ARCHITECT, Byzantine
(active 537-562 in Constantinople)

Interior view

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

The construction of the new Hagia Sophia in 532–37 produced a major work of world architecture and demonstrates the structural creativity of its period. The two documented architects were Anthemios of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus. Their ability to raise a high dome over such an open space may have depended on a knowledge of the mathematical and geometrical theories of Heron of Alexandria (active AD 62); if so, it may be possible to trace a continuity in architectural knowledge with the great buildings of imperial Rome, this time translated into the needs of the Christian religion.

The interior space is both vast and highly complex in its organization: the broad nave is vaulted with an interlocking system of dome, semi-domes and apsed areas, and the aisles and galleries above are subdivided into various compartments. Architectural composition on this scale is complicated and takes the viewer some time to appreciate, just as it led in time to all sorts of structural problems, due to insufficient foundations, subsidence, earthquake damage and instabilities in the design. The architects probably gave less attention to the functional needs of the church, although they supplied the necessary sanctuary fittings, divisions in the floor and galleries for the catechumens. New uses were gradually found for these large spaces; the south gallery, for example, became the private areas of the emperor and patriarch, but it is less clear what cult functions were ever carried out in the north gallery.

In addition to its structural daring, Hagia Sophia is distinctive for a change in the character of the architectural sculpture. As in the slightly earlier Constantinopolitan church of Sts Sergios and Bakchos, there is a dissolution of the orders of Late Antique architecture into a fluid and more ornamental form of capital and cornice decoration. The design of the capitals is based on spiky acanthus forms, and they enclose monograms of the names of Justinian or (more rarely) his consort Theodora (c. 500–548). The spandrels of the gallery are revetted in opus sectile with vegetal and bird forms in white marble set against a background of dark marble.

Overall the impression of the architectural carving and ornament is of contrasting dark and light forms. While some of the columns may have been recycled from earlier buildings, much of the marble was quarried from the nearby Marmara islands, and Hagia Sophia represents one of the last major buildings to use specially commissioned Prokonnesian marble from these famous ancient quarries, which apparently ceased functioning in the 6th century; Prokonnesian marble used in Constantinopolitan buildings after the 6th century was normally reused from earlier buildings. Many of the slabs of wall revetment were quarried and cut 'back-to-back' and set up in the church to create evocative and symmetrical patterns.

The photo shows the interior from west end of nave.

View the cross section and ground plan of the building.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.