Mosaics of Hagia Sophia

Overview and Technical Description

The Zoe panel was rediscovered in July 1934 and work began in August by the Byzantine Institute led by Thomas Whittemore and a group of eleven craftsmen.

Constantine and Zoe with Christ in Hagia Sophiamosiacs south gallery hagia sophiaUncover the Zoe panel in Hagia SophiaOriginally the panel was a square 2.40 meters wide and 2.44 meters high. A strip of the mosaic, 35cm. in height, extending across the lower part, is now missing. Above this more tessellae are gone, exposing sections of the setting bed, and there are breaks in the mosaics surrounding the three heads, and in both Constantine inscriptions.  These breaks strike an incongruous note and create a vital disorder in the picture.  Indeed, scrutiny reveals the fact that all the existing heads have been substituted for earlier ones and that the ensuing tonal discord has rendered the original composition displastic and fragmentary.

The Zoe panel is surrounded by a marble cove moulding, serving not only its purpose as a frame but as a transition from the panel to the marble face of the wall.  The background is formed of horizontal rows of small gold tessellae.  Silver cubes, so freely used in mosaic backgrounds of the sixth, ninth and tenth centuries, does not appear here.  The general surface of the mosaic is not limited to one plane, but is slightly wavy, thus creating subtle and varied reflections of light which give rise to color vibration and atmosphere.

Christ from the Constantine and Zoe PanelThe seated figure of Christ, considerable larger that that of the Emperor and Empress, dominates the standing figures beside it by its size, its dignity, and the depth of the blue in His vestments. These contributory figures lend emphasis to this domination by the slight inclination of the body, the turning of the head, the direction of the eyes, and the gesture of the offering of the gifts.  Even the jewels of the imperial robes reappear on the book of the Gospels on on the throne in this progressive ordering of matter, which reaches through the hand of Christ a focal point in the beholder.

The face of Christ is in the palest flesh-tinted marble, His eyes are violet and light brown hair, parted in the middle, falls wavy to the back of the neck with three small locks on the brow. The moustache and beard are darker in tone than the hair.  The cruciform halo is outlined in deep red.  Christ's right hand is raised in blessing and He is clad in a blue chiton and himation. The chiton is dorned with a wide gold clavus.  Both vestments give the impression of being of soft wool, with shades from light amethyst to black violet.  The blue glass with which they are wrought, however, because of its complete lack of air-holes, has not the luminosity of ninth and tenth century glass used to represent the dye and weave of garments of the figures in the Narthex and Vestibule.  Christ's throne is a palace throne of great splendor; He sits on a blue-green cushion with ends capped in rossettes in sealing-wax red and light olive-green.  The feet of Christ rest on a circular foot-stool of gold lined with red, only traces of which remain.

Constantine Monomachos from Hagia SophiaConstantine Monomachos from Hagia SophiaConstantine Monomachos from Hagia SophiaThe emperor is offering Christ the traditional apokombiom, his gift of a purse of gold coins.  His face is round and ruddy.  The emperor wears the stemma, a circlet of gold encrusted with jewels and pearls.  The prependulia hanging from the crown are strings of pearls. His nimbus is outlined in blue.  Constantine is vested in the imperil chiton, divitisson and loros.  The vestments are made of glass mosaic, except for the pearls and the centers of the red gems. His inscription reads Constantine, in Christ the God, Autocrat, faithful King of the Romans, Monomachos.

Augusta Zoe from Hagia SophiaAugusta Zoe from Hagia SophiaAugusta Zoe from Hagia SophiaThe Byzantine scholar and author Natalia Teteriatnikov believes the money bag in the hands of the Emperor is a unique iconographic feature and commemorates the ongoing ritual of the distribution of thirty pounds of gold coin to the clergy of Hagia Sophia on Holy Saturday.  She believes the scroll is not a chrysobull but a list of the clerics and the amount they were to receive from the donation.

The figure of the Empress Zoe is much shorter.  She holds a scroll of parchment enumerating imperial donations to the Great Church. She has a plump face with a heavy nose, full brow and large yellow-gray eyes.  Her rosebud painted mouth is small and her chin has a semi-circular cleft.  Her hair seen below the crown is light brown.  Her face has been made up like a doll, which reflects her famous and persistent pursuit of youth.  Here in realistic portraiture is the doting, still popular old Empress without single wrinkle in her face in spite of her nearly 70 years.

