NEW YORK – The Hellenic-American Cultural Foundation (HACF) presented Professor Robert G. Ousterhout in a fascinating virtual discussion on Emperor Justinian’s Hagia Sophia on May 13 via Zoom.
Completed nearly 1,500 years ago, the Hagia Sophia is both an architectural masterpiece and a cultural icon of Byzantine and Eastern Orthodox civilization. At the time of its construction, it was the world’s largest interior space and among the first to build a fully pendentive dome. Professor Ousterhout addressed the transformation of the basilica as an architectural form and its subsequent impact on architecture in the eastern Mediterranean. Justinian’s Hagia Sophia represents a critical point in architectural history in terms of form, meaning, and aesthetics.
Nestor of Magydos, on traveling to the Hagia Sophia in 987 AD, was awestruck with the structure remarking “we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth… for on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We only know that God dwells there among men.”
Professor Emeritus in the History of Art at the University of Pennsylvania, Ousterhout is the author or co-author of over 20 books on the art and architecture of the Byzantine world and has contributed to over 70 more. His extensive fieldwork has concentrated on Byzantine architecture, monumental art, and urbanism in Constantinople, Thrace, Cappadocia, and Jerusalem. This year, he was awarded the prestigious Haskins Medal by the Medieval Academy of America for his impressive book, Eastern Medieval Architecture: The Building Traditions of Byzantium and Neighboring Lands.
HACF Chairman Nicholas Kourides gave the welcoming remarks and introduced Dr. Helen C. Evans, curator of Byzantine Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and HACF advisory council member who served as moderator for the discussion. As Dr. Evans noted in her introduction to Ousterhout, his book is the first focusing on Byzantine culture to be awarded the Haskins Medal since 1975 when Speros Vryonis, Jr. was honored for his book, The Decline of Medieval Hellenism in Asia Minor and the Process of Islamization from the Eleventh through the Fifteenth Century.
Ousterhout thanked Evans for her introduction, mentioning that he has known her for 40 years since they were graduate students and it was through her efforts that the virtual event came about. The professor’s presentation began with the history of the church which as he noted is not named for a saint, but a concept, the Holy Wisdom, and the structure we see today was not the original church built on the site. The first was built in 360 by Constantius II and burned down in 404, while the second was dedicated in 415 by Theodosius II and burned down in 532. The third church was built from 532-37 by Justinian and up to 1453 it served as the patriarchal and imperial cathedral.
Ousterhout spoke about Justinian’s Empire, noting that there were many construction projects going on at the time and Hagia Sophia was the centerpiece with its dome that transforms space and was “unlike anything else on earth.”
The architects who designed the magnificent church were theoreticians, their title “Mechanikos” meant that they were architects/engineers with a theoretical education.
Hagia Sophia is carrying on discourse with the Roman imperial past, Ousterhout pointed out, adding that the Pantheon is the oldest surviving ancient dome. Hagia Sophia starts with the idea of the Pantheon and goes one better, the professor said. Comparing the structures, Ousterhout noted that Hagia Sophia is “light and airy” while the Pantheon is heavy and completely closed.
The professor also spoke about the ongoing restoration and mentioned seeing some details revealed such as graffiti by the masons during the construction which had been covered up.
He noted that the figural mosaics were added after 843 following the end of iconoclasm. The Deeisis from the 1260s which features Christ enthroned with the Theotokos on the left and St. John the Baptist on the right is probably the finest quality mosaic.
A Q&A session followed the presentation and Ousterhout urged the audience to write to Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis to help preserve Byzantine Thessaloniki which is threatened by the metro construction.
Ousterhout said that there is a lot we do not know about Hagia Sophia, so much remains to be explored and studied, we need to preserve it, and referring to his work in Cappadocia and elsewhere, he added that “we need to make a commitment to these buildings.”
Kourides then thanked the participants and noted that videos of previous HACF virtual events are available for viewing online: https://www.hacfoundation.org.