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21st International Congress of Byzantine Studies, London 2006

Communication (VI.5 Sacred Space)

M. L. Fobelli
University of Chieti (Italy)

Light and lighting in Justinian's Hagia Sophia in Constantinople

In this paper I will develop some considerations about the role and meaning of light in the
Justinian’s church of Hagia Sophia of Constantinople; in particular, I am going to point out the role
of natural, reflected, and artificial light. As for the latter issues, I will refer to the incomparable
passage on the lighting system in the Description of Hagia Sophia written by Paul the Silentiary to
celebrate the second consecration of the church (December 24, 562).
Natural light, that filters into the interior through windows with different nature according to
the variations of sunlight, opposes a hierarchical system of lit space to the composite system of
architectural patterns (ill. 1).
The hierarchy of such spaces depends upon their being subject to direct or indirect lighting.
Through the dome, half-domes, and apse (ill. 2), light enters directly to the building by a measured
apparatus of openings (forty in the dome, five in the half-domes and the vault apse , six – three and
three – in the cylinder beneath). On the contrary, in the aisles, exedrae, and galleries, light is
delivered indirectly and in different amounts: therefore, aisles with thicker shade are followed by
brighter galleries, to prepare and graduate the diffused lighting below the dome. This generates
spaces amended by a different level of brightness and/or shade depending in the first place on a
different articulation of architectural structures, rather than on the number, measure and shape of the
windows, and on the changing of sunlight.
On the other hand, as we consider the lighting system of the dome, we are astonished by the
uniqueness resulting from its very structure (ill. 2). The dome is made up of a circular support
cornice bearing forty ribs; between them, extremely thin walls cast with the same ribs are tightened
up at the top of the dome. The effect is two-fold: to decrease the weight of the dome without
drawing on its stability, and at the same time to open forty round arch windows, as many as the ribs,
in the actually very thin walls. Those windows allow an enlightening of the interior with a ring of
lights that are not placed in the tambour, in the typical way of the sixteenth and seventeenth
centuries architecture, but in the support of the dome, in a spheroid section of space, with the effect
of increasing light: therefore, a conspicuous lightening of the wall mass was achieved in an area
characterized by a sound static quality.
From an optical point of view, the result is something near to the dissolution of the part of
the dome above the windows; considering that the first dome – collapsed in 558 – was about 20
Byzantine feet lower than the present one, so that the windows made its wall surface even thinner,
we can understand why Procopius of Cesarea told that “…l'immensa cupola di forma sferica…non
sembra poggiare su solida base costrutta, ma proteggere il luogo con la catena dorata che pende dal
cielo”1 to underline the impression of weightlessness and mass diminishing that was aroused in
The ornamentation arranged in the Megale Ekklesia also helped to enhance the effects of
light: marbles on the walls and floors; sectilia and marble openwork cornices; mosaic layers;
precious metals – especially silver – used to cover the liturgically significant elements and
furnishings. Materials were chosen because of their preciousness and brightness, and manufactured
in order to heighten their sheen and glittering, that is their capability to tap and to reflect light, and
to amplify it like a long wave.
Besides, it is not fortuitous that both Paul the Silentiary and Procopius of Cesarea develop a
kind of aesthetic of light “into action” in their respective Ekphraseis of Hagia Sophia's.

On the one hand, Paul the Silentiary emphasises that the cleanness of the marbles seems to
emanate light beams; on the other hand, while he lists the marbles in the church and the ambo, he
resorts to chromatics and drawing, and above all to the “light factor”, that comes out as a quality
involved in the marble. In particular, warm tonalities make possible a better appreciation of the
reflections that light up on the marble surfaces with the glimmering of artificial lights and the
passing of the day2. In the description of the silver that is profusely used in liturgical furnishing, the
author calls attention to the reflecting power of the substance and to the chilly quality of its light3.
In particular, Procopius tells us that the inner sanctuary (θυσιαστήριον) was adorned with
40000 pounds of silver4; it is probable that such an amount of silver was employed only in the
coverings of the liturgical furnishing (chancel barrier, cyborium, synthronon, ambo) and in the
thousands of lamps – which the historian ignores, while the poet has left us precise and intriguing
depictions – not to mention the liturgical vessels kept in the skeuophylakion, as testified by the
Chronicon Paschale5.
All the same, the two authors demonstrate how advanced was the critical thought on light in
Byzantium, and how the Byzantine era can be called “phototropic”, especially when they write
about the mosaics.
