The mosaics in Hagia Sophia are the traces of a lost civilization that have survived to the present day. Hagia Sophia was built in 537 and remained a church for 900 years. However, the mosaics inside were controversial even in those years.
After 1453, Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque during the Ottoman period and remained a mosque for about 500 years. The building was converted into a museum in the early Republican period (1930s) and remained so for a long time.
In July 2020, Hagia Sophia was turned into a mosque again. In this article, you can find up-to-date information about the mosaics in Hagia Sophia. Photographs of each Byzantine mosaic are attached and their stories are noted.
Are Hagia Sophia’s Mosaics Still Open?
Hagia Sophia was turned back into a mosque again last year. For this reason, one of the most popular topics these days is what will happen to the mosaics of Hagia Sophia. Because according to Islamic rules, prayers cannot be performed in the place where there are statues or pictures symbolizing the human face.
Hagia Sophia’s mosaics had been covered in the last period of the Ottoman Empire and remained closed for a long time. When turned into a museum in the early years of the Republic, the mosaics were uncovered by Thomas Whittemore and his team (Byzantine Institute of America).
Efforts to find and restore Byzantine mosaics continued until very recently, and even the face of one of the Seraphim Angels on the side of the dome was fully opened just a few years ago.
When Hagia Sophia was turned back into a mosque in 2020, there was uncertainty about the status of the mosaics. However, as of July 2021, all mosaics on the ground floor of Hagia Sophia are open.
Some of the mosaics of Hagia Sophia are located in the galleries on the upper floor. If you go to Hagia Sophia right now, you may not see these mosaics because the upper floor is still under restoration.
In the second part of the article, I will be telling you the stories of the mosaics in Hagia Sophia. To be specific, the first three mosaics in the article can now be seen. However, the last three mosaics cannot be seen because they are on the upper floor. (July 30, 2021)
During the Byzantine period, it was believed that the Seraphim Angels, located at the four corners of the dome of Hagia Sophia, protected the capital. According to the legends, Contantinople, which was besieged many times during its 1000 years of history, never fell thanks to these angels.
The Byzantine Empire remained the most powerful authority in the Christian world for many years. With the conquest of Italy by Justinian, all religious centers of Christianity remained in the hands of Byzantium for many years.
The Pentarchy (Five Patriarchates) designated by Emperor Constantine in the First Council of Nicaea included the cities of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. Byzantium had it all, and the Byzantine emperors saw themselves as the continuation of Christian Rome.
Hagia Sophia was the spiritual center of this Christian empire. For this reason, there were many legends associated with Hagia Sophia, as in Seraphim Angels.
During the Ottoman period, Hagia Sophia was equally respected. Hagia Sophia was considered the main mosque in the city and remained so until the end of the empire. Some Ottoman sultans wanted to be buried in the courtyard of Hagia Sophia.
Mosaics Inside Hagia Sophia
The mosaics inside Hagia Sophia were built by the Byzantine emperors between the 9th and 13th centuries. In this sense, most of the mosaics in Hagia Sophia represent late Byzantine art.
Well, if Hagia Sophia was built in 537, why is the earliest mosaic dated to the 9th century? The reason for this is the conflicts between Iconoclasts and Iconophiles in Byzantine history.
Byzantine Iconoclasm between 726 and 847 caused the destruction of all mosaics within the borders of the empire. The iconoclasm began when Emperor Leo III removed the image of Jesus from the Chalke Gate of the Great Palace.
When the iconoclasm ended in 847, the first mosaic was made in Hagia Sophia. The Virgin and Child mosaic that you will see in the apse of Hagia Sophia today was made after the Iconophiles came back to power.
The mosaics in Hagia Sophia were left as they were in the early Ottoman period. After the 18th century, the mosaics were covered with a thin plaster. During the work in the 20th century, the mosaics were opened and restored.
1. Mosaic Of Emperor Leo VI
Mosaic Of Emperor Leo VI is located above the imperial gate in Hagia Sophia. The emperor, also known as Leo VI the Wise, ruled the Byzantine Empire between 886 and 912. In the mosaic you can see Jesus and the emperor praying to him. In the left circle is Mary, and in the right circle is the archangel Gabriel.
The marriages of Leo VI caused a scandal in Byzantium because it was against the traditions. Some of the leaders of the church condemned Leo and did not recognize his fourth marriage.
Leo VI’s first marriage was at the request of his predecessor, Basil I. Unhappily married to Theophano Martinakia, the emperor married once more after his wife’s death in 897. The emperor lost his second wife, Zoe, in 899, and his third wife, Eudokia, in 901.
Leo finally had an heir from his last marriage and struggled to get his marriage recognized by the church. Eventually, the two sides agreed, and Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (meaning born in the purple) became the future emperor.
Today, there are artifacts from this period in Istanbul. For example, the Palace of the Porphyrogenitus (locally known as Tekfur Sarayi), recently opened as a museum, is attributed to Constantine VII.
In addition, you can see the sarcophagus of Theophano, the first wife of Leo VI, in the Church of St George (Patriarchate Church). Theophano Martinakia, a very religious woman, is venerated as a saint by the Eastern Orthodox Church.
2. Mosaic of Virgin and Child
The Virgin and Child Mosaic is located in the apse of Hagia Sophia. When you pass through the imperial gate to the nave, the first thing that will catch your attention will be the giant dome and the second thing will be this magnificent mosaic.
Mary wears a royal blue dress, while baby Jesus is dressed in gold. The Virgin and Child sit on a jeweled throne. This mosaic, dating back to the 860s, is the oldest mosaic in Hagia Sophia.
