The Hagia Sophia, the greatest church building in the world was desecrated.
Continuing Constantinople Taken by the Western Crusaders,
our selection from The Fall of Constantinople Being the Story of the Fourth Crusade by Edwin Pears published in 1903. The selection is presented in six easy 5 minute installments.
Previously in Constantinople Taken by the Western Crusaders.
Time: April, 1204
First among the buildings as among the works of art, in the estimation of every citizen, was Hagia Sophia. It was emphatically the Great Church. Tried by any test, it is one of the most beautiful of human creations. Nothing in Western Europe even now gives a spectator who is able with an educated eye to restore it to something like its former condition, so deep an impression of unity, harmony, richness, and beauty in decoration as does the interior of the masterpiece of Justinian. All that wealth could supply and art produce had been lavished upon its interior — at that time, and for long afterward, the only portion of a church which the Christian architect thought deserving of study. “Internally, at least,” says a great authority on architecture, “the verdict seems inevitable that Santa Sophia is the most perfect and most beautiful church which has yet been erected by any Christian people. When its furniture was complete the verdict would have been still more strongly in its favor.”
We have seen that to Nicetas, who knew and loved it in its best days, it was a model of celestial beauty, a glimpse of heaven itself. To the more sober English observer, “its mosaic of marble slabs of various patterns and beautiful colors, the domes, roofs, and curved surfaces, with gold-grounded mosaic relieved by figures or architectural devices,” are “wonderfully grand and pleasing.” All that St. Mark’s is to Venice, Hagia Sophia was to Constantinople. But St. Mark’s, though enriched with some of the spoils of its great original, is, as to its interior at least, a feeble copy. Hagia Sophia justified its founder in declaring, “I have surpassed thee, O Solomon!” and during seven centuries after Justinian his successors had each attempted to add to its wealth and its decoration. Yet this, incomparably the most beautiful church in Christendom, at the opening of the thirteenth century was stripped and plundered of every ornament which could be carried away. It appeared to the indignant Greeks that the very stones would be torn from the walls by these intruders, to whom nothing was sacred.
Around the Great Church were other objects which could be readily converted into bronze, and the destruction of which was irreparable. The immense hippodrome was crowded with statues. Egypt had furnished an obelisk for the center, Delphi had given its commemoratory bronze of the victory of Plataea. Later works of pagan sculptors were there in abundance, while Christian artists had continued the traditions of their ancestors. The cultured inhabitants of Constantinople appreciated these works of art and took care of them. In giving a list of the more important of the objects which went to the melting-pot, Nicetas again and again urges that these works were destroyed by barbarians who were ignorant of their value. Incapable of appreciating either their historical interest or the value with which the labor of the artist had endowed them, the crusaders knew only the value of the metals of which they were composed.
The emperors had been buried within the precincts of the Church of the Holy Apostles, the site of which was afterward chosen by Mahomet II for the erection of the mosque now called by his name. Their tombs, beginning with that of Justinian, were ransacked in the search for treasure. It was not until the palaces of the nobles, the churches, and the tombs had been plundered that the pious brigands turned their attention to the statues, A colossal figure of Juno, which had been brought from Samos, and which stood in the forum of Constantine, was sent to the melting-pot. We may judge of its size from the fact that four oxen were required to transport its head to the palace. The statue of Paris presenting to Venus the apple of discord followed. The Anemodulion, or “Servant of the Winds,” was a lofty obelisk, whose sides were covered with bas-reliefs of great beauty, representing scenes of rural life, and allegories depicting the seasons, while the obelisk was surmounted by a female figure which turned with the wind, and so gave to the whole its name. The bas-reliefs were stripped off and sent to the palace to be melted.
A beautiful equestrian statue of great size, representing either Bellerophon and Pegasus or, as the populace believe, Joshua on horseback commanding the sun to stand still, was likewise sent to the furnace. The horse appeared to be neighing at the sound of the trumpet, while every muscle was strained with the ardor of battle. The colossal Hercules of Lysippus, which, having adorned Tarentum, had thence been transported to the Elder and subsequently to the hippodrome of the New Rome, met with a like fate. The artist had expressed, in a manner which had won the admiration of beholders, the deep wrath of the hero at the unworthy tasks set before him. He was represented as seated, but without quiver or bow or club. His lion’s skin was thrown loosely about his shoulders, his right foot and right hand stretched out to the utmost, while he rested his head on his left hand with his elbow on his bent knee. The whole figure was full of dignity; the chest deep, the shoulders broad, the hair curly, the arms and limbs full of muscle.
The figure of an ass and its driver, which Augustus had had cast in bronze to commemorate the news brought to him of the victory of Actium, met with the same fate.
For the sake of melting them down into money the barbarians seized also the ancient statue of the wolf suckling Romulus and Remus; the statues of a sphinx, a hippopotamus, a crocodile, an elephant, and others, which had represented a triumph over Egypt; the monster of Scylla and others; most of which were probably executed before the time of Christ.
The celebrated statue of Helen was destroyed by men who knew nothing of its original. There must be added to these the graceful figure of a woman who held in her right hand the figure of an armed man on horseback. Then near the eastern goals, known as the “reds,” stood the statues of the winners in the chariot races. They stood erect in their bronze chariots, as the originals also had been seen when they gained their victories, as if they were still directing their steeds to the goals. A figure of the Nile bull in deadly conflict with a crocodile stood near. These and other statues were hastily sent to the furnace to be converted into money. We may judge of the value and artistic merit of the bronze statues which were destroyed, by the specimens which remain. The four horses which the emperor Theodosius had brought from Chios and placed in the hippodrome escaped, by some lucky chance, the general plunder, and were taken to Venice, where they still adorn the front of St. Mark’s.
We want to take this site to the next level but we need money to do that. Please contribute directly by signing up at https://www.patreon.com/history