The Virtual and Spiritual Networks of Hagia Sophia

by Robert Nelson | ქართულ | Ελληνικά | Română | Русский | Српски

Hagia Sophia
Photo Credit: David Hendrix

Like all Byzantine art historians, I am concerned about the conversion this year of Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Not being able to travel because of the pandemic, I only know about the current state of the building from images on the internet and from friends in Istanbul, especially David Hendrix, who has supplied the above image. The church’s great mosaics have been covered, so as not to offend Muslims at prayer times. Two are in the conch of the apse at the rear, the Theotokos was formerly seen in the center and a breath-taking beautiful angel at the right.

The great Byzantine floor of the nave has been covered with carpets, thus obscuring what the Greek sources call the “rivers,” the dark green marble bands that across the width of the nave. They once governed liturgical processions just as the chalk marks on the stage instruct the corps de ballet where to stand. Seeing those marble bands in the museum of Hagia Sophia, I imagined the grand processions of patriarch, bishops, priests, deacon, and choir members that once extended across the nave before all would exit to continue processing elsewhere in Constantinople. I have learned about the rivers and their use in the liturgy from scholars of architecture and liturgy.  Others have done more to imagine the church during the Middle Ages.  Here I want to cite the work of Bissera Pentcheva. With colleagues, she has scientifically reconstructed the space’s long reverberations. Using acoustic characteristics of the building that they discovered, the Cappella Romana has recorded chants the Feast of the Holy Cross, making it sound as if were there in Constantinople. As I type this, I am listening to that recording and am transported back to Constantinople.

I write from New Haven, CT, the day before Christmas in our strange time of virtual religious services. I have not been inside my church, Christ Church (Episcopal) in New Haven since March, but I attend its online masses and will tonight. They have made me accustomed to imagining myself there during services. For an article I am writing, I am reading Icons and Liturgy, East and West (edited by Nicholas Denysenko) with essays about material objects in ritual use. The key texts are the proclamations of the Second Council of Nicaea (787), the last ecumenical council endorsed by the entire Christian Church. Paraphrasing the Council, religious artists are responsible for making images in whatever media considered useful, but the Church governs the content or meaning of those images. Scholars have taken this notion further, adding that any object in devotional use is completed by and in the believer/viewer. An icon without devotion is a painted piece of wood. Icon entail a network of believers, icons, and the holy person portrayed. 

What does this have to do with Hagia Sophia? Built by the Emperor Justinian in the five years (532-537), the building, its liturgies, and believers were soon enveloped in spiritual webs that made and remade church and believers. In the tenth century, we know that the church literally made the Slavic people Orthodox, when a delegation from Prince Vladimir, the pagan ruler of Kiev, came to Constantinople. The emperor took them to a nocturnal liturgy at the Great Church. The Russians saw its immense vaulted spaces covered with countless square feet of gold mosaics all glistening and alive from the flickering lights of myriad candles and lamps. They glimpsed and smelled clouds of incense, heard chant reverberating across the lofty spaces, and were overwhelmed. Returning home, they reported that at Hagia Sophia they had not known if they “were in Heaven or on Earth….We only know that God dwells there among the people, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations.” Vladimir subsequently decided to be baptized Orthodox and ordered his family and everyone else to do the same. 

An Orthodox priest once told me that when he goes to Hagia Sophia, he is inspired to pray. This brings me back to that interpretative triangle I mentioned, the believer, an aid to prayer, be it a church or icon, and the deity, Christ, Mary, or the saints, to whom one prays. Hagia Sophia has not been a church for centuries; nothing changed in that respect in 2020. The conversion to a mosque, if it does not deface the building, changes little from a Christian perspective. We can still envelope it in networks of prayer and belief, skills honed during the pandemic. Thus even though I cannot go to Istanbul and to my favorite church in the world, I can be there in my mind and good images are available to stimulate the imagination. In addition to what books you might have, I especially recommend the excellent website that David Hendrix has created, The Byzantine Legacy, where you will see the Theotokos and the angel that I mentioned. As you follow virtual liturgies in your church or elsewhere, you might try transposing them to the Great Church and thus join with those networks of faith that once transformed the building and still do.


Robert Nelson is the Robert Lehmann Professor in the History of Art at Yale University.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.