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briefing Hagia Sophia | Middle Byzantine Architecture | Kariye Camii
Istanbul, Hagia Sophia, Exterior view
This briefing of the architecture of the Byzantine Empire will focus on two monuments built in Constantinople (modern day Istanbul), the 6th century church of the Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya Camii) and the early 14th century church of the Kariye Camii. In considering these monuments, emphasis will be placed on the development of a new type of church architecture in the eastern Mediterranean, featuring a vaulted and domed—and decorated—interior.

The Hagia Sophia, built under the Emperor Justinian I during the years 532–537, is a building familiar to many people, but it is unique in that it is atypical of Byzantine church architecture. Located at the center of the city, the Hagia Sophia became the ceremonial centerpiece of city, the last monument of Roman architectural inventiveness carried out to an ethereal vision on a grand scale. To build his church, Justinian engaged Anthemios of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus who created a monument that is, at its core, a study in geometry reflecting the theoretical backgrounds of the architects. Dedicated to the concept of "Holy Wisdom", the Hagia Sophia may be seen, perhaps, more than anything else as a symbol of Justinian's rule.

The Kariye Camii was originally the main church of the Chora Monastery, one of the oldest and most important religious foundations of Byzantine Constantinople. A complex building with a complicated history, the most important and best documented period occurs around 1315 when the statesman and scholar Theodore Metochites undertook the restoration and renovation of the Chora. The Kariye Camii contains one of the richest and best preserved pictorial cycles that portrayed, according to Metochites, "in mosaics and painting, how the Lord Himself became a mortal man on our behalf." Accordingly, the elaborate program includes Old Testament ancestors of Christ, Old Testament prefigurations of the Virgin foretelling the miraculous virgin birth, cycles of the lives of the Virgin and Christ, and the Last Judgment.

Recommended Reading: Robert Ousterhout, "An Apologia for Byzantine Architecture," Gesta 25 (1996), pp. 20–29. This article examines the marginalization of Byzantine architecture within the broader study of medieval architecture. It is very likely that there was more interchange of ideas between Byzantium and the West than is generally assumed by modern scholarship.

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