Hagia Sophia

Built by Justinian 1st in 532 AD as a symbol of the might and glory of the Byzantine Empire after the victory over the rebels of the Nike Revolt, the Hagia Sophia not only served as an icon of political power, but was also intended to assert – and give a backdrop for – the Emperor’s claim to be God’s representative on earth.

Designed as a domed basilica, the Hagia Sophia has a large nave, two aisles (north and south) as well as two narthexes to the west. However, it is not so much the basic architectural shape as the shear scale and the strokes of engineering genius that make this church so unique and exemplary. The architectural pinnacle, in the true sense of the word, is the extraordinary dome crowning the central building.

With a diameter of 33 m and an apex at a height of 56m, the dome is of monumental proportions. Yet it does not appear oppressive but instead seems to float ‘as though suspended from heaven on the fabled golden chain’ (Prokopios). The pierced inner walls and slender marble columns only play a secondary role in terms of strength and stability. As the viewer’s eye roves upwards, searching for details, it soon becomes lost in the sea of lights, where all references of scale fade away.

The mosaic in the apse depicts the Mother of God with the Christ Child as a symbol of the incarnation. From the windowsills at the side, two Eclipse spotlights for low-voltage halogen lamps provide accent lighting for this Byzantine masterpiece.

The sense of dematerialization has been created by increasing the light with increasing height. This effect, which starts in the dark vestries, moves up towards the bright galleries and onto the rows of windows in the tympana that are flooded with light, culminates in the dome itself. The precious gold mosaics in the side wings are picked out of the surrounding darkness by uplights on Hi-trac track.

Forty separate windows at the base of the dome open up the depth perspective and allow the optical heaviness to dissolve into a floating room of light. Gold mosaics make the light shimmer and direct it to multicoloured, polished panelling and columns of marble which both receive and reflect. Where wall-mounting is possible, the mosaics are illuminated by Trion uplights.

The marble jars placed either side of the Emperor’s Gate have a capacity of 1200 l each and are a legacy of Sultan Murad III. They are used by devout Moslems for the ritual washing known as the ‘Abdest’. From the upper galleries, two Eclipse spotlights per jar accentuate the three-dimensionality of these containers.

The Byzantine architects Isidor of Miletus and Anthemios of Tralles understood that natural light was to be regarded as an essential building material. This simple recognition lead to the Hagia Sophia becoming one of the greatest masterpieces in architectural history. In a discrete yet accentuating manner, artificial light helps additionally emphasise the unique intensity and beauty.

Eclipse spotlights for low-voltage halogen lamps add brilliant lighting accents and guarantee optimum colour rendition, e.g. on the extraordinarily expressive and intensively coloured representation of Christ which is recognised as one of the last highlights of late-Byzantine mosaic art.

  • Location


  • Photographer

    Dirk Reinartz

  • Architect

    Anthemios von Trallos, Isidoros von Milet

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