CONSTANTINOPLE – The face of an angel has been revealed beneath the dome of the Byzantine Cathedral of Aghia Sophia in Constantinople after being covered for more than 500 years. The six-winged figure is thought to depict a seraphim, an angel described in the biblical book of Isaiah.
Restoration workers uncovered the well-preserved, long-hidden mosaic face according to an official’s report on Friday, July 24. The seraphim figure – one of four placed on the pendentives, the curved triangles that help support the great 100 foot dome – had been covered up along with the buildings other Christian mosaics shortly after The City fell to the Ottomans in 1453 and the cathedral was turned into a mosque.
The mosaic, which measures 1.5 meters by 1 meter, was last seen by Swiss architect Gaspare Fossati, who headed restoration efforts at the Aghia Sophia between 1847 and 1849, and Ottoman Sultan Abdulmecid. Experts were surprised to see that the mosaic was so well preserved.
Located in one of the eastern pendentives, the image is believed to date to the 14th century AD reconstruction of part of the dome and the eastern arch of the church, which had collapsed due to an earthquake. Similarly covered-up faces in the two western pendentives may date to the 10th century, when an earthquake brought down the great western arch. Although the recently uncovered face was executed in the 14th century, it resembles mosaic paintings from earlier periods, suggesting it was created to match the earlier angels to the west.
After 10 days of work on the area, experts removed several layers of plaster and a metal mask to uncover the angel. The mosaic’s true age will be assessed after an analysis by the Aghia Sophia Science Board compares it to similar mosaics. The newly uncovered image is hidden behind scaffolding and is not currently visible to visitors.
The mosaics of Aghia Sophia were plastered over according to Muslim custom that prohibits the representation of humans. Some of the mosaics were revealed when the domed complex was turned into a museum in 1935, but the seraphim had largely remained covered. Two Swiss architects, Gaspari Fossati and his brother, saw the two seraphim during their restoration work, but the figures were covered up again.
Experts would now work to uncover the second eastern seraphim, which was also plastered over and covered by metal, Bilgili said. It is believed that ultimately a total of four will be found and it raises hopes that the great Pantocrator – the icon of Christ as the ruler of the universe that crowned Aghia Sophia’s dome – remains intact beneath layers of plaster.
Aghia Sophia, [which means] Holy Wisdom, was built in 537 AD and remained a symbol of Byzantine grandeur until Constantinople was conquered by Muslim armies.
The structure was then turned into a mosque – minarets were added and crosses and other Christian symbols were defaced. It became one of the most renowned mosques of the expanding Ottoman Empire.
The site was later converted to a museum under the secular reforms of modern Turkeys founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
President Barack Obama toured Aghia Sophia when he visited Turkey in April, as did former U.S. President Bill Clinton in 1999. Pope Benedict XVI also strolled the site in 2006 during his pilgrimage to landmarks of Christianitys ancient roots in Turkey. Approximately 2 million visitors visit Aghia Sophia every year.
The information for this article was compiled by Suzan Fraser of AP, Turkish NY and The National Herald.