Theotokos mosaic, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Theotokos mosaic, 867, apse, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Additional resources:

Natalia B. Teteriatnikov, Mosaics of Hagia Sophia, Istanbul: The Fossati Restoration and the Work of the Byzantine Institute (Washington, D.C., Dumbarton Oaks) 1998

Smarthistory’s free Guide to Byzantine Art e-book
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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] Images are really powerful things, and they’re political as well. They figure into the history of religion and the history of Christianity.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:12] And the history of the Byzantine Empire, very specifically. There was always tension in the church about creating images of Christ, images of Mary, images of God.

Dr. Zucker: [0:23] If you think about it, God is the creator, and then an artist is also creating. It’s usurping. This was always a tricky issue.

Dr. Harris: [0:31] Icons — images of Mary, images of the saints, of Christ — had become increasingly central in the Byzantine Empire in worship. There was concern that people were in fact worshipping the images instead of venerating them or respecting them and using the images to pass through to the prototype, to the divine figure that was pictured in the image.

[0:51] In the 8th century, the emperor forbade the use of images in the church.

Dr. Zucker: [0:57] This begins a period of iconoclasm. Iconoclasm is a Greek word that means “breaking images.” There was real violence. We believe that virtually every image in the city of Constantinople was destroyed during this period.

Dr. Harris: [1:11] This lasted from the early 700s to the mid-800s.

Dr. Zucker: [1:15] The question is, why? Why in the world were images seen as so destructive, as so dangerous? It had to do with this concern that people were venerating not the God that an image represented, but the image itself.

Dr. Harris: [1:29] There is a commandment against creating images.

Dr. Zucker: [1:33] Artists were out of luck for quite a while. [laughs]

Dr. Harris: [1:35] They were, yes.

Dr. Zucker: [1:37] What we’re looking at here is a mosaic in the most prominent place in Hagia Sophia, that is, the most important church in the Byzantine Empire.

Dr. Harris: [1:48] This dates to the period just after iconoclasm comes to an end.

Dr. Zucker: [1:53] This is an enormously important statement.

Dr. Harris: [1:55] This is the emperor and the patriarch saying, “No more iconoclasm, we want images. We think images are incredibly important.” There was a resurgence of patronage of religious art during this period right after the end of iconoclasm.

Dr. Zucker: [2:10] We see this glorious image of the Virgin Mary seated on a bench with two cushions, and she holds on her lap the Christ child.

Dr. Harris: [2:19] It certainly resembles icons that remain. The vast majority were destroyed. Some do remain.

Dr. Zucker: [2:24] This is specifically close to an icon that is in the Church of St. Catherine in Sinai in Egypt. This is a great example of the style that we call the Middle Byzantine. That is the period immediately after the iconoclasm.

Dr. Harris: [2:38] She may look small here in the church of Hagia Sophia, which is so tall and vast. In fact, she’s 16 feet high.

Dr. Zucker: [2:46] It’s just that she’s dwarfed by the immense proportions of this architecture.

Dr. Harris: [2:51] And by the gold of that apse.

Dr. Zucker: [2:53] That gold, of course, is a way of representing the divine light of Heaven.

Dr. Harris: [2:58] It’s something we see very often in Byzantine art.

Dr. Zucker: [3:00] Look at the way that she’s right above that row of windows. She really is floating. She really is even above the sky.

Dr. Harris: [3:08] Throughout Hagia Sophia, there is a sense of light as connected to the divine. As she rests on those windows and windows below her again and then above her in the semi-dome, there is a sense of her being surrounded by divine light.

Dr. Zucker: [3:23] We’ve got this light. We’ve got this gold field. We’ve also got a real sense of solidity. It’s so different from the way we usually think of the icon, as flat. Look at the platform that they’re seated on. Look at the solidity of the bench. These are solid pieces of timber and, by the way, very elegant. In fact, there’s even gems.

[3:43] If we think about it in the context of the end of iconoclasm, this is an artist that is representing these forms and saying these things are here to stay.

Dr. Harris: [3:50] The image is meant to reaffirm the importance of images. It had, originally, an inscription, most of which is now gone. That inscription said, “The images which the impostors had cast down, here pious emperors have set up again.” There is a reassertion here of the importance of images and a condemning of those who destroyed images.

Dr. Zucker: [4:14] This particular image is called a “Theotokos,” that is, one who gives birth to Christ.

Dr. Harris: [4:19] Referring here to Mary.

Dr. Zucker: [4:20] This image was unveiled by the patriarch of the Eastern Church.

Dr. Harris: [4:24] That day, he gave a sermon in which he said, “Christ came to us in the flesh and was born in the arms of his mother. This is seen and confirmed and proclaimed in pictures, the teaching made manifest by means of personal eyewitness and impelling the spectators to unhesitating assent.”

Dr. Zucker: [4:42] This is about the power of the image to move one emotionally and spiritually, to inspire and to teach.

[4:49] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Theotokos mosaic, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul," in Smarthistory, December 15, 2015, accessed April 16, 2024,