Mosaics of Hagia Sophia

Few eyewitness descriptions of Hagia Sophia have survived from Byzantine times.  This one is difficult to read because it is uses such flowery language and contains many illusions that would have only made sense to this author's audience.  But if your goal is - like mine - to know every last detail about Hagia Sophia in the 12th century - then I know you will have found this description with excitement.  You are about to learn some new things!

The author, Michael, Protecdicus of the Church of Thessalonica  and later Deacon of Hagia Sophia and Rector of the Patriarchal Academy, is chiefly known  for a number of other rhetorical pieces - three of which were addressed to the Emperor Manuel I Komnenos.  He was connected with the theological controversy of the time regarding the nature of the eucharistic sacrifice.  There was a synod called to address this issue which Manuel convened in 1156.  The sessions were held in multiple locations.  One was a hall in the Great Palace which Manuel had either built new or refurbished for the synod.  It is possible the the great Deesis mosaic in Hagia Sophia was created in conjunction with the synod.  Manuel created a huge, beautifully carved account of the synod which he placed in Hagia Sophia, where it can be seen today.

According to the historian Nicetas Choniates, at the synod Michael had to sign a confession and recantation of his errors, which has survived.  We don't know anything about Michael after this.

This description was written the middle of the twelfth century.  As a deacon of Hagia Sophia and Rector of the Academy Michael would have written many such literary tomes for his fellow clergy and the students of the academy.   We know Michael became Rector after 10 years of teaching in Hagia Sophia.  The Rector was required to be fully versed in both philosophy, rhetoric and the sciences.  This description is filled with allusions to these.

Michael was a Teacher of the Gospels and a scholar.  There were three divisions in the teaching departments of Hagia Sophia, the most important was the teaching of the Gospels.  Since the Gospels and the Liturgy were all in Greek there was no barrier between the Byzantines and the teachings of the church like there was in the use of Latin in the west.

The description was delivered in Hagia Sophia in the South Gallery in front of the Deesis two days before Christmas between 1150 and 1155.  The original ending of the description has been lost.

Bob Atchison

description of the most holy great church of god, spoken at the time of the dedication feast of the same most holy church by the very learned deacon and teacher of the gospels, michael of thessalonica, who was also master of the orators.

1. Verily this temple of which the encaenia are being celebrated, as it is new in Christ, and, by virtue of the word of worship has not grown old, but remains in the same state and shall continue to do so in future, even though the gates of death (that is, the mouths of the heretics) gape against it, so is it new in its marvels, being so exceedingly great as it towers upwards like the mountains and leaves below all those things which art sets its hands to create, and so exceedingly beautiful as it shines forth, for all its age, as though it had been raised above time itself, and had not been immersed in its current. How its countenance flashes forth like liquid through the gold which is everywhere! The enduring newness in Christ of this building (even though its consecration is celebrated now) can be observed with spiritual vision; but the eternal novelty of wonder, which remains unaltered even for those who frequently visit the church and which it provides for the beholders by its grandeur and form and the costliness of the material - this can be seen with the eyes,  so that all points can be scrutinized both in themselves and in their connection with each other, and admiration brought together from all sides. Nor is it less seemly to describe the church in words, as far as this is possible; not the whole of it, however, since one who had set forth this as the occasion of his discourse would have difficulty in going through the entire subject, it being so great and various.

2. The outermost enclosure indeed, at which the brazen column raises aloft the aerial horseman, against whom many gusts whistle from all sides and the winds flutter their pinions (he, however, does not hear their threats at all, but bellowing like a bull menaces in return, as it were, those who so fiercely attack him) - this enclosure, and the straight way which gently rises out of it towards the holy place, into which many other streets come together, different ones into different parts of its length, so that there is one conjunction of them all leading into the narrow spaces of the building, where doors open to the south - these things, it seems to me, I should pass by, since my care is for the mean. And likewise the louter to the west-this is four-sided and beautiful and is encompassed by a border in the form of a narrow way, which goes around the louter on all sides, so that one may see, alongside the straight and transverse lines of that which surrounds it, its own sides too which are smaller, inasmuch as the whole of what is included is wont to be less than the whole of that which circumscribes it. And another, a third compass of the four-sided figures is stretched out along- side the second narrow way; its perimeter is larger since it is the outermost and final one. From this passage one may enter the narrow way which is in the middle, and from this one may reach the open courtyard of the louter, and thence go into the holy protemenisma - whence my discourse having departed, it is again restored thither.