Paul the Silentiary: "Le volte racchiudono tessere d'oro, donde / un bagliore sfolgorante
versando oro a profusione, / insostenibile, si riverbera sul volto degli uomini"6.
Procopius seems to catch more deeply the aesthetical value of the mosaic medium and of the
integrated lighting system that in Byzantine sacred buildings – besides natural and artificial light –
consisted of the light mirrored in the mosaic and marble coverings; nevertheless, according to a
common topos in late antique rhetoric that put the variety (ποικιλία) of colours before the
monochrome and ‘monotony’ of gold, he establishes the superiority of the light reflected by the
marbles over the light generated by mosaics: “L’intero soffitto stilla oro puro, che aggiunge vanto
alla bellezza, e tuttavia il fulgore riflesso dai marmi prevale, sfolgorando di rimando all'oro”7.
A further step in the history of the critical thinking on the value of light and of luminous
substance, lies in the Ekphrasis by Michael of Thessalonica (12th century): “…le volte sono adorne
di tessere [musive]…e la lucentezza dell’oro fa credere quasi che l’oro goccioli; infatti a causa del
riverbero come se ondeggiasse negli occhi umidi, l’umidità di questi appare nell’oro che viene visto
e sembra scorrere liquefatto”. Like Procopius, Michael of Thessalonica also ends up emphasising
the topos of the chromatic variety, so that the conclusion of the passage is: “Ma che marmi sono
questi, commessi intorno all'edificio, che per la varietà cromatica e politezza gareggiano con l’oro, e
per la politezza scintillano, e a causa dei fiori screziati hanno qualcosa che supera perfino l’oro che
è di un colore solo?"8.
Now then, everybody can see that our three authors shifted the core of their reflection to the
specificity of the mosaic medium considered as a synthesis of material, technical modalities, and
aesthetical quintessence: in mosaics, the glass tesserae can heighten the colour or the gold leaf that
they contain, producing a vague, endless sparkling. As for gold, the effect is doubled because its
brightness is enhanced by the transparency of glass, and its material quality – almost dissolving –
turns out to be uplifted.
Moreover, the absolute primacy of aniconic mosaic layers along with the monochrome
golden background in Justinian’s Hagia Sofia – both Paul the Silentiary and Procopius bear witness
to this – has the main purpose of ‘spreading’ light, so to avert the perception of surface as a
boundary to space. On the contrary, the surface is denied, and the structural component lost its
weight and substance.
It has been rightly argued that an age that shows such inklings and carries them to an
extreme degree of completion and formal refinement, had to establish a special relationship, so
spiritual and intense, with light9.
Among the reasons for the preference for aniconic decorative systems, we should remark on
the one hand the absence of flat surfaces (and, on the contrary, the existence of vaults, half-domes
and dome), on the other hand the huge dimensions of Hagia Sophia, with dizzy heights and
uncertain perceptions of the space. Such aspects contrast with the development and sight of
complex figurative programs, as well as of abridged organizations and iconic images. This could
explain why the choice of iconic system was ‘confined’ to smaller decorative arrangements, such as
the chancel barrier and the altar cloth10, that could be appreciated at a pretty short distance.
A last remark: the decision to assign aniconic systems to the fixed structures of the building
and iconic systems to the moveable ones, give us – apart from the reasons quoted above – a glimpse
of a hierarchy of decorative systems, that favours the aniconic component in Justinian's patriarchal
and palatine church of Hagia Sophia. At the same time, the choice acknowledges the iconic rank of
images, allocating it to moveable liturgical parts that are subject to renewal due to their perishable
nature, to changes in taste, and to the general strategy about images.
Coming back to the light issue, in Hagia Sophia the “staging of natural light” (ill. 1) had its
counterpart in a complex system of artificial lighting: lights and lamps that are now completely lost.
However, they are so lively and effectively described in Paul the Silentiary’s poem verses11, a
sequence of images and metaphors often ignored by critics who saw them as the outcome of an
exuberant poetical imagination, whereas items from liturgical treasures found in Syria and Turkey12
allow us to visualize them in a very detailed way and sometimes to develop proposals of
The poet starts his passage on lighting with a description of the big ring chandelier fastened
in the dome with bronze chains that ended just a few metres above the floor, over the worshippers’
heads. Structured with concentric decreasing circles13, the chandelier was the visual focal point in
the artificial lighting system. It was made of polycandela in different shapes: circular (ill. 3a),
cruciform (ill. 3b) as from the Silentiary’s account14, as well as – I think – rectangular and
polygonal, as witnessed by contemporaneous treasures. A comparative analysis of the poet’s verses
and the polycandela from the so-called ‘Sion Treasure’ is exactly what inspired my proposal for a
reconstruction of the crown chandelier (ill. 4) according to the views, from above and from the
floor, suggested by Silentiary (ills. 6-7). As a matter of fact, the ‘memory’ of the big crown
chandelier was still alive about the end of the Ottoman empire, as it is proved by Gaspare Fossati’s
chromo-litography portraying the chandelier, in use in the Aya Sofya mosque until 1847 (ill. 5).
