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Medieval Sourcebook:
Paul the Silentiary: Descriptio S. Sophiae

Paul the Silentiary: The Magnificence of Hagia Sophia

Here are some short extracts from a famous encomium [hymn of praise] by Paul the Silentiary, in which he draws on the imagery of Hagia Sophia as a dome of Heaven:


Above all rises into the immeasurable air the great helmet [of the dome], which, bending over, like the radiant heavens, embraces the church. And at the highest part, at the crown, was depicted the cross, the protector of the city. And wondrous it is to see how the dome gradually rises wide below, and growing less as it reaches higher. it does not however spring upwards to a sharp point, but is like the firmament which rests on air, though the dome is fixed on the strong backs of the arches....Everywhere the walls glitter with wondrous designs, the stone for which came from the quarries of seagirt Proconnesus. The marbles are cut and joined like painted patterns, and in stones formed into squares or eight-sided figures the veins meet to form devices; and the stones show also the forms of living creatures....

A thousand others [lamps] within the temple show their gleaming light, hanging aloft by chains of many windings. Some are placed in the aisles, others in the centre or to east and west, or on the crowning walls, shedding the brightness of flame. Thus the night seems to flout the light of day, and be itself as rosy as the dawn....

Thus through the spaces of the great church come rays of light, expelling clouds of care, and filling the mind with joy. The sacred light cheers all: even the sailor guiding his bark on the waves, leaving behind him the unfriendly billows of the raging Pontus, and winding a sinuous course amidst creeks and rocks, with heart fearful at the dangers of his nightly wanderings-perchance he has left the Aegean and guides his ship against adverse currents in the Hellespont, awaiting with taut forestay the onslaught of a storm from Africa-does not guide his laden vessel by the light of Cynosure, or the circling Bear, but by the divine light of the church Itself. Yet not Only does it guide the merchant at night, like the rays from the Pharos on the coast of Africa, but it also shows the way to the living God.


Translated by W. Lethaby and H. Swainson, from Paul the Silentiary,, in The Church of St. Sophia Constantinople, (New York: 1894), pp. 42-52.

This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use.

(c)Paul Halsall Mar 1996
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© Site Concept and Design: Paul Halsall created 26 Jan 1996: latest revision 6 October 2023 [CV]