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Mosaics & Iconography

The Program

Saint Sophia [1] Cathedral is located at the intersection of 36th Street and Massachusetts Avenue in Northwest Washington, D.C. From a distance, the church is unimposing with very little exterior visual activity other than the broad stairway that leads to the west facade and portal. There are three sets of doors on the west facade. On either side of the central doorway are two supporting elements that, from a frontal view, seem to be columns without capitals or bases. A closer examination reveals that each rounded facade of the two “columns” merges with a wall surface that extends to the right and left of the central portal separating it from the left and right doorways. Upon these two supporting elements rests a single massive lintel that in turn supports four equidistantly placed columns that frame three windows, a large one in the center that corresponds vertically with the central doorway, and the two lesser windows that correspond with the left and right doorways underneath them. The triad of windows is repeated on the north and the south facades. The framing columns possess Byzantine capitals that are an interesting combination of Byzantine intricacy and 20th century practicality. They are carved in a way that suggests the splendor of the Byzantine capitals of the past, yet they are not carved out enough to hide their function as supportive elements.

A single archivolt decorated with a design of Greek crosses, four-petalled flowers, and plant ornaments frames the described entrance program. At the summit of the archivolt is a carved emblem of the Byzantine Empire, the two-headed eagle, its two crowned heads signifying the two foundations upon which Byzantium rested for the eleven centuries of its existence: Religion and the State. The two heads share a single body, a unity of design and purpose despite a duality in the power structure. This arch, upon which the eagle rests, is repeated in the form of the three windows it encloses. The middle and largest of those windows has a stained-glass representation of a dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit. The columns, the pseudocolumns, as well as the lintel are brown marble while the archivolt is cut into the same stone that characterizes the remaining exterior of the church. It is plain, off-white, and offers no other real visual activity except in the lines crested where mortar binds the blocks of stone together. Indeed, the exterior of Saint Sophia does little to excite the senses.

One exterior structural element, the dome, does offer relief from the basically linear mode. Two towers frame the dome when viewed from the west, which are not particularly Byzantine. They are a concession to the eclectic process, but, as if to have the final word, the two are topped with domes, giving them a home in the structural unity of the exterior.

The Narthex

Upon entering the Cathedral, you find yourself in the narthex or vestibule. The narthex (undecorated as of this writing) acts as a transition from the outside unredeemed world to the timelessness and completeness of the nave and the sanctuary, which deny the existence of any world but their own. The sequence — narthex, nave, sanctuary — is a metaphor for man’s evolution toward God.

In the narthex are found two proskinitaria, icon stands, before which the believer prays. After entering the narthex, the faithful customarily make the sign of the cross and bow before and/or kiss the painted icon presented on the proskinitarion. Each icon is sheltered by a small wooden ribbed vault with a cross as the intersection of the ribbing. The proskinitarion is about seven feet high and the icon is the size of a large book. Three doors lead from the narthex to the nave.

The Nave

An understanding of the proportions of the cross-in-square church is necessary to visualize the interior of Saint Sophia. The west arm includes the narthex and the west arm of the nave. To the east is the sanctuary, the apse, and the east arm of the nave. The north and south arms are of equal lengths as are the east and west arms, if we disregard the narthex and the sanctuary. Simply stated, the nave of the church is symmetrical; it is a Greek cross upon which is mounted the dome. Importantly, the cupola of the dome is not only the highest point in the church but also the center of the church. The symmetrical structure has created four equi-sized vaults upon which much of the mosaic work is displayed. The apse is of singular symbolic importance and essential to the overall decorative scheme of the interior.

Entering the nave through the central doorway, you find that you are under the scrutiny of a heavenly pageant of saints, angels, the Theotokos or Mother of God, and, seated on His throne in the cupola of the dome, Christ. The viewer’s first impulse is to gaze up at Christ, the grandest figure depicted, surrounded as He is by concentric circles of blue, green, gold, and deep pink that draw the viewer’s gaze away from the medallion to a rich blue expanse upon which is depicted a host of Seraphim that also encircle Christ. Tongues of fire surround the blue; each one points to the Pantocrator, or Omnipotent God. The flames act as a transition from the cupola to the barrel of the dome. Here again, the circular theme is repeated in the dome windows. If you concentrate on the medallion of Christ, the windows fade into a circle of unbroken natural light and the dome is no longer supported by the structural elements underneath it. From the dome, one’s gaze settles on the pendentives momentarily, but the eyes are not yet ready to accept the units of the pendentives and adjoining vault mosaics. Instead, they drop to the apse, upon which the Mother of God, or Theotokos, is depicted standing on a footstool with her arms partially extended. Her arms frame the figure of an infant Christ, not static, but as an emanation from the Mother of God. Around Her are nine medallions of Her heavenly attendants, the angelic hosts.

