Church of Hagia Sophia in Thessaloniki
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The south of the Church of the Acheiropoietos and the modern Egnatia Street, which traverses the city on the line of the main ancient artery, the Byzantine Leophoros, stands the Church of Hagia Sophia. From at least the 8th century until its conversion into a mosque in 1523/24, this was the 'Great Church' of Thessaloniki - that is, the city's cathedral. It is now one of the 15 Paleochristian and Byzantine Monuments of Thessaloniki that were included in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1988.
Like its namesake, Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, the most brilliant of all the Orthodox churches, it is dedicated to the Wisdom and the Word of God. It was built on a large five-aisled Early Christian basilica measuring 122 x 53 m, the sanctuary apse of which, with its external buttresses, is preserved in the basement of a building to the east of the present church. This large basilica probably dates from the 5th century, and is thought to have been the first episcopal church of Thessaloniki. A structure thought to have been a Roman Nymphaeum, on the south side of the present church of Hagia Sophia in the area today known as the Hagiasma (Holy spring) of John the Baptist, has recently been attributed to the complex of this episcopal church, and interpreted as an Early Christian baptistery. It consists of a quatrefoil hall with exedras and includes a cistern (font) in the form of a Maltese cross. It communicated directly with the 5th century basilica by way of a corridor with a mosaic floor. Parts of a secular building uncovered in building plots in Keramopoulou and Prasakaki Streets, on the north side of the church, probably belong to the Bishop's Residence. The Early Christian basilica was in turn built on an earlier, extensive Roman building complex that included a bath-house; this complex has been excavated around the church, especially on the south side.
The present church, which is mentioned in a written source dating from the late 8th century, was erected after the basilica was destroyed, probably by the earthquakes known to have occurred in 620-630. During the period of Frankish occupation (1204-1224), the metropolitan church was temporarily converted into the catholic cathedral. After 1224 it reverted once again to the Orthodox Church and continued to be the cathedral of the city until 1523/1524, when it was converted into a mosque. After the liberation of Thessaloniki in 1912, Hagia Sophia was restored once more to Christian worship.
A rectangular aisleless chapel with a semicircular apse has been discovered attached to the north wall of the church, its masonry including an earlier phase. The chapel is dated to before the 14th century and was formerly identified as the makrona (long stow) mentioned in the 16th century sources. Another later chapel with a semihexagonal apse was built outside the north-west porch. On the west side of the courtyard, which corresponds roughly with the atrium of the Christian basilica, there was a Palaiologan porch, with a triple arcade on the inside and outside. The porch was demolished during the repairs of 1908-1910, when some of the sculptures from it were used in the west entrance to the church.
Externally, the church is now a heavy, cubic building, but with interesting masonry of white dressed stone alternating with courses of bricks. The west facade is now unarticulated, the result of repeated interventions. It is believed that originally, the Early Christian basilica had a two-storey exonarthex with a staircase, which was incorporated into the 7th century church. A small tower rises at the north-west corner, housing a staircase that leads up to the galleries. This tower is certainly an Ottoman addition, and is probably to be identified with the original minaret, built when the Christian church was converted into a mosque by Ibrahim Paşa.
Inside the church, the narthex, which is roofed with low domes and communicates freely with the aisles, is followed by the nave, which consists of a central Greek-cross core, the centre of which is covered by the large dome. The central, square kernel is bounded by four piers at the corners, and is separated from the side aisles by an intermediate colonnade, in which columns alternate with smaller pillars. The arms of the cross are covered by four barrel vaults, on which the dome is sup-ported with the aid of pendentives. Externally, the drum of the dome is square, and has three windows in each side. Above the large drum, a smaller, cylindrical drum supports the lead-covered dome. The base of the interior of the drum is encircled by a balcony.
At the east end of the nave is appended the tripartite sanctuary, which has a main, semihexagonal apse flanked by two semicircular side apses. The north and south aisles, which are roofed with barrel vaults, communicate with the parabemala by means of two openings placed off centre with reference to the longitudinal axis of the porticoes.
At first floor level, the arrangement is repeated of an ambulatory around the central kernel, forming galleries. Originally, there were galleries only on the north and south sides, which extended as far as the west face of the church, leaving visible the low domes over the central part of the narthex. In a series of later modifications, the north and south walls of the galleries were raised and pierced with rows of windows, the west wall was raised and windows opened in it, and the galleries were extended to include the central area of the west side, above the narthex. Archaeological sections in the north and west galleries yielded a large number of storage jars beneath the later floors; these jars had been used in raising the floor level, so that the vaults and low domes over the ground floor would not have to bear a great weight. At the four corners of the kernel, between the piers, vaulted apartments were created in the galleries with small rooms at second floor level, which originally looked directly outside the church. Today, the west gallery is separated from the side galleries by two later transverse walls, and is at a higher level. The variegated articulation of the super-structure is covered by a single lean-to roof, which has given the building its present heavy external appearance. The discovery of a number of lead seals during the excavation of the galleries, especially the south-west apartment of the west gallery, perhaps confirms the view that these were used for the administration and secretariate of the cathedral.
