Hagia Sophia: Research Paper

Hagia Sophia
Engineering Solutions Found in Brilliant Byzantine Architecture

By Sam Winder


December 14, 2014
History of Art to the Renaissance
Utah Valley University 
Bob deWitt / Instructor

Hagia Sophia is a building located in modern day Istanbul, Turkey.  It was built fifteen hundred years ago in Constantinople.  The Byzantines built it, and the Ottoman Turks later occupied it. Hagia Sophia was built as a basilica, later turned into a mosque, and is currently a museum.  The Byzantines considered themselves Roman, but their Orthodox Christian beliefs and distinct artistic style clearly separate them from the classicalism found in the early Roman Empire. The architects combined multiple ideas from the Roman Empire and the early Christian era.  They also came up with some very brilliant engineering innovations.  The building has gone through a lot of wear and tear over the years.  There have been many changes to Hagia Sophia over the years, documenting the history and cultures that inhabited it.   This paper will examine Hagia Sophia’s creative and beautiful architecture, the cultures that occupied it, its engineering flaws, how the problems were fixed, and why the Byzantines sacrificed practical design for style.
            Hagia Sophia, which means “Holy Wisdom” in Greek, was built in Constantinople in the Eastern Roman Empire.  Today we refer to the Eastern Roman Empire and its culture as Byzantine.  This is because Constantine the Great built his capital city, Constantinople on the ancient Greek city of Byzantium.  By 395 AD the Roman Empire had permanently separated into two empires, east and west. The west included modern day countries like: Germany, France, Spain, and England, and they spoke Latin.  The east included modern day countries like: Turkey, Greece, and Israel, and they spoke Greek.1  The west fell into despair and the Dark Ages, while the east flourished.  The east still built and used aqueducts.  They also had underground cisterns and a sewage system.2  This means the people were clean, because they had access to water.  It also resulted into more productivity, because the people didn’t need to travel to get their water.  They also remained at the forefront of engineering and architecture.  The east was creative, while the west was destructive.  The Roman Empire did not collapse completely, it just moved east, and was heavily influenced by Christianity (Fig. 1).

(Fig. 1)  Map of 6th Century Eastern Roman Empire.
            There were a couple of attempts to build Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, but riots and earthquakes halted the construction.  Before Hagia Sophia was constructed, an earlier church occupied the same location, but it was burnt down in the Nika Riots.3  Under the rule of Emperor Justinian, a crowd at a chariot race began to revolt.4  The Byzantines loved chariot racing, just like the Romans.  At the time, two main political parties (Blue and Green) disagreed.  Both the Blue party and the Green party had chariot teams.  Justinian supported the Blue party.  During a major chariot race the crowd was split with very hostile Blue and Green fans.  The Green party started revolting at the race because they were upset with the government and the Blue party.5  The riots then lasted for days.  The church in Constantinople was burned to the ground in 532 AD by all the chaos.  Justinian ordered his military to stop the riots.  The Nika riots resulted in about 30,000 deaths.6  Once there was stability, Justinian ordered his two best architects to build Hagia Sophia.  It took almost four years to construct, and building was complete in 537 AD.  Hagia Sophia was built as a place of worship, but it could have also been a major political statement.  Justinian wanted his people to know that he was in charge, and that the Orthodox Christian faith was all-powerful.  In 558 AD Hagia Sophia’s dome collapsed.  This was a major blow to Justinian’s ego.  The dome was rebuilt with added strength and height; and Justinian’s power was restored.  Many sacrifices were made to build Hagia Sophia, but once its construction was complete its magnificence was second to none.
            Justinian wanted to build the most magnificent basilica ever.  He actually created or restored more than thirty Orthodox churches under his rule, but he wanted to build one specific church that was more glorious than all the others.  He wanted his basilica to be more impressive than the Pantheon, Old St. Peter’s basilica, Santa Costanza, and even the Temple of Solomon.  He needed to find architects willing to combine multiple ideas.  This is exactly what Justinian got, and Hagia Sophia is just a combination of many previous ideas.  When the construction was complete Justinian announced, “Solomon, I have outdone thee!”7   Justinian ordered the architects, Isidorus of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles to build Hagia Sophia.  By today’s definitions these men would be considered more as engineers than architects, because one was a mathematician and the other was a physicist.8  Although, it is hard to believe they were good engineers, because the dome collapsed.  The dome was later rebuilt by Isidours the Younger (the nephew of Isidoros of Miletus).9  Although there were some early problems the architects came up with some very innovative ideas while constructing Hagia Sophia. 
The goal of Hagia Sophia was to create a domed basilica.  To do this the architects needed to figure out a way to fit a dome (which has a circular base) onto a square.  To solve this problem they invented and used pendentives. A pendentive system is created when a dome rests on top of another dome, and the bottom dome has its edges cut off, so it can fit into a cube (Fig. 2). Pendentives are the curving triangle shapes left once the bottom dome has its edges cut off.10  The view of the pendentive system is very clear from the interior of Hagia Sophia.  The dome rests on the pendentives, but it also rests on forty ribs that circle the dome.  An arched window separates each rib.  This creates an illusion that the dome is floating, particularly on sunny days when the light shines through (Fig. 3).        Justinian wanted to create an atmosphere that felt like heaven on earth.  Procopius of Caesarea, an early observer of the building once said it looked “as if suspended by a golden chain from heaven.”11, 12, 13 

(Fig. 2) Pendentives.

