An Inscription at Hagia Sophia

January 1, 2018

Hagia Sophia, apse mosaic (Brad Hostetler / Flickr)

The mosaic of the Virgin and Child and the accompanying inscription in the apse of Hagia Sophia commemorated the end of Iconoclasm within the Byzantine Empire. The Iconoclastic controversy was a religious and political movement during the eighth and ninth centuries that opposed the visual representation of Christ, the Virgin, and saints, and forbade the veneration of icons. During this period, images of holy figures were removed from churches and public spaces, and replaced with representations of the Cross. When Iconoclasm officially ended in 843, religious images were brought back into churches; this is the context in which Hagia Sophia’s depiction of the Virgin and Child was installed. On Holy Saturday, 29 March 867, the Patriarch Photios inaugurated the new mosaic with a homily delivered before its imperial sponsors, Michael III and Basil I. Photios says:

[Iconoclasts], after stripping the Church, Christ’s bride, of her own ornaments, and wantonly inflicting bitter wounds on her, wherewith her face was scarred, sought in their insolence to submerge her in deep oblivion, naked as she was, so to speak, and unsightly, and afflicted with those many wounds–herein too emulating Jewish folly. Still bearing on her body the scars of those wounds, in reproof of their Isaurian and godless belief, and wiping them off, and in their stead putting on the splendour of her own glory, she now regains the ancient dignity of her comeliness, and sheds the rude mockery of those who have insulted her, pitying their truly absurd madness. If one called this day the beginning and day of Orthodoxy (lest I say something excessive), one would not be far wrong. (tr. C. Mango, Homilies of Photius, p. 291.)

The inscription that was displayed on the arch framing the conch of the apse is thought to have been installed at the same time as the Virgin and Child. Right now all we see are a few letters at the lower left and lower right of the arch–the beginning and end of the inscription.

Hagia Sophia, bema inscription fragment, north (Dumbarton Oaks Image Collection and Fieldwork Archives)

Hagia Sophia, bema inscription fragment, south (Dumbarton Oaks Image Collection and Fieldwork Archives)

E.M. Antoniades first noted that these letters match up with the first epigram preserved in the Anthologia Palatina. The epigram was edited by Andreas Rhoby (Byzantinische Epigramme in inschriftlicher Überlieferung, 1:M9):

Ἃς ο[ἱ πλάνοι καθεῖλον ἐνθάδ’ εἰκόνας

ἄνακτες ἐστήλωσαν εὐσε]βεῖς πάλιν.

The impostors had taken down icons here,

but pious rulers have set them up again.

The epigram condemns “the imposters” (Iconoclasts), and their sponsored removal of icons from Hagia Sophia, and praises the present-day pious rulers (Michael III and Basil I), who have restored them.

Knowing the original epigram, we can now suggest how it may have been displayed around the conch of the apse. This is a 12-syllable epigram, meaning that each line, or verse, is comprised of twelve syllables. Each verse should naturally cover about one half the arch. This even distribution of verses within the inscribed space is characteristic of epigrams in Byzantium. When the inscription is typed using the Athena Ruby font and superimposed on the elevation drawing created by C. Mango and E.J.W. Hawkins, we see that the end of verse 1 (red) and the beginning of verse 2 (green) meet, as expected, at the mid-point of the arch.

Hagia Sophia, bema. Reconstruction of the inscription by Brad Hostetler using elevation drawing from C. Mango, E. Hawkins, “The Apse Mosaics of St. Sophia at Istanbul,” DOP 19 (1965): p. 150. Click here for an uncolored copy of the drawing.

What can we learn from this reconstruction beyond this neat distribution of verses? What may not have been obvious to us when looking at the epigram in the Anthologia Palatina, divorced from its inscribed context, is the visual emphasis given to two key words: εἰκόνας (images/icons) at the end of verse 1, and ἄνακτες (rulers) at the beginning of verse 2. These words are arguably the most important to understanding the new mosaic program in the conch of the apse: images were once destroyed, but thanks to the pious rulers, they have been restored. Forming the end of verse 1 and the beginning of verse 2, these words were naturally set side-by-side in a prominent location at the top of the arch. The word images was placed over its indexical referent–the images of the Virgin and Child–and the word rulers identified the patrons that made the restoration of these images possible.