Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Hagia Sophia's "Little" Moments

Without a doubt, the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey is an iconic piece of architecture. The monumental building has been photographed numerous times by masterful artists, so it is more than a little daunting to consider how best to present photographs of it in a new and meaningful way.

A collage of elements creates a layered view towards the apse of the Hagia Sophia
Istanbul, Turkey - 2012

Peter, a good friend, once made a tongue-in-cheek remark that went something like this: “when I look at your photographs, I sometimes wonder if we actually visited the same place…”

His words made us all laugh and we moved on. But he was right. I do often end up photographing elements of a place that aren’t the “main attraction.” When I reviewed my many photographs of the Hagia Sophia, wondering how I could present a different sort of story, it dawned on me that Peter's words might be the key. I could tell the supporting story, putting my focus on the "sub-plots" (in keeping with the storytelling analogy).

So - in selecting these photographs, my goal was to find the "hidden" views - studies of spatial volume,  layering, light, color and decorative detail - that would make for an intriguing composition. While none of them capture the grand scale of the structure or do justice to its complex interconnecting volumes, I hope these “glimpses” play a role in revealing the supporting elements that are just as essential in creating the rich and multi-layered experience that is the Hagia Sophia.

The Imperial Gate
This central portal between the inner narthex and the nave was reserved for the Emperor.
 Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey - 2012

For nine centuries, the Hagia Sophia (translation: divine wisdom) was a principal church of the Byzantine Empire. In 1054, it bore witness to the advent of the Great Schism - the division of the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church. After the fall of Constantinople to Sultan Mehmed II in 1453, it was converted to a mosque. Mosaics were plastered over and minarets added. Though never intended to be a mosque, it nonetheless became an important precedent for the design  of future mosques, including the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque) and the Suleymaniye Mosque. Since 1935, it has been a museum.

Second Level Arched Colonnade of the Hagia Sophia
This side wall is really an enclosing plane that shifts in permeability, from large openings on the ground level,
to a more tightly spaced colonnade at the second level, and then to a solid wall with punched windows above.
Istanbul, Turkey - 2012

The Hagia Sophia we see today was commissioned by Justinian the Great in 532 CE. It was built with astonishing speed - the work of over then thousand people - and inaugurated in 537 CE . It sits on the site of two earlier churches - Constantine's Church and Theodosius' Church. Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles were chosen as its designers. According to Sir Bannister Fletcher's A History of Architecture, they were not called "architects" but rather "mechanicoi" -  as they were knowledgeable in the "mechanical sciences" of their time, which would be analogous to the geometry of today. He also notes that the the design is unusual in that the longitudinal emphasis of the basilica plan is moderated by the massive dome which exerts a centralizing influence.

Multi-Layered Enfilade - Hagia Sophia
In this view across the nave from the second floor gallery, the many layers of interconnecting horizontal
and vertical spaces are bathed in natural light that further accentuates and differentiates,
adding to the rich visual experience of the nave and central dome.
Istanbul, Turkey - 2012

In fact, the dome exerts more than just an "influence". It's soaring volume is the main event. It is exactly 100 Byzantine feet (about 103 feet 4 inches) in plan, and after being rebuilt at different times through the years, it stands taller (at 182 feet 5 inches) than the original.

After recovering from the overwhelming drama of this singular space, one begins to take in the supporting elements (or "little moments") of the structure that enhance it and define it. The many attempts at restoration and modernization, not to mention the clear design "improvisations" (Sir Bannister Fletcher's very apt term...) - doors and colonnades that don't line up, structural stiffeners that had to be added, etc. - do nothing to diminish the building's power of place. It has a "messy vitality" (a term originally coined by architect Robert Venturi in the book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture), that does not detract from its beauty. The overall effect is one of wabi-sabi glory - and it is truly breathtaking.

Mary in Light - Portion of the Deesis Mosaic on the 2nd Level of the Hagia Sophia
Istanbul, Turkey - 2012

One of the little moments that contribute to the wabi-sabi glory of the Hagia Sophia is the Deësis mosaic. This particular view - with the soft light illuminating the face of a soulful and compassionate Mary - is perhaps my favorite. The elements of the image - the mosaic artist's mastery, the plaster, the golden opulence, the less than perfect but still beautiful decorative painting above the cornice, the carving of the window transom - all seem to work together to embody much of the Hagia Sophia's story.

