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Hagia Sophia of Thessaloniki also known as “Saint Sophia”, “Holy Wisdom” Toumpouri, Marina


The church dedicated to the Holy Wisdom, or the Divine Wisdom (Hagia Sophia in Greek), is located to the south-eastern part of the city of Thessaloniki (Northern Greece). It has served as the Metropolitan church of Thessaloniki and during the Latin occupation of the city (1204-1224), it became the Latin cathedral. The present building was built at the end of the 7th century, over the remains of a much larger five-aisled basilica dedicated to saint Mark, destroyed by the big earthquake of 620. Hagia Sophia is almost square in plan with a tripartite sanctuary projecting from its eastern end. It belongs to the type of transitional crossin- square church, an evolution of the basilica with a dome. The nave measuring around 31 x 29 m (excluding the apse) is covered by a large cubic dome pierced by 12 arched windows, projecting above the timber roof. The dome which collapsed during the earthquakes of 813-820 and was replaced, is supported by four barrel vaults departing from four large piers at the corners of the central space. Each pier is divided into sections by arches that are wider on the ground level, while above are smaller and double. The church possesses lateral aisles divided from the central nave by colonnades alternating columns and narrow piers, a narthex and galleries above them, with the west gallery being a 10th century addition. The lead seals carrying names of bishops and other ecclesiastics discovered in the southwest corner of the west gallery suggest that this space may well have been used by the Church administration. Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessaloniki (1347-1359) and the leading figure of the hesychastic movement, was buried in Hagia Sophia. In 1430, following the capture of Thessaloniki by the Ottomans, the church was converted into a mosque. What remains from that period is the tower on the north-western corner of the church, probably the basis of a minaret. Following the city’s liberation in 1912 it was again converted into a church. The monument was destroyed by fire in 1890. It was restored between 1907 and 1909 by a team led by Charles Diehl and was inaugurated on 29 June 1913. Following the earthquakes of 1978, Hagia Sophia was restored again, and excavations were undertaken inside the monument and in its adjacent courtyard. The mosaic decoration of Hagia Sophia belongs to different phases. The original mosaics in the sanctuary are dated between 780 and 797, based on the presence of a colossal cross and the monograms of emperor Constantine VI and Irene. In the dome is depicted the Ascension of Christ. Below Christ, seated in a rainbow, stands the Virgin flanked by two angels. Around them are assembled the twelve Apostles. The information provided by the inscription that accompanies the scene, indicating that it was added under the Archbishop of Thessaloniki Paul, permitted to identify him as the friend of Patriarch Photios of Constantinople and thus to estimate the mosaic’s creation to the 88o’s. In the semi-dome of the apse was installed the Virgin enthroned holding Christ, either contemporary with the mosaic of the dome; or, an 11th-century addition. The composition replaced an iconoclastic cross. The church had mosaic flooring and its walls were covered with marble slabs. The marble columns and their capitals come from an earlier building. In the 11th century Hagia Sophia was decorated with frescoes, still surviving at the windows of the narthex. Their creation is contemporary to the addition of the narthex, after 1037. The church contained also a four-columned sepulchral monument embedded within the south-eastern pier cluster decorated with frescoes by two different painters. It was dated around the first quarter of the 13th century, when the city was liberated from the Latins. The parts of the tomb that have survived, fragments of the monument’s frescoes, of its mosaic decoration, as well as the marble slabs of the church are exhibited at the Museum of Byzantine Culture of Thessaloniki; while its marble ambo transferred to Istanbul in 1905, is currently displayed at the Archaeological Museum of Istanbul.

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