Golden Age of Byzantine Art I: Byzantium and the Hagia Sophia

The establishment in Byzantium of Roman patrician families, the division of the city into hills and neighborhoods (like in Rome), and the decree in which Byzantium was ordered to be called “New Rome” held the belief that Byzantium (or Constantinople as it was called) was in its origin nothing but a large Roman colony that on a whim of the emperor Constantine was built on the shores of the Bosphorus. Rome was no longer the spiritual center of the world and Constantine, concerned about the need to have a capital in the East, had thought first to resuscitate Troy in Asia but in the end he decided to establish the new capital in the small Greek town of Byzantium. In March 330 the ceremony of the city’s consecration took place.

Reconstruction of Byzantium: 1. Mese, 2. Augustan main square, 3. Senate, 4. Hippodrome, 5. Imperial Palace, 6. Hagia Sophia, 7. Column of Justinian, 8. Hagia Eirene, 9. Forum of Constantine, 10. City’s Walls.

An arcaded main street called the Mese (Greek for “in the middle”), similar to the Straight Way across Jerusalem, crossed Constantinople from the western end of the city’s wall door to the large square plaza called the Augustan. Within its arcades the Mese had shops for goldsmiths, spice vendors, and money exchangers.

The main buildings of Byzantium were located in the Augustan or main square. It was adorned with columns and famous works of ‘pagan’ art. To provide the new capital with famous sculptures the ancient cities of the East were stripped out of their art works. Statues were brought from Athens, Rhodes, Antioch, and Seleucia. A monumental cross with gems stood in the middle of the Forum and the image of the Good Shepherd was adopted as a decorative element in public fountains.

On one side of the Augustan was the Senate one of the most beautiful buildings in the capital; two other buildings were the Hippodrome and the Imperial Palace, and the fourth was the church of the Divine Wisdom or Hagia Sophia first built by Constantine and later rebuilt by Justinian. Of all the buildings of the Augustan, Hagia Sophia is the only monument that has survived to this day. The Senate and the Imperial Palace are gone, and from the Hippodrome -during the times of Turkish Constantinople- was only left the location of its placement, thanks to the Egyptian obelisk brought by Theodosius and which was located in the place originally occupied by the Hippodrome.

All the Constantinian buildings from this New-Rome are gone. However, today it is believed that the early church of Hagia Sophia was a rectangular building, a wooden covered basilica. Similarly, the Senate had a basilica-type floor plan.

A view of the Byzantine cistern called Yerebatan Sarayi from the V century. It is one of the oldest remaining Byzantine constructions. Its 336 marble columns support a system of spherical domes of Eastern origin (Istanbul, Turkey).
A pillar with a Medusa head base in the Yerebatan Sarayi cistern (Istanbul, Turkey).

The only fourth-century buildings that remain in Byzantium are its famous cisterns also called in Turkish Yerebatan Sarayı meaning “Sunken Palace”. The area of the cisterns was divided into a grid drawn by rows of parallel columns that supported a series of ingenious spherical vaults of Persian and Oriental type. Sometimes the columns -to raise more the height of the vaults- supported another second series of columns forming a new floor. The capitals of these columns though undecorated had the very same forms that will be typical of Byzantine art and didn’t resemble the classical style capitals employed by Roman art: a piece in the form of a truncated pyramid with a square base is interposed between the capital and the vault’s arch. It’s called the pulvinus so characteristic of Byzantine art and that seem to remember a fragment of the architrave of the ancient Greek orders.

The new style imposed by Byzantine art developed during the IV and V centuries (that is from the reign of Constantine to Justinian), a period during which the construction methods and decorative styles essential to Byzantine art were established.

A column in the Yerebatan sarayi cistern highlighting the Byzantine style capital with the truncated pyramid element interposed between the capital and the vault’s arch: the pulvinus.

Theodosius (Constantine’s successor) promoted the construction of churches in the West and eastern provinces. From the time of Theodosius exist in Constantinople the ruins of the Stoudios Monastery and in Thessaloniki two Latin basilica-type churches: St. George and St. Demetrius or Hagios Demetrios. In these basilicas of Thessaloniki the capitals have bent prickly acanthus leaves as if they were shaken by the wind. This type of capital is so characteristic that has been called Theodosian capital since it was used only during the reigns of Theodosius and his sons.

External view of the apse of the Monastery of Stoudios the most important monastery of Byzantium (Istanbul, Turkey).
External view of the Church of St. Demetrius or Hagios Demetrios in Thessaloniki (Central Macedonia, Greece).
A mid Vth century Theodosian capital from the church of the Acheiropoietos in Thessaloniki (Thessaloniki, Museum of Byzantine Culture).

