Holy Wisdom on PBS/Nova

Last night I watched the excellent Nova/PBS program about Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), the great sixth-century basilica built by Emperor Justinian in Constantinople, now Istanbul, Turkey.  Since I don’t watch TV, I played at at leisure on PBS’ video on demand:


(For copyright reasons, I can’t embed it here, but you can view it by clicking the above link.)

It’s a wonderful survey of recent work being done regarding the seismic stability of this ancient building, which has withstood nearly 1500 years of ground movement in one of the most earthquake-prone regions of the world. There’s a wonderful description of the recent tests of a structural model on an earthquake-simulating shake table. Another interesting facet of research seeks to discover mosaics beneath the plaster using metal detecting scanning equipment. One of the reasons ancient Byzantine mosaics are so brilliant is that they used gold foil fused to the glass tesserae for much of the background.

While I found the production as whole excellent, I feel it was marred by a few problems.

First, the matter of pronunciation. While there are several “correct” ways of pronouncing Hagia Sophia, the narrator did not use one of them.  He annoying said “HI-ya So-FEE-ah,” while the people interviewed for the most past used on of the correct ones.  The classical pronunciation is “HAHG-ee-yah So-FEE-ah,” while in Turkish it’s “A-ya Sof-ya,” which I think is similar to modern Greek.  (Because the Turkish alphabet is a modern invention – 1928 – it is phonetically consistent.)

Many people have other creatively wrong ways of pronouncing Hagia: for example “Hah-GHEE-ah” (hard “g”, but accented on the second syllable) or “HAHJ-ya” or “Hah-JEE-ya.”

I don’t much care how most folks pronounce it, but I would expect a little more attention to accuracy and consistency in a production like this.

There is, however, an omission that I consider more serious. In speaking about the quest to discover, and possibly uncover, Byzantine mosaics on various walls under a layer of plaster that the Muslim Ottoman Turks put over them when, after the fall of Constantinople in 1452, the program gave the strong impression that these mosaics originally decorated the church after its construction in 537 AD.  In fact, they pointed to the splendid Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna, dating back to the sixth century, as examples of what the Hagia Sophia may have looked like.  They failed to mention, however, that the existing mosaics that have been uncovered, and any that remain covered, would have been put up at least four centuries later. Why? Because in the eighth and ninth centuries, a fierce and ruthless Christian iconoclasm (the word means “image-smashing”) took place throughout the Christian East.  It was so thorough that only a few isolated works of art remain from before that period. Icons were confiscated and smashed, images in churches were chiseled off the wall, statues in public places were toppled and smashed.  The only remnants of pre-iconoclast Byzantine art that survive are in Ravenna (notably the Basilicas of San Vitale and Sant’Apollinare in Classe) and a few other parts of Italy that were no longer under Byzantine control.

The legitimacy of crafting and venerating religious images was established in the Second Council of Nicaea in 787, but that only triggered another violent period of iconoclasm, lasting until 843.

This was done by overzealous Christians, not Muslims, beginning with the Emperors. There were many reasons for this, and heated arguments over the course of nearly a century. The traditions of iconography, mosaic and fresco artwork were slowly revived in the tenth century, and reached something of an artistic “Golden Age,” in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The mosaics in Hagia Sophia, as well as other examples of Byzantine art, such as the beautiful Chora Church in Istanbul and the marvelous Cave Churches in Cappadocia, come from this period.

Generally, when Muslim rulers converted churches to mosques, they plastered over the artwork rather than destroy it. This is not to say there weren’t many instances of destruction or defacement, but they were usually more of the nature of vandalism rather than a systematic, purposeful elimination of Christian religious art. Sadly, it took fellow Christians to do that.

One thought on “Holy Wisdom on PBS/Nova

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  1. Fr. Tom – thank you for this wonderful history lesson. I have just had the time to sit an enjoy the video. Watching it brought back a flood of very fond memories of the 2010 Pilgrimage.

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