The Hagia Sophia is believed to be the first church in Constantinople to have been decorated with figural religious imagery following the controversial period of religious strife known as Iconoclasm. (In fact, it is believed that no other monumental images were ever placed in the great church before Iconoclasm? If we are to believe Byzantine tradition, during Justinian’s reign, the Hagia Sophia was only ever decorated solely of crosses against a gold background.)
The mosaic of the Virgin and Child is masterstroke of political and religious propaganda worthy of any state during the middle ages. It was consecrated by the patriarch Photios in a sermon on March 29th 867, and intended as a public statement, to illustrate the triumph of the Iconophiles, over iconoclasm in 843 CE. The choice of subject of the Virgin, and in particular, the infant Christ was also significant because it celebrated the ‘incarnation of God as man’. Interestingly, an inscription around the mosaic reads: “The images that the heretics cast down from here, pious emperors have set up again.”
Photo credit: The image of the Virgin and child is by flickr user George Rex and is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 license.