Common Assignment: Byzantine Summary

Griffin Shapiro

I started my Byzantine coursework by looking into one of the greatest monuments in Constantinople, the Hagia Sophia. Andrea and I created a presentation about the church and how its structure shapes human experience. The Byzantines lined the church with art such as paintings and mosaics that were symbolic of Christian saints and figures. Visual art was an aid in the religious experience to the Byzantines. The Hagia Sophia is most known for its grand architectural design, most notably its massive dome. The rounded ceiling of the dome helped spread sound throughout the space by means of echo and reverb. It had many windows to not only let in light but also so the dome structure itself was less heavy. The gold used for decoration and in the mosaics was illuminated when hit by light, thus creating a heavenly feel. Its marble floor had two purposes. One was a visual effect, supposedly made to look like the Bosphorus. The hard marble floor helps make more echo for carrying sound. The Hagia Sophia was intentionally designed to have these qualities that helped shape an earthly experience into one that was as otherworldly as possible.

For my ekphrasis essay I focused in on a specific element of the Hagia Sophia. I looked into a singular piece of art inside the church, the mosaic Deesis. This mosaic depicts the popular scene of the Virgin Mary, Christ, and St. John the Baptist. This giant piece of art is nearly 15 feet tall and made up of tons of tiny stones and glass that are very reflective in light. I looked into how this specific example of religious art comments on Byzantine culture. Most of the art was made strictly for religious purposes. This tells us how religion was the center of life in Byzantine Constantinople. The art of this time wasn’t made to look very realistic or technically advanced. Art was made as an aid for faith, not to stand by itself. Art was supposed to represent and get across messages of spirituality. Artists wanted to make artwork for the church, for if they were contracted to make something for them, that was work of a very high level. Visual art was an important element to the Byzantines. It contributed to the experience people had as they went to church. The architecture and intentional design of the Hagia Sophia was one way the goers experience was shaped, but the art and visuals of the inside was a whole other aspect in how it could create a spiritual experience.

The last assignment I did that was about the Byzantine’s was my connections essay, which was a broader, more general research paper that drew connections from the Byzantines to modern day culture. I dove more into architecture and how it can be used to shape our experiences. I mentioned how the Hagia Sophia had many intentional structural designs such as a dome for better acoustics, windows to let in more light for reflection, and marble floors that symbolized the Bosphorus. I compared that to my own experience of going to the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at Notre Dame in Indiana. There were big pillars and religious art everywhere. I could draw comparisons from the two churches in my head and see how some of the same architectural designs are still implemented today. Architecture has a big impact on our psyches and we often don’t even realize it. I talked about how certain kinds of architecture can be designed to make someone feel bad or scared. I used the example of prisons and a source that studied the effects of solitary confinement on prisoners. It went into more detail about how your surroundings can affect you mentally, but in this example it affected people negatively. These were the connections I made between Byzantine culture and modern day.

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