Introduction

The organisation of the Hagia Sophia, built 532-537, was a key element contributing to its significance as the greatest Byzantine structure ever built. A combination of the layout of the building in relation to its key features, the distinct components of the Hagia Sophia, the circulation and defined means of navigating the building, as well as the geometrical arrangement of the floor plan governing its overall structure rendered it one of the most significant monuments in history. Through its organisation, the structural design of the Hagia Sophia continues to fascinate both architectural historians and the public alike.

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Building Layout

Firstly, the layout of the key features in the Hagia Sophia was one of the chief qualities contributing to the building’s significance. The present Hagia Sophia, an Eastern Orthodox cathedral erected by Emperor Justinian I during the early 6th century as the third church on its site in Istanbul, Turkey, preceded by the work of Constantine the Great in the 4th century and Theodosius II in the 5th century, features a rectangular basilica plan, a central nave and a single aisle on each side. Its plan combined two developments in early Christian architecture; the utilisation of a centralising component into a longitudinally planned basilica, and a central cathedral with a longitudinal axis incorporated for ceremonial purposes. During Byzantine rule (537-1453), patrons to the building gathered in the aisles on the ground level as well as galleries (supported by elaborately decorated arches) contained in the second level, whilst the central nave, measuring 74.67 metres long and 69.8 metres wide, was reserved for the clergy and Justinian. Paul the Silentiary, a court official of Justinian, noted that, “it seemed as if the mighty arches of the Hagia Sophia were set in heaven. ” Such a remark underscores the religious significance and implications of the church construction. When the Hagia Sophia was converted to a mosque under Ottoman Turk influence (1453-1931), the galleries were employed by women carrying out prayers, whilst the ground floor was reserved for men. The central space of the building is crowned around 55 metres above by a magnificent dome, not perfectly round, with a diameter of 30.87-31.87 metres, and two smaller semi-domes at the west and east sides. The dome is connected to the floor by four pendentives (an architectural innovation developed in 2nd-3rd century Roman dome construction) adorned with mosaic seraphs, two of which are original and one showing the one-metre-long face of a six-winged Istanbul seraph angel after being uncovered during restoration of the building in 2010. Four minarets were added to the Hagia Sophia in the 6th century during the Ottoman period. The first minaret, constructed from red brick and introduced by Sultan Mehmed II, is located at the southern corner of the east flank. The second, located on the northern corner of the east side, was added by the Sultan Bayezid II, with the final two on the west side, identical in appearance, contributed to by Sultan Selim II. Thus, the layout of key elements of the Hagia Sophia were central to its architectural significance.

Building Components

Furthermore, the distinct components of the Hagia Sophia were indicative of the building’s significance through history. The Hagia Sophia contains an inner and outer narthex with the inner entrance carrying a large doorway, the Imperial Gate, reserved strictly for the passage of Justinian, and its ceiling adorned by the mosaic of Jesus and Emperor Leo V the Wise. At the eastern end of the building, an altar, as well as silver- and gold-plated ceremonial objects decorated with ivory and jewels were removed with the invasion of Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) by the Fourth Crusade (1204-1261) under Byzantine influence. The building contains a mihrab (a rounded niche built in the wall marking the direction of Mecca) from the Ottoman era, as well as a tall freestanding stairway to its right, a minbar, a pulpit from which sermons were given. An omphalion, a central square section located in the middle of the south-eastern quarter of the floor beneath the dome within which Byzantine emperors were crowned, can be found in the nave, with each side measuring 5.65 metres. Within the square lays 30 circles of various sizes made from marble, including such colours as red and green porphyry, and green and pink granite. One of the more noticeable additions to the Hagia Sophia under Ottoman influence was the Sultan’s Lodge introduced in the 18th century, a raised kiosk located on the apse with grills carved from marble in a Turkish rococo style and Byzantine columns allowing Ottoman sultans to pray within the mosque without being seen by the public and to protect them from possible assassins. A new lodge, designed by Swiss-Italian architects and brothers Gaspare and Giuseppe Fossati was replaced against the pier to the north of the apse in 1847. In addition to the lodge the Hagia Sophia became a kulliye (social mosque complex), with the building of a Koranic school, a religious madrasa (college), a soup kitchen, a library, a clock-winding house and mausoleums of Sultans Selim II, Murat II, Mehmet II, Mustafa I and Ibrahim. At the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, Sultan Mehmet II led his army through Constantinople after the city had been under siege for nearly two months. As described by historian John Freely, “before Mehmet entered the Hagia Sophia he dismounted and fell to his knees, pouring a handful of earth over his turban in a gesture of humility, since the building was as revered in Islam as it was in Christianity. ” Freely’s portrayal of Mehmet II exposes the significance the building held for both religions, and by extensions suggests its role as a physical structure in reconciling the two. Hence, a number of distinct components within the Hagia Sophia contributed to its historical significance.

