The Pantheon And The Hagia Sophia As Preserved By Faith

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For their time periods, both the Pantheon and the Church of Hagia Sophia are considered bold experiments in structural design and impressive in their artistic expression. To compare the architecture and artistry of the Pantheon and the Church of Hagia Sophia is a unique challenge because both buildings were plundered, destroyed, rebuilt, and then preserved by a different religion than their designers intended. The Pantheon, once dedicated to seven Roman deities, now belongs to the Roman Catholic Church which is devoted to one God. The Hagia Sophia, once devoted to the Christian Trinity, is now repurposed as an Islamic Mosque devoted to Allah. Both buildings serve their societies then and now as places of faith and community.

The Greek word “pantheon” means temple of all gods. Roman art was heavily influenced by the Greeks; in so much as they hired Greek architects and used Greek-order columns in many buildings. While the Romans borrowed several aspects from Greek culture, the Pantheon “is truly Roman architecture, not Greek. The Roman genius was to conceive and build three-dimensional curved structures, of which the Pantheon’s dome is the sublime archetype.” (Hughes, p 110) The Pantheon was originally built in 27 BCE by Marcus Agrippa, during the prosperous time of Caesar Augustus, among Rome’s ambitious building projects. Architecture was the focus of the empire; as Augustus built many roads, aqueducts, forums, fountains, public baths, temples, and at least two libraries. Unfortunately, that temple burned down in 80 CE, to be rebuilt (or restored) by Domitian; then destroyed, again, by a lightning strike in 110 CE. While the current building began under Trajan, it was completed during the reign of Hadrian around 125 CE. Its porch, or portico, resembles any other Roman temple and belonged to a larger, rectangular forecourt. This detail fooled the eye of the visitor by seeming to be detached from the circular structure behind it: a dramatic effect that concealed the huge, round cella. The portico is “supported by sixteen monolithic Corinthian columns, arranged to form a nave and two aisles... the aisles end in two niches where the statues of Augustus and Agrippa stood.” (Liberati and Bourbon, p 124) The circular cella contains seven niches, originally made to house statues of the Roman gods. There are eight support piers, 20-feet thick, containing inspections shafts, that separate the niches. The rotunda is just as high as it is wide, 143 feet; with the massive dome and thick drum wall made of concrete and brick arches. The cement mix becomes lighter as the height increases; the Pantheon remains the largest non-reinforced concrete dome in history. The inside is covered with marble veneer and the ceiling details include several recessed panels, called coffers, and may once had been decorated with gilded bronze rosettes or stars. The 29-foot oculus at the dome’s pinnacle serves as the only natural light source. In fact, the exterior roof was once covered in gilded bronze as well. “It seems reasonable, therefore, to assume that the golden dome had a symbolic meaning, that it represented the Dome of Heaven.” (Janson, p 224) This beautiful building was stripped of its divine statues and became the first Roman temple to be converted to Christianity by Pope Boniface IV in 609 CE. The once polytheistic temple is now dedicated to the Holy Trinity as the Church of Saint Mary and the Martyrs. In 655 CE, Byzantine Emperor Constans II stole all the bronze from the famous domed roof. “It had long been believed that the Barberini Pope Urban VIII had the bronze beams of its portico removed, melted down, and recycled into the baldacchino of Saint Peter’s and cannons for the Castel Sant’ Angelo.” (Hughes, p 112) Clearly, adoption by the new faith certainly preserved the building, but also removed many of its intrinsic details.

