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A little background to explain why things became as they did. The area caused problems for local architects, structurally. There was a minimum supply of wood, so stone was used for most construction. In order to create spaces, large or small but column-free, which some functions required, dome construction developed. There was precedent in the area. The Persians had been building domes, and residents of what is today eastern Turkey had a tradition of constructing domes.

The main feature of a Byzantine dome was the method of lifting it in the air, resting it on a square support. Remember that the Pantheon was essentially a hemisphere resting on the ground. Here in Byzantium the dome did not begin until a height was raised above the floor, usually originating with four columns on a square axis.

Placing a circular dome on a square base, for example, required that the circle be larger than the square in order to rest some part of the circle on four columns, which were the corners of the square. Therefore, the circle became larger than the square, touching all four corners, creating diagonals in the square, which were actually the diameters of the circle. The space-makers apparently did not want a round interior floor enclosure, but they did want column-free space. So their resultant course of action produced the following, though not necessarily with the analogy I am presenting: think of slicing an orange in half, then lopping off four sides, vertically. Finally, slice off the top horizontally. That is what the sketch shows. Each quadrant of the left-over half sphere - the triangular warped surface remaining is known as a “spherical pendentive.” Stay with me on this; there is more.

To achieve greater effect, to raise the dome (which we theoretically sliced off), it was figured that a vertical "drum" section could be placed on the horizontal top of the original hypothetical dome. Now this might have been done for monumentality, but it was also done to provide light into the interior. A barrel vault and a dome are most difficult to cut holes into; structural integrity is lost. The drum, being vertical, was penetrable in most cases, with arched openings, sometimes continual, creating an arcade effect circumnavigating just under the base of the dome.

The final touch is to place a dome on top of the drum.

Here, in the eastern half of the Roman Empire, and on the European side of the Bosporous, the Roman Emperor Justinian built Hagia Sophia (translated, it means "Divine" or "Holy" Wisdom), a Christian church. The architects were Anthemios and Isidorus. Construction began in 532 A.D. An interesting concept occurred during construction - in order to assure a speedy and quality job, workers were paid according to the speed and quality of their individual production. Seems that there might be a message there!

The design features a central dome, flanked by two buttressing half domes, which created an aisle (nave) 74 meters in length (243'). The dome, as seen in the slide, is 55 meters in height (180'), and has a diameter of 33 meters (108').

The minarets projecting skyward are a result of capture by Turkish forces in 1453 (their construction took place in the late 15th and then 16th centuries). The church was immediately turned into a mosque in 1453, but secularized in 1934, when it became a museum of Byzantine Art, opening to the public in 1935.

Money was no object to Justinian - he and his architects wanted a church, which would last for centuries. In fact, the present Hagia Sophia is the third church erected on its site - the earlier two burned during moments of insurrection. Materials were taken from temples in Greece, Rome, and Lebanon. Marbles were mined from as far as Algeria, bringing white, light green, yellow, pink-veined, and red and white finishes for the church.

When the church was converted to a mosque, plaques were added (as opposed to being embedded into the structure) with calligraphic inscriptions bearing the titles of Allah, the names of the prophet and the names of caliphs. Turks have always been most civilized when dealing with religions of other faiths, and the original Christian mosaics were not removed but covered with plaster. Notice, also, the heavy amount of decoration, albeit integrated with the architecture. You could think of this as being "busy," which sounds so much like Byzantine, that it serves as a study aid. Similar “busy” detailing follows below in Hagia Sophia.

The church was completed in 5 years, 11 months, and 10 days, opening in 537. Many repairs have been made to Hagia Sophia since, beginning in 562, when a nephew of Isidorus, himself named Isidorus, raised the dome 6.25 meters to its present height. The more vertical a dome, the more stable it begins to become, because flattened domes are susceptible to lateral movement. The more vertical the dome, the more like a series of columns it becomes. This is overly simplified and exaggerated, but helps in basic understanding. Earthquakes have taken their toll, and a number of buttresses as well as columnar and wall reinforcements have been made.