The poet carries on describing the lamps hung at various heights in the intercolumnium,
forming a waving line along the aisle15. Thanks to many finds, it is possible to suggest a visual
confirmation to those lamps, compared by the poet to scale pans (ill. 8a-b).
We are also informed about the light system in use on the nave cornices where two series of
holes, employed to allocate lamp beams, are clearly visible at the level of the gallery floor. This
kind of device is still in use for modern beams in situ so that it is easy to design renderings (ill. 9).
Later on, the Silentiary describes the lights on the architrave of the chancel barrier, more or
less equal to those in the ambo as it is confirmed by a somewhat matching lexicon in the two
passages (ills. 10-13)16. He explains that the lamps were shaped like trees – pine or cypress; the
lights were arranged in concentric circles, decreasing towards the top, and silver vessels were "al
posto delle radici". To my knowledge, no examples of this kind of lamps, either intact or
fragmentary, was found amid the treasure. My proposal for a rendering is based on a three-
dimensional reinterpretation of a polycandelon in the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg (6th
century). Its circular structure has been simplified to obtain a circle, made smaller and serially
replied, then pivoted in what should be the trunk of the tree; over the outer surface of the tree there
are buttonholes in order to fit the glass vials for the oil. The ‘silver vessel’ allotted in the stand is a
chantaros from the Sion Treasure, with some alterations; finally, the rendering make possible a
simulation of the radiance of the flame and its reflection over the surface of the lamp and the silver
covering of the barrier (ill. 14).
As the poet continues, among the "alberi dalla chioma fiammeggiante" – that is, above the
ἁγία πύλη of the barrier – a sparkling cross rose ("…l'immagine della croce immortale rifulge,
luce che illumina / i mortali, trafitta da chiodi lucenti!…"); two similar crosses rose among the
lamps on the ambo ("…due croci d'argento, dove chiodi ricurvi all'estremità / con ganci sorreggono
la copiosa luce di innumerevoli fiaccole…")17. Now then, this ‘brightness’ of the crosses could be
due to the craftsmanship of silver, or else to the luminous items that they bore; I am inclined to
accept as true the latter assumption.
In this instance, the monumental bronze “Moses’ Cross” in the monastery of St. Catherine
on Mount Sinai, with the two chandeliers upon horizontal branches could represent an outstanding
parallel (ill. 15a). According to Sevčenko, it dates from the 6th century because of its shape and
inscription; Weitzmann suggested the top of the marble chancel barrier in the church of the
Theotokos as its place in Justinian’s age18. If that is the case, the parallel between the Sinai bronze
cross and the silver one in Hagia Sophia will be most substantial, as it involves both the space and
the visual realm. As a matter of fact, the use of crosses with lighting items is not limited to the
instances above, as it is also recognized in St. Pontianus’ catacombs in Rome (6th-7th century),
where the painted cross is a replica of the Sinai specimen (ill. 15b), as well as in the floor mosaic
now in the Sfax Museum in Tunis (5th-6th century) (ill. 15c), whose jewelled crosses bear the
remarkable variation represented by the lamps hung on the branches.
Elsewhere, the poet recalls the extraordinary variety of lightening devices in the church:
lamps shaped like a ship19, lamps with one light only20 (ill. 16a), cruciform lamps21 (ill. 16b)
different from the polycandela previously described. In my opinion, the range of lights had to be
extremely rich and assorted, and included moveable lamps like those in the Sion Treasure22 (ill.
Anyway, at the end of the Silentiary’s passage, light shifts from a material and sensorial
nature to a transcendental and intelligible one, that is to say divine light. That is not surprising, as
the whole passage puts forward that light, other than being spread all over the church structure, and
in some parts of it (such as the dome, nave and aisles, galleries), is the very foundation element of
the structure. Thus the poet, who does not mean "to represent the object (Hagia Sophia), but the
effect that it produces" (Mallarmé), deliberately changes his ekphrasis into an incessant metaphor.
