Uncovering The Mosaics of Hagia Sophia

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Byzantine Mosaics of Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia Mosaics and the Byzantine Religious Art

Hagia Sophia is one of the most important structures in history. Built by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in 537, it served for 900 years as a church and 500 years as a mosque. Hagia Sophia was converted into a museum a few years after the founding of the Republic of Turkey. Hagia Sophia, which remained a museum for nearly 85 years, will now be a mosque again.


An Update on Hagia Sophia Being a Mosque

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 were covered in the last period of the Ottoman Empire and remained closed for a long time. It was opened in the 1930s when Hagia Sophia was converted into a museum after a restoration directed by Thomas Whittermore (Byzantine Institute of America)

The work on opening the 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.

As someone who follows the subject closely, I can say that the mosaics will never be permanently closed. Turkish experts are currently working on a light system to shade the mosaics during worship hours.

Like the historical mosques of Istanbul, Hagia Sophia will be visited at certain times of the day and mosaics would be seen. However, the work on this subject is not finalized at the moment.

I photographed all the mosaics of Hagia Sophia in 2016 and wrote this article. I have added this note in July 2020 to provide information on the current situation. Now please enjoy the magnificent mosaics of Hagia Sophia. If you want to know more, I recommend you to read my other article called Hagia Sophia Architecture.


Hagia Sophia as the Spiritual Hub of Istanbul

Both Byzantine Emperors and Ottoman Sultans showed the utmost attention to the building. As a matter of fact, Hagia Sophia was the most important church of the capital Constantinople during Byzantine period. Nothing changed after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks, Hagia Sophia became the head of the mosques and cared extensively by the sultans.

Legends Related to the Mystic Center Hagia Sophia

It was believed during Byzantine period that Seraphim Angels, pictured on sides of Hagia Sophia’s dome, were protecting the city. According to city legends, Contantinople, which was besieged many times during its 1000 years old history, never fell thanks to these angels.

Due to the belief that Hagia Sophia is a holy building, four Ottoman Sultans requested that they be buried under its courtyard upon their death. Tombs of some Sultans are located today at the courtyard.

Seraphim Angel On the Pendentive

Hidden Mosaics of Hagia Sophia

Seraphim Angel

Hagia Sophia Interior Mosaics and the Byzantine Art

Hagia Sophia mosaics were commissioned by different Byzantine Emperors during the 9th and 13th Centuries. Ottomans additions date back to 15th and 19th Centuries.

Today’s Hagia Sophia has been serving as a museum for 85 years. Thanks to this fact, it is possible to see traces of both Christianity and Islam at the same time. Just like La Mezquita Church of Cordoba in Spain, Hagia Sophia carries the traces of both cultures and traditions.

Mosaics Survive After the Fall of Constantinople

Mosaics were not destroyed by Ottomans but covered when the city was captured by Muslim Turks. Therefore, when Hagia Sophia was converted into a museum, they were uncovered so that visitors would enjoy them.

In this article, we will analyse the most important mosaics of Hagia Sophia.

Hagia Sophia Mosaics on the Entrance Floor

Mosaic Of Emperor Leon VI

Mosaic of Jesus Christ Pantocrator in Hagia Sophia

Emperor Leon IV on the top of the Imperial Gate. © Serhat Engul

Mosaic of Emperor Leon VI of Byzantine Empire

The Pantakrator mosaic decorated with a Jesus figure, located on the top of the Imperial Gate shows Jesus sanctifying with his right hand and carrying a bible with his left hand.

The following Greek words are written on the Bible: ‘May Peace Be with You. I Am the Divine Light’. The right medallion has Archangel Gabriel figure while the left medallion has Mother Mary. Below the feet of Christ is Emperor Leon VI of Byzantine Empire who has prayer position. The mosaic dates back to the 9th century.

Mosaic Over the Imperial Gate in Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia Mosaics Uncovered

Imperial Gate of Hagia Sophia © Photo: Serhat Engül

Off the Record History of this Mosaic

According to rumors about this mosaic, Emperor Leon is an unlucky man. He married three times and his wives died due to some sicknesses. When he wanted to marry fourth time, he was met with opposition by Byzantine Church. In order to gain Church’s favor, he made a big donation. To immortalize this donation, this mosaic is placed on top of Imperial Gate. Eventually Leon married again.


Mosaic of Virgin Mary and Jesus

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Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ Mosaic © Serhat Engul

Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus on the Apse of Hagia Sophia

The figure of Virgin Mary (Theotokos) as seated on a throne with jeweled cushions, holding baby Jesus in the center of the quarter dome.

