Above are two images. The top one shows a drawing of the South Gallery from the 18th century with all of the ceiling mosaics (see all the cherubims!) intact. In the center of the vault is a round image of Christ Pantokrator. I have indicated the location of the Deesis. To the right of the Deesis location you can see a parapet to separate the area in from of the Deesis off from the rest. This was Byzantine, not Ottoman. The marks of the fittings can still be seen in the marble floor today.
The image below it is one I just found from the 1930's it was from a color transparency and it looks like the colors have shifted slightly. This image shows you how the marble was pieced together below the mosaic. This is the only picture I have found that shows the proportions of the figures. They are perfect and there is plenty of room for their feet and Christ's cushion if you remove one or both rows of marble. We know that the mosaic extended down to the bottom row because the mosaic setting bed was found behind the upper row, but not below it. The bottom row is intact because the wavy grain matches up.
Below you will see a picture from the 1940 that shows the English artist, Alwyn Green, who created a hand-painted replica of the Deesis. Below that image is one of George Holt of Bennington College who perfected the process of casting the actual mosaic cubes. Here is the Virgin's face. You can really see the huge scale of the mosaic. They made these my pressing some kind of paper to the surface of the mosaic to get a cast or every cube. Then they hand-painted each cube while on a scaffold you can see them working below. They painted right there to match the color perfectly. One of the things about the mosaic of the Deesis is the light rakes across the surface and dives into transparent glass cubes. This both lightens them in color and charges them up with an unearthly energy. The artists were able to get the colors right. When you take a picture with artificial light from the front this effect is totally lost.
Above you can see the actual painting they were creating. It was first exhibited in 1944. It's 13 x 20 feet and now on view at the Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 305.
Go see it! Tell the curators you like it and you know where it came from - they will be surprised!
Probes beneath the surface of the existing mosaic and cornice show that there was an earlier mosaic in the spot now occupied by the great Deesis. A number of gold tesserae made of darker glass were found beneath the cornice and these appear to be of sixth century manufacture.
There must have been a great deal of planning before the mosaic was created. I believe the mosaic was made in the reign of Manuel I Comnenus, around 1166, and was associated with the a great council of the church that was summoned by Manuel to define the relationship of Christ to God the Father. Manuel ordered a huge inscription recording the decisions of this council on marble panels, which met in Hagia Sophia and in many other places in the city, including the Boukoleon Palace, and erected it in Hagia Sophia where you can see it today. The style of the lettering is really beautiful, but cannot be appreciated because of the fineness of the carving. The inscription is a bravura piece of Comnenian carving and philology that would have been appreciated and admired at the time.
A great deal of the planning for the mosaic would have taken place in the very spot where it was created. Mosaics were the the top of the food chain in art at the time. They were expensive and high prestige commissions that lots of people could see and admire. I believe this project in Hagia Sophia involved both the creation of the Deesis and another mosaic of Manuel I and his family on the facing wall. There would have been a dedication inscription in the form of a poem-epigram on the mosaic of Manuel. Manuel believed that Christ spoke to him directly and would have sought Christ's inspiration and even direction in the creation of the it. One can see it as his own votive offering to God. I suspect that is is Manuel's "official" icon of Christ and he would have used the same one over and over again in other places. The team that made the Deesis was moving from one big mosaic project (both secular and religious) to another for Manuel.
Manuel, as the commissioner of the Deesis, would have been expected to provide all of the materials. He would have picked the rare and expensive for the mosaic. There was an existing mosaic here, we don't know what it depicted. It might have been a huge plain gold field or had a non-figurative design from the era of Justinian. The emperor would have involved theologians, poets as well as the artists to discuss the purpose of the mosaic and what it was to convey. This spot was one of the most important in Hagia Sophia and the mosaic was intended to make an important artistic and religious statement. It was also intended to bring glory to the Emperor. The most important factor they wanted to achieve in the Deesis was vividness, the figures and even the background were to be as alive as possible. The figures even appear about to speak to the viewer. Seeing this mosaic - through its ultra-realism - the spectator was encouraged to interact with it on a personal level as a "living icon" that was truthful and full of energy. The Deesis was designed to appeal directly to the human senses as a 'real memory' of Christ, himself, that was immortally alive. One aspect of the original plan for the Deesis was the requirement that the image was to be as beautiful as humanly possible to create. We are invited to experience Christ, his Mother and John as if we were present, with them, in the heavenly paradise. We can still appreciate this today in what remains of the mosaic.
