THE SPACE OF WISDOM . SANTA SOFIA IN ISTANBUL
Coordinated by: Alessandra Buzzetti, Marina Ricci, Riccardo Piol
Scientific consultancy by: Fabrizio Bisconti, Angela Donati, Marina Falla Castelfranchi
The exhibition theme centres on the ancient Hagia Sophia, imperial basilica par excellence of Constantinople, the capital of the Roman Empire of the East between 331-1453, built by Justinian (527-565) between 532-537 site of the “Great Church” conceived by Constantine II in 360 and then renovated by Theodosius II (416-450).
Work of the otherwise unknown architects Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus, this church was immediately considered by the Byzantines as a result of divine intervention: its novel aspect was the result of a combination of two architectural types, one with centre plan, the other with basilica plan, wonderfully blended to produce an enormous building measuring 70 x 75 metres. On top is a huge dome with a diameter of 31 metres, supported by four massive arches.
The outside of the building is rather articulate and heavy looking but the inside is breathtaking, extraordinary, unique and full of harmony. It is easy then to appreciate Justinian’s pride and the fact that, on entering the church, he is said to have exclaimed: “Glory to God who made me worthy of this! Oh Solomon, I have gone one better!”.
Great has been the attraction since then of the sublime majesty of his church. The interior decoration is outstanding right down to the smallest and hidden parts. Multi-colour marbles were extensively used, to cover the entire building, as far up as the galleries, while the aisles and the narthex still boast, despite history and time, mosaics with gold backgrounds dating back to the age of Justinian.
From the upper reaches of the church and the dome, the sunlight entered the building to give the many other mosaics a golden shine. Now, these have disappeared or have been renovated over the years in different periods. Today the Byzantine Basilica- mother of all the great churches of the Christian East, which inspired architects around the world, as far as Russia – has become a museum, after being transformed into a mosque, starting with the fall of Byzantium into Ottoman hands until 1934.
The vicissitudes of which the church has been a mute witness make it a cultural document unique in the history of the ancient world and a paradigm of great importance in the cultural crossroads of today. After becoming a mosque in 1453, the building was covered with thick layers of plaster, to cover the mosaic decorations representing scenes from the Old and New Testament, as well as members of the various imperial families that succeeded one another on the throne of Constantinople, most of whom were depicted alongside images of Christ and the Virgin. Notwithstanding this, its architectural beauty – still fully appreciable today – literally won the eyes and to some extent the heart of the sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, Mimar Sinan, who supervised the building’s transformation into a mosque. For the whole of his life, he tried to reproduce the Architecture of Santa Sofia in the mosques of Istanbul, to the extent that our basilica went down in history with the definition of “Mother of all Mosques”.
With the belittlement of the mosque to national museum, in 1935 surveys started to see what was hidden below the layers of plaster. The extent of the destruction then came to light. Of the original mosaics, little was left. But that little that has come down to us – such as the face of the Blessing Christ that sprang from the darkness of the centuries – maintains intact its beauty and its splendour. The same also goes for the image of the Virgin with Child, which in the shadow of the church suddenly appears in the apse, almost fluctuating in the golden sky of the mosaic. So majestic and splendid are the few remaining treasures as to enable us to imagine the greatness and majesty of the primitive beauty of the holy building. What astonishes and touches us is that nothing has ever managed to destroy this miracle.
The exhibition wishes to endeavour to recreate the holy and strongly emotional experience of a visit to Santa Sofia. Along a path made up of images, lights and sounds – from those of the city and the history of Istanbul, to the solemn Byzantine chant of eastern liturgy – the visitor is accompanied on a journey of discovery of the splendour of the basilica and its mosaics, reproduced in large photographs purposely made for the occasion in conjunction with the Turkish Ministry of Culture.
The shadow that surrounds the interior is a metaphor of the history of the basilica for centuries and even today it continues to cloud its ancient splendour. But the images of Christ, the Virgin, the saints and emperors depicted in the gold of the mosaics appear suddenly to the visitors of the huge church interiors: the large reproductions are like patches of light that surprise the gaze and touch the heart, reanimating the architectural majesty of the basilica, which in the exhibition is evoked through symbolic sequences of arches and columns.
Short texts that also bear testimonies and chronicles of the age, narrate the history of Santa Sofia, its being over the centuries the presence of a real and relentless beauty.
To complete the historical, didactic path, a number of extremely precious liturgical objects, from Constantinople, of sure palatine origin will be on show. Altogether, there are about ten priceless works – today kept in the Vatican Museums, the treasure of the Basilica of S. Marco in Venice and in other Italian museums – specially given on loan for the exhibition, true masterpieces of Byzantine art dating back to between the 10th and 13th centuries, its period of maximum splendour.
These are semi-precious cut stones, enamels, mosaics and crystal glass, sanctuary objects in gold and silver mostly commissioned by the imperial family reigning at the time or by the patriarchs of Constantinople, intended for holy worship and private devotion. Their beauty, the freedom of the materials used to make them and the figures reproduced on them harmonically integrate the exhibition route and recreate, in the suggestive ambience of the ground floor rooms of Castel Sismondo, the sacred space or home of knowledge, i.e., Hagia Sophia.