Mosaics of Hagia Sophia

330 Founding of New Rome - Constantinople

In  330 Constantine the Great moved the capital of the Roman Empire to the old city of Byzantium, which he named New Rome.  Eventually the city began to be called Constantinople in his honor.  He rebuilt the city adding huge palace complex and expanded the Hippodrome which had been built by the North African emperor Septimius Severus around 100 years before. Originally the city had just a few churches, among the oldest was Hagia Eirene.  Constantine set up a giant red porphyry column from Egypt in the center of his new forum, that was named for him.  On top he set a gilt bronze statue of himself as Helios, the sun god.

Founding of New Rome - Constantinople

360 First Church Called the Great Church Built on the Site

The first church on the site was known as the Μεγάλη Ἐκκλησία "Great Church", or in Latin Magna Ecclesia, was built by Constantius II.  It was built as a traditional colonnaded basilica with galleries and a wooden roof.  The Patriarch of Constantinople John Chrysostom came into a conflict with Empress Aelia Eudoxia, wife of the emperor Arcadius, and was sent into exile on 20 June 404. During the subsequent riots, this church burned down, the fire creeping and leaping up from John's throne into the roof mysteriously.

First Church Called the Great Church Built on the Site

415 Second Church built by Theodosius II on the Site

A second church on the site was ordered by Theodosius II, who inaugurated it on 10 October 415. The basilica with a wooden roof was built by architect Rufinus. It had beautiful carvings in the "Theodosian style", which was strongly classical.  The frieze of sheep being lead into the sanctuary of the church that was on the front of the propylea still survives.  It could easily hold 10.000 or more people. A fire started during the tumult of the Nika Revolt and burned the second Hagia Sophia to the ground on 13–14 January 532.

Second Church built by Theodosius II on the Site

537 Completion of Hagia Sophia

After the Nika riots and fire destroyed the second church Justinian rebuilt it from the ground up sparing no expense.  Luxury materials and marbles were imported from all over the Western world. Huge new green columns in verde antico were newly carved and brought from Larissa in Greece.  The church was dedicated on Christmas day.  It was an entirely new design never seen before and remained the largest Christian cathedral until the new St. Peter's in Rome was built in the 16th century. During the building of the church the Black Death struck, taking 50% or more of the population with it in just a few months.

Completion of Hagia Sophia

558 First Dome Rebuilt

The first dome began to crack and finally collapsed destroying millions of dollars of silver furnishings in the sanctuary and ambo as it fell into the nave. The replacement dome had a higher profile and was more stable.  It had a new ring of windows.

First Dome Rebuilt

726 Iconoclasm Arrives - All Holy Images are Destroyed

All of the icons and religious images in Constantinople were destroyed by Leo the Isaurian.  In the image attached to this you can see iconoclastic bishops ordering an icon of Christ to be white-washed.  You can see the sponge that has been lifted from the basin with paint in it.  Justinian did not add images to the mosaics of Hagia Sophia.  Justinian ordered many huge and simple crosses for the vaults of the church.  The first images were woven into tapestries, chased in silver, carved in marble and ivory, and hung as icons on the walls and columns.  The image of Christ from Sinai shows us what those icons would have looked like, realistic portraits.

Iconoclasm Arrives - All Holy Images are Destroyed

867 Religious Images are Restored - First Mosaics are Unveiled

The first images restored to Hagia Sophia were icons that were hung on the walls around the aisles and on the columns of the chancel screen. Some years later, under the humanist Patriarch Photius, new mosaics are set up in Hagia Sophia beginning with Madonna and Child in the apse and two archangels in the vault of the bema.  Next came the mosaics of the tympana including the church fathers.

Religious Images are Restored - First Mosaics are Unveiled

907 Mosaic of Leo the Wise Added in Narthex

Leo as a great scholar in his own right and wrote many books on the law.  He ran into trouble with the church because he had been married too many times.  The emperor was forced to do penance for his defiance of church rules and was not allowed into the nave or sanctuary of the church.  He had to pass through the southern corridor to get to the Imperial metatorium, a private enclosed chapel in the eastern end of the church. This mosaic shows Leo prostrate before Christ and begging for His forgiveness.

Mosaic of Leo the Wise Added in Narthex

994 Western Arch and Part of Dome Rebuilt after Collapse

The Armenian architect Trdat, who served the royal family of Armenia and was the most famous architect in the east, was called in to repair damage caused by more earthquakes.  The work was ordered by Basil II - and Hagia Sophia was closed for several years while it took place - and it resulted in a distortion of the Western vault. New mosaics were put up at the same time, including Justinian and Constantine in the Southwest Vestibule, and new mosaics of the Theotokos with Peter and Paul in the western arch, which have vanished since 1845 when they were last seen.

Western Arch and Part of Dome Rebuilt after Collapse

1050 Constantine Monomachos and Zoe Mosaic Added to South Gallery

Zoe had been married several times and the mosaic was changed to the features of the last.  Constantine spent all of the money that had been saved by Basil II.  He played up to the clergy of Hagia Sophia by financing daily mass in the church, which was a full employment act for them. Formerly, Hagia Sophia had on been open on weekends and special holidays.  One of the biggest expenses was lighting the church, especially for vespers and all-night vigils.

Constantine Monomachos and Zoe Mosaic Added to South Gallery

1122 Mosaics of John II and Eirene with Alexios

Emperor John II ordered mosaics of himself, his wife and his son set up in the South Gallery.  In the center was a beautiful image of the Theotokos holding Christ in her arms.  Alexios, John's eldest son was named co-emperor, but died before his father.  The next oldest brother took his body back to the city by Imperial trireme, but caught the same disease as his brother and died.  John was poisoned by crusader mercenaries in his service and his fourth and youngest son. Manuel was named John's successor in 1143.

