Two Natures: Hagia Sophia: Byzantine Liturgical Architecture

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I recently came across some images and videos that reconstruct the appearance of Hagia Sophia in the first millennium, when it served as the cathedral of the Archbishop of Constantinople – and therefore as the first church of the Byzantine Empire. From its dedication in 537, during the reign of Justinian, the Temple of the Holy Wisdom of God remained the world’s largest cathedral until 1520. To understand some elements of the Byzantine Rite, it is essential to be able to visualize the church whose size, shape, and features they were required to accommodate.

Two Natures: Hagia Sophia: Byzantine Liturgical Architecture

In this external view you will first notice the courtyard, or atrium, in front of the church. At the east end of the atrium, the same height as the atrium, is the church’s outer narthex. Beyond that, with the many westward-facing windows, is the larger inner narthex. While the outer narthex served mainly as a vestibule, the inner narthex was where many services began. In Vespers of the Byzantine Cathedral Rite, for instance, the extensive opening psalmody was recited in the inner narthex, after which the congregation passed through the many doors into the nave for the next part of the service around the ambo. The large central doors, known as the Royal Doors, were used by the imperial family. This movement from narthex to nave is the origin of the Entrance in today’s service of Great Vespers. The narthex is still used for some rites, such as the prayers of exorcism at the beginning of the baptismal service and the betrothal rite that precedes marriage.

These architectural images will provide a better idea of how the narthexes relate to the rest of the church. The first, a floor plan, shows the church as it exists today. The second, a cut-away drawing, shows it as it was in the first millennium.

In both the floorplan and the initial image, you will notice a separate building to the south of the narthexes. This is the baptistery, whose purpose is obvious from its name. In the floorplan you will also see another building at the northeast corner of the church. This is the skevophylakion – the treasury, where donations to the church were received and stored. At what we now call the Great Entrance of the Divine Liturgy, the deacons would go the the skevophylakion, select wine and loaves of bread from among the donations, and return with them to the sanctuary to present them to the bishop for use in the Eucharist.

In the cut-away drawing you will see a round structure in the center of the nave. This is the ambo, an elaborate structure similar to a pulpit. It was used not only by preachers, but also by the choir and chanters when leading antiphonal or responsorial hymnody and by readers when reading the Scriptures. Here are two images of a detailed reconstruction.

There is one small defect in these pictures: they both position the ambo backwards. The longer pathway should point towards the sanctuary, not towards the narthex.

In the background of the first ambo picture, you can see the templon, the predecessor of today’s iconostasis. (The iconostasis as we know it did not appear before the late 14th century.) The templon began as a low screen to set off the sanctuary from the nave. It often came to be elaborated with columns surmounted by an architrave. While the templon restricted physical access to the sanctuary and set it off visually, it did not obstruct worshipers’ view of the altar. Here are three pictures of a reconstruction of the templon.

Three-dimensional reconstruction of the Hagia Sophia's byzantine sanctuary

Unlike some templons, the one at Hagia Sophia projected out into the nave, with the deacon’s doors on the sides (much like my parish’s iconostasis). The curtains could be opened for the Liturgy and closed at other times when the sanctuary was not being used. In the middle of the sanctuary is the altar. The large structure over the altar is the ciborium (Greek kiborion). At the rear of the sanctuary, the semi-circular steps are seating for the clergy. The bishop’s seat, sometimes called the high place, was in the center of the top row. In the following video, the camera travels around the sanctuary, giving close-ups of some of the features.

Three dimensional reconstruction of the byzantine Hagia Irini's church

Finally, for comparison here is an ancient church of Rome – St. Peter’s Basilica. Note the icons of Christ and the Theotokos on the front wall on either side of the sanctuary.

The constantinian St. Peter's basilica in Rome - La basilica costantiniana di san Pietro

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