July 24, 2020

The Hagia Sophia Churches (Fr. George Florovsky)

By Fr. George Florovsky

The first temple in Constantinople dedicated under the name of "Holy Wisdom" was possibly designed by Constantine himself. The building was however completed much later and the "Great Church" was first consecrated only in 360, under Constantius, by an Arian bishop. It is not at all clear when the name "Hagia Sophia" was first given to the church. Socrates says only: "which is now called Sophia" (II, 43). It is quite possible that the "Great Church" in the beginning had no special name, and the name of Sophia came to prominence later; it was probably a current connotation rather than an intentional dedication.

The name, however, by no means was an accident. Some archeologist of old guessed that the name was rather an abstract idea or a Divine attribute, and that Constantine used to dedicate temples to "abstract ideas," — Wisdom, Power, Peace. All this is but a misunderstanding. The name of Wisdom is a biblical name, and all these three "abstract" names are used in St. Paul, as names of Christ: Sophia [Σοφία], Dynamis [Δύναμις], Eirênê [Ειρήνη]. Passages in the Old Testament where the Wisdom of God was described as a person (and specially the VIII-th chapter of Proverbs) were from an early date regarded as referring to Christ, the Incarnate Word. We find this in St. Justin. The other suggestion, that Wisdom meant rather the Holy Spirit (the Spirit of Wisdom, of course), found in Theophilus of Antioch and St. Irenaeus, was not used ever by any of the later writers, and the identification of "Sophia-Wisdom" as of one of the names of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity became the common place of Patristic exegesis and theology. Origen regards the name "Wisdom" as the first and principal name of the Son (Comm. in Ioann. I. 22). Both "Wisdom" and "Power" are mentioned in the Symbol of St. Gregory of Neo-Caesarea. In the IV-th century both Arians and Orthodox agreed that the Holy Wisdom described in the book of Proverbs was the Son of God. The eighth chapter of Proverbs was one of the principal topics of dispute throughout the whole IV-th century, and certainly the name was known and comprehensible to all and was full of associations. Anyhow it was the name of Christ, and it was but natural to give this name to the "Great Church."

Hagia Sophia was dedicated to Christ under the name of Wisdom. There is no reason whatever to suspect any change of dedication under Justinian. It is obvious that Sophia was commonly regarded as the temple of Christ. It is clearly shown in the famous story of the construction of Justinian's Sophia: "Hagia Sophia," which means the Word of God (ed. Preger, p. 74: και έκτοτε έλαβε την προσηγορίαν ό ναός Αγία Σοφία, ό Λόγος του θεού έρμηνευόμενος). It is hardly possible to speak of any specified dedication of churches in Justinian's time or even later. A church was usually dedicated simply to Our Lord or to the Blessed Virgin, or else to the Saints. But it depended upon some peculiar conditions when any special dedication was stressed. The patronal festival was kept on the Anniversary of the dedication. In St. Sophia it was on the 23-rd of December, because the temple was consecrated under Justinian on the 26-th of December and again on the 24-th. Of course Christmas was chosen as the most suitable season. In the office for the Anniversary, as it is described in the Typik of the Great Church published by Dmitrievsky, there is nothing to suggest any special commemoration for the day; it is rather a general office for any Anniversary. And actually it was recommended for this purpose by Symeon of Salonicâ.

The churches dedicated to Holy Wisdom were quite numerous both in Byzantium and among the Slavs. On many occasions we have a direct proof that they were regarded as dedicated to Christ, the Word and the Wisdom. And there is no reason or hint whatever to suspect that any other dedication of the Sophia-churches was ever known or used in the Byzantine Church. Scholars were misled or confused by the unexpected and rather startling fact that in Russia the patronal festival in the Sophia-churches was kept on Our Lady's days, on the 8-th of September in Kiev (the Nativity of Our Lady) and on the 15-th of August in Novgorod (the Assumption). This seemed to suggest that these famous Cathedrals were dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, and that the name of Wisdom was applied to Her as well. Some scholars were inclined to see in that a special contribution of Russia to the theology of Wisdom. One has to object first that in earlier times the patronal festival both in Novgorod and Kiev was kept on the Anniversary of the dedication, as it is stated in old calendars. And secondly we are very fortunate to have some formal proofs that the patronal festival was transferred to the new dates quite late. In Kiev this occurred not before the restoration of the Hagia Sophia by Peter Mogila or even later. In Novgorod it took place under Archbishop Gennadius about the close of the XV-th century. But even after that date the Novgorod Sophia was usually called the temple of the Wisdom and Word.


There are two distinct manners to represent the Wisdom of God in Byzantine iconography. First, Christ as Wisdom and Word under the image of an Angel (μεγάλης βουλής άγγελος, Is. IX. 6). Second, the personification of Wisdom, Divine or human, as a virgin. The first scheme is biblical, the second classical, and they are originally quite independent from each other.

The first one is very rare in early monuments. One has to mention the fresco in the catacombs in Karmuz, where the inscription is emphatic: ΣΟΦΙΑ ΙΣ ΧΣ. The representation is badly described and the whole monument not quite clear. One may interpret the image as a representation of Christ in the Old Testament similitude. One may compare it with the early document as "Shepherd" Hermas, in which the Son of God was described as an Angel and almost confused with Michel the Archangel (ό ένδοξος άγγελος). And one can understand easily why this image could not be very popular in early iconography. The main emphasis was rather on the historicity and reality of the presentation of Our Lord, and it was intended to convey to the worshipers the sound dogmatic idea. Symbolical images were rather definitely discouraged. This was the meaning of the 82nd canon of the Council in Trullo. The image of the Angel of the Great Council becomes popular and usual only in later Byzantine iconography, and is found often in Mistra and Athos, but only as an exception are we warranted to believe that the Angel was meant to represent Wisdom. One can mention only one fresco described by Charles Diehl at St. Stefano in Soleto, probably from the late ХІ-th century. The angel has a chalice in his hand, which suggests an eucharistic interprétation (see Prov. IX, 2, which is referred to the Eucharist in the office of Good Thursday). But the inscription is plain: H ΑΓ. ΣΟΦΙΑ Ο ΛΟΓΟΣ. There are some interesting compositions in miniatures. But it is certain that in Byzantine art we never had any canonized scheme for the representation of Divine Wisdom.

The second composition, the personification, can be found first in the miniatures. It is enough to mention the famous Parisin. N. 139 (X-th cent.). But even here the classical motive was possibly amalgamated with the biblical. One can recall the vision of St. Cyril, where Wisdom was seen as a virgin (see Sap. Sal. VIII, 2). In monumental art the composition in Monreale has to be mentioned. All that does not suggest that the image of Wisdom had any special appeal to the Byzantine Christians. But a basis was provided for the further development of the topic in Russian iconography. The famous Novgorod icon of St. Sophia is hardly older than the late XV-th century. It is a peculiar kind of Deisis, where Christ is represented as Wisdom under the image of the Angel, and the Blessed Virgin and St. John the Baptist standing at His sides. The icon belongs to a very interesting series of the new Russian compositions of the XV-th and XVI-th centuries and is a new interpretation of some traditional Byzantine motives.

"The Hagia Sophia Churches" originally appeared as a résumé of a lecture titled "Christ, the Wisdom of God, in Byzantine Theology" in Résumés des Rapports et Communications, Sixième Congrès International d'Études Byzantines (Paris, 1940), pp. 255-260. Reprinted by permission. This résumé was only an introduction to a larger paper which was to be presented at the Byzantine Congress at Alger in 1939. The Congress, however, did not take place.

From the book Aspects of Church History.