How the Meaning of the Hagia Sophia Made Me Rethink My New Year’s Resolution

“Because of His visitation, we may no longer desire God as if He were lacking:
our redemption is no longer a question of pursuit
but of surrender to Him who is always and everywhere present.”
—The Meditation of Simeon in For the Time Being

Always and everywhere present. God with us, now and forever. A God not lacking, but resident in our world. The Meditation of Simeon in Auden’s Christmas Oratorio remains one of my favorite readings this time of year. It was still on my mind the day after Christmas when my friend Jana and I decided to spend the crisp, but clear, winter day at Hagia Sophia, the church of Holy Wisdom, in Istanbul.

This church (the third built on this site) was commissioned by Justinian and was consecrated on December 27, 537. So when we stepped into the cool of the outer narthex on December 26th, we were there 1480 years (minus a day) after the church first opened its doors.

What relevance could a 6th-century cathedral possibly have for the life of a 21st-century girl? That’s a fair question. I want to ferret out some meaning that I can take home like a gift received from a distant past that is still, in some sense, present. The Christians who conceived of this building may have been motivated by theological interests and concerns different from mine, but their perspective could (should?) challenge me and enrich my spiritual formation by widening my gaze.

The doors into the sanctuary are through two long hallways that run the length of the western side of the church—the outer and inner narthexes. They are vaulted and covered in mosaic designs, both geometric and floral. I recently read in a fascinating study by Matthew Canepa that these motifs marry Roman visual language with Sasanian (Persian) designs, fusing the aesthetic sensibility of east and west—a subtle statement that this church is for the whole world.

The floral Sasanian designs would have been familiar from embroidered silks carried into Constantinople from Central Asia. Among other things, these precious textiles often functioned as curtains dividing private spaces from public ones. But in Hagia Sophia, the designs welcome visitors—peasants, tradespeople, kings and queens—into the richness of the experience of this holy space that is for all people, not just aristocracy.

Mosaics along the vaults of the inner narthex of the Hagia Sophia

Although I’ve stood a number of times on the marble door frames worn smooth by worshippers shuffling in over fourteen centuries, the effect of the light that bathes the interior of the sanctuary always moves me. When I lift my gaze to the mosaic over the Imperial Door, the central door into the sanctuary where the emperor would have removed his crown as a gesture of submission to his heavenly sovereign, I see Jesus sitting on a bejeweled throne holding an open book that reads in Greek, “Peace be upon you, I am the light of the world.”

The Light of the World. The light. If you want to understand Hagia Sophia, it’s all about the light. And although the mosaic in the outer narthex was likely added in the 9th-century, roughly four centuries after the cathedral was first consecrated, it’s still an important indicator of a central Byzantine theological concern—divine light. This is the light that is essential to God, the light that illuminated Christ on the mount of Transfiguration, the light that is a symbol of God’s eternal glory, the radiance in which we live through Christ. It was this light that was clothed in flesh and that walked among us—“In him was life, and the life was the light of men” (John 1).

When I step into the interior of the church and am bathed in light, this illumation is meant to convey that God is here present among us, shining on us, filling us with his divine light and life.

Imperial Door of the Hagia Sophia seen from the south

Golden Surfaces & Divine Light

Magnification of light is the reason that acres of glittering gold coat the central dome, semi-domes, tympanum, and arches. I’m not exaggerating when I say acres—according to Robert Ousterhout there are roughly four acres of gold mosaics lighting up the interior. The effect of the gold would have been opulent for sure (a nod to the wealth of the empire and the power of its emperor), but the primary meaning was theological, not political. The gold represented divine light and divine presence. Golden surfaces are reflective surfaces. And the magnificent fluted central dome covered in gold is encircled by forty windows through which “a glittering stream of golden rays pours abundantly and strikes men’s eyes with irresistible force.” At least, that’s how Paul the Silentiary described the light in the 6th-century, continuing, “It is as if one were gazing at the midday sun in spring, when he gilds each mountain top.”

In the Old Testament tabernacle and temple all the surfaces of the items used in worship within the Holy of Holies—the inner sanctum filled with God’s presence and glory—were covered in gold. This was the lineage Justinian had in mind when observing the general splendor of the interior, he memorably bragged, “Solomon, I have surpassed you.” So there’s a visual allusion to the Holy of Holies here. But it’s important to note that for the Byzantines the cathedral is not so much a particular physical place (like a pagan temple) where a god lives. It is, instead, a symbolic representation of the universe as a whole—it represents a cosmic reality that heaven and earth have mingled and are now joined together in Christ. The incarnation, then, is the key to the symbolism of the building as a whole. The central dome which remains one of the greatest achievements in architecture ever, symbolizes the heavens suffused with God’s glorious presence. This is heaven come down—the “celestial canopy in which God dwelled.”


The central dome of the sanctuary of Hagia Sophia seen through the Imperial Door.

To ensure we understand the dome as a representation of a spiritual, heavenly reality, four cherubim with red and blue wings rendered in mosaic tesserae cover the massive pendentives (the curved triangle of vaulting formed by the intersection of a dome with its supporting arches). These are the heavenly creatures that surround the throne of God, whose beating wings, Ezekiel tells us, sound like the rushing of many waters.

