Hagia Sophia from the atrium in 1200

Be sure to visit a new addition to the site on the Opus Sectile panels from the Western Wall of Hagia Sophia.

The Church we know today as Hagia Sophia - or Divine Wisdom, its true name - was dedicated by the Emperor Justinian in 537AD. Through many vicissitudes Justinian's cathedral church of Constantinople still stands, its soaring vaults and amazing dome are a testaments to the human spirit, the engineering talents of its builders and divine inspiration.

Justinian's church was not the first on the site. The original was built by the Emperor Constantius in 360. This church burned in 404 and was rebuilt by the Emperor Theodosius II in 415. Just over 100 years later this second church was suffered the same fate as the first, being burned in the famous Nike riot of January 532.

The destruction of Hagia Sophia allowed Justinian to build a church like none other ever seen before. The scale of the building exceeded any domed building attempted before and tested the abilities of the Emperor's architects and emptied the state treasury. Hagia Sophia was - and is - justly celebrated for the luxuriousness and opulence of it's decoration which included rare and costly marbles, acres of gold mosaic and rich liturgical furnishings.

Throughout the centuries Justinian's masterpiece has undergone many changes including earthquakes, sacking by foreign armies, conversion to Islamic usage and finally its conversion to a museum. The amazing survival of Hagia Sophia is due to the love and care of centuries of believers who have made it a home of prayer, history and art.

Location of the Mosaic in Hagia Sophia

The Deesis mosaic was a later addition of the 12-13th centuries to the upper South Gallery of the Church. Above, looking west, we can see the mosaic on the left in the corner. During Byzantine times this area of the church was reserved for members of the Imperial family and the court who viewed the liturgy from this easternmost bay of the church. A wooden Staircase and passage way connected this part of the church directly to the Great Palace of the Byzantine Emperors.

Originally the vaults of the gallery were covered with mosaics of Pentecost and Seraphim. This all came down in an earthquake in 1894.

Within this area are two other famous mosaics showing Emperors and Empresses with Christ and the Virgin.

Whittemore and conservators at work

The Image above shows the scale of the upper gallery. Here we see Thomas Whittemore and other conservators working on the vaults of the gallery in the 1930's. Thomas Whittemore can be seen at lower left wearing a dark hat looking up.

Plan of Hagia Sophia

The plan above shows the location of the mosaic, which is open to the public today. It is a must-see for anyone visiting Istanbul. No photograph does the mosaic justice as the skilled and varied placement of the mosaic cubes creates a shimmer of light that cannot be captured by the camera. Many consider this mosaic among the greatest treasures of world art and culture. Among Christians it is often called the finest representation of Christ. It is a great tragedy that most of the mosaic has been lost but the survival of the beautiful faces of Christ, His Mother and St. John the Baptist is nothing short of miraculous.

In 2009 the museum authorities at Hagia Sophia removed an Ottoman star that had been placed over the face of the great mosaic of a Seraphim in the left pendentive in the eastern arch of the church.  In 1348 a part of the eastern arch and a large section of the dome collapsed.  In the restoration both the left and right Seraphims or Cherubs were recreated along with new images of the Byzantine Emperor and Empress as well as the Mother of God in the eastern arch.  These images, along with all of the other mosaics in the vaults were left exposed during most of the Ottoman period.  At some point the Seraphims were damaged and large parts fell or were scraped off.  The right one is almost entirely gone and it is not clear if the face of that one remains under the star placed over it during the 19th century Fossati redecoration and restoration of the church.A Plan of Hagia SophiaHagia Sophia in Ottoman Times


Icon of St. Michael the Archangel, looted from Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade and now in the Treasury of St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice. It is dated to the late 11th or early 12th centuries. It is 18 inches tall and 14 inches in width. made of gilt-silver and enamel, set with gemstones and glass. The gold cloisonne enamel work is amazing workmanship. It is impossible to know where this icon was kept in Constantinople, there are no records of its origin. Its size and opulence may mean it came from a private Imperial chapel.

Our Lady of the Pharos and St. Stephen's Chapel in the grounds of the Great Palace both had treasure houses of relics and precious works of art like this.

The icon of the Archangel is surrounded an entourage of military saints in enamel and points to his role as the the leader of the celestial army.

Icon Panel of the Archangel Michael, looted from Constantinople in 1204 and now in the Treasury of St. Mark's in Venice. It is 17 inches tall and 14 inches wide.  It is made of silver-gilt, enamel, precious stones, pearls and glass and is dated to the late tenth or early eleventh centuries.  The use of such images has been debated over the years, they could have been placed in a chapel iconostasis or carried in processions. Such and icon would be appropriate in a funeral chapel or a shrine to the Archangel himself.

The Emperor Issac II Angelos, one of the last Byzantine Emperors before the Fourth Crusade, poured enormous sums into a church he built for the Archangel near Constantinople, icons like this would have been part of its decoration.

Chalice of the Emperor Romanos II, 959-963, possibly from Hagia Sophia and looted in 1204.  It is now in the Treasury of Saint Mark's in Venice. It is 9 inches tall and 6 inches wide. The communion chalice is made of silver-gilt, gold cloissonne enamel, stones, pearls and glass. The cup is carved in sardonyx.