(Fig. 3) Interior view of Hagia Sophia.  Shows pendetives and "floating" dome.

Hagia Sophia combined two main architectural traditions from early Christianity: the Christian basilica and tomb.  The first inspiration was the longitudinally oriented basilica floor plan.14  Old St. Peter’s basilica is the best example of this design.  Old St. Peter’s had a long nave with a colonnade on both sides separating aisles.  The nave led to the apse, the most sacred part of the basilica.  There are two transepts on each side of the apse (Fig. 4). 

(Fig. 4) Floor plan to Old St. Peter's Basilica.

The second building to strongly influence Hagia Sophia wasn’t a basilica but a tomb.  A good example of early Christian tombs is Santa Costanza, which has a circular floor plan (Fig.5).  The Christians adopted the circular tomb design from the Romans Imperial Tombs.  The Romans buried their Emperors and royalty in these tombs, but the Christians reserved them for martyrs and saints.  

(Fig. 5) Circular floor plan and dome of Santa Costanza. 

The circular architecture really resonated with the Christian’s beliefs of the after life, because the circle symbolizes perfection and eternity.  These tombs had domes that represented the dome of heaven over earth.  The tomb’s heavenly dome inspired the Byzantines to put a dome on Hagia Sophia.  Although Hagia Sophia has many similarities to early Christian basilicas and tomb designs, there are some key differences.  First, St. Sophia’s interior has a lot more open space than a basilica. Saint Sophia has no transepts, but has an apse on the west end.  Plus, the pendentives connect to two half domes on each end, while the sides are covered by walls.  These walls on the sides of the pendentives have windows in them.  The architects added two half domes on each end to cover the rectangular floor plan of the “nave.”  The semi-domes give added support to the structure. There are multiple semi-domes added to the structure, for example the apse in under a semi-dome, which can be seen from both the interior and exterior (Fig. 6).15  

  (Fig. 6)  Floor plan of Hagia Sophia.
Compare to Fig. 4 & 5.

Also, the interior has an added gallery above the nave.  Galleries are not present in early Christian basilicas, but are found later in Romanesque designs.
The open interior space and massive dome of Hagia Sophia resembles the Pantheon more than a basilica, but there are two big differences.  First, the Pantheon’s dome rests on a cylinder with a circular base (Fig. 7).  In comparison, Hagia Sophia’s dome rests on a square base and rests on pendentives, as stated earlier.  Second, the Pantheon was made out of concrete.  By this time the Byzantines had lost the knowledge of using concrete.  This didn’t stop the Byzantines; they just built their masterpiece with ashlar masonry and brick.16  While the interior’s columns are made with beautiful polychrome marble.17 

(Fig. 7)  The interior of the Pantheon.  Compare to interior of Hagia Sophia in Fig. 3.    

Many basilicas have very narrow space in the nave, but Hagia Sophia’s interior has a lot of open space.
Mosaics and frescos have played an interesting role in Hagia Sophia’s history.  Mosaics graced the walls of Hagia Sophia after its construction in 537 AD.  All of the original Mosaics were destroyed in a period of iconoclasm, under the rule of Leo III in the late 720s.18  Leo III felt that images were idol and so he banned all frescos and mosaics.  The mosaics were restored a couple decades later.  The Empress Irene loved icons so she restored the artwork.  The argument against iconoclasm is that the artwork is important because it has symbols that teach stories and convey messages.  Today there are still fragments of mosaics left over from after the iconoclasm periods.  One of the most beautiful mosaics is of Mary and the Christ child found in the apse, above the altar (Fig. 8). There are also frescos of cherubim angels found in the pendentives (Fig. 9).   There are mosaics of Christ and the apostles throughout the building.  All of the mosaics and frescos were covered in plaster when the Ottomans invaded Constantinople and converted Hagia Sophia into a mosque.19  

(Fig. 8) Apse mosaic. Virgin and Child enthroned. 867 AD.

(Fig. 9) Fresco of a cherubim found in one of the pendentives.    

