2021 In Review: Hagia Sophia Frescoes

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

We start our review of 2021 today with the tenth most popular post of the year. It is an enduring favorite since it was first published here in 2015, and in 2020 was the most popular post.

Sometimes I can’t figure out why a post becomes popular, but I understand the interest in the Hagia Sophia, one of the great buildings of our planet.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

In 2020 the Turkish president, as part of his political manipulations, decreed that the Hagia Sophia would once again become a mosque. This outraged the international community, but played well domestically in an increasingly Islamic state. I’m not sure if you can still see these frescoes or whether they have once more been covered. Part of me wants to visit and see for myself – but I am not sure Turkey is a safe place for me to visit. Maybe if there were a change in government…


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