3 Cool Things (You Might Not Know) About the Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey

(Full-size image found here. Corresponding newsletter found here.)

The Hagia Sophia, or Aya Sofya, means "Holy Wisdom." Unlike many other houses of worship, the Hagia Sophia is associated with more than one religion. The construction of its massive dome was a major architectural feat. The Hagia Sophia's majestic form facilitates a multisensory, "out-of-this world" experience.

  1. Switch: Usually one house of worship is associated with just one religion. Not so with the Hagia Sophia. The current structure started out as an Eastern Orthodox church built by Emperor Justinian and then the Ottoman Turks switched it to a mosque. The Hagia Sophia is now a museum. Closer look: Mosaics with Christian imagery side by side with Islamic calligraphic medallions. (see below)
  2. Revolutionary: Domes are really heavy - imagine suspending tons of stone about 100 feet above you. Using geometry, the architects figured out a way to get around this, thus revolutionizing architecture forever. As a bonus, they figured out how to hide the pillars that support the huge weight, so it looks as if the dome is floating in the air. Closer look: The main structure is an enormous cube with a dome sitting on top, with pendentives joining the angles of the square to the curves of the circle. (see below)
  3. Medieval IMAX: The Hagia Sophia's form fits its function as a house of worship. It facilitates a multisensory experience, engaging the faithful's senses of sight, sound, and smell to better interact with the divine, to experience something that's "there" but not. The series of domes caused sound and music/chants to reverberate and linger. Throughout the day, the sun would illuminate certain parts and hide others. Combined with the scent of incense, this made for a totally out-of-this-world experience, the medieval equivalent of IMAX. Closer look: Light strikes the walls and floor at an angle that changes throughout the day. (see below)

Hagia Sophia

3 ways you can experience the Hagia Sophia:

  1. Next time you're at a concert or symphony: Pay extra attention to the acoustics, the shape of the concert venue, the people around you, visual aids (big plasma screens vs. seeing the orchestra), and how these all come together to create a unique experience.
  2. In the Mediterranean and Middle East: The Hagia Sophia's elaborate mosaics and domes share a design that is prevalent throughout those regions. The Basilica of San Vitale in Italy and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem have strikingly similar mosaics and architectural features, especially the mosaics of plants and flowers.
  3. Stanford's Echo Circle: If you're ever on Stanford campus, right outside of Memorial Church is a circular stone bench. On the ground is an inscription/quote  and in the middle is a small circle that kind of looks like a sewer. If you stand on top of that little sewer and start talking, you'll hear yourself echo, as if you're in the middle of a big amphitheater.

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3 Cool Things You Might Not Know About the Hagia Sophia http://artsnap.org

All images, videos, and articles are linked to their respective sources. Elements of this post were also drawn from the following:

  • Book: Janson's History of Art
  • Class: Stanford's Art History 1 and seminar "Animation, Performance, and Presence in Medieval Art"