Assessment / Hagia Sophia / Robert Van Nice

In the Details

After months of looking at Van Nice’s clean and geometric architectural plans of Hagia Sophia, it is easy for me to forget how incredibly ornate and intricate the building’s interior surfaces are.  As a general rule, Van Nice was more interested in the structure of the building than its decoration.  He would sometimes chide the Byzantine Institute representatives who worked on restoring the mosaics of Hagia Sophia for paying more attention to the “wallpaper” than to the actual building itself.

He once wrote:

“St. Sophia, undecorated, would still be one of the greatest monuments–certainly still the greatest enclosed space ever constructed.  Its mosaic decorations–the figured ones, that is, all 9th century or later, probably gain more from being in St. Sophia than the structure gains from having them.”

But Van Nice was committed to the building as a whole, and so he did devote a good deal of time to recording the surface details of the building.  I’m starting to explore the portion of his collection that contains mostly drawings and photographs from the decades of survey work he did at Hagia Sophia, and they have not disappointed in terms of precision, beauty, and intricacy.  The following images come from a folder that Van Nice titled “Details: Caps, Cornices, Skirting, Furniture,” which contains some really lovely little sketches of details from around the building.

Details of a column capital, Robert L. Van Nice Collection

Miscellaneous details, Robert L. Van Nice Collection

Interior details, Robert L. Van Nice Collection

Plaster details, Robert L. Van Nice Collection

Photographs of the interior of Hagia Sophia give one an immediate sense of how overwhelmingly ornate it is, but Van Nice’s drawings provide a different perspective and evoke a different kind of wonder.  Being able to concentrate on one detail at a time somehow makes the whole building even more impressive to me.  Rather than seeing it all come together in a photograph, my mind automatically tries to fill everything in based on a few small fronds or swirls, and quickly realizes that it can’t–it’s just too much!

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