The Hagia Sophia as Art: Features & Historical Importance

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  • 0:03 Hagia Sophia:…
  • 1:26 Emperor Justinian's…
  • 2:30 Architecture of the…
  • 3:53 Art of the Hagia Sophia
  • 5:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Sipper

Dr. Sipper holds a PhD in Education, a Master's of Education, and a Bachelor's in English. Most of his experience is in adult and post secondary education.

The Hagia Sophia is one of the most important Byzantine structures ever built. It holds historical significance as a culminating feature of the Christian era Roman Empire and stands as a monument to artistic and architectural achievement.

Hagia Sophia: Cathedral of Wonder

The Hagia Sophia, also known as the Sanctuary of Wisdom, is an epic cathedral rising from the center of Istanbul in modern day Turkey. When Istanbul was still named Constantinople (named after Roman emperor Constantine) and under Roman rule, the enormous Hagia Sophia stood as an undeniable symbol of Christendom within the Roman Empire.

Several architectural features were employed in the building of the Hagia Sophia. The use of nascent technologies of the day, design aspects, and artistic flourishes marked the cathedral as a departure from the norm. The cathedral also maintained the traditional themes and important Christian figures which contributed to its place in the ancient and now modern imagination.

Furthermore, the Hagia Sophia was built during a time in the Roman Empire when the centralization of power under a Holy Roman Emperor was paramount, not only for political power but to perpetuate civic peace and religious propagation. The Emperor Justinian was the primary ruler of the time and responsible for this political and religious push.

Religious symbolism, art, and storytelling were also major themes in the Hagia Sophia. The artwork and architecture in and of themselves were impressive, but ultimately it was the function of these attributes in spreading Biblical belief and understanding to the masses that was most important to Rome and the church.

Emperor Justinian's Hagia Sophia

Cathedrals were not only places of worship, but centers of power under Roman religious rule. The Hagia Sophia bore this out as a place of worship and gathering of many people who flocked to its beautiful and breathtaking artistic and architectural splendor. The Roman Emperor Justinian, as other emperors before him, knew this all too well and seized upon an opportunity to make his own religious mark when the previous structure at this site was burned in 532 AD. After securing the site and his builders, Anthemius and Isidore, Justinian kept the project moving at a rapid pace, completing the cathedral in only six years.

The road to completion of the Hagia Sophia was marked by high taxes upon the people of the Roman Empire, necessitating the near establishment of a police state in order to quell rebellions. However, after the cathedral was complete, it was seen as an overwhelming victory for Justinian and the church. This resulted in a power and religious consolidation under Justinian that rivaled the Roman Emperor cult of Nero and Domitian.

Architecture of the Hagia Sophia

Particular to the Hagia Sophia's architecture are two important attributes: time and space. As space goes, the Hagia Sophia was unrivaled in its day. The primary dome of the cathedral is an incredible 108 feet in diameter, 180 feet in height, and is upheld by pendentives, or triangular sections, that add the necessary support for the massive weight. The cathedral was designed and built by two mechaniko, or masters of mechanics, indicating that they were not considered architects, but apt designers and builders nevertheless. Anthemius of Tralles was actually a physicist and mathematician while the elder Isidore of Miletus was a teacher of mechanics and geometry. Neither man had ever undertaken architecture before, but their combined knowledge and experience resulted in one of the finest masterpieces of antiquity.

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