Model of Hagia Sophia Narthex

art_byz5by Dr. Marice Rose, Art History Program

The ninety-year old model of the narthex of Hagia Sophia, donated to the University in 2006, is valuable not only as a teaching tool for Art History and other disciplines, but also as a historical artifact. The model reproduces a section of one of the world's most important buildings. In 532 C.E., Byzantine emperor Justinian ordered mathematicians Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles to design a new structure to replace Constantinople's church of Hagia Sophia after the original church's destruction during a political riot. With one of history's greatest feats of engineering, the architects built a 102' diameter dome on a basilica-plan church. The resulting building with its awe-inspiring 185' high interior space was considered miraculous when it was built and inspired all subsequent Eastern churches to include domes. It was the seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople, and a symbol of Byzantine imperial power. After the Turkish conquest in 1453, Hagia Sophia became a mosque and in 1930 Ataturk converted it into a museum, which it remains today.

art_byz2Fairfield's model replicates the western narthex outside the central nave. The central door is the Imperial Gate through which the patriarch and emperor would enter together. Above this door is a painted reproduction of the church's ca. 900 mosaic depicting an emperor (possibly Leo VI) kneeling before Christ enthroned. Medallions of Mary and an archangel flank Christ. On the walls, Hagia Sophia's purple, green, and gold marble revetments have also been imitated in paint. Through the Imperial Gate one can see the trompe-l'oeil nave, including a view of the gallery and congregants. The model's builder, Dwight Franklin, performed significant research to recreate the mosaic decoration, as whitewash covered Hagia Sophia's Christian imagery from the time it was a mosque until restoration in 1935.

 

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The model was first put on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1917. The museum commissioned New York artist Franklin to create it for approximately $1200 (in today's dollars: $21,200, according to Dr. Laurence Miners, Economics Department). As illustrated in a 1917 museum publication, the model originally featured wax figurines of Emperor Justinian, Empress Theodora, and priests dressed in colorful robes and jewelry. Although the figurines have disappeared, Treese Robb, a plaster cast restoration specialist, recently found evidence for where they were located on the model.

art_byz1Franklin himself has an interesting biography. Born in New York City in 1888, he created dioramas for museums including the American Museum of Natural History, the Brooklyn Children's Museum, the Newark Museum, and the Museum of the City of New York, where he was chief curator. He left New York in the 1930s for Hollywood, where he became a set and costume designer and technical consultant for films, specializing in westerns and pirate movies (Treasure Island, Sinbad the Sailor). He died in Los Angeles in 1971.

The model therefore holds interest for the following academic programs and departments, in addition to its importance for the history of museums/collections: Art History, Engineering, Mathematics, American Studies, New Media: Film Studies, Theatre, Studio Art, History, Religious Studies, and Russian and East European Studies (compiled by Dr. Katherine Schwab, Art History Program).

The Plaster Cast Collection