The Interior of Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia and the Aesthetic Experience

The church of Hagia Sophia built in the period AD 532 -537 in Constantinople was praised for its extraordinary luminosity

Hagia Sophia and the Byzantine Aesthetic Experience
By Nadine Schibille
Ashgate 2014
ISBN: 978-1-4724-3758-7
ISBN Short: 9781472437587


Hagia Sophia and the Byzantine Experience 2014 CoverThe church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople was built in the period 532 -537 CE. This building was praised for its extraordinary luminosity. In this paradigmatic building beauty, wisdom and light became interwoven through the architectural structure as well as the interior decoration in a manner, which opens up for a wider exploration of Byzantine civilisation.

Paramount in the shaping of early Byzantine identity was the construction of the church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (532-537 CE). This book examines the edifice from the perspective of aesthetics to define the concept of beauty and the meaning of art in early Byzantium.

Byzantine aesthetic thought is re-evaluated against late antique Neoplatonism and the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius that offer fundamental paradigms for the late antique attitude towards art and beauty. These metaphysical concepts of aesthetics are ultimately grounded in experiences of sensation and perception, and reflect the ways in which the world and reality were perceived and grasped, signifying the cultural identity of early Byzantium.

There are different types of aesthetic data, those present in the aesthetic object and those found in aesthetic responses to the object.

This study looks at the aesthetic data embodied in the sixth-century architectural structure and interior decoration of Hagia Sophia as well as in literary responses (ekphrasis) to the building. The purpose of the Byzantine ekphrasis was to convey by verbal means the same effects that the artefact itself would have caused.

One of these literary descriptions of the Hagia Sophia was written by Paul the Silentiary (Paulus Silentarius ✝ AD 575 – 580). This is a poem consisting of 1029 verses in Greek, beginning with 134 lines of iambic trimester, with the rest composed in dactylic hexameter. This poem was probably commissioned by the emperor Justinian himself and it is believed that Paul had to read verses aloud to the emperor during the inauguration.

The other ekphrasis (in the “De Aedificiis”) was written by Procopius (c. AD 500 – 560), the principal historian of the 6th century. (An old translation of these texts may be found here)

According to Schibille, both authors “wrote in classising style with a “flowery language” and abundant use of archaisms and metaphors reminiscent of Homeric vocabulary” (Introduction)

A literary analysis of these rhetorical descriptions recaptures the Byzantine perception and expectations, and at the same time reveals the cognitive processes triggered by the Great Church.

The central aesthetic feature that emerges from sixth-century ekphraseis of Hagia Sophia is that of light. Light is described as the decisive element in the experience of the sacred space and light is simultaneously associated with the notion of wisdom. It is argued that the concepts of light and wisdom are interwoven programmatic elements that underlie the unique architecture and non-figurative decoration of Hagia Sophia. A similar concern for the phenomenon of light and its epistemological dimension is reflected in other contemporary monuments, testifying to the pervasiveness of these aesthetic values in early Byzantium.


  • Introduction: Byzantine aesthetics
  • Viewing Hagia Sophia through 6th-century eyes
  • Animation and illumination of Hagia Sophia’s architectural structure
  • Clad in a luminous membrane: the interior decoration of Hagia Sophia
  • Building a house of wisdom – a question of meaning
  • Hagia Sophia and the concept of beauty in the 6th century
  • The function of art in the 6th century
  • Hagia Sophia – embodiment of an early Byzantine aesthetics
  • Appendix
  • Bibliography
  • Index.


Dr Nadine Schibille is a Lecturer in Art History at the University of Sussex, UK.



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