Empress Zoe, Close-up, Hagia Sophia
Original Country
Sorting Title
Empress Zoe, Close-up, Hagia Sophia

Face of Empress Zoe. The face Zoe is a replacement installed sometime after Zoe’s marriage to Constantine in 1042. Mosaicists changed the face in order to make it uniform in style and technique with other faces.

Creation Date
1028/34; reworked between 1042 and 1055.
Style Genre
Work Type
Format Medium

Between 1931 and 1949, the staff of the Byzantine Institute uncovered and cleaned the mosaics of Hagia Sophia and studied the techniques used in creating the mosaics.

Mosaicists worked directly on church walls in a manner similar to that of fresco artists. Conservators found three layers of plaster under the mosaic tesserae in Hagia Sophia: a rendering bed, an intermediary bed, and a setting bed. The craftsman applied the rendering bed directly on the brick wall. The rendering bed and the intermediate layer of plaster typically consist of some combination of lime, brick dust, and chopped straw. The plaster of the setting bed, the thin uppermost layer, is composed of lime and marble dust. The mosaicist applied it in small sections so that he could add the tesserae onto the plaster while it was still moist. Mosaicists used the same technique of plaster applications in Byzantine churches in Greece, Italy, Russia, and Georgia.

Mosaicists sketched the design of the image directly on the rending bed and at times even on the brick wall. The setting bed had a detailed painting made in fresco. This organized the distribution of colors and controlled the layout of tesserae. Often the painting of the figures was rather detailed.

The mosaic surfaces are often irregular and uneven, but this imperfection contributes to the sparkling radiance of the cathedral. Mosaicists also set each tessera at a distinct angle in order to increase luminosity. The outlines of the figures and haloes were executed in tesserae placed at an angle so as to give a sharper contour to the images and to reflect light.

Original Location

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey

Specific Location

South Gallery

Historical Context

History of the Building

An earlier cathedral preceded the existing Hagia Sophia. This earlier cathedral was completed in 360 and remodeled between 404 and 415 due to a fire. In 532, the earlier structure was burnt to the ground in the Nika Riot. After a ruthless suppression of these political dissidents, Justinian rebuilt Hagia Sophia, a cathedral which was to be far more splendid than the one which his enemies had destroyed. The new church was to be of a size and lavishness hitherto unheard of. Columns and marbles were brought from across the empire, in particular from the Atlantic coast of France and Greece. Marble workshops on the Proconnesian islands furnished capitals, cornices, and pavement plaques. According to Richard Krautheimer and Slobodan Ćurěié’s estimate, Justinian spent the equivalent of £130,000,000 or $180,000,000 (as per 1986) on his cathedral. The structure was consecrated on 27 December 537, on which occasion Justinian is reputed to have proclaimed, “Solomon, I have vanquished thee!”

To build Hagia Sophia, Justinian chose Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus. These two men were renowned for their theoretical knowledge of mathematics and physics. Anthemius was an expert in geometry and Isidorus taught physics. Although not architects to start with, once called upon they devised the plans of a building never before considered viable on a large scale. The theoretical background of these two academics is worth emphasizing, since no architect with a practical background would have undertaken building such an experimental structure on such a grand scale. Anthemius died during the first year of construction, but Isidorus carried the project through to completion in 537.

During and after construction a number of structural crises occurred, partially due to the rapidity with which the building was erected. A series of earthquakes shook the city between 553 and 557 and seriously weakened the structure. In 558, the first dome collapsed as well as the arch and semi-dome on the east end of the cathedral. Since both original architects were no longer alive, Justinian assigned the task of rebuilding the church to a nephew of Isidorus, Isidorus the Younger. Isidorus the younger replaced the shallow dome with a steep, ribbed dome, which required a number of other changes in the building structure. Isidorus completed the project in 563.

In plan, Hagia Sophia resembles that of an Early Christian basilica. The central nave is flanked by side aisles, and a longitudinal axis extends from the narthexes in the west to the sanctuary and apse in the east. An atrium once extended from the west of the church and a treasury survives on the north side of the church. An octagonal baptistery to the southwest was also attached to the building.