Turning to the pendentives, the viewer sees that each of the four Evangelists has been reserved a location on one of the four pendentives. They are depicted in sitting positions, in the act of writing their gospels. On the books before them has been inscribed the first word or phrase that begins their respective Gospels.

Each of the transept vaults has depicted on it the images of four prophets and four Apostles. The east vault over the Bema is decorated with the icons of the archangels, Michael and Gabriel, holding a transparent globe representing the world, and in the center of the vault is the Etimasia, the heavenly throne prepared for Christ before all time.

But a second look (and perhaps a third) must be taken at Saint Sophia to gain a real understanding of her interior. The real significance of the art in the cathedral goes much deeper than its two-dimensional representatives of holy personages. The spectator will see only an art form that has been deemed inferior due to its apparent inability to realistically depict these personalities from the past in terms of what might be called “beautiful.” Instead, the spectator is dealt out a number of figures that resemble face cards in uniformity and angularity. The spectator searches in vain for beauty while the beholder encounters the sublime.

Panayiotis A. Michalis in his book An Aesthetic Approach to Byzantine Art examines the desired goals of Byzantine religious art.[2] He suggests that a distinction must be drawn between the goal of beauty  that characterizes Classical Greek art and the desired (and achieved) goal of sublimity in Byzantine art. Beauty evokes a feeling of calm and serenity and appeals to the viewer intellectually. It is sensual and therefore draws the viewer out toward the world of senses. Conversely, the sublime evokes a feeling of exaltation and appeals to the emotional side of the viewer’s consciousness. The sublime draws the viewer inward rather than outward, toward introspection rather than extrospection. If Michalis’s explanation is accepted, then one must also accept Byzantine religious art as a highly sophisticated art form created through an ingenious merging of artistic ability and Orthodox dogma.

The icons of Saint Sophia are considered “manifestations of heavenly archetypes.”[3] If we imagine the icon to be a glass surface possessing the properties of a window as well as those of a mirror, then we can better understand their religious and artistic nature. Through the icon, the beholder experiences the person depicted in his eternal state, a window through which the beholder views the celestial world. The gold background of the icon represents the heavenly aura that surrounds the “saint or holy person.”[4] The icon is also a mirror reflection of the personality depicted and is, therefore, two-dimensional. To understand this significant nature of the icon in Orthodox worship is to grasp the essence of Orthodox anthropology. The icon depicts man in his spiritualized, transfigured state. It is a reflection of a being who in turn is a reflection of Christ. Therefore, the icons are a reflection of God. No lesser icon detracts from the glory of the Pantocrator in the dome of Saint Sophia because the lesser icon is an allusionary depiction, a Christ figure, so to speak.[5] This aspect of the iconographic program is but one of the unifying elements that bring the individual icons into spiritual interplay.

The interior of Saint Sophia is “an image of the Cosmos” representing an orderly hierarchy with its symbolism in verticality.[6] Unlike the heathen temple that was a marble dwelling for a particular god from a pantheon of gods, Saint Sophia “had to be a miniature of the universe because in it dwells the one and only God.”[7] It is on this level of awareness that the beholder (and participant) is exposed to the dogma of the Church. The cathedral is secondly a representation of the Holy Land; “the places sanctified by Christ’s earthly life.”[8] In this sense, the Cathedral sets the stage for the Divine Liturgy, a presentation of the Life of Christ. On this level, the beholder is taught ecclesiastical history. A third interpretation of the interior is based on “an image of the Church festival cycle as laid down by the liturgy, and the icons are arranged in accordance with the liturgical sequence of Ecclesiastical festivals.”[9] So the church teaches liturgy.

However, concessions have been made in the decorative scheme in Saint Sophia due to its limited size. The late Dr. Paul Underwood of Dumbarton Oaks, the consulting Byzantinologist, discussed the problem in an early letter to the Reverend John Tavlarides, Dean of the Cathedral:

…the existing surfaces of the vaults are subdivided in such a way that is would be nearly impossible without extensive structural alterations to introduce scenes that require much greater widths of uninterrupted surfaces than are available in the eastern, northern or southern arms…

Dr. Underwood went on to say that the existing surfaces would fit an alternate scheme very neatly. Although all the events in the life of Christ that have come to comprise the festival calendar are not depicted, the Christian pageant of Saints and Martyrs are displayed in groups roughly according to the dates of their festival in the liturgical calendar.