These figures would have been startling to the Byzantine viewer for other reasons. The image of Christ seems to be "alive" and follows you as you move around the South Gallery. It is worth noting that the head of Christ is set very high on the wall for a reason. One can see that the head was placed to be viewed at an oblique angle from the center of the gallery. This is the path most viewers would have followed. We can see that each figure was planned separately based on how it would be viewed and to convey both the personality of the person depicted and visual beauty. The Theotokos has a breathtaking softness in her face that really feels like she is a real, living woman. Her drapery has its own softness and naturalism; it's a shame that more of this figure hasn't been preserved. A Byzantine viewer would have been surprised by the soft realistic folds of the Virgin's robe around her face. The color of the robe is very subtle and carefully thought out. The relationship of the figure of the Virgin to her Son is very symphonic in their physical mannerisms and the colors used. One can imagine the epigrams that were written describing the Theotokos. The court of Manuel I was famous for its poets, who documented in all of the major events of his reign and even and artistic creations like the Deesis. One can only imagine what the hands would have been like. There were an amazing number of small mosaic tile being used.
The figure of Christ is extraordinary. His eyes follow you as you pages through the South Gallery and this effect was intentional. Although the position of the figures in the Deesis are conventional, everything about the figures, the throne, the footstool and the background are a unique artistic creation made for this exact space and intended to give the viewer a powerful and immediate experience that was at the same time human and divine. The effect would have been at the same time subtle and convey a complex philosophical and spiritual message. There was intended to be an experience of great beauty that anyone could appreciate on it's own merits, without thinking about its spiritual side. The artists who created it would have wanted to showcase their own skill and craftsmanship. The Deesis was probably the most important work of art created in the 12th century. It is difficult to appreciate how the mosaic would have looked in the midst of the walls and vaults which were encrusted with gold mosaics since all of this has been lost forever. We now see the Deesis in isolation, as a survivor.
The face of Christ is amazingly alive and is composed of thousands of tiny mosaic bits that merge into one. This is perhaps the finest mosaic icon of Christ ever created and it is nothing short of a miracle that it has survived. There are many curious Byzantine conventions in the face that vanish because the face is so vividly alive. We are convinced this is really Christ and that He is present here. His golden robe shimmers and dissolves at the same time it feels tangible and touchable. His blue cloak is a rare and daring shade that is both precious like an enameled Byzantine icon and yet feels soft like wool - two conflicting impressions.
The figure of John the Baptist is very life-like and it feels like he is about the step right off the wall. The face has the same number of small mosaic pieces as used in the Theotokos and Christ. The figure somehow feels very different that the other two, because of this some scholars who studied the Deesis felt it was a later addition to the panel. The drapery and the clothes of John have an amazing number of colors in them that blend together from a distance. Its unfortunate that a large part of the figure on the left side survived into the 20th century and was destroyed when the wall was opened up to check the cracks in the pier. A part of the Virgin's halo and robe that is now missing also survived up until the time of Fossatti made his watercolor of the Deesis in the mid 19th century. This area was always prone to water damage from the window, even when it was covered with plaster.
The gold background is electric, set in patterns that reflect light in different ways. These pattern soften the gold and supercharge it. You cannot get this sensation from any photograph, it is something that can only be experience in person in front of the mosaic. This technique of laying the gold mosaic is a deliberate, bravura effect that shows off the skill of the artists and is a true reflection of sophistication of the court of Manuel I. It conveys an effect of a finely woven golden silk like his courtiers would have worn. This gold background involved a great deal of additional work which tells us how important the Deesis was and the degree of craftsmanship that was put into its creation.
Because the South Gallery was closed to most people the Deesis was not as well known as it might have been. There are no written records or pilgrim accounts to fill us in on the history of it or any special meaning people of the time saw in it. This is true of the other imperial mosaic panels here of Constantine and Zoe, and John II Comnenus, Irene and Alexios their son.
The Deesis must have been completed in one summer season, from May - September, since there were two undercoats of plaster that had to dry before the final layer was applied on which the mosaic was set. The two under-layers were pretty straight forward. The first layer contained crushed brick, lime dust and chopped straw. The second layer was finer and upon this layer rough outline of the design of the mosaic was painted. The plaster on the Deesis panel was finely done with large trowels and has some variation in it on purpose. A slightly uneven surface would reflect gold mosaic in a lively, glittering way. When Justinian built the church in the sixth century the plaster work was fast and a bit sloppy - they had huge areas to cover - imagine the vast vaults to be done - in gold mosaic and not much time to get it finished. The uneven surfaces and joins of Justinian's time have given those mosaics a much admired, but unintended shimmer. It was much easier to lay plaster on a flat surface and fortunately, that's what our workmen had to cover here in the south gallery.