3. The great size and number of the doors, and the delicacy of their brasswork; the ceilings, adorned with mosaic cubes; the beauties of quarried stonework, both that which is in the columns and that which revets the walls (for there is no wall which is naked of its covering, all of them being mantled in stone cloaks, if I may so express it); these things must also be passed over, less should arise. But that structure before the nave, loftier than those which are before it [lacuna] and the brightness of the gold  almost makes the gold appear to drip down; for by its refulgence making waves to arise, as it were, in eyes that are moist, it causes their moisture to appear in the gold which is seen, and it seems to be flowing in a molten stream. But what manner of stonework is this that has fastened around the building, striving with its variegated coloring and smoothness against the gold, shining because of its smoothness and, because of its diversified bloom having something that surpasses even the gold, which is of one color?

4. But what are these things, compared with the internal greatness and beauty of this antitype of the "tent of the heavens" which man indeed has set up, although God has surely taken part in the work? There being, symbolically, a triple entry yawning out of the middle of the protemenisma (for the holy places are accessible to those who have been taught that there is one God in the Trinity) towards him who passes by the great quantity of silver which at once meets him near the doors, the building lies open forming an immense space, having a hollowness so capacious that it might be pregnant with many thousands of bodies and a height so great as to turn the head, and make the eyes stop still as it were at the zenith. So has the pile of this church "planted its head in heaven," even though it has cast its roots into the earth; and the gold proves that the hand-wrought roof should not be considered as that of the world, for the cosmic heaven has been named "the all-brazen," but this roof turns out to be "all-golden." Perchance it does indeed imitate heaven and, taking into itself the images of the elements, it hardly falls short of making a cosmos. For the beautiful piers, circuits of finely-finished workmanship, standing apart, four on either side, do not terminate before Sp5aces between are high columns, some going in a straight line, others as it were in advancing fashion inclining towards each other on a circle, mutually complementing the plan of the building by the difference of their stance. Sculpture has finely worked their capitals, and gold has ornamented them. Some of them are greenish in color, as though they had grown out of the ground just there, others are reddish, and all are lightly speckled with white. Thus, wearing golden kausiai in the old Persian fashion, they divide between themselves the arches that rest on their capitals, and each one lets one part of the curve rest upon itself and transmits the other part to its neighbor, who receives it. The upper galleries which rest on these columns are exactly formed after the fashion of those below, and no task is performed twice for the same purpose, except that column goes on top of column, that is, a smaller on a greater, and for the most part the same in form as that which bears it, so that you might say that the daughter becomes a sweet burden to her mother. Those piers rising up bear the great roof, the whole of which is made up of two spheres, if I add all the parts together, one being larger so that it might contain the other, the second smaller so that it might fit within that which comprehends it. For that part which is raised up and hollowed out towards the east being, as seems to me, the fourth part of a very large sphere, as is also that which similarly curves out into a bay to westwards these two together being a hemisphere added to the hemisphere which is highest of all, will make up one sphere. And again,  the corners and, as one might say, recesses of the building, each one being roofed by the fourth part of a sphere, being four in number, together constitute one sphere, this one lesser than the previous one. And if the smaller will proceed into the other (for let that which is possible be granted even if it does not appear so), then in this way the spectacle that is here observed may imitate both the first, invisible heaven and the second that is visible. Does it not have too the images of the elements, if one makes bold to say so, and a picture of the whole cosmos? Indeed, each arch (they are four in number) is here signifying one element.  For the process of coming-to-be is circular and throws simple bodies towards each other; these, by using the same corresponding qualities pave the way to their genesis out of each other; accordingly each arch desires to be bent into the form of a circle, and to join with the nearest one, and so does this work of art imitate the whole universe.

5. So much for what is above. As for the sides - all is gold, all flowering stones separated from each other by little partitions.  These stones nature has dipped in a fast and full-bodied dye, and art, by polishing their roughness has almost turned them into mirrors. Thus has the stone, which is hard by nature, yielded, and, having emerged from the earth, it sparkles brilliantly and agreeably to the eyes. It paves the floors and has been fixed round the walls, and in many respects convicts the flowers of being easily withered, since it is also cut from the mines of the earth, but preserves its flowery dye evn after severance from its own root. One of these stones even puts on the guise of living flesh, and, whitish in color, displays all over itself what look like gaping veins of blood. A  statue of such material would be a plausible counterfeit of a man.