The Dome

In the heavenly zones of the church, comprising the dome and the apse, the narrative is suppressed to allow for the beholder’s contemplation of the timeless dogma.[10] The cupola icon is, of course, Christ the Pantocrator seated on his jeweled throne. The Christ icon found in Saint Sophia, as in most Eastern Orthodox churches, is modeled after a description found in a document from the early Church, the Epistle of Lentulus, a Roman official who acted as the eyes of the Emperor when Christ made his appearance in Palestine. A warrant for Christ’s arrest was included in the official’s report to the Emperor. The stranger was described at “a man of erect stature… temperate and estimable with a manner inspiring of respect …blue-grey eyes that are uncommonly varied in expressiveness, fearsome when he scolds and gentle and affectionate when he admonishes. He is gravely cheerful, weeps often, but has never been seen to laugh.”[11] The maturing Byzantine style drew from this description of Christ stressing His various natures. Saint Sophia’s Pantocrator is not the terrible-eyed Ruler and Judge of the world, but rather Christ, Lord of the universe, the benevolent, the serene, the Lover of Mankind.

Around the barrel of the vault is an inscription of portions of the vision of Isaiah (Isaiah 6: 1-3): “I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. And around him stood seraphim… and one cried unto another and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts ” The dome is completely devoted to this arrangement of the celestial hierarchy described by Isaiah in the Old Testament.

The Apse

The apse ranks second in the vertical hierarchy; it does the Theotokos, or Mother of God, justice as the highest of purely human nature. There is no scriptural basis from which the Mariological imagery of Eastern Orthodoxy has evolved. Rather, the image of Mary was, according to legend, revealed to man in icons “not made by hands,” gifts from the Heavenly Mother in response to an artistic need to depict her in the scheme of Orthodox theology.[12] The ninth-century theologians, with vivid recollections of Iconoclasm, depicted Mary as a standing figure to avoid charges of idolatry.[13] A throned, or even seated, Virgin would imply that the Heavenly Mother was divine in Herself rather than in her association with the Son, as Orthodox theology dictates.

The depiction of Mary in Saint Sophia is called the Platytera, a term taken from a hymn of the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil: “… He made Thy womb His throne, and formed it to be broader than (Platytera) the heavens…” Mary spans the expanse between earth and Heaven and is, therefore, broader than the heavens to contain the uncontainable. Mary is the heavenly ladder by which God descended, and she is the eternal bridge leading from earth to Heaven.

Angels surround divine persons in the iconographic program of the Eastern Orthodox Churches as Mary is surrounded by nine medallions of angels in the apse. The icons of the Archangels Gabriel and Michael have their fixed liturgical place in or above the sanctuary. In Saint Sophia, they are shown on the bema vault above the sanctuary, guardians of the Etimasia, or heavenly throne of Christ prepared before all time. At a particularly auspicious point in the Divine Liturgy, angels are supposed to enter the cathedral and sing, “Holy, holy, holy. Lord of Hosts (Isaiah 6:3).[14]

The Sanctuary

The sanctuary, or area between the bema vault and the apse on the floor of the cathedral, is also representative of Heaven and is decorated accordingly. The iconostasis, or icon screen, separates the nave of the Cathedral from the sanctuary. Upon it are depicted in paint the images of Christ, the Virgin Mary with the infant Christ, John the Baptist, and the Archangels Gabriel and Michael. The first three icons are found there in every Orthodox Church. The paintings are two-dimensional and stylized. Across the face of the iconostasis that is visible from the nave, and above the painted icons mentioned, are medallions of the disciples. In the center of the iconostasis, between the icons of Mary and Christ, is the Royal or Beautiful Gate, representing its heavenly prototype. Originally above the Royal Gate was an icon depicting the last Supper and, above that, a pediment leading the beholder’s gaze to the Gate and dividing the iconostasis into halves at its peak. However, the icon and the pediment partially obstructed the view of the icon of the Virgin Mary in the apse and were removed for that reason.

Along the back wall of the sanctuary are depicted in mosaic four Church Fathers: St. Gregory, St. Athanasius, St. Basil, and St. John Chrysostom, the last two responsible for arranging the Eucharistic liturgy.