The same plastering method is found in Byzantine churches from Greece to Italy, Russia and Georgia. This technique remained the same for almost 800 years, until the end of the empire. Below you can see an example of the layers from a 2013 video from the Art Institute of Chicago.
Before the mosaic artists began work, a huge number or mosaic tesserae had to be assembled in various colors according to hue and intensity. Each color might require dozens of shades. The mosaic cubes were made of stone and glass. The stone tesserae included cubes of semi-precious stones, such as lapis lazuli and porphyry. However, it was the glass tesserae that had the strongest and most brilliant color combined with the subtle effects on light penetrating the cubes. The gold cubes used in the background were thinner than those used in the figures, book and throne. They were made using a special process. First, the slag glass was heated, laid on a table and then flattened into great round slabs of glass with pieces of wood. Then a very thin (almost transparent) layer of gold was placed between two layers of glass and fused together, like a sandwich. The thin top layer was made in an aqua colored glass. The transparency of the god layer is worth noting. It allowed light to pass through it, hit the back of the cube and then reflect it back from the white plaster setting bed, which makes these cubes have a special, golden glow. After fusion of the layers the slabs were carefully cut into cubes. It is possible to tell where a cube was cut from these disks by its shape. Mosaic cut from the edges has a curved edge. The composition of glass changes based on where the slag glass comes from. Chemical analysis shows that all of the 12th century gold mosaic came from Constantinople. The slag glass comes from Syria. From shipwrecks we know that glass merchants transported massive quantities of raw slag and used glass from port to port, ending in Constantinople to satisfy the demand of its glass factories.
In the Deesis we find a combination of old and new gold mosaic. Before the Deesis there had been another mosaic here that was taken down. They saved the mosaic from it and reused it, so a significant amount of mosaic in the panel is 6th century and already 500 years old. When mosaic ages the top layer of glass placed over the layer of gold can peel off. This continues to happen and presents a problem, should old cubes that decay we replaces - or should they be allowed to darken and loose their luster? The colors in the gold ranged from a deep glowing yellow to a bright lighter sunny shade. There were also a smaller number of cubes in red and white gold. These variations are caused by the various colors of glass under which the gold leaf is laid, and sometimes by paint applied under the tesserae which shows through the glass. In the background of the Deesis, silver is also found. Great care was taken with sorting and planning of the ratio of different types to be used. Had the entire background been of one type of gold it would have looked cheap and garish. Our artists were experts at using various types of gold tesserae to create the best looking background with dazzling effects embedded in it. Below are two screen captures from the Art Institute of Chicago showing how the Byzantines made glass mosaic cubes. The Master Mosaicist is Matteo Randi. Our 12th century artists would have made adjustments to cubes this way, right on the job.
In the middle ages Byzantium was one of the most important producers of glass. Constantinople imported slag glass from the middle east that was processed in the city. Its factories produced tons of mosaic a year, which was exported throughout the empire, Western Europe and the Middle East. They also produced glassware for everyday use in the home and vast numbers of glass lamps were needed every year to light houses, palaces, streets, shops and churches. Byzantium produced both pane and bottle glass for windows. There was a luxury market for glass that was produced to the highest artistic standards, combining, color, enamel and gilding. Even the average middle class Byzantine could afford small gorgeous perfume bottles and jars for cosmetics. One could say that before 1204 the average citizen of Constantinople lived in a world illuminated by glass in the streets, churches and public spaces of the city - all embellished with glass mosaics.
Once the plaster had dried and set properly, work began on the topmost layer of lime and marble dust where the mosaic cubes would be set. This fine layer of plaster was applied in a patchwork of sections just large enough to be completed in one day's work. The plaster joins were easy for the restorers to see and record. It gave them a good understanding of how the mosaic was created. On this layer a detailed colored painting was prepared as a guide for the artists.
As a comparison to the Theotokos of Hagia Sophia, here is a close up of the Kress Madonna from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.. One can see the same almost excessive attention to graduated color and subtle shadow transitions in the Virgin's face. This is an example that typifies the essence of 'tenderness' icons which were popular in Byzantium in the mid-twelfth century and were exported across Western Europe and Russia. Works like this had a great influence on Italian artists like Duccio. Below it is a close-up of the famous Virgin of Vladimir, which was painted around the same time the Deesis was created.
