Between Gothic and Byzantine
Hagia Sophia in Istanbul
and the Cathedral of Chartres in France
Both churches express the magnificence of the divine, each in a different style. This style comes from the feeling with which the devotees look at the presence of God in a place of worship. In the Cathedral of Chartres, which is 80 kilometres from Paris, the amazing height of the arches, pointing to the sky, shows that the human eye looks upwards in order to unite with the Divine, but is a little intimidated in this extremely narrow, yet imposing environment, both in height and shape.
On the other hand, in the church of Hagia Sophia, the roundness of the architecture and the huge dome (the largest that had been built up to the sixth century of the Christian era) give the feeling that the Divine embraces the faithful to protect them from disaster. Yet I think that when the Emperor Justinian gave the orders to build the Hagia Sophia, he didn’t have this divine embrace in mind. His purpose was to construct a building that would represent the continuity of the magnificence of the buildings of Imperial Rome. For this reason he focused on the spectacular. In contrast, the Cathedral of Chartres was not built by imperial order, but by the inhabitants of the city, with the rich merchants, corporations and the local nobility contributing large donations for its construction. The appearance of the church is simply fantastic.
The architects of the Hagia Sofia are known: Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus. Both were from Anatolia. The builders of the Cathedral of Chartres are summarized under a collective name: the Master of Chartres. The first church was built in five years (it was consecrated in 537) the second in thirty years, in the 13th century, and there is a detail for the traveller to observe: mixed with the statues on the portal close to the Madonna, can be seen those of Aristotle and Pythagoras. This could be because geometry and rhetoric were studied in the theological school of Chartres, and these disciplines had contributed to the erection of this building, which expressed the Glory of Heaven.
In addition, the beautiful stained glass tells the stories of the Bible, all designed in such a way so that the illiterate could ‘read’ the pictures. This does not happen in Hagia Sophia, with the splendour of the golden mosaics that represent imperial figures protected by saints. But, even though I was impressed by the interior of the Cathedral in Chartres, I found my mind wandering back to Hagia Sophia.
The reverse is not the case when I visit Istanbul. Hagia Sophia absorbs me even without seeing its mosaics, now lost. It is the power of my imagination… I imagine the enormity of its roundness covered with thousands of tiny gilded pieces of glass that shine under the reflection of thousands of flames of the candles, and I see the entrance of the Emperor followed by his Court.