The Garden Where God Walks Among Us

If the gold, the light, the angelic beings communicate divine space, the organic floral motifs carved into the capitals of the columns and rendered in mosaic details on the interior of arches suggest an earthly garden. And this, of all things, is what I love about this space—the mingling of heaven with earth, the coming together of divine and natural. This unity was made possible by the central mystery and miracle of the incarnation—that Jesus was both God and man, both divine and human, both natures equal and indivisible.

The capitals of the marble columns are intricately, exquisitely carved. They are undercut in a way that art historian Robert Ousterhout says adds, “to the building’s impression of weightlessness; the great dome seems to float aloft while the structural elements below appear dematerialized.”

While it’s true that the overall effect of the lace-like quality of the capitals does have an airy effect, I’m interested in the symbolism of the foliage. What does it mean?

Acanthus leaf motif on the capitals of the columns in Hagia Sophia

When Paul the Silentiary, writing in 563, describes the columns as “blooming like a grove with bright flowers,” I can’t help but think of Eden and the garden city John envisioned in the book of Revelation: “the mason, weaving together with his hands thin slabs of marble, has figured upon the walls connected arcs laden with fruit, baskets and leaves, and has represented birds perched on boughs. The twining vine with shoots like golden ringlets winds its curving path and weaves a spiral chain of clusters. It projects gently forward so as to overshadow somewhat with its twisting wreaths the stone that is next to it…And above the high-crested columns, underneath the projecting stone edge, is deployed a tapestry of wavy acanthus, a wandering contexture of spiky points, all golden, full of grace.”

The leaves, Paul says, are acanthus. These kinds of leaves were carved by Greek artisans on the capitals of columns as early as the 5th-century BC. Acanthus is a perennial that thrives in the dry climate of the Mediterranean. They are one of the oldest and most familiar flowers in the area, representing long life, healing, rebirth, even immortality. In the context of a Christian church they become suggestive of the tree of life, whose leaves, John says in Revelation 22, “were for the healing of the nations.”

Over the centuries the nations came to marvel at the wonder of this church. It’s said that when Vladimir, Prince of Kiev, was still a pagan, he sent out emissaries to find the true faith. After his men attended a worship service in the Hagia Sophia, they famously observed,

“We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendor or beauty anywhere upon earth. We cannot describe it to you: only this we know, that God dwells there among men, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty.”

Congretional Worship & Incarnation as a Present Reality

The wide-open space of the church was designed for one purpose—worship. In the pagan era, temples housed idols. And for the most part, worship was a personal affair. Devotees brought their offerings to the god, but didn’t enter the holy space. But from the beginning Christian worship was congregational—requiring a gathering of believers together. The form and scale of Hagia Sophia was meant to facilitate the gathering of thousands together in worship which included procession throughout the interior of the church.

Byzantine Christians did not sit when they worshiped, they stood and they moved. After the faithful gathered for worship, the church leaders processed into the sanctuary holding aloft a book of the Gospels, symbolizing Christ’s presence within the congregation. They moved through the worship space, not in a straight line, but in a path that suggested a journey or pilgrimage. Christ was present, too, in the broken bread and in the cup of wine shared during communion.

This is worship—or liturgy—as heavenly drama intended to remind everyone gathered of God’s immediate indwelling presence in our world and in the lives of believers. For Byzantine Christians, the incarnation was not a historical doctrine; it was a present reality. Eric Perl explains that the word “today” is one of the most frequent words used in Byzantine hymns. “Today Christ is nailed to the Cross, today all is filled with light, today God is revealed to us…For Byzantines, liturgical celebration was not merely a memorial of a past historical event…Rather, the liturgical celebration is the participation, here and now, ‘today,’ in an eternal happening that transcends time. Each of these events is seen as an irruption, a manifestation, of the eternal, the divine, into time and history, and therefore into human life.” He continues,

“In the Byzantine liturgy, nothing is left as an abstract idea. All truth is incarnate, made flesh. There is no idea without a concrete, visible, audible, tangible expression. And conversely, all the objects of the senses are filled with meaning, that is, with light. Thus everything becomes the icon, the manifestation, the presence of God.”

Sunlight streams through a window in the south gallery of the sanctuary.

A New Year’s Resolution to Live in the Reality of Incarnation

Standing in the center of the church looking along the galleries toward the apse, my eyes travel up along the lines of the acanthus leaves on the column capitals. I study the wings of the cherubim and the flutes of the dome shimmering in the winter sun. And I can’t help but think, what if I lived as if God were always and everywhere present?

What if I took the wonder of Christmas—the miracle of incarnation, the awesome truth that God dwells among us—right into the new year? What if my first thought each morning is that heaven has come down and mingled with earth, that divine light has broken into our sin stained existence, that we are no longer, and never, left alone.

As I consider whether or not to make a list of new year’s resolutions, I realize that I have no interest in a to-do list. What I want is a way of being that embraces the truth of incarnation. What I want is to live in a way that says, “Now and forever, we are not alone.”

That’s a line the chorus sings in response to Simeon’s meditation. They sing it in response to his marvelous statement that “Here and now the Word which is implicit in the Beginning and in the End is become immediately explicit, and that which hitherto we could only passively fear as the incomprehensible I AM, henceforth we may actively love with comprehension that THOU ART.”

Now and forever, we are not alone.

May that eternal truth carry you into the new year!