Of the sculptural decoration of the church, only the columns and capitals of the north, ground-floor colonnade are preserved. The corresponding capitals of the south colonnade were replaced with plaster copies, as were the capitals in the galleries, after they were destroyed by fire in I890. Two of the three capitals of the north colonnade belong to the `wind-swept acanthus' type. The basket of the capital is covered by two rows of acanthus leaves that are curved as though bending before the wind. These capitals are dated to the late 5th century. The third capital is a 'cubic' capital. The basket is covered with winding tendrils and half-leaves encircling a laurel wreath which is supported by an ivy leaf. This decorative motif, and the stylistic approach and treatment are similar to the sculptures of Hagios Polyeuctus in Constantinople, which are accurately dated to 524-527. The capitals in the north colonnade of Hagia Sophia are in second use, and probably came from the Early Christian basilica that stood on the site at an earlier date; this is certainly true of the pulpit of the church, made of green marble, which is now in the Constantinople Archaeological Museum. The 7th century capitals that were placed in the west entrance to the church after the fire of 1890 cone from the Late Byzantine porch, where they were already in second use.
The mosaics of Hagia Sophia are impressive examples of Byzantine mosaic art and lend the Byzantine church a particular grandeur. They come from three periods. Mosaics from the first period are preserved on the barrel vault over the area of the sanctuary, in front of the conch. The side surfaces of the vault, above its springing, are covered by rectangular panels in which gem-studded silver crosses alternate with large decorative leaves. On the top of the vault is a polychrome circular mandorla containing a large gold cross, emitting bundles of light rays. At the springing of the vault, on both sides, the founder's inscriptions are worked on a gold ground, both in cruciform monograms and in a continuous inscription. The reading of the monograms is as follows: 'Lord help Constantine Despot' (north side, not preserved) and 'Lord help Eirene Despoina' (south side). The inscription reads: 'Christ help Theophilos (north side) and 'humble bishop' (south side). The historical figures referred to are the emperor Constantine VI and his mother, empress Eirene, of Athens, who ruled together from 780-788. Although Eirene and Bishop Theophilos were supporters of the icons, the decoration here is aniconic; to it belongs a large cross in the conch, traces of which can still be discerned on the gold ground, above the halo and next to the shoulders of the enthroned Virgin Platytera, a mosaic that is difficult to date. The lower part of the scene is the earlier (9th century?), while the upper part was completed, presumably after some deterioration, in the 11th or 12th century (third period). To the second period, in the 9th century, belongs the scene of the Ascension in the dome of the church. This is a monumental composition, in which the expressive figures of the apostles move in a transcendental, rocky landscape, showing strong feelings of fear, wonder and astonishment as they watch Christ ascend in a circular glory, at the pinnacle of the dome. In contrast with the earthly, contorted figures of the apostles, which recall ancient, sculptures, the motionless, transcendental figure of the Virgin and the beautiful, light figures of the angels, full of spirituality, form the connecting link between Earth and Heaven, where the last act of the divine incarnation is played out. The base of the scene is encircled by a decorative band that includes two majuscule inscriptions stating that the founder of the church was archbishop Paul, identified as the Metropolitan of Thessaloniki of that name (885), who had connections with the ecumenical patriarch Photios. Some have suggested that this inscription should be dated to a period earlier than the mosaic. Of the 11th century wall-paintings in the narthex of Hagia Sophia, all that survives today are a few figures of saints — monks on the vaults of the large openings in the west wall. These are typical examples of the strictly hieratical style of the period. Amongst the figures are local saints of Thessaloniki, such as Saint Theodora. The painted decoration, imitating marble revetment, is due to repairs made to the church at the beginning of the century.
We know from the historical sources that a number of important ecclesiastical figures of Thessaloniki were buried in Hagia Sophia. Recent excavations have uncovered tombs in the south aisle and in the foundations of the south-east pier, below the floor of the diabatikon, as well as parts of a built tomb with an arched ciborium and wall-paintings.
Wandering in Byzantine Thessaloniki by E. Kourkoutidou-Nikolaidou