Istanbul, Hagia Sophia, the south-west rooms

Also known as These are: the ‘room above the vestibule’ and ‘room above the ramp’ and the'alcove'
Era 9AD
Location Istanbul, Turkey

The excitingly-entitled south-west rooms and the complex of spaces including the ‘room above the vestibule’ and ‘room above the ramp’ are sometimes accessible to visitors to Hagia Sophia. They are a suite of rooms at the south end of the west gallery of Hagia Sophia, above the western entrance vestibule of Hagia Sophia, which were a part of the patriarchal palace.

The rooms contain fragmentary mosaics representative of the Triumph of Orthodoxy over Iconoclasm. The main room, a large vaulted chamber (sometimes known as the ‘Room over the Vestibule’), contains a cycle of figures from the Old and New Testaments and from Orthodox church history, apostles, saints (including the emperor Constantine the Great) and patriarchs of Constantinople, perhaps thirty-six in all, making it actually the largest group of figures in the church. This community of saints was grouped around the vault of the room and a focus was provided by a semi-circular panel over the door into the gallery. Here, Christ is shown enthroned between Mary and John the Baptist, the so-called Deesis (‘prayer’) layout. This cycle appears to have been carefully selected to support the Iconophile belief in the legitimacy of icons of Christ and the saints. The figures depicted are those who witnessed God in human form or who were historical patriarchs of Hagia Sophia who had fought (and suffered) for the Iconophile victory. They also form a timeless congregation within the church to encourage the patriarch of the day, who may have been Photios’s predecessor and rival Ignatios. Also part of the same set of rooms, the high square ‘Room over the Ramp’ and the small square ‘Alcove’ lie beyond the Room over the Vestibule. The Room over the Ramp contains great deal of decorative ornament, and was interfered with during Iconoclasm, though not then altered a second time. The Alcove has vine rinceaux and other decorative elements, along with medallions which contain and always contained crosses. These images may be ninth century.

The decoration of the rooms reflects something of the events of Iconoclasm, but it also relates to the function of the spaces. They are identified with the Sekreta, a term used of both the patriarch’s Council and its meeting place. The Room over the Vestibule may have been the space known as the Large Sekreton, a meeting place for ecclesiastical committees; if the Room over the Vestibule was this room, then its decoration with images about the Triumph of Orthodoxy was apposite. The Small Sekreton housed relics of the True Cross; if the Room above the Ramp was that, then this explains its decoration with crosses.

The workmanship has been characterised as ‘untidy’. In the patriarchal rooms, reds, golds and silvers are all found in the ninth-century mosaics of the largest room, where the mosaics are said to be of the ‘best quality’. At some point, gold tesserae were carefully removed, presumably for reuse, from these mosaics, but we have no idea when. The mosaics of the Alcove, in contrast, have been described as ‘economical in materials and coarse in execution’. In a mosaic depicting Christ and an emperor in the narthex of the church, though gold, silver and red are used, red-painted tesserae are also in evidence (the emperor’s footwear, for example). Much of this has been seen as the result of problems in the supply of tesserae rather than stylistic factors, notably a shortage of tesserae in the ninth century.

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