The Apse Inscription at Hagia Sophia

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A couple of weeks ago, I tweeted on the inscription partially preserved on the arch around the apse at Hagia Sophia. The mosaic Virgin and Child and the accompanying inscription commemorated the end of Iconoclasm within the Byzantine Empire. The Iconoclastic controversy was a religious and political movement during the eighth and ninth centuries that opposed the visual representation of Christ, the Virgin, and saints, and forbade the veneration of icons. During this period, images of holy figures were removed from churches and public spaces, and replaced with representations of the Cross. When Iconoclasm officially ended in 843, religious images were brought back into churches; this is the context in which Hagia Sophia’s depiction of the Virgin and Child was installed. On Holy Saturday, 29 March 867, the Patriarch Photios inaugurated the new mosaic with a homily delivered before its imperial sponsors, Michael III and Basil I. Photios says:

[Iconoclasts], after stripping the Church, Christ’s bride, of her own ornaments, and wantonly inflicting bitter wounds on her, wherewith her face was scarred, sought in their insolence to submerge her in deep oblivion, naked as she was, so to speak, and unsightly, and afflicted with those many wounds–herein too emulating Jewish folly. Still bearing on her body the scars of those wounds, in reproof of their Isaurian and godless belief, and wiping them off, and in their stead putting on the splendour of her own glory, she now regains the ancient dignity of her comeliness, and sheds the rude mockery of those who have insulted her, pitying their truly absurd madness. If one called this day the beginning and day of Orthodoxy (lest I say something excessive), one would not be far wrong. (tr. C. Mango, Homilies of Photius, p. 291.)

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Hagia Sophia bema. Photo: Brad Hostetler / Flickr.

The inscription that was displayed on the arch framing the conch of the apse is thought to have been installed at the same time as the Virgin and Child. Right now all we see are a few letters at the lower left and lower right of the arch–the beginning and end of the inscription.

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Hagia Sophia, bema inscription fragment, north. Photo: Dumbarton Oaks Image Collection and Fieldwork Archives.
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Hagia Sophia, bema inscription fragment, south. Photo: Dumbarton Oaks Image Collection and Fieldwork Archives.

E.M. Antoniades first noted that these letters match up with the first epigram preserved in the Anthologia Palatina. The epigram was recently edited by Andreas Rhoby (Byzantinische Epigramme in inschriftlicher Überlieferung, I:M9):

Ἃς ο[ἱ πλάνοι καθεῖλον ἐνθάδ’ εἰκόνας
ἄνακτες ἐστήλωσαν εὐσε]βεῖς πάλιν.

The impostors had taken down icons here,
but pious rulers have set them up again.

The epigram condemns “the imposters” (Iconoclasts), and their sponsored removal of icons from Hagia Sophia, and praises the present-day pious rulers (Michael III and Basil I), who have restored them.

Knowing the original epigram, we can now suggest how it may have been displayed around the conch of the apse. This is a 12-syllable epigram, meaning that each line, or verse, is comprised of twelve syllables. Each verse should naturally cover about one half the arch. This even distribution of verses within the inscribed space is characteristic of epigrams in Byzantium. When the inscription is typed using the Athena Ruby font and superimposed on the elevation drawing created by C. Mango and E.J.W. Hawkins, we see that the end of verse 1 (red) and the beginning of verse 2 (green) meet, as expected, at the mid-point of the arch.

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Hagia Sophia bema. Reconstruction of the inscription by Brad Hostetler using elevation drawing from C. Mango & E. Hawkins, “The Apse Mosaics of St. Sophia at Istanbul,” DOP 19 (1965): p. 150.

What can we learn from this reconstruction beyond this neat distribution of verses? What may not have been obvious to us when looking at the epigram in the Anthologia Palatina, divorced from its inscribed context, is the visual emphasis given to two key words: εἰκόνας (images/icons) at the end of verse 1, and ἄνακτες (rulers) at the beginning of verse 2. These words are arguably the most important to understanding the new mosaic program in the conch of the apse: images were once destroyed, but thanks to the pious rulers, they have been restored. Forming the end of verse 1 and the beginning of verse 2, these words were naturally set side-by-side in a prominent location at the top of the arch. The word images was placed over its indexical referent–the images of the Virgin and Child–and the word rulers identified the patrons that made the restoration of these images possible.

“Entreaty of the servant of God”: An inscription on an icon of the Virgin and Child

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Virgin and Child of the Church of the Panagia Chrysaliniotissa. Byzantine Museum, Nicosia. Photo: Brad Hostetler / Flickr.

The Byzantine Museum in Nicosia, Cyprus owns this lovely icon of the Virgin and Child. According to the label, the icon came from the Church of the Panagia Chrysaliniotissa, and was made in the 12th century and repainted in the 16th.

The hem of the Virgin’s left sleeve preserves a short formulaic prayer that names the donor: ΔΕΗΣΙΣ ΤΟΥ ΔΟỴΛΟΥ ΚΩΝΣΤΑΝΤΙΝΟΥ (Entreaty of the servant, Constantine).

Such inscriptions on the Virgin’s hem are known (Drpić, “Chrysepes Stichourgia,” p. 64), but the particular arrangement of this text is unusual. It begins at (a) and reads from left to right, then jumps back to (c) with the name Constantine twisting down the folds of the hem.

Usually such prayers inscribed on works of art read: Δέησις τοῦ δούλου τοῦ Θεοῦ (Entreaty of the servant of God) (Gerstel, Rural Lives, p. 132), but this inscription appears to be missing the words τοῦ Θεοῦ (of God). However, we may find these words at (b). While not immediately apparent due to the panel’s damage, an Ο and Υ may be visible on the downward bend of the hem. If so, we can reconstruct the inscription as ΔΕΗΣΙΣ ΤΟΥ ΔΟỴΛΟΥ [ΤΟΥ ΘΕ]ỌỴ ΚΩΝΣΤΑΝΤΙΝΟΥ (Entreaty of the servant of God, Constantine).

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Virgin and Child of the Church of the Panagia Chrysaliniotissa. Byzantine Museum, Nicosia. Photo: Brad Hostetler / Flickr.

Hippodrome Mosaics Uncovered in Cyprus

Fig. 1. Hippodrome Mosaic, early fourth cent., Akaki, Cyprus (Photo Credit: Department of Antiquities).
Fig. 1. Hippodrome Mosaic, early fourth cent., Akaki, Cyprus (Photo Credit: Department of Antiquities).

The Department of Antiquities in Cyprus uncovered a fourth-century Roman floor mosaic in the village of Akaki, approximately 30 km west of Nicosia. The mosaic is part of a complex of buildings that are believed to have been a private villa. One large section, measuring 11 x 4 meters, depicts a chariot race around the spina of a hippodrome (fig. 1). Greek inscriptions are placed next to the charioteers and horses. Additional images, and a video, are available here.

Chariot racing was a popular form of entertainment in the metropolitan centers of the Roman Empire. There are several Late Antique depictions of chariot racing in a variety of media, including marble and glass. Perhaps the closest comparandum for the mosaics at Akaki, in terms of medium, style, and architectural setting, are those at the Villa Romana del Casale, a fourth-century site near Piazza Armerina, Sicily. In the bath complex, a floor mosaic features charioteers racing around the spina that stretches the length of the room (fig. 2).

Fig. 2. Hippodrome Mosaic, early fourth cent., Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily (Photo Credit: Bob Thomas / Flickr).
Fig. 2. Hippodrome Mosaic, early fourth cent., Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily (Photo Credit: Bob Thomas / Flickr).

In another room, we find a more playful version of a hippodrome scene: pairs of birds pulling chariots driven by boys (fig. 3).

Fig. 3. Hippodrome Mosaic, early fourth cent., Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily (Photo Credit: Bob Thomas / Flickr).
Fig. 3. Hippodrome Mosaic, early fourth cent., Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily (Photo Credit: Bob Thomas / Flickr).

One major difference between the Akaki mosaic and those in Sicily is the presence of the Greek inscriptions, which are likely the names of the drivers and/or horses. One group of horses at the lower left corner of the mosaic have the following names inscribed above them: ΔΑΜΑΣΟΣ (Damasos), ΒΕΛΟΝΙΚΗ (Belonike), ΠΟΛΥΦΗΜΟΣ (Polyphemos), ΛΗΝΕΩ (Leneo) (fig. 4).

Fig. 4. Detail of the Hippodrome Mosaic, early fourth cent., Akaki, Cyprus (Photo Credit: Department of Antiquities).
Fig. 4. Detail of the Hippodrome Mosaic, early fourth cent., Akaki, Cyprus (Photo Credit: Department of Antiquities).

Given the fact that there are eight horses and two drivers depicted, we cannot be certain which figures are those identified by the inscriptions. The inclusion of these names is not entirely unusual. In the Late Antique period, charioteers and their horses could gain celebrity status, and have monuments erected in their honor. One such hero was Porphyrius, a charioteer of the late fifth and early sixth century. The Greek Anthology preserves a series of epigrams celebrating this Porphyrius and his many victories (XV.44, 46, 47; XVI.335–362, 380–381).

Fig. 5. Detail of the Base for the Statue of Porphyrius, late fifth or early sixth cent., Istanbul Archaeological Museum (Photo Credit: Brad Hostetler / Flickr).
Fig. 5. Detail of the Base for the Statue of Porphyrius, late fifth or early sixth cent., Istanbul Archaeological Museum (Photo Credit: Brad Hostetler / Flickr).

The epigrams were originally inscribed on a group of sculptures displayed on the spina in the Hippodrome of Constantinople. The bronze sculptures do not survive to us, but two of the bases are preserved at the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul. The four-sided bases feature sculpted relief portraits of Porphyrius and his horses (fig. 5). In one such image, Porphyrius is presented with victory wreaths as he stands atop his chariot pulled by his four horses, each identified by an inscription placed below their feet: ΑΡΙΣΤΙΔΗΣ (Aristides), ΠΑΛΑΙΣΤΙΝΙΑΡΧΗΣ (Palaistiniarches), ΠΥΡΡΟΣ (Pyrros), ΕΥΘΥΝΙΚΟΣ (Euthynikos).

The Porphyrius sculpture bases provide some context for the Akaki mosaic, but any further investigation will have to wait. For now, the Department of Antiquities has decided to cover the site until it can perform a full excavation in a couple of years.

 

For further reading:

Alan Cameron, Porphyrius the Charioteer (Oxford, 1973).

Katherine Dunabin, “The Victorious Charioteer on Mosaics and Related Monuments,” American Journal of Archaeology 8 (1982): 65–89.

Brigitte Pitarakis, ed., Hippodrome: A Stage for Istanbul’s History, 2 vols. (Istanbul, 2010).

 

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