Mosaics of John II and Eirene with Alexios

1166 The Great Deesis Mosaic is Added to the South Gallery

The mosaic was put up by Manuel I Komnenos - called the Great by some - in the South Gallery.  Manuel had been deeply - and foolishly - involved with a new and obscure theological idea about the relationship of Christ to the other members of the Trinity as seen in the sacrifice of the Eucharist.  In the 12th century all across Europe Christianity was obsessed with the Eucharist and its meaning. Manuel forced through a synod his views on "My Father is Greater than I", which was later dropped by the church.  The "Deesis" is the ultimate icon of the Eucharistic sacrifice of Christ for mankind.

The Great Deesis Mosaic is Added to the South Gallery

1203 Fires of the Fourth Crusade Reach Hagia Sophia

There were three great fires that were set by the Crusaders in Constantinople.  The second was the largest and it destroyed a huge part of the central business zone including the Forum of Constantine and the great porticoes of the Mese where the most important shops were located.  A hundred thousand homes were lost; the city was mostly built of wood and went up in flames quickly.  The fire reached the atrium of the church and damaged it.

Fires of the Fourth Crusade Reach Hagia Sophia

1204 Crusaders Take City and Loot Hagia Sophia

The Christian crusaders of the Fourth Crusade took the city by assault and looted it completely.  They entered the church and placed a prostitute on the altar, and desecrated the sanctuary with unspeakable acts of filth and depravity.  They took all of the gold, silver and jewels, killing anyone who did not turn over their valuables to them.  All of the women they could grab were raped.  Finally they melted down all of the silver fittings of Hagia Sophia - including the giant silver ciborium, the life-sized crosses that hung from the vaults, the silver of the ambo and all of the silver chandeliers.  The money was divided up between the crusader lords and the Venetian Doge and Hagia Sophia was turned into a Roman Catholic church. 

Crusaders Take City and Loot Hagia Sophia

1261 Constantinople Recovered from the Latin Emperors

After less than 60 years the last emperor, Boniface the Broke, fled the Blachernae Palace leaving his crown and orb behind. He made his way on foot along the shoreline of the Golden Horn until a Latin ship picked him up.  There were only 35,000 people living in Constantinople when it was recovered.  All the money had been squeezed out of the city and its monuments by Bonifice, he even sold the lead off of the roofs of the churches and palaces.  All of the relics had been sold off, too.

Constantinople Recovered from the Latin Emperors

1347 Eastern Arch and Part of Dome Restored after Collapse

Cracks appeared in the eastern vault and arch, but nothing was done and there was a great collapse into the eastern part of the nave and sanctuary.  Everything, including the cancel screen, the ambo and the ciborium were destroyed.  The work looks bad but it has held up ever since.  In the dome the Pantokrator mosaic was restored along with the great Seraphim in the eastern pendentives.  Also restored were mosaics on the eastern arch, which included new portraits of John V and his wife Anna, John the Baptist, the Mother of God and the Mystical Throne of the Second Coming.

Eastern Arch and Part of Dome Restored after Collapse

1453 Fall of Constantinople

In the midst of unbelievable slaughter of thousands who took refuge in Hagia Sophia, the Turkish Islamic Sultan, Mehmet II, rode his horse into the church, mounted the great altar and declared the cathedral church of the East was now a muslim mosque.  Mehmet declared Hagia Sophia to be his personal property and had the last survivors cleared out.  More than 20,000 were killed and the rest were sold into slavery or paid ransoms to their captors.  The poor and the old were sacrificed in the atrium where there were heaps of the dead piled up.  All of the objects used in Christian worship including the iconostasis, the ciborium, and the ambo were swept away and the sultan had the church washed in rosewater to cleanse it for muslim worship.  The roses were in bloom when the city fell.

Fall of Constantinople

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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Life at the Top

Emperor John I Tzimiskes, the murderer of his uncle Nikephorus II Phocas in his bed in the Boukoleon Palace.  John married his uncle's wife, who was his co-conspirator in the assassination.

Basil the Bulgar Killer

Basil II the Bulgar Slayer and Never-Married, probably gay. Left the treasury full of gold and silver.  Died in his bed and got the last available tomb in Constantine's Mausoleum in the Church of the Holy Apostles.

Marie of Antioch, a very pretty French Princess, was the second wife of Manuel I Komnenos.  Murdered by Manuel's cousin, Andronikos I, who starved her to death.  He also murdered her son with Manuel, Alexios, too.  Poor boy, they strangled him when he was 15 and Andronikos took his 11 year-old wife as his own.

Constantine Monomachos, wasted the money left by Basil II on hand-outs to his friends, mistresses and big building projects.  Married to Zoë who loved making her own perfumes and cosmetics in the palace.  Her potions worked and she looked like a girl into her late 60's.  She killed her first husband, Romanos, in his bath.

Manuel II Paleologus - traveled to London and Paris to get help to save the empire.  The Muslim Turks thought he looked like the Prophet Mohammed.  Married very late and had 9 children, including the twilight emperor, Constantine - the Last.

Here we see Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus who wrote a book on everything you would want to know about court ceremony.  NOTHING was omitted and it went to a dozen books!  Can you imagine how long that would take to copy?  In his spare time Constantine enjoyed doing gold embroidery with real gold thread. Porphyrogenitus means he was born royal in the special Imperial Birthing Chamber that was lined with red porphyry panels from Egypt.