2020 In Review – Hagia Sophia

Eleventh century mosaic panel featuring Christ on the throne in the middle between Emperor Constantine IX (on the left) with his wife Zoe.

That this was the most-read post here in 2020 was, I think, largely because of the controversial decision by Turkey’s president to turn a world heritage site into a mosque. Mind you, it was popular in 2019 also (number two for the year), when the conversion was only a rumor.

I wrote two posts in 2020 about Hagia Sophia and the Turkish move, but it was this one that people were reading. There were official assurances that visitors would still get to see the ancient Christian art, that the frescoes would only be covered during Islamic worship. Apparently that was a blatant untruth, they are always covered.

Which makes sense if you are a Muslim – art is subversive.

Christian art can be an inconvenient truth at times. When Constantinople fell, and the Hagia Sophia was converted from a church into a mosque in 1453, the conquerors had to decide what to do about the frescoes and mosaics.

Eleventh century mosaic panel featuring Christ on the throne in the middle between Emperor Constantine IX (on the left) with his wife Zoe.

This thirteenth century mosaic panel features John the Baptist on the right, the Virgin Mary on the left and Christ in the middle.

With all the publicity in recent years over the various drawings of Mohammed that have spawned violent reactions in much of the globe, I presume you are aware that Islam frowns on depictions of its holy figures. So when the Hagia Sophia became a mosque they had to do something about those paintings.

The Taliban in Afghanistan were notorious for their attitude towards religious art. They just blew it up. We are fortunate that those who took over the Hagia Sophia were not quite as extreme – they just painted over anything they didn’t like. Now that the church/mosque has been converted into a museum, some of those ancient frescoes and mosaics have been uncovered and are on display for the tourists and scholars to see, a testament to the faith of previous generations of Christians.

Art has been part of Christian tradition from the beginnings of the faith. You will find examples everywhere there have been Christians, from the catacombs of Rome through the majestic art of the Renaissance to today. Christians believe that God is a god of creativity who has expressed Himself in the art that is this planet (and everything in it). Responding creatively through music, drama or the visual arts is a form of worshipping God and utilizing the creative gifts He has given to his people.

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This thirteenth century mosaic panel features John the Baptist on the right, the Virgin Mary on the left and Christ in the middle.

I’m a music guy; paintings aren’t really my interest. So I can’t tell you about what sort of paint is used that these frescoes are still there a millennium or more after they were first painted. I do know that the paint I bought at the hardware store to paint my dining room walls won’t last that long. Come to think of it, neither will the house.

I mentioned yesterday that I felt a little sad thinking that the Hagia Sophia is no longer a church. But there is another way of looking at that. In Muslim Turkey I suspect there aren’t too many people who wander into the few Christian churches, that remain open. The frescoes in the Hagia Sophia museum all have meaning, a specific Christian meaning. The tourists, many of them Muslim, are being exposed to a Christian message they might otherwise have missed. It is not as blatant perhaps as the preacher in the blue mosque (which is for all intents and purposes is next door), but it is there.

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