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.
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.
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
|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 http://DigitalYak.etsy.com/.