Departing from this traditional architecture was the great dome and its massive supports, which introduced a centralized focus on the nave. Standing under the dome, the visitor begins to grasp the open and expansive space of the cathedral. From the vertical center of the axis, space expands longitudinally into the sanctuary and apse in the east and the entrance bay in the west. From the niches, the space moves into the conchs that open diagonally on either side. It then rises vertically into the main dome. The eye encounters smooth, vertical planes. The curved surfaces of arches, pendentives, domes, and half-domes rise above the viewer blending the transition from one space to another.

Hagia Sophia was dedicated to Holy Wisdom; the architecture and décor of the cathedral emphasized the otherworldly and transcendental qualities of Holy Wisdom and created a dematerialized impression upon the viewer. The surfaces were lush and reflective. The walls were covered with gold mosaic and multicolored marble. The carved marble details were delicate and lacelike. The structural supports vanished under lavish and elegant coverings. At night services, hanging lamps sparkled with thousands of candles. All formed an ethereal vision

After the end of iconoclasm in the ninth century, new figural mosaics were added throughout the church to the non-figural mosaic program. These mosaics included images of the Deisis, bishops, prophets, the Virgin, St. John the Baptist, the Pantocrator, and imperial portraits. The mosaics reflected the ongoing political, religious, and ceremonial needs of the cathedral and its patrons.

A second series of earthquakes in the ninth and tenth centuries damaged the building once again. As a result, a portion of the dome and the eastern arch fell in 989. Basil II appointed the architect Trdat to rebuild the dome, and in 996 Basil reopened the church.

The interior of the church suffered greatly in the Latin sack of Constantinople in 1204. The crusaders sacked the church, seizing all of its sacred relics, precious objects, and liturgical furnishings. During the Latin Occupation, Hagia Sophia served as a Roman Catholic Cathedral. The crusaders erected a campanile near the northwest corner of the cathedral.

After the Byzantines recaptured Constantinople in 1261, the Patriarch reconsecrated Hagia Sophia as a Greek Orthodox sanctuary. The campanile was taken down and the church was refurbished and redecorated. The dome collapsed again 1346 and reconstruction was completed in 1355. During the last century of Byzantine rule, Hagia Sophia fell into disrepair.

The last liturgy in Hagia Sophia took place on 28 May 1453. The following day, the city fell to the Turks. Mehmet II ordered that the cathedral should be turned into a mosque (Aya Sophia Camii). Thus multiple changes were made to the architecture of the building, including the addition of four minarets and several Turkish mausoleums. In addition, the figural mosaics were covered with whitewash and plaster. The mosaics remained hidden for several hundred years, until Gaspare and Guiseppe Fossati temporary uncovered them in 1848 and 1849 during their renovation of the building. In 1931, the structure was deconsecrated as a mosque and opened to the public as a museum.

Liturgical and Ceremonial Use

The longitudinal organization of the basilica reflected the nature of the late antique and Byzantine liturgical ceremony. The ceremony began with the First Entrance, in which the procession of clergy entered the nave from the narthex. The clergy moved through the nave and into the sanctuary, and the Gospels, which represented Christ, were “enthroned” on the altar. The congregation entered after the clergy and took their places along the sides of the nave and in the side aisles. The catechumens assembled in the gallery. The entire congregation was separated according to sex.

Once everyone had reached their proper positions, the Liturgy of the Word began. This part of the ceremony included readings from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures and the singing of songs, all of which were conducted by lectors and psalmists from the ambo in the nave. The bishop would deliver a sermon from his throne in the apse.

After the sermon, the catechumens were dismissed and the doors of the church were closed. The Liturgy of the Faithful began with the Entrance of the Mysteries, in which the bread and wine were carried to the altar. The congregation recited the Nicene Creed and communion prayer. The clergy and congregation partook of the sacrament. After a final prayer of thanksgiving, the congregation was dismissed. The clergy and then the congregation passed in procession out of the nave.

Hagia Sophia was also the site of imperial worship. According to the Book of Ceremonies, the emperor participated in the liturgy in Hagia Sophia on seventeen occasions each year. For most of these ceremonies, he remained on his throne in the south colonnade. He participated in the first entrance procession and left his throne at three points during the service: at the entrance of the gifts in the offertory procession, at the sharing of the Peace, and at communion. The empress did not participate with the emperor. She and her entourage observed the service from the gallery, and communion was brought to her.

Patrons and Others

Emperor Constantine IX and Empress Zoe

Current Repository

Hagia Sophia, Turkey

Photo Credit
Dina Boero
Dina Boero
Image of Empress Zoe, Close-up, Hagia Sophia.