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September 27, 2010

An Appointment With An Angel at Hagia Sophia

In Istanbul, Christopher Howse views an angel unseen for 160 years.

Christopher Howse
September 26, 2010

I’ve just seen the face of an angel that no one had set eyes on for 160 years. I travelled 1,500 miles, saw the angel and then came home. It was worth it.

The angel – a seraph, most likely, since it has six wings – is depicted in mosaic high on the wall of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. The position is incomparable, for this church dedicated to Holy Wisdom by the Emperor Justinian nearly 1,500 years ago leaves an exhilarating impression of vast space enclosed by walls that let in streams of light.

Above a nave 100ft wide, the central dome is high enough to accommodate the Tower of Pisa. Where the square of supporting piers meets the hemisphere of the dome there are curving triangular surfaces known to architects as pendentives. Filling these, in each of the four corners, were four images of seraphim.

When the basilica (by then a mosque) was restored in the late 1840s, the faces of the seraphim were covered with golden plaques, out of Islamic sensitivity about graven images.

Hagia Sophia has been a museum since 1934, and in the most recent restorations, after 16 years of scaffolding, in time for Istanbul’s role as a European capital of culture, 2010, one of the faces has been revealed.

The face itself is about three feet across, though from the floor of the building it is almost lost in the feathery wings that frame it.

Curiously it reminded me of medieval versions of the face of the moon (often depicted in the sky next to the crucified Christ). It has a serene air. Once, it would have drawn the worshipper’s eye toward the centre of the high dome above, where Christ the Pantocrator reigned in mosaic.

The present image of the seraph must date from the mid 14th century, after the mending of damage to the dome from the earthquake of 1344. The glory of the golden mosaics, which by then had already covered the walls and domes for centuries, was expressed by the 10th-century emissaries to Byzantium of Prince Vladimir of Kiev, who exclaimed: “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendour or such beauty.”

That glory is not entirely departed, for the firmament remains on which the shining tesserae were set. The effect of such mosaic vaults is visible in miniature at the church of St Saviour in Chora (now a museum) near the western city walls.

St Saviour’s narrative mosaics recall those in St Mark’s, Venice, and the church also boasts an astonishingly vigorous mural of the risen Christ pulling Adam and Eve by the wrists out of their graves. At St Saviour too, an angel cloaked in wings stands at the gates where St Peter leads the righteous into heaven.

In Hagia Sophia some details bring home its antiquity. A piece of graffiti cut in runes on a marble balustrade of the southern gallery records the name of Halfdan, no doubt a member of the Varangian Guard that undertook to serve the Emperor in days before England had been conquered by the Normans.

At this upper level too, the most beautiful mosaics survive, such as the Deesis (the Greek convention of Christ enthroned with supplicating saints), where the tranquil face of Christ and the bowed heads of the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist gaze from a background of gold.

The older glowing tesserae are cubes of glass backed by gold leaf or colour. Some abstract patterned mosaics to be seen here date from the sixth century, and exploratory patches of more have been uncovered under some of the arches.

I was lucky enough to travel to Istanbul with the help of the Turkish Tourism Office and to stay in the peaceful comfort of the Four Seasons hotel in the Sultanahmet district, just next to Hagia Sophia. But it is perfectly easy to catch a plane to Istanbul and potter about the city under your own steam. There is plenty to see apart from Hagia Sophia, but what can equal it?