Many Byzantine paintings and mosaics were done with stencils made from other works. This ensured that each icon was true to its prototype and could be trusted to be a true representation of the saint depicted. In some cases a talented and experienced artist could work directly on the plaster without preparatory drawings - but this was very rare and discouraged by some artists as reckless.
We don't know anything for sure about the artists that created this mosaic. Were they monks from a monastery in Constantinople? Were they workers from an atelier in the city that was attached to or patronized by the Imperial court? Were they artists engaged by the patriarch brought in from provincial cities of a distant part of the Empire? I think we can conclude they were simply a Constantinople workshop that Manuel kept busy during his entire reign, doing one project after another for him. This workshop was probably focused on a single family with generations of experience behind it. They would have produced both secular and religious works. They would have have been a part of other great mosaic projects patronized by Manuel, like the Church of the Nativity in Bethelem. Their work might be seen in the great mosaic projects in Sicily from the same time period. It is believed that we can trace the work of Constantinople-based mosaic workshops moving from one project to another - from Hosais Loukas to Daphni and Torcello - over several generations. A workshop could have had hundreds of employees, all with specialized roles in the design and production of mosaics. The production of mosaics was very different from fresco painting and would not have been produced by the same artisans. A huge amount of glass mosaic - tons of it - was required for every project and was newly produced in specialized workshops. All of this was lost in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade when the workshops were either destroyed by fire or broken up as their workers fled the city as refugees.
In the middle of the twelfth century, when our mosaic was created, Constantinople was packed to the gills with 400,000+ people. The population had not been this big since Justinian's time when the plague wiped out two thirds of the population in three months time. The growth in population was a result of the expanding economic activity and increasing wealth of the empire during the Comnenian Dynasty. It was also a result of immigration from Asia Minor as people fled the advancing Turks. Much of the wealth of the Byzantine Empire was now generated by the huge consumer market the city had created and the surrounding businesses, farms and fisheries that supplied it. The main trade consisted of the day-to-day need to housing, clothing and feeding of almost half a million souls. This trade financed the Imperial court. One thing that set Constantinople apart from other cities were her luxury industries, like the manufacture of fine fabrics, gold-working, glass, perfumes, books, furniture and works of art. While these trades focused on the rich and elites of Constantinople, every home had its own - if more humble - furnishings. This 'middle-class' market was a huge one. For the standpoint of art every Christian household would have proudly owned and piously displayed at least one icon. The glinting gold and bright colors of these icons would have given their owners a bit of luxury and beauty, no matter how poor they might be. Most of these icons were inexpensive; one icon was equal to the cost of a good pan.
Beyond icons, the common people had an appreciation for non-religious art, since they were surrounded by secular works from ancient Greece and Rome in the city's forums, squares, colonnaded streets and the famous Hippodrome. There were hundreds of churches and chapels crammed with beautiful things that people saw everyday. Even so, we can't forget how filthy Constantinople was in the late 12th century and the terrible juxtaposition of wealth and poverty to be seen everywhere. This was one of things that struck people who visited Constantinople in this period. You could find fine nobles living in palaces -- right next door to five-story tenements of incredible squalor. The smell at ground level would have been dreadful, all of the sanitary facilities were on the ground floor. When more people were added to a building there was no way to add more toilets. Wealthier people lived on the top floors, but they still had to climb down to the ground floor to use them. Fires were frequent and an indicator of the decline in the quality of life as the city became more crowded.
As more people moved to the city landlords built up - adding floors to existing buildings. Not a wise move when the additions were constructed of wood and the streets were so narrow. In 1204 fires set by the Crusaders did more damage to the fabric of city than pillage. Vast areas were reduced to ashes and the fires marked the true end of the ancient city as its porticoes, shops and forums were destroyed. The fires came very, very close to Hagia Sophia and reached the edge of the atrium.
With so much to see in every quarter of the city, people took them for granted, although they could be very superstitious about this statue or that column, giving them supernatural powers over the fate of the city. The educated citizens of Constantinople cared about their history and the many famous and beautiful things to be found there. The Hippodrome was lined with dozens of statues, columns and other things the common people saw when they were at the races or games in the stadium. Sitting in the stands and crunching on snacks they would discuss the myths associated with the statues of men, beasts and giant insects which were placed along the spina - which ran down the center of the race track. No matter what your level of education or how rich you were Byzantines had a unique appreciation for art and beautiful things - especially when it was religious. They were also great followers of sport, fashion and stars of the theater.