The Deësis mosaic was uncovered in the 1930's by a team of archaeologists and craftsmen who were following a map left behind by the Fossati's brothers, Gaspare and Giuseppi. The brothers were engaged by Sultan Abdul-Medjit to restore the Hagia Sophia after it had suffered extensive damage in 1849. You can read more about this beautiful piece - its history and restoration - in Bob Atchison's website: Hagia Sophia: The Deësis Mosaic  

View of the Hagia Sophia's Narthex - Lower Level Clerestory Windows
Istanbul, Turkey - 2012

View of the Hagia Sophia's Narthex - Upper Level
Istanbul, Turkey - 2012

Floor of the Hagia Sophia's Nave
When the building was used as a mosque, this floor was covered with prayer flags.
Istanbul, Turkey -2012

Before taking my leave of this remarkable building, I paused to look down to the floor, captivated by the simple but pleasing pattern of multicolored marble set into circles of a lighter color. At that moment, it struck me that this surface had carried the weight of people just like me, for almost 1,500 years. I was humbled and moved - as much by the simple floor beneath my feet, as the soaring dome above my head.

On the Bosphorus
Istanbul, Turkey - 2012
photo by Roger Winter

There is a wealth of information - including old photos, new photos, and measured drawings - available on the Hagia Sophia. I relied primarily on:
  • Musgrove, John editor. Sir Banister Fletcher’s A History of Architecture, 19th edition. Butterworths, London England 1987. pp 286 - 293.
  • Hagia Sophia: The Deësis Mosaic Bob Atchison's website with lovely photographs and detailed text.

See more of my photographs at

Monday, April 8, 2013

Finding Peace and Graveyards...

Cemetery of the Mantokuji Soto Zen Temple
Maui, Hawaii - 2010
Contemplating life (and death) at this brilliant intersection of land and sea and sky
can be a mind expanding, heart warming experience.

Graveyards and cemeteries have a powerful sense of place. If I come across one when I’m travelling, I almost always try to stop. Though they exist to commemorate death, more often than not, they impart to me a feeling of hope. I leave them with a satisfying sense of contentment and a renewed belief in the beauty of life.

Hierapolis, Turkey - 2012
Many hours can be spent wandering among the tombs Hierapolis (founded 2nd century BCE),
located adjacent to the travertine terraces of Pamukkale.

The tradition of burying loved ones is not part of my cultural heritage. Nepalese cremate their dead along the banks of rivers that spring from the Himalayas. Ashes mingle with the waters to become one with the mighty Ganga as it flows into the sea. All I know of graveyards has been gleaned through books and movies. As I gaze upon rows and rows of grave markers, I have no emotional connection to those whose physical bodies have found a final resting place in the earth before me. However, my appreciation of cemeteries exists and endures despite this lack.

Cemetery of St. Philip's Church in the Highlands
Garrison, NY - 2012

Graveyards and cemeteries appeal to my desire for order - not just spatial order, but cultural order, embodied by tradition. I can appreciate the the artistry of stone masons working with natural materials that telegraph the passage of time. 

Origo Family Cemetery at the Villa Foce
Tuscany, Italy - 2012
Origo Family Cemetery at the Villa Foce
Tuscany, Italy - 2012
Located on the grounds of Villa Foce, those who worked for the Origo family through the years
have also found a final resting place here.

I can also appreciate the way in which a place of private refuge can be carved out in some of the busiest and public of places. One can step out of the chaos of Istanbul, or the hustle and bustle of Boston and into a pocket park that houses history and transmits tranquility.

Cemetery at the Suleymaniye Mosque
Istanbul, Turkey - 2012

If every “picture tells a story” then surely every tombstone holds the key to multiple stories.  As a silent repository for the most basic facts of a person’s life – a name and two dates – the task of filling in the gaps belongs to the observer. If our minds are willing, the dates and the names, combined with the size, location and ornateness of the markers, all give us the context from which we might construct a possible life. What I find foremost in my mind is the weight of history, a consideration of hardships and dreams....a fervent hope for a life well lived.

Old Granary Burying Ground
Boston, MA - 2005
One of the oldest tombstones I've seen in the United States (1697/8), this one is located right in the city and has survived the elements quite well.  I assume that the skeletons refer to the temporary nature of life

A graveyard, as a physical place, must be the antithesis of the virtual place – the Internet - in which we spend greater and greater chunks of our time. Where the Internet spews out information, ad infinitum, graveyards withhold it. The Internet is about “real time” connections. Graveyards are about the past and letting go of our connections.

St. Philip's Church in the Highlands
Garrison, NY - 2012

One of the benefits of travelling is that it removes us from our daily routines and gives us the opportunity for a slightly different perspective on life. Graveyards seem to have the power to do this as well, and perhaps it is for this reason that I would gladly spend a morning or afternoon amid the grave markers, soaking in the solitude, just thinking...reading...sketching...dreaming….

Cemetery of the Mantokuji Soto Zen Temple
Maui, Hawaii - 2010