surpassing Solomon

“Solomon, I have surpassed you”; that is what the 6th century Byzantine emperor Justinian is supposed to have said when he first entered the church he had commissioned, Aya Sofia, the shrine of the Holy Wisdom. In this mosaic he, on the left, presents his church to Christ and his mother, as Constantine, on the right, presents his city:

26.10.12 Istanbul-77 Aya Sofia mosaic Justinian Constantine

Nearly fifteen centuries on I stand, almost equally rapt, in Justinian’s space. After more than 800 years as a church and nearly 600 as a mosque before being retired to museumhood, after defacement and destruction of many of her great icons, after earthquake collapses of domes and apses, the old lady is somewhat worn and tatty now:

26.10.12 Istanbul-47 Aya Sofiabut barely the less magnificent for it: still a giant arc of space and light, somehow enveloping time. The sense of anticipation as you enter the narthex and catch the first glimpse through the door which, in Byzantine days, could only be accessed by the emperor (who, above the lintel, prostrates himself before Christ)

26.10.12 Istanbul-56 Aya Sofia main doorgives way to the immense golden glow of the interior:

26.10.12 Istanbul-45 Aya Sofia26.10.12 Istanbul-49 Aya Sofia26.10.12 Istanbul-58 Aya Sofiadomes and semidomes:26.10.12 Istanbul-52 Aya Sofia26.10.12 Istanbul-76 Aya Sofiasix-winged cherubim and Christ himself, with his book:

26.10.12 Istanbul-63 Aya Sofia cherub 26.10.12 Istanbul-69 Aya Sofia mosaic

In 1453, when Constantinople became Istanbul and the Turks converted Aya Sofia into a mosque, they destroyed the icons and mosaics or painted over them over with patterns (which is why the giant Christ Pantocrator on the dome is no longer there – that must have been something to see), installed a niche facing Mecca, a pulpit and giant black lozenges bearing the names in Arabic script of Allah, the Prophet, his grandsons Hassan and Hussein, and the four Rashidun caliphs:

26.10.12 Istanbul-73 Aya Sofia

As the daylight begins to fade and the lamps brighten, the magic intensifies; the space is full of strangers, but somehow in this twilight they become companions in the warmth and oneness of the whole. More than a thousand years ago, emissaries came from King Vladimir of Kiev, who was looking for a religion; they had rejected Islam (in part because it promoted abstinence), Judaism, and Catholicism, but when they came to Aya Sofia they reported: “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth.  For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty…We cannot describe it, but this much we can say:  there God dwells among mankind.”

26.10.12 Istanbul-74 Aya Sofia

But what is running in my mind is this: a recently rediscovered postcard from a long-forgotten ex-girlfriend depicting Gustav Klimt’s glittering masterpiece, The Kiss, on the back of which she had inscribed in gold ink in her own hand (those days before we word-processed) W B Yeats’ vision of timeless transcendence:

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

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