Thessaloniki, Hagia Sophia, bema mosaic

Era 8AD
Location Agias Sofias, Thessaloniki 546 22, Greece

The church of Hagia Sophia in Thessaloniki was one of the largest and most important in the city. The current building lies over a monumental early basilica church seemingly destroyed by the earthquakes of 620. It has more or less been dated to the seventh century as a building and its plan – a square building with a central dome – has resonances of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. The central space is surrounded on three sides by a sort of ambulatory which serves as side aisles and narthex. This gives it a very different feel to the church of St Demetrios: it is far more enclosed and contained.

Eighth-century mosaic survives in the bema vault (the mosaics in the apse and dome are both later). In the centre is a blue circular mandorla on a gold background; in the middle of this is a gold cross. White rays come off the arms of the cross to the edge of a rainbow border, and sixteen gold stars surround it.There are bands of decoration in the vault and the monograms of Eirene and Constantine. These are interpreted as referring to the Iconophile Empress Eirene and her son Constantine, who ruled together between 780 and 788. A Bishop Theophilos is also named in another monogram and has been identified as the bishop present at the Second Church Council of Nikaea in 787, the Council called by Eirene to reinstate the veneration of religious images.

The original decoration of the apse is also ascribed to Eirene and Constantine. At present, the apse bears an image of the Mother of God and Christ-child but the faint outline of a cross is just visible behind her. As at Hagia Eirene in Istanbul, the cross-arms curved downwards in order to look straight from floor level. The inscription in the apse originally accompanied the cross and is almost identical to that in Hagia Eirene.

Constantine and Eirene’s aniconic mosaics are particularly interesting in light of the fact that it was they who, as fervent Iconophiles – Eirene at least - restored religious images to their place in church practices at the Church Council of Nicaea held in 787. These mosaics post-date that Council and also echo the decoration of the Iconoclast church of Hagia Eirene in Constantinople, perhaps hinting at a close relationship between the two cities in this (though the choice of the Iconoclast church might perhaps be felt to be an odd one in the circumstances). The mosaics may have been installed at the time of Eirene’s military triumph celebrated in Thessaloniki in 784. But neither of these reasons explains why the Iconophile imperial couple chose a cross rather than a figural represenatation, especially as at much the same time, Eirene appears to have commissioned figural images in mosaic in Constantinople (at the Pege Church and the Chalke Gate). The choice of aniconic imagery in Thessaloniki intimates that the gap between Iconoclasts and Iconophiles was not a vast one: the cross was always a highly-significant image for all Christians and not one that the Iconophiles would let the Iconoclasts appropriate. Its use here perhaps echoed Justinian’s Hagia Sophia as much as Constantine V’s Hagia Eirene.

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