The Empress wears a crown called a modiolos.  On either side hang prependulia, which are composed of beryls and garnets separated by pearls.  The ear ring of the Empress is a circle of pearls.  She is dressed in full Byzantine court attire, clad in chiton, divitission, loros and shoulder piece.  A part of the setting bed of the garments can still be seen and we can see the original fresco used by the mosaicist as a guide to setting the cubes.  Above the head of the empress are three lines of inscriptions made in black-violet tessellae;  they read - Zoe, the most pious Augusta.

Dating of the Zoe Panel

The mosaic was created during the reign of the Empress - Augusta Zoe who reigned in Constantinople from 1028-50.  Zoe was married three times.  Her first husband was Romanos III Argyros (1028-34); the second was Michael IV the Paphlagonian 1041-2 and after the short reign of her adopted son, Michael V Kalaphates (1041-42), she married Constantine XI Monomachos (1042-55).

Although the head of this mosaic is of Constantine, the rest of the figure was intended to represent either Romanos or Michael.  The former of these two emperors seems to be more probable. Therefore the original mosaic dates from between 1028 and 1034.

The reason for the substitution of Constantine's head and name for that of Romanos could be one of three reasons.  One, Zoe wanted to update the mosaic to feature her third, last husband and at the same time wanted her own portrait updated, perhaps to make it more pleasing, for her head - and that of Christ was replaced at the same time.

The alternate supposition may, on the contrary, be upheld by certain facts.  On the 18th of April 1042 the nephew and successor of Michael IV, Michael V, who had attained the throne through Zoe's devotion, banished his adopted mother to the Island of Prinkipo. On the next day sentence of exile was proclaimed.  What followed is well known: a popular revolt supported by Norman mercenaries; the proclamation of Zoe and her sister Theodora as co-empresses; the resistance, flight, and death of Michael; and finally, two months later, the marriage of Zoe with Constantine Monomachos.

The alteration of this mosaic may be considered in the light of these events.  We may presume that it was Michael V who, after Zoe's departure from the city, destroyed the effigy of the fallen empress.  The portrait of Romanus III would then have been replaced by that of Constantine after mid-June 1042, when Zoe, reinstated and once again married, restored her own portrait.  If this is true, the decisive event which determined the the alterations in the mosaic took place in the last days of Michael V's reign.

It hardly seems possible that the image of the empress should have been disfigured during the riots that followed the proclamation of her exile.  To be sure Michael and his partisans hated her violently, and judging by what we know of the sacrileges committed by them from, we can assume that the sanctity of the place would not have restrained them from destroying her likeness, but from the very outset of the struggle, the Great Church was probably occupied by supporters of the exiled empress.  Thus, the figure could have been mutilated only between the 18th and 20th of April, that is between the dethronement of Zoe and the first disturbances which followed this event two days later.  In this case, Michael's action would not have been that of a man taking vengeance on the image of an enemy in a moment of anger.  Indeed, the destruction of Zoe's portrait would have done deliberately and with an air of legality.  Such an attitude on the part of Michael is more probable in that all his actions against the empress he showed himself - and for and for an obvious reason - exceptionally circumspect in regard to the law.  The sentence of exile, to become effective, was approved by the Senate, and afterwards proclaimed by an official.  Seldom had the Byzantine usurpers surrounded themselves with such scrupulous procedure.

But neither of the two historical interpretations suggest explains the supersession of one head of Christ by another.  No satisfactory explanation of this change is forthcoming, unless it is tentatively assumed that the artist drawing new portraits of Zoe and Constantine supplanted the head of Christ with a new creation in the interests of the unity of the painting.

This explanation may be supported by the fact that the cubes in the faces are relatively larger than those in the hands and even those in the vestments, proving that the original mosaic heads were of finer workmanship.

The previous text has been edited from The Mosaics of Hagia Sophia at Istanbul, Third Prelimary Report, Work Done in 1935-1938, which was published in 1942.

Bob Atchison

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 Gift

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.

The Back of the Diadem

The Inside of the Diadem

The Huge Blue Aquamarine