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As the Roman Empire collapsed, the Byzantine Empire began to flourish. In comparison, the Church of Hagia Sophia, meaning Holy Wisdom, was first constructed by Constantine I in 360 CE, during the Byzantine Empire. In 404 CE, it was set ablaze by the followers of John Chrysostom, the Patriarch of Constantinople who had been exiled for speaking out against the imperial court. The church was rebuilt under the rule of Theodosius II. Tragically, it burned to the ground, again, during the Nika Riot in 532 CE. Under the rule of Emperor Justinian, the latest Hagia Sophia, designed by Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletusin, was built in 535 CE as a testament to his imperial power and the Christian faith. Like Caesar Augustus centuries before him, Justinian had an ambitious building plan for his capital city, Constantinople. The church’s rectangular narthex leads into a hybridized rotunda that has been stretched into more of a longitudinal church plan. The open nave is capped with a gigantic dome, 184 feet high and 112 feet in diameter, flanked by two half-domes. As a dramatic effect, “the dome seems to float mysteriously over a void. The miraculous, weightless effect was reinforced by the light-reflecting gold mosaic that covered the surfaces of both dome and pendentives, as well as by the band of forty windows that perforate the base of the dome.” (Stokstad, p 174) Four large pendentives support the massive ceiling structure, with the support piers recessed into the side aisles. “This device permits the construction of taller, lighter, more economical domes than the older method, as seen in the Pantheon... Hagia Sophia is the earliest case we have of its use, from that time on the dome on pendentives became a basic feature of Byzantine architecture.” (Janson, p 272) This stone and masonry building has a sanctuary apse at the far end, four exedrae, side aisles, and a second-floor gallery overlooking the nave. The many windows flood the interior with natural light allowing the visitor to see all the beautiful embellishments that are typical of a Byzantine church. Unfortunately, due to iconoclasm, most of the original artwork before the eighth century was destroyed. “Iconoclasm was finally repealed in 787 CE, under the Empress Irene, the first woman to rule the Roman Empire in her own right. Not long after the appeal, a beautiful fresco of the Virgin and Child was placed above the high altar of Hagia Sophia.” (Madden, p 135) Years of intrigue, betrayal, and lavish expense exacted their toll on the imperial court.

As an act of penance, Emperor Leo commissioned a rich mosaic over the imperial door leading from the narthex into the nave. It depicts the emperor groveling on the ground, pleading for mercy from Christ, who is seated on a throne between the Virgin Mary and an archangel. Another example of the luxurious features within the building is the mosaic of Mary over the southern door. It depicts Mary, as the Holy Mother, seated on a throne accepting a model of Constantinople from Constantine and a model of Hagia Sophia from Justinian. Sadly, the blessing of the Holy Mother could not protect the church from the avarice of fellow Christians. Called the “Great Betrayal,” Frankish crusaders, under the assumed blessing of Pope Innocent III and transported by Venetians, sacked the city of Constantinople in 1204 CE. In their greed, the crusaders claimed the city for themselves. “Radiant Hagia Sophia was stripped of everything of value. The priceless main altar was hacked to pieces and divided among the looters. So much wealth was found in the great church that mules were brought in to carry it all away.” (Madden, p 206) Some of the treasure was redistributed to other Catholic Churches; but many valuables were destroyed, and countless artworks were melted down for their monetary worth. By 1453, the Ottoman Turks had claimed Constantinople and the Hagia Sophia. “Consecrated to Moslem worship, the great church was from the outset treated with respect by the conqueror, (Sultan Mohammed II) who retained its name in Islamic form, calling it the Great Mosque of Aya Sofia.” (Lord Kinross, p 102) Disgraced by those who swore to honor this sacred space, the building’s majestic glory was reclaimed by a new faith.

With the non-reinforced concrete dome of the Pantheon and the dome on pendentives structure of the Hagia Sophia, both buildings are innovative prototypes that inspire the architecture of the past and of the present. One can easily compare the structural progress from one era to the other; as the Romans built on the Greek culture, so the Byzantine emperors built upon the Roman culture. However, many of the artistic details of the original buildings are lost to the perpetual greed of man. From the clean Roman style of calculated marble to the ethereal cage of the Byzantine style, both places of worship were part of their respective Golden Ages and continue to inspire people to seek their faith today. The Pantheon and the Hagia Sophia were buildings dedicated to and preserved by faith, just not their own.

Works Cited

  1. Hughes, Robert. ROME: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History. 4th printing, Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.
  2. Janson, H. W. History of Art. Revised and Expanded by Anthony F. Janson, 4th edition, Harry N. Abrams Inc, 1991.
  3. Liberati, Anna Maria and Fabio Bourbon. Ancient Rome: History of a Civilization That Ruled the World. Barnes and Noble, 2006.
  4. Lord Kinross. Hagia Sophia. Wonders of Man, Newsweek, 1972.
  5. Madden, Thomas F. Istanbul: City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World. Viking, 2016.
  6. Stokstad, Marilyn and Michael W Cothren. ART: A Brief History. 7th edition, Pearson Education Inc, 2020.
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The Pantheon And The Hagia Sophia As Preserved By Faith. (2022, February 21). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 24, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-pantheon-and-the-hagia-sophia-as-preserved-by-faith/
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