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The description of the Hagia Sophia, 537

by Procopius (c.490/507-c.560s)

Procopius of Caesarea (in Palestine) [c.490/50-c.560s] is the most important source for information about the reign of the emperor Justinian [born 482/3, ruled. 527-565] and his wife Theodora [d. 547/8]. From 527 to 531 Procopius was a counsel to the great general of the time, Belisarius [505-565]. He was on Belisarius's first Persian campaign [527-531], and later took part in an expedition against the Vandals [533-534]. He was in Italy on the Gothic campaign until 540, after which he lived in Constantinople, since he describes the great plague of 542 in the capital. His life after that is largely unknown, although he was given the title illustris in 560 and in may have been prefect of Constantinople in 562-3.

He wrote a number of official histories, including On the Wars in eight books [Polemon or De bellis], published 552, with an addition in 554, and On the Buildings in six books [Peri Ktismaton or De aedificiis], published 561. He also left a "Secret History" [Anecdota, i.e. "unpublished things", not "anecdotes"], probably written c. 550 and published after his death, which was a massive attack on the character of Justinian and his wife Theodora. Parts are so vitriolic, not to say pornographic [esp. Chapter 9], that for some time translations from Greek were only available into Latin [Gibbon - in Ch. 40 of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire wrote about Theodora that "her arts must be veiled in the obscurity of a learned language ", and then went on to quote the passage in Greek with Latin comments!] [This introduction was written by Paul Halsall.]

Procopius: On the Great Church

Justinian - 6190 Bytes

Emperor Justinian I

Justinian's great building project of the Church of the Holy Wisdom -- Hagia Sophia -- was dedicated in 537. The dedication is not to "St. Sophie" but to Christ, the "Holy Wisdom" of God. It was first called "Magale Ekklesia" (The Great Church) and is also referred to by that name.

The emperor, thinking not of cost of any kind, pressed on the work, and collected together workmen from every land. Anthemius of Tralles, the most skilled in the builder's art, not only of his own but of' all former times, carried forward the king's zealous intentions, organized the labours of the workmen, and prepared models of the future construction. Associated with him was another architect [mechanopoios] named Isidorus, a Milesian by birth, a man of intelligence, and worthy to carry out the plans of the Emperor Justinian. It is indeed a proof of the esteem with which God regarded the emperor, that he furnished him with men who would be so useful in effecting his designs, and we are compelled to admire the wisdom of the emperor, in being able to choose the most suitable of mankind to execute the noblest of his works....

Outside of Hagia Sophia, c. 1920- 9589 Bytes

Exterior of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey around 1920.

[The Church] is distinguished by indescribable beauty, excelling both in its size, and in the harmony of its measures, having no part excessive and none deficient; being more magnificent than ordinary buildings, and much more elegant than those which are not of so just a proportion. The church is singularly full of light and sunshine; you would declare that the place is not lighted by the sun from without, but that the rays are produced within itself, such an abundance of light is poured into this church....

Interior of Hagia Sophia, c. 1920 - 14572 Bytes

Interior of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey around 1920.

Now above the arches is raised a circular building of a curved form through which the light of day first shines; for the building, which I imagine overtops the whole country, has small openings left on purpose, so that the places where these intervals occur may serve for the light to come through. Thus far I imagine the building is not incapable of being described, even by a weak and feeble tongue. As the arches are arranged in a quadrangular figure, the stone-work between them takes the shape of a triangle, the lower angle of each triangle, being compressed where the arches unite, is slender, while the upper part becomes wider as it rises in the space between them, and ends against the circle which rests upon them, forming there its remaining angles. A spherical-shaped dome standing upon this circle makes it exceedingly beautiful; from the lightness of the building, it does not appear to rest upon a solid foundation, but to cover the place beneath as though it were suspended from heaven by the fabled golden chain. All these parts surprisingly joined to one another in the air, suspended one from another, and resting only on that which is next to them, form the work into one admirably harmonious whole, which spectators do not dwell upon for long in the mass, as each individual part attracts the eye to itself.

No one ever became weary of this spectacle, but those who are in the church delight in what they see, and, when they leave, magnify it in their talk. Moreover it is impossible accurately to describe the gold, and silver, and gems, presented by the Emperor Justinian, but by the description of one part, I leave the rest to be inferred. That part of the church which is especially sacred, and where the priests alone are allowed to enter, which is called the Sanctuary, contains forty thousand pounds' weight of silver.

Translated by W. Lethabv and H. Swainson, from Procopius, De Aedificiis, in The Church of St. Sophia Constantinople, (New York: 1894), pp. 24-28.

This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy- permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use. © Paul Halsall Mar 1996 halsall@murray.fordham.edu

See Also

Return: The Middle Ages: 476-1453


Notes

   "The art Justinian I and photos of Hagia Sophia are from An Outline of Christianity: The Story of Our Civilization, Vol. II (New York: Bethlehem Publishers, Inc., 1926), pp. 38 and 99 respectively.

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