At the time of Theodosius and his descendants, decorative reliefs were sculpted with such abuse of trepan to drill surfaces that they give an aspect of a drilled lattice to the decoration. It is the decorative style that tried to produce an illusion of depth that did not exist.

Later, during the long reign of Justinian, constructions begun to show the style that has been called Byzantine for having produced its masterpieces in this capital. The most famous existing building in such style is the metropolitan church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. In its construction were employed all construction methods and resources of the Byzantine architecture. Hagia Sophia cost immense treasures: Justinian recommended to provinces’ governors to provide him with the most precious marbles and building materials to be used in this church.

General external view of the Hagia Sophia of Constantinople today’s Istanbul (Turkey). The minarets and buttresses are Turkish additions.
Floor plan and structure of the Hagia Sophia of Constantinople.

In the floor plan of Hagia Sophia is remarkable that all its elements were arranged to contain the large central dome of 31 meters in diameter, which is included within a square room and supported by four pendentives on four pillars at the corners. This feature was the main innovation of Byzantine architecture and what made famous the dome of Hagia Sophia, because it rests only on four points and not on a large circular wall like the dome of the Pantheon in Rome and those of the halls of the ancient Roman baths which exceeded Hagia Sophia’s dome in diameter. While the gigantic Roman domes settled directly on the ground by resting on the room’s walls, the great dome of Hagia Sophia is almost suspended in the air held only by the arches and pillars thanks to the compression that the adjacent vaults exert against them.  These adjacent vaults are large niches that push against the dome. In order to lighten the weight of the dome, the skillful architects of the Hagia Sophia built it with porous white tiles made on the island of Rhodes, and so light that five of them were needed to equal the weight of an ordinary tile.

Internal view of the dome of Hagia Sophia. The Islamic inscription is the work of XIX century calligrapher Mustafa Efendi Ezzet. The pendentives have the images of the 4 hexapteryga whose faces were covered by the Turks although one of them was later uncovered during restoration.

Externally the central dome is much smaller as it is concealed by a cylindrical drum that reaches until one-third of its height. This drum has a series of windows that go around the lower part of the large spherical dome and whose purpose is to illuminate the church and at the same time to lessen the weight of this hemisphere. This 40 windows also allow the coming light to reflect everywhere in the interior of the building thus giving the dome the appearance of floating above this ring of windows. The mosaics that decorated the dome were destroyed by the Turks when Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque and they included figures of angels and the image of the Redeemer. Only in the angular vaults of the pendentives the Turks tolerated the images of four seraphim with multiple wings called hexapteryga* or six-winged angels. The old mosaics were then replaced with Islamic inscriptions. The roof of the dome is 55 meters above the ground. The two arches of the lateral vaults were closed by the galleries on the second floor, where the court and senior officials were present at the ceremonies that took place at the temple. These galleries on the second floor were dedicated one for men and one for women.

Interior of the main hall or naos of the Hagia Sophia showing the Ottoman medallions and pendant chandeliers and to the sides the colonnaded galleries of the second floor for men and women.
View of the outer narthex of Hagia Sophia.

Hagia Sophia also has two porches: one at the front as a closed gallery that led to the square courtyard or outer narthex and another wider porch as an inner narthex or anteroom to the immense temple (today almost intact) with its beautiful columns and mosaics. The objects and relics that originally adorned the basilica have disappeared due to the different occupations of the building throughout its history initially as an Oriental Orthodox Cathedral (537-1204), then as Roman Catholic (1204-1261), again as Eastern Orthodox (1261-1453), and finally as Imperial Mosque (1453-1931). Only the bronze doors of the narthex were preserved.

View of the inner narthex or anteroom of Hagia Sophia.

Hagia Sophia was built in just over five years from 532 to December 537 when it was dedicated, but later underwent several modifications. The Byzantine system of construction used to build this cathedral consisted of alternating rows of brick with equally thick layers of mortar.

Monumental bronze doors or Imperial Gate of Hagia Sophia between the inner narthex and the naos. This door was to be used only by the emperor. The Byzantine mosaic above the Gate shows an image of Christ and an unnamed Emperor.


*HexapterygaOr Seraph (pl. seraphs or seraphim) is a type of celestial or heavenly being in Christianity and Judaism. Tradition places seraphim in the highest rank in the Christian angelic hierarchy. A seminal passage in the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 6:1-8) used the term to describe six-winged beings that fly around the Throne of God crying “holy, holy, holy”. This throne scene profoundly influenced subsequent theology, literature and art.