6. So much for these matters. The floor is like the sea, both in its width and in its form; for certain blue waves are raised up against the stone, just as though you had cast a pebble into water and had disturbed its calm. This sea has broken out into a gulf to eastward, and one wave having been, as it were, piled up against its predecessor, and another against the next (for thus also does it happen during floods, the ever-approaching wave never allowing itself to be broken by the contrary wind), the sacred sphendone has been formed into steps, and one step is raised up above another, and the highest steps which curve in billows have been flooded over by an effusion of silver worth many talents. Silver, exceeding all measure, has fenced round and adorned this holy place, here fashioned into columns of cylindrical form, wrought with the silversmiths' art, there made into a pyramid on a tetragonal base - or rather conical in  having as its base that other figure beside the corners of the tetragon (?), so that it may rest on a circle in the manner of a cone,  which a pyramid will not allow of, indeed, taking also the form of a four-sided stones and becoming that which binds the columns together. And the holy and very capacious trough, wherein the mystical wine is pressed out, has nourished bunches of silver grapes around its own rim which drip with oil, but not with must, because they have not yet ripened, nor has time put a dark blue patina on them, but they show all the whiter against the effusion of gold elsewhere.

7. I am allowing those things which are covered over to remain unobserved in this schema, and, abandoning them in my discourse, [I return] to the floor, the sea out of which we have said the holy sanctuary has been scooped, as the sea would do it. From there is a certain isthmus; at this spot there is a passage, and the holy tribune comes to shore at the isthmus, just as though it were a cargo-vessel, and that it may rest untossed by the waves, it lowers from above its anchors of silver, the columns, down to the ground. And the cargo-vessel has ferried in the great quantity of silver. What should I say about the steps, by which one may go up into the tribune, and the further varied material which roofs it over-many-wreathed cones, stoas dancing in a circle, a pattern with many sides, little gates which go out and around, halves of circles and epicycles cleft in two, all of silver whose form has been wrought with gold ? How should I not fall away from the mean, wishing also to describe the wings, truly golden, of the blameless dove of the church ? I mean that one, opposite to us; this one that is with us. But come now, having annointed it with myrrh, I shall release the dove.  And indeed, I shall be using this proverb at a timely moment. Where is the myrrh? Who else will deliver to us the oracle, if it be not David, he who would say today "as is myrrh upon the head...?"

The description originated in "A Twelfth Century Description of Hagia Sophia" by Cyril Mango and John Parker - Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 14 (1960), pp. 233-245

Meet Bob Atchison - the Creator of this Website

I am an icon painter, Russian Historian and Austin Web Designer formerly of Seattle, Washington and now living in Austin, Texas. My interest in Byzantium and icons began when I was 8 years old and read my first book on Byzantium called "The Fall of Constantinople".

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An Imperial Diadem

The Bent Crown of Hungary

A Byzantine Diadem

The “Corona Graeca” was a diplomatic gift of the court of Constantinople to Géza I, probably sent to Hungary with his Byzantine artistocrat fiancée. Most of the massive gems are original  and would have been set in the diadem when it was made in Constantinople.  This diadem closely resembles the great crown of Byzantium.  That crown can be seen in the mosaic of John II Comnenus in the South Gallery of Hagia Sophia.  John's wife, Eirene, was an Hungarian Princess.

The Holy Crown of Hungary

An Enamel Portrait of the Byzantine Emperor Michael VII Ducas

The gem under Michael is a huge watery aquamarine, which is a form of beryl.  When crown was dispatched from Constantinople every detail had been carefully worked out.  The Byzantine court sent out crowns frequently to foreign courts it favored or wanted to patronize. All of the foreign royalty received a Byzantine court title with it.  The value of the gemstones, the pearls and the gold was carefully calculated. Certain stones were selected for their perceived spiritual or metaphysical value.

The Hungarian King Geza I

Geza I, King of Hungary.  His portrait is placed on the crown in strict Byzantine hierarchy, Christ is above all and the Byzantine Emperor it below Him, higher than Geza.  Geza's eyes turn to look at Michael in deference to his position.  All male members of the Byzantine Imperial family wore portraits of the ruling Emperor on their own diadems or hats.

Enamel of Christ Enthroned

A superb enamel of Christ on His Heavenly Throne - one either side are two trees in the Garden of Paradise.  The gem under Christ is huge sapphire.

Enamel of Christ Enthroned

Another matching Byzantine enamel on the top of the crown.  The crossed-top arm is not the Byzantine form.  The top of a Byzantine diadem is open.  The crossing was added after the diadem arrived in Hungary. This enamel came from something else that came with the diadem.

Enamel of the Archangel Michael

There are two matching Archangels on the crown, facing Michael is Gabriel

Enamel of the Archangel Gabriel

Huge Sapphire Between Saint Demetrios and Saint Damianos

Most of the big stones of the diadem are semi-faceted.  The hanging cabochon drops are customary on Byzantine diadems.  They add flash and color to a man's long hair as he moves.


The Pendoulia on the Diadem

They are made of different stones, including Garnets. Originally all of these would have been matching garnets - when some became detached and lost they were replaced with other stones.