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No.1: Hagia Sophia

issue 30 April / May 2006

All architecture has a dialogue with light. Some buildings excel in their use and exploitation of light and are well known throughout the world. But then there are architectural giants that have been constructed purely in homage to the medium of light. Light and architecture are one. We kick off the series with Hagia Sophia, the Grandmother of building with light, chosen by Mark Major of Speirs and Major Associates. Use this series as study notes. As a lover of light, they should be important to you and you should at least know the basic facts about them, if not traveling the globe to stand within them. You will be tested!

The historian, Procopius of Ceasarea wrote in 560 in his work ‘Buildings’ that Hagia Sophia “exults in an indescribable beauty”. A visit to this wonder of architectural history will confirm the ancient description is still relevant. The building is iconic for religious reasons and an architectural giant that stands proudly after almost fifteen centuries but also as homage to the medium of light. The effects of light within this building create both religious and architectural awe.
The third church on the site to bear the name, Hagia Sophia or Aya Sofya (Divine or Holy Wisdom) was a supreme masterpiece of Byzantine architecture. It was built in Constantinople (Istanbul) in 532-37 by Emperor Justinian by his imperial architects Anthemius of Tralles and Isodorus of Miletus. Hagia Sophia was crowned by a huge dome, only supplanted in dimensions a thousand years later when Michelangelo built St. Peter’s Basilica. The ambitious scale of the design and a construction period of five years led to an unstable structure. The first dome collapsed after an earthquake, and was replaced in 563, with a higher profile than the original.
It was captured by Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror and re-consecrated as a chief mosque of the Ottoman Empire in 1453 with four minarets added to the central dome. After five centuries of Islamic worship, it was proclaimed a museum by Kemal Atatürk in 1934.
Upon entering the imperial door, the enormous gilded dome is revealed, soaring over the vast inner space of the Nave (31m by 81m). Successions of domed elements build up to the 31m diameter and 56m high main dome. Monolithic columns serve as buttresses to the main dome and its supporting arches creating the effect of a miraculously weightless golden shell.
Daylight penetrates the Nave from the corona of forty arched windows located in the lower part of the dome and smaller windows North and South under the great arches that support the dome, flooding the interior with dusty shafts. Some windows consist of elaborate large semicircular openings divided by columns between which marble lattice screens admit light through their openings.
People believed the dome was constructed of such thin material that the hundreds of candles hung within would cause the dome to glow at night like a great golden beacon, visible to ships in the Marmara Sea. The reported ‘inner light’ actually shone out from the multitude of windows around its base, created either during the day by sunlight or at night, by the artificial lighting reflected from the mosaics within.
The mosaic tiles are constructed with layers of gold leaf and glass or coloured glass rendered opaque by oxide of tin and create a huge reflecting surface of warm hued light. The mosaic images came alive due to the slight difference in angles of individual tiles illuminated by the flicker of candle flame. Plastered over during the buildings use as a mosque, they were only revealed again during renovations in the mid 19th century.
The original artificial lighting is vividly outlined in depth in The Silentiary’s Poem dated 563. It records huge circular rings suspended from the great height of the dome as vessels for hundreds of oil lamps.
“No words can describe the light at night time; one might say in truth that some midnight sun illumined the glories of the temple… stretched from the projecting rim of stone… long twisted chains of beaten brass, linked in alternating curves with many windings… And beneath each chain… fitted silver discs, hanging circle-wise in the air, round the space in the centre of the church. Thus these discs, pendent from their lofty courses, form a coronet above the heads of men. They have been pierced too by the weapon of the skillful workman, in order that they may receive shafts of fire-wrought glass, and hold light on high for men at night.
One might also see ships of silver, bearing a flashing freight of flame, and plying their lofty courses in the liquid air instead of the sea…”
‘Constantinople: A Study of Byzantine Building’ - Lethaby & Swainson

“The manner in which light ‘permeates’ the space in this building and the resultant interplay between light, mass, space and surface is extraordinary. My admiration for this building and its lighting scheme is influenced by the weight of history. The fact that it is 6th century and that there are complete accounts of its original artificial lighting scheme and of the effects of daylight serve to underline that the use of light was a fundamental part of its construct. To me it is a ‘homage’ to light because it is one of the earliest Christian structures that consciously deployed light as part of creating both celebration and mystery on such a grand scale. In that sense it acted as the precursor of many great relationships between light and architecture that were yet to come…”

Mark Major – Speirs and Major Associates


Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia, built in Constantinople in 532-37 by Emperor Justinian

  • Hagia Sophia


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