August 3, 2020

A Guided Tour of the Mosaics of Hagia Sophia with Photios Kontoglou

By Photios Kontoglou (1895-1965)

Hagia Sophia is the boast of Orthodoxy, the mother of all churches.

For us Greeks it is the castle of our freedom and religion, a fairytale church as well as a palace.

The building was built by the architects Anthemios and Isidoros, by order of the pious emperor Justinian.

Today we will not talk about the building, but only about the mosaics that decorate it.

Most of them represent ornamentation.

Of the iconography most were icons of Christ, the Panagia, angels, saints, as well as emperors and empresses.

Compositions are very few.

In the dome the Pantocrator was not painted, as in later churches, but there is a large cross, adorned with precious stones, pearls and diamonds.

That is why the historian Procopius does not say anything about the Pantocrator or the prophets who enter between the windows of the dome, but says: "The ceiling is overtaken with genuine gold."

From this we conclude that, not only the domes, but also the entire ceiling of the church was gilded, without figures.

Some archaeologists say that the Ascension was represented in the dome, as it is to this day in Hagia Sophia of Thessaloniki and in some other old churches, that is, Christ in the middle in full body surrounded by glory being lifted by flying angels, and around, between the windows, the twelve apostles, two angels and the Panagia. But this cannot be true, because the lower part of the dome, namely the "drum" is low, and between the windows the wall is narrow strips that do not fit a painted man. Maybe the Pantocrator was painted years later, because the first dome fell, and the one that exists is said to have been built by an Armenian carpenter named Trdat.

A European who went to Constantinople in 1600 writes that the image of Christ Pantocrator was in the dome and was so large that one eye from the other was three feet away. If there really was a Pantocrator made with mosaics, it would have happened during the years of the Macedonian emperors, because later the Byzantine kingdom was poor and could not do such expensive works.

On the four triangles by the arches where they support the dome and where the four Evangelists are painted today, they had represented in figures four six-winged angels, with the two wings unfolded and the other four folded crosswise. From these six wings, two can be seen today, except for the faces that are covered with plaster, and they are very large, since the lower wings are eight meters long.

[In 2009 an angelic face came to the surface.]

All the other mosaics are coated, except for the ornamentation, and no one knew what they were representing. Only a hundred years ago there was an earthquake and many plasters fell in Hagia Sophia, and the Italian architects who corrected it, two Fossati brothers, as if throwing off the damaged plaster, found some saints and emperors formed by mosaics.

The German architect Salzeberg, who worked with the Fossati's, took some sketches from these works. He writes that one of them showed a great Pantocrator uncovered in a dome, but his sketch was lost. These icons were coated again with new plasters.

Salzeberg's drawings were printed, and then for the first time people saw what was hidden under the lime of Hagia Sophia. But at that time the craftsmen still did not have much knowledge of Byzantine art and Salzeberg did not copy them correctly, but were distorted in the calligraphic and academic spirit of that time, as it is clear if one puts these designs close to the mosaics that were uncovered in our time from the American Institute of Byzantine Studies.

True, these mosaics, which had become fairytale-like, were uncovered by the American archaeologist Thomas Whittemore, who recently died. In 1931 the Turkish government negotiated with the Byzantine Institute of America to bring to light the hidden mosaics of Hagia Sophia. The director was Thomas Whittemore, as we said.

The work started at the same time and was not finished until 1938. From 1931 to 1932 they examined the narthex and photographed the walls as they were, with the old plastering.

In 1932, the large icon depicting Christ Pantocrator on the throne was unveiled, and an emperor is kneeling at his feet. It is located above the large gate of the narthex, inside an arch. This image was copied, along with others, by Salzeberg. In the middle is Christ, seated on a decorated throne. With his right hand he blesses and with his left he holds the Gospel open, leaning on his knee, which reads “Peace be to you. I am the light of the world." His face is serious and calm, with a small mustache and a short beard with hair falling behind his shoulders, as in all Pantocrators. His eyes face forward, slightly to the right. His apple cheeks are lively, his mouth is humble. The folds on his robe are meticulously designed, as if painted with a brush. His bare feet are on the footstool.

Lying on the right, an old emperor is lying on his knees in a supplication position, with decorated clothes and a crown on his head. His physiognomy is oriental, with a pointed and large nose, a pointed beard and a fallen mustache. Around his head he has a halo like the saints, as emperors were often painted then. He seems to represent the emperor Leo the Wise who reigned from 886 to 912. To the right and left of Christ are two faces painted up to the chest in round frames. On the right is the Panagia in a standing position, and on the left the Archangel Michael, with his hair tied with a ribbon and holding a scepter. The faces are reminiscent of some portraits of Alexandrian art. The whole image is surrounded by ornamentation in three rows.

In 1933 another large icon was uncovered and cleaned, located above the side door of the narthex to the southeast. In the middle is the Panagia seated on a low throne in the Platytera form, holding the Christ Child on her knees. Her right hand is slightly resting on Christ's shoulder and her left hand is spread on her knees and she is holding a handkerchief. To the right of the Panagia stands Justinian holding a likeness of the Church of Hagia Sophia which he is offering to the Theotokos, and to the left stands Constantine the Great holding a likeness of Constantinople, because he built it, according to his troparion which says “the Queen City was established by your hands.” Both emperors are represented without beards and mustaches, as the Romans used to do and not as they used to do in the later years when they left beards and mustaches.

From 1935 to 1938 two more images with many faces came to light, along with some ornamentation, on the side which the sun sets. One image depicts Christ the Pantocrator, with the emperor Constantine the Monomachos on the right and his wife Zoe on the left. The emperor holds a purse, which apparently shows the money he gave for the decoration of the church. The faces have an old appearance, like the portraits of Greek art. The other image depicts the Panagia in the middle, and to her right the emperor John Komnenos, and to her left the empress Irene and Alexios Komnenos. John also holds a purse full of coins. All three faces are masterfully worked, separately by Alexios. Alongside all these royal figures are written their names in beautiful letters. Near Justinian is written: "Justinian the renowned emperor". Near Constantine it is written: "Constantine the great emperor among the saints".

In addition to these images, Whittemore found and cleaned an image of the Forerunner, another of the Platytera, which is perhaps the most important of those found, and so on. But, in addition to the large six-winged angels we mentioned, there will be many more mosaics uncovered by archaeologists, who continue this historical work. Salzeberg writes about another Panagia with Christ and about the head of the Apostle Peter, which are hidden under the lime. Others who went to the City many years ago have written that they saw some Archangels, the Holy Mandylion, the Preparation of the Throne, some hierarchs, the Prophet Isaiah and events from the life of Christ. They saw these at a time when the plasters had fallen due to earthquake or humidity.

Whittemore printed three books on the mosaics he found, and in them he narrates about them intimately. While I was working in Mystras, he came and saw my work and wanted to take me to work in Hagia Sophia. But I could not go, because I had not finished the work I was doing in the sanctuary, and so I missed the opportunity to go to the City, from where I could reach Trebizond and Caesarea and find some heirlooms that the Christians had hidden who had left their homeland.

With the work being done for the mosaics of Hagia Sophia, I have learned that the Turks also are collecting old icons from Pontus and other parts of Asia Minor, and that they will exhibit them in the women's quarters of the same church.

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.