At the beginning of the passage on lighting, the Silentiary chooses a word and an image to
lengthen the concept of the metaphor: "…ma non c'è parola acconcia / a cantare (λιγαίνειν)
l'illuminazione vespertina…"23. The word φαεσφορίην ("l'illuminazione"), described as ἑσπερίην
("vespertina"), corresponds to the word λιγαίνειν ("cantare con voce chiara"), based on synesthesis
(hearing plus sight). Later on, another word and another image, and once more the metaphor:
"…Forse diresti / che un sole notturno illumini la maestosa dimora"24. *Εννύχιον Φαέθοντα is "il
sole notturno". But then, Phaeton is the son of Apollo, god of light; therefore, the "nocturnal"
Phaeton becomes the night’s sun – a metaphor for artificial lighting.
As remarked, the ekphrasis by the Silentiary can be seen as an extended metaphor, a
symbol, a long votive inscription25, similar to the one that once embellished the church of St.
Polyeuktos26, founded by Anicia Juliana in 524-527. In the inscription, Anicia claims the merit for
surpassing Solomon; according to the Diegesis, Justinian uttered the words Ἐνίκησα σε,
Σολομών when Hagia Sophia was first consecrated (24th December 537). The thought of these
words not only as a topos of the mythography tradition about Solomon and the Temple of
Jerusalem, but as a way to hint obliquely at the disappearance of a dangerous rival, as well at the
previous ten years’ most sumptuous building in Constantinople, is very attractive27.
The lengthy closing piece about light in the Silentiary’s ekphrasis is instead a clear and
conscious adhesion to Plotinus’ idea about beauty and light.
In Plotinus’ thought, beauty is the presence of the Intelligible and divine within creation. To
glimpse beauty within the world, is to perceive the form in sensible reality; this transition to the
vision of the form takes place as a whole permeation of sensible and intelligible. At the heart of
Plotinus’ thought stands the equation of beauty as Light, spreading everywhere and taking part in
everything; in this way, he reveals that beauty, that is Light, brings on a metaphysical experience.
At the beginning of 6th century, Pseudo-Dionysus the Areopagite, the author of the most
complete theory on beauty and the divine light, stated that the approach to God was contained in the
symbols – signs, images, artworks – because "non è affatto possibile che la nostra mente ci elevi
verso quell' immateriale… contemplazione delle gerarchie celesti senza l'uso di una guida materiale
alla sua portata, [supponendo] che le bellezze visibili sono immagini di quelle invisibili…le luci
materiali immagine di un' immateriale elargizione di luce" (italicized words are mine) 28. It is clear
– and the Silentiary was aware of it – that the topic of light allowed the approach to a realm
different from the sensible and existing reality, opening a gate towards the Intelligible, that God
otherwise not knowable, boundless and absolute.
Paul the Silentiary, just like Plotinus and Pseudo-Dionysius, knew that the transition to the
sight of Light is a trip into inner life, feasible only by involvement in the sensible beauty of bright
mosaics, sparkling marbles, gold and silver furnishing, and of physical light, both natural and
artificial. Nevertheless, he knows that the perception of Light requires not only “the eyes of senses”
(οἱ αἰσθητοὶ ὀφθαλμοί), but also "the eyes of intellect" (οἱ νοεροὶ ὀφθαλμοί)29.
As a consequence, dealing with the topic of light conveys the evocation of profound
meanings, far beyond beauty and the arts: the word φῶς ("light") relates to φᾶν, "to light up" but
also "to speak" (cfr. φηµί). This leads us to the Bible’s link between φῶς and λόγος, that is at the
origins of creation: “And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” 30.
It is now obvious that light is not only image, metaphor, symbol, as it matches with God’s
creating power (ἐνέργεια).

Procopius of Cesarea, De aedificiis, I, 1, 45-46, with an English Translation by H. B. Dewing and with the
Collaboration of G. Downey, The Loeb Classical Library, VII, London-Cambridge (Mass.) 1940. The Italian translation
here quoted is by P. Cesaretti, whom I am pleased to thank, and with whom I am working on a book: P. Cesaretti, M. L.
Fobelli, La Santa Sofia di Costantinopoli di Procopio di Cesarea, Jaca Book Press.