Between Heaven and Earth

In the middle zone of the pendentives and transept vaults, the timeless and historical are combined through a scheme of abbreviated symbolism. The images of the Old Testament Prophets, Greater Saints, and the Evangelists are depicted in this intermediary zone between Heaven, represented by the dome and apse, and the floor of the nave, which is occupied by earthly inhabitants. The Saints are venerated as “the hands of God” by the Orthodox Church.[15] Their lives represent the acting out of God’s Will on Earth and function as landmarks in the Church history, the evolution of Orthodox dogma and the transition from its mystic cult origin to a Faith with foundations in literary tradition. In afterlife, these Saints intercede “to smooth the road to salvation” for their fellowmen.[16] The four Evangelists are located on the pendentives to symbolize their contributions as the foundations of the Orthodox Church. In this instance, the structural function of the pendentives as the supporting elements of the dome enriches their significance as surfaces for mosaic iconography.

The Saints, Prophets, and Evangelists are artistically depicted in such a stylized manner that to identify them by sight is impossible. For this reason, their Greek names have been added to the mosaic program to the right or left of the respective personage’s head. If these images are viewed as reflections of Christ, then their position between man and God becomes even more significant. The Saints direct man toward God during his earthly existence. Artistically, the Holy Men do not receive readily distinguished qualities, because they are important only insofar as they are reflections of Christ. Their earthly appearance being unknown, no attempt was made to reproduce them, and human models were never used. In the absence of authentic portraits of the sanctified persons, types were created, which became part of the Living Tradition of the Church. Referring to the Transcendental, the icon themes cannot be changed and their mode of depiction must lead the viewer to the world of Divine Reality.

The third zone of the cathedral, the ceiling of the west arm, pays homage to 16 of the militant saints and acknowledges their communion in the Church.[17] They include St. Constantine, who stopped the persecution of Christians and fostered the growth of the Church; St. Helen, Constantine’s mother, who found the Holy Cross; St. Stephen, the first male martyr; St. Thekla, the first female martyr; and Sts. Cosmas and Damian, physicians who healed without remuneration.

The west wall of the balcony contains three stained glass windows (77,78,79), which were installed before the master plan was drawn up. Their nonconforming style does not allow an unambiguous interpretation of their scriptural basis, thus excluding them from the realm of the traditional, highly stylized Orthodox iconography authentically represented in Saint Sophia. Moreover, church

windows in the East were without figures, but consisted of variegated glass panes randomly arranged, as you see in all other windows at Saint Sophia. The windows were referred to as “lights” in the early literature, a term which reinforces the conclusion that they were not figured.


There is a feeling of “purity and single-mindedness”[18] that accompanies the. iconographic program in Saint Sophia. The cathedral is decorated in a scheme that emerged in the 9th century at the outset of an era called the Macedonian Renaissance. The 9th-century Macedonian art reflects stability after 230 years of military, economic, administrative, and religious struggle. The Iconoclastic Controversy had struck at the very core of the Byzantine culture, its religion. In 843 A.D. Empress Theodora, acting regent for the infant Michael III, attempted to unify the Empire’s religion, and with the help of the Patriarch Ignatius, Romilly Jenkins’s choice as “the greatest of Byzantine Patriarchs, re-established the reverence of images in the Orthodox Church.[19] The subsequent revitalization of Byzantine religious art was drawn upon to adorn the interior of Saint Sophia. It represents the rebirth of an art form and the unquestionable religiosity of Macedonian art that was lost in the art of the waning centuries of the Empire’s existence. In its concept and purpose, Byzantine act transforms the media it employs into a sacramental offering to God.


1. Each of the Greek words which make up the name “Haghia” and “Sophia,” has two meanings: the former (like the Latin “sancta”) means “holy” and “saint,” while the latter means “wisdom” and is also a female name. Probably through the Germanized Latin rendering of the name of the Cathedral in Constantinople, sankta Sophia, Saint Sophia came to be accepted. However, the translation of the Greek name is Holy Wisdom, for the Cathedral is dedicated to Jesus Christ (I Cor 1:24) and not to a saint named Sophia.
2. As taken from Constantine Cavarnos, Byzantine Thought and Art, (Mass; The Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, 1968), p. 62.
3. Ernst Benz. The Greek Orthodox Church, (New York: Doubleday and Co.. 1963). p. 6.
4. Ibid. p. 6.
5. Ibid. pp. 18-19.
6. Otto Demus, Byzantine Mosaic Decoration. (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd., 1953), p. 15.
7. Cavarnos, p. 63.
8. Demus, p. 15.
9. Ibid. pp. 15-16.
10. Ibid. p. 30.
11. Benz, p. 12-13.
12. Ibid. pp. 14-15.
13.Demus, p. 21.
14. Benz, p. 16.
15. Ibid. p. 15.
16. Ibid. p. 15.
17. Demus, p. 30.
18. Ibid. Pp 54-55
19. Romilly Jenkins, Byzantine- The Imperial Centuries, (England: City Press, 1966), p. 160.