Home » Byzantine Empire » Hagia Sophia’s Accomplishments

Hagia Sophia’s Accomplishments

The crowning glory of Constantinople, the Hagia Sophia is said to have “changed the history of architecture” (Simons). Constructed in the 6th century under the orders of Emperor Justinian I, it remained the tallest building for over a thousand years. Atop the building sits a dome towering 56m above the ground, and spanning 31m across; the dome of the Hagia Sophia extends across a nave three times wider than any gothic cathedral. So impressive in its size and scale, the Hagia Sophia was Justinian’s dream; he wanted to build a structure bigger and better than any of its predecessors.

He had a vision of expanding his empire far beyond Constantinople, and central to his grand ambition was the Hagia Sophia. More majestic than any mosaics or frescos in the church was the dome. Physicist, Isidore of Miletus, and mathematician, Anthemius of Tralles, were the architects Justinian believed could pull off such a daunting task. Placing a massive dome on top of a square building is not unlike trying to put a round lid on a square container.

Rather than rest the dome on an octagonal drum like many Islamic architects had been doing, Miletus and Anthemius implemented the first use of pendentives: four spherical triangles that rise from the corners of the square base to support the weight of the dome. When the four pendentives were placed on the supporting columns, what was once a rectilinear base was suddenly transformed into a cylindrical structure. This method of building a dome was revolutionary in the architectural world, for the pendentives made it possible to put a dome over a square structure in such a way that the fluidity of the dome is not interrupted.

Along the base of the dome are 40 arched windows which allow light to pour into the church and illuminate the gold mosaics, as well as relief the arches from some of the dome’s weight. Researcher Victoria Hammond described the sunlight as “emanating from the windows surrounding its lofty cupola, suffusing the interior and irradiating its gold mosaics, seem[ing] to dissolve the solidity of the walls and created an ambience of ineffable mystery,” (Hammond). The dome of the Hagia Sophia was such an ambitious project that it could have only been done by the Byzantines.

From start to finish, the entire building was completed in less than six years; to give perspective on that impressive timeline, St Paul’s cathedral in London took over 35 years to complete. Following the fall of Rome, Constantinople became the centerpiece of Christianity, and as Emperor, Justinian was determined to prove his city’s greatness. He possessed all the qualities that are emblematic of Byzantine culture: he was a perfectionist, strong, and determined to be the best.

His stark ambition can be seen in his quick efforts to rebuild infrastructure following earthquakes, the extensive fortifications along the city’s border, and especially in the construction of the Hagia Sophia. The technology that went into building the dome was unheard of prior to Justinian’s Constantinople – his determination to become the “New Rome” sparked architectural innovation and creativity capable of building something the world had never seen before. The use of the pendentives in the massive dome, for example, was a very deliberate expression of the city’s greatness.

Though the dome of the Hagia Sophia was the greatest dome the world had seen, it was not the first time people built them. Long before the Roman or Byzantine Empire, people built small igloo-like dome structures out of animal pelts and clay. These mini domes were symbolic of the sky and the heavens, for their ancient occupants were under the belief that, the sky was a solid structure resting on the Earth and protecting everything inside (Mitchell 262). Imagery relating to this idea can be seen in the word firmament, which in Biblical cosmology, is a structure above the atmosphere, perceived as a solid dome (Driscoll).

Similarly, the word “dome” comes from the Latin “domus”, meaning house. Thereafter, dome structures in Rome and Byzantium were sacred places where one could be protected underneath God’s presence. Under the dome of the Hagia Sophia were united and protected by God . Not only was the dome of the Hagia Sophia a garish display of the city’s high esteem, it was an important aspect in cultivating a religious experience. As mentioned before, the lighting in the Hagia Sophia was a marvelous sight for anyone who entered. The 40 windows encircling the dome create a halo of light above the viewers head.

The luminosity of the interior creates the illusion that the Hagia Sophia is weightless; from inside, it feels as though the building itself is floating. Visitors would have been captivated by the shimmering surfaces and entranced by the seemingly floating dome. One Russian traveler visited the dome and claimed, “we know not whether we were in Heaven or on earth. For on earth there is not such beauty” (Harris 87) As the viewer’s eye travels up the columns, passing intricate mosaics and bright gold, they come face to face with the depiction of Christ Pantocrator at the top of the dome.

When underneath the dome, one must have felt as small as a mouse, for no one in the 6th century had experienced something so massive in size. Furthermore, the depiction of Christ supports the notion that underneath the dome was a safe, holy place. The rounded nature of the dome also allowed for the easy travel of sound. The amplification of sound contributes to this spiritual experience in which the viewer is seeing changing shapes and colors, and hearing the echo of hymns and chants.

The auditory and aesthetic properties of Hagia Sophia’s dome was what made it a special place; visitors were transported from earth up to Heaven. While the dome of the Hagia Sophia is no longer the tallest structure in the world, it truly remains the crowning glory of modern day Istanbul. In its size, construction, and decoration, the dome of the Hagia Sophia embodies the true spirit of Constantinople. In it grandiose size, ornate decoration, and revolutionary engineering techniques, it is an expression of the shared values and beliefs of Byzantine culture.

Cite This Work

To export a reference to this essay please select a referencing style below:

Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.