mosaic is significant as it is the first icon created in this church following the iconoclastic period. This mosaic dates back to the 9th century AD. Above the sanctuary, on either side of the Theotokos Platytera we find the two Archangels, Gabriel and Michael.

Underneath the large central dome of St Sophia are four triangles which support the dome. There we find the six winged angels. During the Ottoman period the heads of the angels were covered. Today some have been revealed; yet other angels still have a metallic covering over their faces.

Around the church building we find other, smaller icons-mosaics, which adorn the church. There we find the Patriarch of Constantinople Ignatios, St John Chrysostom and the Patriarch of Antioch Ignatios Theophoros (depicted). The dating of these mosaics is uncertain; however, it is believed that they were made in the 9th and 10th centuries AD.

When exiting the Church we find a very interesting and significant mosaic, showing the history of both the Imperial Church and the capital of Byzantium. This mosaic was discovered (or re-discovered) in 1849, when repairs took place. In the centre we see seated the Mother of God. On her left is Constantine the Great is depicted, the person who founded the city of Constantinople. In his hands he holds the City, offering it to the Theotokos. On the right hand of the Virgin Mary we find Emperor Justinian, who built Hagia Sophia, who is holding the Imperial Church, offering it to the Mother of God. This interesting mosaic depicts what the Byzantines believed, that the Theotokos is the protector of the Constantinople. This was verified when She was seen riding a horse on top of the Imperial walls, when the City was under attack from the Arabs in the 7th century AD. 

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