In the late twelfth century, Constantinople must have had 10,000 icon painters competing for business. Although we can assume that there were lots of freelance artists, most painters would have been part of a guild or attached to a monastery. There must have been a staggering range in artistic quality when so many painters are involved.
Among potential patrons of icon painters the Imperial Court and the Patriarchal Church would have been the most important. Every workshop and painter would have aspired to to work for them. Being an officially recognized painter could give an artist a level of protection, but you were only as good as your last icon. This is the eternal struggle of all artists - you can be famous one day and forgotten the next. No matter how good you think you are there is always someone better and cheaper competing for business. Styles - even in icon painting - change. Fortunately for the 12th century Byzantine icon painter there were lots of of potential individual patrons with money. Many of them would have been people who knew artistic quality and fine technique when they saw it and would buy it when they found it. Below the Imperial court and the Patriarchate there were also wealthy nobles and rich monasteries who were knowledgeable patrons of art. Through the ambassadors of foreign courts and resident business representatives commissions were also coming in for big projects like the Norman Cathedrals of Sicily and the Royal Palace in Palermo. Like Florence in the fifteenth century, the 12 century in Byzantium was a unique coming together of economic growth, cultural development and artistic skill. Unfortunately, all of this came to an end in 1204 with the Fourth Crusade. When the Byzantines retook the city it was an empty shell of what it once had been. For a few decades enormous effort and huge sums of money was spent on the restoration of many of the churches, palaces and public places that had been ruined in 1204. This effort bankrupted the state. After the regular supply of funding that state sponsorship promised came to an end it was impossible for artistic workshops to continue to operate in the city. Great artistic works were still being created, but they were the commissions of individual patrons, and fewer and fewer of them were being done. For example, the mosaics of the Pammakaristos Church are the work of a single artist working on his own! The last major project, the restoration of Hagia Sophia after the collapse of the eastern arch in 1345, showed the utter exhaustion of the state as a potential patron of art. The great Seraphim in the pendentive of the nave is all that remains of that effort.
After that depressing note let us return to the Deesis and the background of the panel which is laid in a three-lobed motif with many of the gold tesserae set at an angle. The consistency and perfection of the gold background is an indicator of the skill of the workshop that made it and their attention to detail. The gold background is a masterpiece in its own right that was probably laid by apprentices. Even though they were lower-level workers in the workshop, we can see how skilled they were, meticulous and attentive. They had to work fast. It was work that did not allow for mistakes. There was only one opportunity to get it right before the plaster set. Did they use a grid to lay the tiles - or was this done freehand?
It is amazing to see the subtle work that went into the halo of Christ. It is the only figure of the three with a design in it. It has a rinceau pattern that is only visible at certain times of the day when the light is just right - another aspect of the vividness and energy in the mosaic. This is another example of how the mosaic was designed for this spot in the church. There is an obvious difference in the level of detail of the background and other parts of the mosaic. One can easily see a stepping up in the number of tesserae used per square inch from the garments to the hair, hands and faces. Indeed, the faces are laid in a painterly fashion with brushstroke-like lines ending in arrow-shaped slivers of glass and stone take makes them vivid and full of life.
How much work could be done in a day? As mentioned above, examination of the setting bed clearly reveals the seams of each day's work. Along these edges cubes are more likely to drop away, leaving trails of missing tesserae where the patches of plaster adjoin one another.
Looking at the plaster, Whittemore and his team could tell the face, neck and beard of Christ were done in one session and the hair in a separate one. I believe the faces were done in advance and then were pressed into the plaster. It is impossible for one man to select and lay all those tiny pieces on a vertical surface in such a short period of time high up on a scaffold. The clothing and throne would have gone faster, but there was a larger area to cover. Where one would have expected a simplification in the laying of the mosaic in the garments, this is only true to an extent. The clothing contains a myriad of colors and patterns that show the same level of bravura technique as the faces. Every inch of this mosaic shows a high degree of pride in workmanship. As mentioned earlier, many of the details would have been invisible to the viewer and only seen if you were right up next to the panel. We can look at the picture of the restorers working on a scaffold above and see that up to seven people could easily work on the mosaic at one time. Therefore the mosaic could be done in less than a month.
In late Byzantine times the mosaic was carefully maintained and it has places where you can see minor repairs being made. Cubes had fallen from the edge of the hair of Christ along a suture in the plaster. The repairs were made by setting the cubes in beeswax rather than plaster. The cubes do not match the ones they replaced. At some point the bottom of the mosaic was damaged - perhaps during the Latin occupation - and another row of marble panels was set along the bottom to conceal it.