Navigation of Building

The defined navigation of the Hagia Sophia emphasised its significance as one of the most remarkable monuments ever built. For almost 500 years, the building retained its function as a mosque until Ataturk (Turkish president serving from 1923-1938) converted it to a public museum in 1935. The entrance to the current museum from its courtyard is the original west gate, next to which the remains of the previous basilica are found and a former atrium, containing the phiale (ablution fountain), once stood. The building contains three gates providing access to the first corridor (outer narthex), five gates to the inner narthex, and nine more gates to the central nave. Doors located in the centre, allowing the emperor to pass through, were larger than the side doors in order to honour imperial family members. Upon entering the nave, two round alabaster urns can be observed to the right and left, with the alabaster obtained from the city of Pergamum in Turkey. There are oil lamp chandeliers hanging from the ceiling spread above the nave as well as eight large wooden and leather medallions 7.5 metres in diameter from the Ottoman period with Arabic inscriptions of names: Allah and Muhammad (above the apse), the first four caliphs; Abu Bakr, Omar, Osman and Ali (at the four corners of the dome), and the two grandchildren of the Prophet, Hasan and Husain (in the nave). The Hagia Sophia contains 140 monolithic columns in total on the ground floor and galleries, with column capitals made from marble featuring finely detailed carvings of the royal monograms of Justinian and Theodora (Justinian’s second wife and former actress). The northern corner of the church contains a wishing column made of white marble from the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, with a bronze belt encircling the lower part of the column and a depression large enough to insert a thumb. According to legend, Justinian, when wandering through the building with a severe headache, placed his head against the column and was subsequently cured of his ailment. As a result, the public began to believe that placing their finger in the hole of the column and rubbing where their condition was felt would restore then to health. Other interpretations include the wetness inside the column symbolic of the tears of the Virgin Mary, whilst some believe that placing their finger in the hole of the column and rubbing where their condition was felt would restore them to health. Other interpretations include the wetness inside the column symbolic of the tears of the Virgin Mary, whilst some believe that the column gained its supposed healing powers after the visit of St Gregory the Miracle Worker to the church in 1200. A ramp on the northern corner of the building gives access to the upper galleries of the building from which there is a view of the central nave and the mosaics on the southern end can be seen. The south exit of the building contains bronze doors partially sunken into the floor dating back to the 2nd century BC from a Tarsus pagan temple. Overall, light remained a key aesthetic constituent in the building design consideration. Justinian’s court historian, Procopius of Caesarea, posited that the structure contained gaps at brief intervals, “intentionally interrupted so that the openings corresponding to its divisions were channels of constant illumination. ” Procopius’ statement highlights the value of the Hagia Sophia’s architectural design in accommodating for the integration of light. Thus, the distinct navigation of the building elucidated its noteworthiness as one of the greatest works of architecture in history.

Nave and Apse Geometry

Lastly, the geometry of the nave and apse of the Hagia Sophia was a crucial factor determining the liturgical significance of the building. The design of the Hagia Sophia integrated geometry, light and cosmology. Procopius, in an account of the church, indicated how its design was influenced by these three ideas,

“…its breath and length have been so fittingly proportioned that it may be rightly be said to be both very long and unusually broad…It abounds in sunlight and gleaming reflections…Indeed one might say that its radiance generated within…And whenever one enters the church to pray, one understands immediately that it has been fashioned not by any human power or skill but by the influence of God. ”

Procopius’ account demonstrates the integration of these three elements in the design of the church with ritual lighting involving the apse and the dome design and the way its various spaces were to be viewed. The design of the nave of the Hagia Sophia began with a square measuring approximately 185 metres, doubled with another square measuring 196.1 metres, and an inscribed and circumscribed circle. The square and circle, relating to the cube and sphere, have cosmological significance, with the cube symbolising the order of the universe and the sphere symbolising its physical form. A figure of two squares and circles in the ratio 100:106 was then utilised to create two identical figures deploying the largest and smallest two circles. The resulting figure created a set of 25 points featuring the centroid on which to base additional arcs determining the location of walls. The apse of the Hagia Sophia allowed a light shaft to shine on the altar through one of its windows at the Byzantine third hour of Pentecost when the Holy Ghost descended to consecrate the offerings presented by the priest to God according to Christian dogma. In order to accommodate for the symbolic ritual, the church setting was governed by the Byzantine timekeeping method, utilising the concept of day and night broken into 12 hours. The circle was employed in the design of the church determining the inner side of the round apse wall and the altar location, with the figure centre placed on the crossing of the church’s longitudinal axis, the internal side of the eastern wall of the building, and the position of the priest determined by a circumscribed polygon. The apse of the Hagia Sophia is semi-circular internally and three-sided externally, thought to be an aesthetic preference but more possibly determined by an intention to direct light, with the axis of the church aligned to the equinox at an azimuth angle of 123.4o. Thus, the basic circle, along with a circumscribed heptagon with a chord parallel to the exterior wall and the opposite apex in front of the altar, was employed. The heptagon also had associations with the number 7, the virginal number in relation to Mary, the 7 planets of the classical solar system including Mars, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, Mercury, the Sun and Moon, as well as the fusion of the divine and the human with the number 3 symbolising spiritual nature and 4 symbolising the earthly. Hence, the geometry of the apse and nave of the Hagia Sophia was an essential element contributing to the religious significance of the building.

Conclusion

In sum, the structural organisation of the Hagia Sophia was a crucial element determining its significance as one of the greatest architectural works of history. The layout of the building in relation to its key components, the distinct features of the building, the defined means of navigating the building and the geometrical arrangement of its floor plan render it a chief structure of the Byzantine period. The Hagia Sophia remains a significant architectural precedent that will continue to captivate its many patrons in years to come.

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