Tie rods are visible - their dating not known. Such reinforcing helps keep arches together. The column has a capital with an added upper section known as a "stilt block," also called an "impost block.” This extra material allowed adjacent arches to converge onto a usually thin column. The stilt blocks made a physical as well as an optical transition. This architectural feature became a characteristic of the Byzantine style.

Here we can begin to see what enabled this church to be constructed. On the slight left of center is a warped (curved) triangle supporting the main drum and dome above. This is a spherical pendentive illustrated in the sketches above. The pendentives form a transition from columns placed in a square and ultimately support a round drum and dome. There is a circle inside the square base, and to get from the latter to the former you have to have these curved triangles. The pendentives are 18.3 meters (60') in height, and overhang their points of origin (the square base) by approximately 7.6 meters (25').

One of two half-domes buttressing the main dome, appears in the right side of the illustration. There are not as many windows in the drum of the half-dome, as in the main dome itself. Their spacing is much further apart. The main dome, and its drum of light, appear in the top left of the slide. Remember, the dome is 33 meters in diameter (108 feet), and was the greatest accomplishment, architecturally, of its time - and for some time to come. It is not as wide as the Pantheon in Rome, but it is taller.

The Muslim occupiers did leave the original Christian paintings in these pendentives. The illustrations represented six-winged seraphim, the Archangels Gabriel, Michael, Raphael, and Israfil. The latter, Israfil, is a Muslim entity, known for his prowess in the field of music, and is forecast to blow his trumpet on the day of judgment. Slight problem – the name Israfil is Arabic in translation of Raphael. To whom, then, is the fourth pendentive dedicated? Well, Raphael (patron saint of medical workers) and Israfil can be separate entities, but considering the original paintings were created while the church was Christian – well, that still leaves the fourth a bit of a mystery.

The drum section has a large number of windows for light, spaced closely together, and when sunlight enters, it sometimes appears as if the dome is floating over a golden glow. Someone, somewhere, suggested it was: “as if the dome were suspended from the heavens by a golden chain.” Research reveals a Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam, in his first book of poems titled: Stone, written in 1912, declared the following in the first stanza of “Hagia Sophia”:

"Hagia Sophia, the Lord commanded

That nations and kings should stop here!

For your cupola, in the words of eye-witness,

As on a chain, is suspended from the heaven.

A bit more of the half-dome.

This is the very center of the main dome, above the drum section.

Hagia Sophia is still in need of repair - or at least it was when these slides were taken - but it is a magnificent accomplishment. There was a pride of construction, a serious sense of providing the most beautiful of materials - all to honor a God, and to provide a place to worship that God.

Just a word about Justinian (483-565 A.D.). His official title was Justinian I when he assumed command of the Eastern Roman Empire in 527 A.D. He held the so-called Byzantine Empire until 565. He fought mainly defensive wars on his eastern front, but his general Belisarius defeated the Vandals (remember them, sacking Rome?) in North Africa and the Ostrogoths in Italy, all of which accounts for his having influence and control in parts of Italy (Ravenna and Venice). Justinian also modified control over his territories by reforming provincial administrations, seemingly influenced by his wife Theodora, and then went on to codify all Roman Law in a major definitive effort known as the Corpus Juris Civilis (Body of Civil Law), which became known as the Justinian Code. It was this body of law, which spread throughout medieval Europe, and was taken beyond Europe through a modernized version, the Code Napoleon in the 19th century. But prior to Napoleon, this body of law had been the inspiration and model for the legal system of every European nation, beginning with 11th century renewal of interest in Roman jurisprudence.

Essentially, there were four parts to this law:

    1. A general Introduction and Survey of the entire field of Roman law.

    2. The Digest, intended for practitioners and judges, embodying selections from 39 of the most noted Roman jurists.

    3. The Codex or Code, which was a collection of imperial legislation since the time of Hadrian.

    4. The Novels or Novellae, which was a compilation of later imperial legislation (535-565 A.D.).

The Code survived the destruction of Rome because it had been published in numerous editions.

Justinian I was a devout Christian, who attempted to eliminate paganism, and was the driving force behind the construction of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (above) and, as we shall see, St. Apollinare in Classe, in Ravenna, Italy.

© Architecture Past Present & Future - Edward D. Levinson, 2009

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