As I mentioned at the top of the article, the Byzantine Empire was under the rule of Iconoclasts for a while. For this reason, all the mosaics inside Hagia Sophia were destroyed and replaced by various religious symbols.
The opening of this mosaic meant a lot to Iconophiles at the time. For this reason, although it may not be noticed at first glance, the mosaic is quite detailed and large. All techniques of Byzantine art were used so that the mosaic could be seen from all over the church.
If you want to see the traces of the Byzantine Iconoclasm in Istanbul, you can visit the Hagia Irene Church. It has the simplest design among the churches of Istanbul, but still has its own charm.
3. Mosaic of Emperors Justinian and Constantine
Emperor Justinian and Constantine mosaic was located in the direction of exit when Hagia Sophia was a museum. A mirror was placed above the door so that those walking towards the exit would not miss this beautiful mosaic.
After the Hagia Sophia was turned into a mosque, the south gate with this mosaic became the entrance. In short, the mosaic, which seemed to be a last surprise to visitors in the past, is now the first historical artifact that welcomes them.
Emperor Constantine was someone who changed the history of the world with his decisions. Constantine, who ascended the throne at a time when Rome was ruled by four emperors, defeated all his rivals and became the sole ruler.
Constantine first liberated Christianity with the Edict of Milan. He later made Constantinople the new capital of the empire. Finally, he convened the first Ecumenical council of the Church and laid the foundations of Christianity.
Constantine’s relocation of the center of the Roman Empire to the east allowed the Roman legacy to live on for another 1000 years. For this reason, Constantine was accepted as an ancestor by the Byzantines and was remembered with respect even centuries later.
Emperor Justinian lived two centuries after Constantine. The years between 527 and 565, when Justinian ruled, was the peak period of the Byzantine Empire. Emperor Justinian and his wife Empress Theodora became the most famous figures in Byzantine history.
In this mosaic you can see the two most famous emperors of late Antiquity. On the left, Emperor Justinian presents his masterpiece, Hagia Sophia, to the Virgin and Child. On the right, Emperor Constantine presents his masterpiece, Constantinople, to the holy family.
This mosaic dating from the 10th century is still in very good condition. The Justinian and Constantine mosaic, made hundreds of years after the reign of both emperors, shows that their legacy was well remembered.
4. Deesis Mosaic of Christ
Deesis Mosaic of Christ is located in the south gallery on the upper floor of Hagia Sophia. The mosaic dating from the 13th century is one of the best examples of Byzantine art. The mosaic depicts the Judgment Day, one of the most popular scenes in Byzantine religious art.
The Deesis Mosaic has Christ Pantocrator at the center. On the left is the Virgin Mary and on the right is John the Baptist. Mary and John beg Jesus for mercy for people on the Day of Judgment.
The vividness of the colors and the facial expressions of the characters are very successful in the mosaic. For this reason, Deesis in Hagia Sophia is considered the renaissance of Byzantine mosaic art.
5. Emperor Constantine IX and Empress Zoe Mosaic
Emperor Constantine IX and Empress Zoe Mosaic is one of the most striking mosaics in the south gallery. Byzantine emperor Constantine IX Monomachos was the third husband of Zoe, a princess of the Macedonian dynasty.
Empress Zoe was the only heir after the death of her father. The person she would marry would become the emperor. She married a man (Romanus III) deemed suitable by the officials of the state. However, she fell in love with someone else. Her first husband died mysteriously after slipping in the bathroom. Therefore Zoe was able to marry the man (Michael IV) she fell in love with.
But her second husband died as well due to a deadly disease. Then she married the handsome bureaucrat Constantine Monomachus. Constantine also brought his mistress Maria Skleraina to the palace after getting married. This is why the new emperor received great reaction from the public.
People feared that Zoe would be a victim of an assassination. Carrying the blood of Emperor Basil II, Zoe’s life was very important for the legitimacy of the Byzantine throne. Feeling the pressure of the people, Constantine did not dare even if he had an intention to do something to Zoe.
Historians agree that this mosaic was made in honor of Zoe’s first or second marriage, and that the man’s face was later changed. The face of the previous husband was scraped and replaced with the new one.
Although it is not very obvious in the photo, when you look closely at the mosaic, the destruction around the man’s face is evident. In addition, it is clear that the longer family name (Monomachos) did not fit into the frame and was narrowed.
The inscriptions on the mosaic highlight Zoe’s piety. In addition, it symbolizes the family’s donations to the church. Both Constantine and Zoe symbolically present to Jesus what they have done in the name of Christianity.
6. Emperor John Komnenos II and Irene Mosaic
Emperor John Komnenos II and Irene Mosaic is another beautiful mosaic of the south gallery. The mosaic includes the emperor, his Hungarian wife Irene, and their son Alexios. Also in the center is the depiction of the Virgin and Child.
Eirene was the daughter of Hungarian King Ladislaus I and she was depicted as typical Middle European with braided ginger hair, colored eyes, white skinned and ruddy cheeks. Empress Irene is venerated as a saint by the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Their son, Alexios, on the far right of the mosaic, was declared “Caesar” by his father and shared the throne. However, during a military expedition, he suddenly fell ill and died. The sad facial expression of Alexios in the mosaic draws attention.
This mosaic, like its predecessor next to it, symbolizes the donations of a religious imperial family. The faces of the characters in the mosaic are very skillfully depicted. The color of Mary’s dress creates a perfect contrast and is very detailed.
Famous Mosaics of Hagia Sophia by Serhat Engul