Galleries of Mosaics

There was a lot of work going on inside the Hagia Sophia when I visited. The whole of the north section of the naos was taken up by an enormous scaffolding, so you could neither look out of the north gallery, nor get a good view of the inner north wall of the naos. In the south gallery too, there was much work on, so some of the mosaics I wanted to see were not visible. What could be seen was quite stunning.

The mosaic of Komnenos

This large mosaic was probably covered in plaster at some time, because you can see the surrounding layer of thick plaster. It shows the emperor John Komnenos II holding a bag of gold, and his consort, the empress Irene, with a scroll flanking a seated Madonna and Child. The featured photo is a detail of this 12th century mosaic. Some art historians believe that the plaster covering was historically useful, since it prevented visitors or workers from removing the gold tesserae. This mosaic is so well preserved that you could believe it.


One of the most famous of the mosaics is the Deisis (or Deesis, the English spelling is ambiguous). No writing about it fails to mention that the icon of Deisis always has at its center the Christ Pantokrator, and is surrounded by other holy figures praying to him. One of the introductory pieces that I read mentioned that this also illustrates a hierarchical style of prayers, where you pray to a saint to pray on your behalf: very bureaucratic and Byzantine.

My first reaction to it was a disappointment: so little of this 13th century work remains! Judith Herrin, in her magisterial book on the Byzantine empire says that there was a superstition that a little stone chip, tessera, from holy paintings could bring you luck, and that there could have been a thriving trade in pieces of this mosaic. Peter Sarris also talks about late Byzantine superstitions regarding images.

Nevertheless, when you look at details of what remains, it is stunning. Byzantine art took a long time to recover from the iconoclast politics. Sarris points out that representational art had not died out altogether, but many of the skills had been lost, and had to be redeveloped. When you compare the Mary here with that in the earlier mosaic on the apse, you can see how much more nuanced this is. Five centuries separate these two mosaics.

The incredible detail on the face and hair of John the Baptist, seems so much more naturalistic than, for example, the hair on the head of Irene in the Komnenos mosaic (featured photo). About a century separates the two. In matters of skill, it is not only the schooling that is important but also the individual.

The Family and I were not the only people who spent a long time in front of this mosaic, admiring little details. There was quite a crowd. And why not? After all even experts in art or Byzantine history devote considerable energy and space in discussing this mosaic.

Marble Door

We came up to the galleries through ramps at the north eastern end of the structure. The gallery on the southern side is divided into an outer part (where the Empress Theodora is said to have sat for the opening of the church in 536 CE) and an inner part (where the Synod council of 1166 CE is supposed to have met). Between them is a door made of marble.

Every door inside the museum is a choke point, through which an enormous number of tourists stream. I waited for a clear shot, but could not get one. The shot that you see above is the best that I could do. I was a little anti-social, and planted myself in the middle of the stream, depending on the goodwill of people to stop. Most did, so I could quickly take this shot and move away.

My audio guide pointed out various interesting features on the door, including a story that one side of the door represents heaven and the other hell. The only difference I could see was that one side was well-lit and the other a little dark. In any case, this door was plundered from some old Greek structure and brought here, and so probably was not designed to have any symbolic meaning at all.

North wall

At this level you could see some of the mosaic panels on the upper walls of the naos. The view from the north gallery was completely blocked off by a scaffolding, so I could only look out from the south.

I could see only one mosaic which has been disinterred from under a thick layer of plaster. Who is it? A saint, by the halo around his head, and probably a Patriarch, from his priestly clothes. If this is indeed of the Patriarch Ignatios, then the mosaic dates back to the 9th or 10th century, soon after the end of the iconoclast period.