Today, Hagia Sophia is a museum, but it shows both Islamic and Christian characteristics.  There are believed to be more frescos covered up by the Islamic art and gold leaf.  The people of Turkey are hesitant to remove any more of the Islamic art, because they like how Hagia Sophia showcases both Islamic and Christian art.20
As mentioned earlier the Ottomans invaded Constantinople and converted Hagia Sophia into a mosque in 1453 AD.  The Muslims covered the mosaics and frescos with plaster, which actually preserved them.  The Ottomans honestly saved Hagia Sophia, by added flying buttresses to the building.  The flying buttresses removed the pressure the domes and semi-domes put on the exterior walls and redirected it to the foundation.  This helped prevent the structure from eventually buckling on itself. Today, the flying buttresses can be seen from the exterior of the building (Fig. 10). The Ottomans added four minarets to Haiga Sophia; these are the towers at each corner of the structure (Fig. 10 & 11).  Mimar Sinan was the architect responsible for all of these additions to Hagia Sophia.  Ultimately, the Ottaman Turks may have changed many things in Hagia Sophia, but they are also responsible for saving and preserving the building’s history.21

(Fig. 10)  Flying buttresses, left.  Minaret, right.

(Fig. 11)  Exterior view of present day Hagia Shopia.  The minarets are visible.

Ultimately, Hagia Sophia is the combination of many ideas and cultures.  From its early Christian roots to its Islamic influences, it is truly one of a kind.  Its uniqueness has inspired many spinoffs in both the western and eastern parts of the world. The innovative use of pendentives was the first of its kind.  Justinian’s obsession to build Hagia Sophia put a massive strain on his people.  His aspirations to build a magnificent structure made him overlook practical design.   The building suffered from engineering flaws for hundreds of years.  The dome fell during an earthquake and was rebuilt with added support. The Byzantines built Hagia Sophia, but it was the Ottomans who truly saved it.   The Ottoman Turks added flying buttresses to support and preserve the building.  The Turks made many changes to the building when they turned it into a mosque.  They covered up the Byzantine mosaics and frescos, but ironically preserved them.   Many cultures have influenced the beautiful Hagia Sophia, its history, architecture, and design, so it can truly be considered the crossroads of ancient civilization. 

Cormack, Robin. Byzantine Art. Oxford University Press, 2000.
VanVoost, Jennifer Fretland.  The Byzantine Empire. Compass Point Books, 2013.
Pryce, Will. World Architecture: The Masterworks.  Thames & Hudson, 2008.
Rutherford, Tristan and Tomasetti, Kathryn.  National Geographic Traveler: Istanbul & Western Turkey. National Geographic Society, 2011.
Kleiner, Fred S.  Gardner’s Art through the Ages: The Western Perspective, Thirteenth Edition, Volume I.  Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2010. 
Halvey, Erin. ArtSmart Roundtable: Hagia Sophia as the Epitome of Byzantine Architecture. http://www.a-sense-of-place.com/2012/03/artsmart-roundtable-hagia-sophia-as-the-epitome-of-byzantine-architecture.html.  ehavley, March 26, 2012.
Brownworth, Lars.  Lost to the West:  The Forgotten Byzantine Emire That Rescued Western Civilization.  Crown Publishers, 2009.
Browning, Robert.  Justinian and Theodora. Gorgias Press, 2003.
Woods, Michael and Woods, Mary B.  Seven Wonders of the Ancient Middle East.  Twenty-First Century Books, 2009.
Kuhl, Isabel.  50 Buildings You Should Know.  Prestel, 2007.
Corrick, James A. The Byzantine Empire (World History Series).  Thomson Gale, 2006.
Procopius, De aedificiis, 1.1.23ff. Translated by Mango, 74.
http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/circusmaximus/nika.html . The Chronicle of John Malalas (1986) translated by Elizabeth Jeffreys, Michael Jeffreys, and Roger Scott.

1  Fred S. Kleiner, Gardner’s Art through the Ages: The Western Perspective, Thirteenth Edition, Volume I (Boston, Massachusetts: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2010) 231.
2  Jennifer Fretland VanVoost, The Byzantine Empire (Stevens Point, Wisconsin: Compass Point Books, 2013) 31.
3  Kleiner, 233.
4  VanVoost, 29.
5   VanVoost, 29.
6 VanVoost, 29.
7  Will Pryce, World Architecture: The Masterworks (Hong Kong: Thames & Hudson, 2008) 48.
8  Kleiner, 233.
9  Robin Cormack, Byzantine Art (Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 2000) 40.
10  Kleiner, 235.
11 Procopius, De aedificiis, 1.1.23ff. Translated by Mango, 74.
12  Kleiner, 234.
13  Pryce, 48. 
14  Kleiner, 233.
15  Pryce, 48.
16  Kleiner, 235.
17  Pryce, 48.
18  Tristan Rutherford, Kathryn Tomasetti, National Geographic Traveler: Istanbul & Western Turkey. (China: National Geographic Society, 2011) 66.
19  Pryce, 48.
20  Rutherford, Tomasetti, 66.
21  Erin Halvey, ArtSmart Roundtable: Hagia Sophia as the Epitome of Byzantine Architecture. http://www.a-sense-of-place.com/2012/03/artsmart-roundtable-hagia-sophia-as-the-epitome-of-byzantine-architecture.html. 2012.

Picture Links

No comments:

Post a Comment