December 22, 2016

Commemoration of the Door Opening, Illumination and Consecration of the Great Church of Hagia Sophia

On the twenty-second of this month [December], we commemorate the Door Opening of the Great Church of Christ.


Men raise up the sacred pillars of Christ,
Modeled indeed by the design of David.

On the twenty-second of this month [December], we commemorate the Path of Light of the Great Church of Christ.


Today lights run around the Temple,
Making visible with light the entire divine path.

On the twenty-third of this month [December], we commemorate the Consecration of the Great Church of Christ, namely Hagia Sophia.


The consecration is beautifully eulogized,
The entire earth honoring as beautiful the beauteous Temple.

Nothing like the new church of Constantinople had been seen before. Borrowing from several earlier architectural styles, Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus created the masterpiece of sixth-century Byzantium. Although they were not professional architects, Emperor Justinian chose them, presumably because they had helped construct some of his military works. At any rate, they applied mathematics to the structure in a manner new to architectural design. The result was a work of grace and beauty.

Stone was brought from quarries in Egypt, Syria, Libya and elsewhere, columns were fetched from the pagan temple of Artemis at Ephesus and the temple of the Sun in Rome and thousands of craftsmen and laborers were employed. According to one writer, the emperor split the workforce into two groups of 5,000 men on the north side and 5,000 on the south so that rivalry between them would make each group try to work faster than the other.

Because its dome was set upon a ring of closely spaced windows, the Hagia Sophia (Church of the Holy Wisdom) was so "... full of light and sunshine; you would declare that the place is not lighted by the sun from without, but that the rays are produced within itself, such an abundance of light is poured into this church...." wrote a contemporary. Some described the space within as seeming infinite.

Emperor Justinian had spared no expense to erect this masterpiece, which went up in the astonishing span of just five years. This was possible because Justinian lavished money on the enterprise. One source estimates he spent as much as 23 million gold solidi on the building (the equivalent of $25 billion dollars in today's purchasing power). 40,000 pounds of silver were used in the decor alone.

When the emperor inspected the largely-completed work shortly before its consecration, he was silent for a long time. His eyes scanned its contrasts of gold with blue, the alternation of vertical and horizontal marble slabs, and the opposition of carved columns to curved arches. These created an interior beauty that made space seem to melt into space so that it was hard for the eye to gauge distances. "Solomon, I have surpassed you!" he exclaimed at last.

And in truth, no temple of antiquity had ever come close to the originality and magnificence of this. It had been made possible only by Justinian's zeal. At first it was simply called the "Great Church," but later the name "Holy Wisdom" was applied to it.

On December 27, 537, Patriarch Menas of Constantinople consecrated the architectural masterpiece. Eventually a bridge linked the church directly to the nearby imperial palace. Six hundred religious workers served the building, in which important religious functions of the empire took place. According to the Patriarchate of Constantinople, these workers included 80 priests, 150 deacons, 40 deaconesses, 60 subdeacons, 160 readers, 25 chanters, and 75 doorkeepers.

Hagia Sophia was by far the biggest church in the entire Christian world, but it was badly damaged by a succession of earthquakes in the 550's and the dome collapsed. Justinian ordered a restoration by Isidore the Younger, nephew of Isidore of Miletus, who gave the building an even more amazing dome. The church was reconsecrated in Justinian’s presence on Christmas Eve, December 24th, in 563, and the emperor died two years later.

Regarding the most-brilliant illumination of the Great Church of Hagia Sophia, we have a poem titled A Description of Hagia Sophia written in 563 by Paul the Silentiary, soon after the second consecration of the church on December 24, 563, and in it he says:

"Thus is everything clothed in beauty; everything fills the eye with wonder. But no words are sufficient to describe the illumination in the evening: you might say that some nocturnal sun filled the majestic temple with light. For the deep wisdom of our Emperors has stretched from the projecting stone cornice, on whose back is planted the foot of the temple's lofty dome, long twisted chains of beaten brass, linked in alternating curves by many hooks. From many points on a long course these fall together to the ground, but before they reach the floor, their lofty path is checked and they form an even choir. And to each chain he has attached silver discs, suspended circle-wise in the air round the central confines of the church. Thus, descending from their lofty course, they float in a circle above the heads of men. The cunning craftsman has pierced the discs all over with his iron tool so that they may receive shafts of fire-wrought glass and provide pendent sources of light for men at night. Yet not from discs alone does the light shine at night, for in the same circle you will see, next to the discs, the shape of the lofty cross with many eyes upon it, and in its pierced back it holds luminous vessels. Thus hangs the circling choir of bright lights. You might say you were gazing on the effulgent stars of the heavenly Corona close to Arcturus and the head of Draco. Thus the evening light revolves round the temple, brightly shining. And in a smaller, inner circle you will find a second crown bearing lights along its rim, while in the very center another noble disc rises shining in the air, so that darkness is made to flee.

By the aisles, too, next to the columns on either side, they have placed in sequence single lamps, one apart from the other, and they go through the whole length of the far-stretching church. Beneath each they have placed a silver vessel resembling a balance pan, and in the center of this rests a cup of burning oil. There is not, however, one equal level for all the lamps, but you will see some high, some low, in lovely curves of light as they glitter step-wise on their aerial path, suspended from twisted chains. In this manner does the twin-pointed Hyas shine, fixed in the parted forehead of Taurus. One may also see ships of silver bearing a luminous freight; suspended, they sail through the bright air instead of the sea, fearing neither the south wind nor late-setting Botes. And down on the floor you will see elegant beams running between two-horned supports of iron, upon which extends a row of lights, servitors of the temple, connected by straight rods of red color. Some of these are on the floor, where the elegant columns have set their bases, while others are above the capitals following the long path of the walls. Neither has the base of the deep-bosomed dome been left without light, for along the projecting stone of the curved cornice the priest has lit single lamps attached to bronze stakes. Just as a king, cherishing his virgin daughter, might place round her neck a lovely chain glowing like fire with rubies set in gold, so has our Emperor fixed round the cornice a revolving circle of lights that run along the whole base.

There is also on the silver columns, above their capitals, a narrow path of access for the lamplighters, a path full of light, glittering with bright clusters; these one might compare to the mountain-reared pine tree or to the cypress of tender foliage. Pointed at the summit, they are ringed by circles that gradually widen down to the lowest curve that surrounds the base of the trunk; and upon them have grown fiery flowers. Instead of a root, bows of silver have been affixed beneath these trees of flaming vegetation. And in the center of this beauteous grove, the form of the divine cross, studded with bright nails, blazes with light for mortal eyes.

Countless other lights, hanging on twisted chains, does the church of ever-changing aspect contain within itself; some illumine the aisles, others the center or the east and west, others shed their bright flame at the summit. Thus the bright night smiles like the day and appears herself to be rosy-ankled."