Department of Art History

Hagia Sophia and the Byzantine Aesthetic Experience

Hagia Sophia and the Byzantine Aesthetic Experience
  Dr Nadine Schibille

Funder: This research has been funded by a fellowship from the Getty Institute

This project explores the conceptual dimension of the sixth-century church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople as a work of art and as the result of a specific early Byzantine aesthetic. It aims to increase our understanding of the link between aesthetic, cognitive and moral values as well as wider historical conditions and argues that multiple and interrelated aesthetic choices were constitutive of the design of Hagia Sophia.

In viewing the sixth-century building of Hagia Sophia from the perspective of aesthetics, this study examines the concepts of beauty and the function of art in early Byzantium. At a more fundamental level, it focuses on the perception of art and materiality in late antiquity. Perception and attitudes towards matter and materiality vary between historical and cultural settings. The principal aim must therefore be to understand the artistic practices of late antique Byzantium on its own terms. By exploring the early Byzantine ways of looking at the material world and looking at works of art, the investigation of aesthetics touches upon the very foundations of social and cultural norms and values. Aesthetics in this sense do not merely constitute the visuality of a culture but reflect the cultural identity of its people and contribute to maintaining or indeed transforming society.

The research draws on three types of aesthetic data: the material evidence present in the aesthetic object itself, the aesthetic values expressed in the responses to and evaluation of this object, and the ideas represented in pertinent philosophical and theological treatises.


N. Schibille (in press), ‘Light as an aesthetic constituent in the architecture of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople’, in Manipulating Light in Pre-modern Times / Manipolare la luce in epoca premoderna.

N. Schibille (2013), ‘A quest for wisdom: the sixth-century mosaics of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and late antique aesthetics’, in New Light on Old Glass: Recent Research on Byzantine Glass and Mosaics, eds. C. Entwistle and L. James (British Museum Press), 53-59.

N. Schibille (2009), ‘The Profession of the Architect in Late Antique Byzantium’, Byzantion, 79, 360-379.

N. Schibille (2009), ‘Astronomical and Optical Principles in the Architecture of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople’, Science in Context, 22, 27-46.

N. Schibille (2005), ‘The Use of Light in the Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople: the Church Reconsidered’, in Current Work in Architectural History, ed. P. Draper (The Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain, Clifford).