Greek sources have been translated by the author. As for the Italian translation of the ekphrasis of Hagia Sophia by
Paul the Silentiary, see M. L. Fobelli, Un tempio per Giustiniano. Santa Sofia di Costantinopoli e la Descrizione di
Paolo Silenziario, Roma 2005 (from now on Fobelli, Un tempio per Giustiniano, 2005). On Numidian marble, see
Descr. Chiesa, vv. 634-635, in Fobelli, Un tempio per Giustiniano, 2005; on alabaster see Descr. Chiesa, vv. 640-641,
"Con il suo freddo bagliore, / il cero lancia raggi d'argento e non fiamme" (Descr. Chiesa, vv. 750-751, ibidem).
Procopius of Cesarea, De aedificiis, I, 1, 65.
Chronicon Paschale, 714, in Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae, I, ed. L. Dindorf , Bonn 1832.
Descr. Chiesa, vv. 668-670, in Fobelli, Un tempio per Giustiniano, 2005.
Procopius of Cesarea, De aedificiis, I, 1, 54.
Michael of Thessalonica, Ekphrasis of Megale Ekklesia, 3, in C. Mango, J. Parker, A Twelfth-Century Description of
St. Sophia, in "Dumbarton Oaks Papers", 14 (1960), p. 237.
H. Sedlmayr, La Luce nelle sue manifestazioni artistiche, ed. R. Masiero, Italian translation, Palermo 1989, p. 57.
Comm. Chiesa, vv. 755-805, in Fobelli, Un tempio per Giustiniano, 2005, pp. 158-161.
On the whole passage about lighting, see Descr. Chiesa, vv. 806-920, ibidem.
Important liturgical treasures were found in 20th century in Syria and Turkey: among them, the Kaper Karaon
Treasure, found in 1908 at Stuma (see M. Mundell Mungo, Silver from Early Byzantium. The Kaper Koraon and
Related Treasures, Baltimora 1986), and the Sion Treasure, found in 1963 at Kumluca, Lycia (see S. A. Boyd, M.
Mundell Mango, (ed. by), Ecclesiastical Silver Plate in Sixth-Century Byzantium, Papers of the Symposium Held May
16-18, 1986 at The Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore and Dumbarton Oaks, Washington D. C., Washington 1992).
The poet describes two crowns made up of polycandela, but I believe that they were more, with reference to the
diameter of the dome (30 m. ca).
Descr. Chiesa, vv. 810-838, in Fobelli, Un tempio per Giustiniano, 2005.
Descr. Chiesa, vv. 839-854, ibidem.
Descr. Chiesa, vv. 871-881; Descr. Ambone, vv. 191-203 e Comm. Ambone, vv. 195-203, ibidem.
Descr. Chiesa, vv. 881-883; Descr. Ambone, vv. 204-208 e Comm. Ambone, vv. 204-208, ibidem.
K. Weitzmann, I. Sevčenko, The Moses Cross at Sinai, in "Dumbarton Oaks Papers", 17 (1963), pp. 385-398.
Descr. Chiesa, vv. 851 e 892, in Fobelli, Un tempio per Giustiniano, 2005.
Descr. Chiesa, vv. 892-893, ibidem.
Descr. Chiesa, vv. 893-894, ibidem.

Amongst the moveable lamps, there were the chantaroi upon stands, and sometimes shafts as shown in the silver
reliquary that reproduces the cyborium of St. Demetrius in Thessaloniki (1059-1067) in the State Historical Museum in
Moscow (ill. 17c).
Descr. Chiesa, vv. 807-808, in Fobelli, Un tempio per Giustiniano, 2005.
Descr. Chiesa, vv. 808-809, ibidem.
R. Macrides, P. Magdalino, The Architecture of Ekphrasis: Construction and Context of Paul the Silentiary's Poem
on Hagia Sophia, in" Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies", 12 (1988), p. 74.
C. Mango, I. Sevčenko, Remains of the Church of St. Polyeuktos at Constantinople, in "Dumbarton Oaks Papers",
1961, pp. 243-247.
R. M. Harrison, A Temple for Byzantium. The Discovery and Excavation of Anicia Juliana's Palace-Church in
Istanbul, Austin (Texas) 1989, p. 40.
Dionigi Areopagita, Caelestis Hierarchia, I, 3, 121C-124A, in Tutte le opere, translated by P. Scazzoso, introductory
text by E. Bellini, Milano 1981.
On “the eyes of senses” and "the eyes of intellect" see L'ekphrasis e il tempio, in Fobelli, Un tempio per
Giustiniano, 2005, p. 25 e nn. 70-71.
Gen. 1,3.

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