Hagia Sophia, Church of the Holy Wisdom
by Mary Elizabeth Podles
It is as familiar to the world as the Mona Lisa or the Coca-Cola sign. It would be presumptuous to pretend to be able to sum up Hagia Sophia, the Church of the Holy Wisdom, in a thousand words. Its history, at the hands of hasty contractors, iconoclasts, remodelers, Crusaders, Islamists, and the Turkish government, not to mention earthquakes, would fill volumes. Analysis of its geometry has filled volumes. Instead, a more modest proposal: let us walk, in our imaginations, through the church as it might have appeared in the Emperor Justinian's time, to see how it might have been perceived and understood in its own era.
Hagia Sophia was the ambitious project of an ambitious emperor. Justinian I, successful politician, codifier of law, military and diplomatic genius, and rich beyond imagining, set his hand to architecture after the cathedral church of Constantinople burned to the ground in the riots of 532. The designers he chose were not architects, but two theoretical scientists. Isidore of Miletus was a physicist, a theoretical commentator on vaulting methods, and Anthemius of Tralles was a geometer and specialist in statics and kinetics. Both were associated with the Neo-Platonist Ammonius of Alexandria, to whom the manifestation of deity was light and the sun; it is impossible to think of Hagia Sophia apart from its light.
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Mary Elizabeth Podles is the retired curator of Renaissance and Baroque art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. She and her husband Leon, a Touchstone senior editor, have six children and live in Baltimore, Maryland.
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