Byzantine Iconoclasm Period

This mosaic is an important one because it is the first figured mosaic created after the iconoclasm period of Hagia Sophia. Iconoclasm was a harsh period for Byzantine art. Byzantine Iconoclasm had literally started with the order of Emperor Leo III in 726 and carried out by his successors until 842. The emperors of Isaurian dynasty aimed to  break the church’s poweful influence over the Constantinople’s people.

Celebrating the end of Iconoclasm

Therefore the Mother Mary and Baby Jesus mosaic is the oldest one in Hagia Sophia, dating back to the 9th century. This mosaic was opened with a religious ceremony since it is the first mosaic of the post-iconoclasm period.


Mosaic of Emperors Justinian and Constantine

Byzantine Art in Hagia Sophia

Emperor Justinian I and Constantine I Mosaic © Serhat Engul

Emperor Justinian I and Constantine the Great Mosaic

Hagia Sophia’s most prominent figured mosaic is located in the inner narthex, on the Southern vestibule door. This mosaic was found while the repair process was going on which was held by Fossati brothers in 1849.

The base of the symmetrical mosaic panel is comprised of gold leafs, and shows Virgin Mary on a backless throne with the words meter and theou, which is an abbreviation saying ‘God Bearer’, engraved on both sides. Baby Jesus can be seen on Mary’s lap.

Emperor Constantine as the Founder of Constantinople

Emperor Constantine, the founder of the city of Constantinople, holds the city in his hand. He symbolically presents this beautiful and sacred city to the Virgin Mary.

Emperor Justinian as the Maecenas of Hagia Sophia

Emperor Justinian, the greatest ruler of Byzantine history, presents his masterpiece, Church of Hagia Sophia (which means Church of Holy Wisdom), to the Virgin Mary.

Hagia Sophia Mosaics on the Second Floor (North & South Galleries)

World Famous Deesis Mosaic of Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia Deesis Mosaic

Deesis Mosaic Of Hagia Sophia © Serhat Engul

Deesis Mosaic of Jesus, John the Baptist and Virgin Mary

Deesis stage, which is regarded as the start of renaissance in Byzantine painting, is located on the western wall of Northern Gallery. John the Baptist on the right side and Virgin Mary on the left side and Jesus Christ in the middle can be seen in the portrayal.

The Last Judgement Scene

It describes the prayer of Virgin Mary and John the Baptist to Jesus Christ for the mercy of people during the Last Judgement. All three figures have the characteristics of Hellenistic Era portrayal art.

Best Example of Byzantine Renaissance

Dynamism and choices of color make the piece a truly successful one. The Deesis Mosaic is considered as one of the best pieces in which the main principles of ancient Byzantine era art are reflected. The mosaic dates back to the 13th Century.


Emperor Constantine IX and Empress Zoe Mosaic

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Contantine Monomakhos and Empress Zoe © Serhat Engul

Mosaic Of Constantine IX Monomachus and Empress Zoe

Emperor Constantine IX Monomakhos (1042-1055) and Empress Zoe are included in the mosaic board. The inscriptionover Empress’s head states: “Devoutly Religious Agusta Zoe”. On both sides of Jesus, there are the initials of Jesus Christ IC and XC monograms

Immortalize the donations of Imperial Family

This mosaic board symbolizes the donations made by the emperor’s family in order to restore Hagia Sophia. It dates back to 11th century.

Off the Record History of This Mosaic

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 a 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.

This mosaic was probably made in the honor of Zoe’s first marriage. When the emperor changed, face of the man in the mosaic was scraped and changed with Constantine’s face. Like a modern day photoshop tricks.


Emperor John Komnenos and Empress Irene Mosaic

Byzantine Mosaics in Hagia Sophia Museum

John Komnenos and Empress Irene © Serhat Engul

Mosaic Of John II Comnenus, Eirene And Alexios

Emperor Ioannes II Komnenos (John II Comnenus), his Hungarian origin Eirene and their son Aleksios are depicted in the mosaic. One can see in the middle of the depiction Virgin Mary standing in her arms with Jesus Christ.

There is a writing around Emperor’s head, saying “Born in porphyry salon”, which is an indication of loyalty of his father’s reign.

The wife: Empress Eirene

Empress 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.

The son: Prince Alexios

Prince Aleksios (Alexios), who died at a young age from illness, can also be seen on the board. One can see in the mosaic the prince’s pale face due to his sickness.

Symbolizes the Donations of Emperor John Comnenus

This mosaic board symbolizes the donations made by the emperor’s family to restore Hagia Sophia. It dates back to 12th century.

Famous Mosaics of Hagia Sophia by Serhat Engul

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