Elizabeth Lev’s thoughtful commentary on art and architecture is well worth a weekly visit to Zenit. This week, amongst commentary on a few other items, she writes a brief history of the Hagia Sophia, once the mother church of Christian Orthodoxy.
The design of Justinian’s church was a far cry from the Latin cross style prevalent in Rome. More centralized with a length of 250 feet for a width of 230 feet, Hagia Sophia was capped by a splendid dome about 100 feet in diameter, recalling Rome’s finest pagan edifice, the Pantheon. But Justinian took only the hemispherical dome symbolizing heaven from the ancient imperial tradition; the rest of church displayed Christian ideals.
Hagia Sophia, unlike the ancient Roman temples which were grandiose on the outside but empty within, was constructed to express the Christian sense of interiority. On the outside, half-domes huddle around the central cupola, gravitating toward, yet solidly supporting, the inner sanctum. Inside the church, dozens of windows pierce the walls, and light seems to dissolve the supporting structures.
The dome itself rests on a ring of 40 arched windows that look like a collar of scalloped lace. The effect is weightlessness — a place where the rules of gravity and of the physical world no longer apply and that heaven supports of its own will.
For a visual comparison on the influence of this basilica on Turkish architecture, see the great dome of the mosque designed by Sinan in Edirne for Selim II: