Hagia Sophia—what religious architecture fails to attain

“Because the God who said, Out of darkness light shall shine, is the One who shined in our hearts to illuminate the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

-2 Corinthians 4:6

I’ve been commenting here and there on how existential views of man or theological concepts have shaped religious building works. Architecture is very philosophical and theories abound as to why or how we should build and what our built environment says about us. Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Modern all, at their core, are tectonic theories about life.

Roman supremacy began to diminish in the 3rd century AD through the development of external and internal difficulties. Barbarian invasions that weakened military and economic status and the spiritual crisis of disaffection toward the state cults provided the catalyst for change. The Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity before a decisive victory over contending generals for Rome lead to renewed vigor in religious architecture. Thus, the timber roofed basilica church. But the most radical architectural experiments came from Justinian’s attempt to restore the grandeur of the Roman Empire. Thus, Hagia Sophia in 537 AD.

The problem of the ideal Byzantine church was expressing the ideals of a non-material faith in the most materialistic arts. The design of Hagia Sophia reversed the stoic sobriety of early Christian churches through sublime visions and symbols of religious motifs. Symbolism took precedent over function. The dome itself was a symbol of heaven and was perforated to let in light right at the dome’s base so that the dome seemed to float above the church.

Hagia Sophia is an amalgam of ambiguity and mystique created through the dome’s use of light, textural effects, and spatial qualities. In stark contrast to the Pantheon’s singular opening, the dome of Hagia Sophia is penetrated at its base by a ring of windows, spaced so closely that they give the appearance of a continuous band of light. This dematerialization through light was a central theme.

In the Pantheon every detail appears in full plasticity and clarity through the single beam of light streaming from the oculus, but in Hagia Sophia light filters in through the perforated dome in ethereal luminosity. The dome, seemingly devoid of dimension, gleams and hovers in phantasmal lightness, in contrast to the Pantheon’s coffering, which visually extends the weight of the dome. The abundance of light flooding in counters the perceived bulk of the dome so that what is perceived is not the structural force but the immaterial ambiance. The true massiveness of the masonry structure is replaced with a virtual dome created from light reflecting off the mosaic-covered surfaces.

The space within the Pantheon draws man to the center. There, he is the definitive nucleus of the world. Under Hagia Sophia’s great dome man’s position is never fixed. It becomes a vague abstraction with no possible connection to reality. The dome does not reach down to envelope man at the center; it lingers unattainably distant as a golden vision of heaven.

Here again, the religious messages of Christianity were being communicated through architecture.

The dome was an earthly analogue to heaven. The circle of the dome itself was understood to represent God—unity, infinity, and homogeneity. The square base with its four sides represented mankind. Establishing the circular dome in relation to the square base alludes to the Christian notions of holiness, divinity, and man’s importance in God’s purpose. The circle and the square merged as one and functioned together to let in light, hinting at God’s desire to enter into man and shine out of him.

Religious architecture at best is a physical representation of an ideal. It may induce a self-imposed humility or silence upon its visitors but it doesn’t accomplish anything intrinsic. God is not impressed with contrived reverence upon entering a church. Neither is He satisfied with magnificent works of architecture constructed in His name. He does not dwell in temples made with hands (Acts 7:48). A physical structure with flooded with other-worldly light in is not going to satisfy the God who is light. He wants to shine into our heart and then make His home there. He wants to build Himself into our being, scatter our darkness, and break down our opacity. Because we house the God who is light we will ultimately become the city of light, the New Jerusalem, and we will shine out the glory of God’s divinity through our glorified humanity for all eternity.

5 thoughts on “Hagia Sophia—what religious architecture fails to attain

  1. The footnote on Isaiah 66:1 in the Recovery Version published by Living Stream Ministry is great for this point:

    “God did not consider either heaven or earth His dwelling place, nor did He consider the physical house, the temple, built for Him by the children of Israel the place of His rest. In the Old Testament both the tabernacle and the temple were only symbols of God’s union with the children of Israel, whom God considered His actual house (Heb. 3:6 and note). God was united with the children of Israel and became one entity with them, and this one entity was a spiritual house in which both God and the godly people in Israel dwelt (Psa. 27:4; 84:10; 90:1; cf. 1 Pet. 2:5a). According to v. 2 and 57:15, the dwelling place God desires to have is a group of people into whom He can enter. God intends to have a dwelling place in the universe that is the mingling of God and man, in which God is built into man and man is built into God, so that God and man, man and God, can be a mutual abode to each other (John 14:2, 20, 23; 15:4; 1 John 4:13). In the New Testament this dwelling place, this house, is the church, which is God’s habitation in the believers’ spirit (Eph. 2:22 and note 4; 1 Tim. 3:15 and note 2). The ultimate manifestation of this universal building, this universal house, is the New Jerusalem. In this city God is in man, taking man as His dwelling place, and man is in God, taking God as His habitation (Rev. 21:3, 22, and notes). See note 121 in Gen. 28 and notes in 2 Sam. 7:12-14.”


  2. Very interesting Kyle. I suspect a lot of time and effort goes into building those famous buildings, all to make you feel a certain way when you walk in. But when you experience the genuine Light, it just doesn’t measure up. That was my experience when I was in the Duomo in Milan.


    • Thanks Clark. The point is- don’t let the experience of the building replace your experience of Christ as that reality. Don’t get me wrong, architecturally I love these buildings for there uniqueness, beauty, and style. But otherwise, they misaim in their attempt to satisfy man’s religious impulse. Only the subjective experience of Christ as life or in this case, light, can do that.


  3. Hi. Are you commending the great work of the Roman Pantheon or decrying it? Are you making a case that the Roman Pantheon makes more sense structurally and aesthetically? I like the Roman Pantheon better. Didn’t Michaelangelo say he thought angels built it? What are humans supposed to do, sit around all day and watch Jersey shore or reruns of Mathlock? We aren’t Gods anyway we all die in a relatively short span. These structures like the Pantheon, the Colloseum, and the Hagia sophia live on past our lives.

    I guess I am having a hard time understanding your points or thesis.

    One word I actually don’t use is the word existential. What does existential mean?
    I don’t think that God sits around all day and watches Jersey shore or talks about James Comey. He likes it when people do stuff, like build buildings that stand up. I think you should rewrite this and maybe from more of a secular viewpoint. Either you like the Pantheon better than the Hagia Sophia because of the hole in the dome and the nucleus and man in the center of the universe. Or you like the Hagia Sophia because it was made more as a religious love letter for christianity. You kinda seem to do that but then you end by basically saying that you disvalue both buildings because your faith is in your heart, not in man made creations, yadda yadda.

    I definitely like the Pantheon better mainly because of that hole in the top. Letting the light in. And to me it just looks beautiful. Those large black bronze doors are really cool. How can you not say that the Pantheon was just awesome. You seem to start off commending the Pantheon but then reverse it. Don’t be a reverser! I agree with you about the Byzantine empire that it was basically a sham a charade. (Not too much unlike christianity today.) It was basically the Roman empire but with a new capital. They financed the Vikings to send them a constant string of slaves and used Vikings as mercenaries. There is some holiness there! But then again, the United States is supposedly a Godly christian nation but we use black water and dynacorp to contract our wars.

    There is some merit to pure paganism. The author Tolstoy said that you can’t create heaven on earth anyway. The idea of spiritual and material are two different things, you can never reconcile the two. But that doesn’t mean society and cultures shouldn’t continue to try! Or to be inspired to build these wonderful buildings.


    • My point is that architecture does more than meet functional needs, it makes philosophical and ontological statements about the nature of man and reality, etc. The Pantheon and Hagia Sophia are examples of two different statements and how they communicate that. The point is not really which one is better architecture, I’ve only been to the Pantheon but I do think it is incredible and overwhelming. The ultimate point is not to stop building beautiful architecture as a society, but that Christianity as a whole can become preoccupied with pretty cathedrals and miss the fact that the Christian God is after something more.

      Liked by 1 person

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