Masterpieces of Light and Space: Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, TurkeyThe Hagia Sophia, Cathedral turned Mosque turned Museum

One of the masterpieces of light and space that I most wanted to visit in the world, and one I would love to return to for another visit is the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey. I guess it doesn’t take a lot of explanation, but I also know that a lot of Americans might know that before Istanbul was Istanbul, it was Constantinople. They probably may also not realize that Constantinople was named after the Roman emperor, Constantine, who converted the empire from Paganism to Christianity. This early church had a massive effect on Islamic architecture after the Turks invaded the Byzantine Empire and became a design motif for mosques throughout the Islamic world, if I understand right.

Istanbul, TurkeyThese incredible mosaics were made because “graven” and realistic images were forbidden as idolatry

When the Turks invaded Constantinople and took the place over, the Hagia Sophia became a Mosque, and the beautiful decorative elements of a mosque (beautifully scripted quotes from the Quran, repetitive patterns, etc) were plastered directly on top of the existing mosaic decoration. After hundreds of years, some of the plaster has given way, so you get to see the ancient Christian art underneath as well. It’s really a beautiful mash-up of religious art. I particularly like the mosaics – the art style is like…alternatively realistic? Kinda ghostly? Not sure I have the vocabulary to say why it catches my eye so well.
Istanbul, TurkeyThe low hanging chandeliers make the area above seem endless

One design element that is particularly interesting is the chandeliers in the main sacred space. They are hung about 12′ off the ground, but given that the ceiling is like a million feet tall, they make you feel very grounded. It also creates the feeling that the space above you is absolutely endless. Heavenly even.

Istanbul, TurkeyThe bright, golden dome seems to glow in the filtered light

Looking up past the groups of lights, the main dome seems far, far away. I don’t believe that the decoration is original from the building’s construction, but it appears to be Arabic script, so I think it’s probably verses from the Quran. It’s beautiful. It’s also impossibly huge. There’s no way to take an adequate photo of it to convey its scale.
Istanbul, TurkeyWhere else are you going to see the Madonna and Child hovering between quotes from the Quran over a Mihrab? It’s like the biggest sacred art intersection on earth.

As I said, the decorations here are different than what you would see anywhere else. Christian and Muslim are side by side, and the Christian art is Byzantine, so it has an otherworldly look to it if you grew up in one of the western traditions.

Istanbul, TurkeyLooks like Dorne from Game of Thrones, right?

Istanbul, TurkeyI really can’t overstate the height of the dome. This is from the gallery on the 2nd floor looking at the main space.

Istanbul, TurkeyIstanbul, TurkeyThe older Christian Mosaics are breathtaking. I get a backache just thinking about picking up the little pebbles to glue to the wall. Then again, my experience with mosaics largely involve macaroni.

Istanbul, TurkeyThe Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Mosque)

From the Hagia Sophia, you can see the great Blue Mosque across the plaza. It’s pretty easy to spot some influence from Hagia Sophia in the architecture. There’s a reason that the Hagia Sophia is revered as a world wonder, a must-see sight in a country and region full of must-see sights. It’s truly beautiful and the interplay of the oooooooold Christian and Muslim art really illustrates the similarities more than the differences, I think. Then again, my opinions are based on like half a chapter of an art history book ten years ago.

Masterpieces of Light and Space: Basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde, Marseille, France

Marseille, FranceNotre Dame de la Garde sits atop the highest hill overlooking old Marseille

High on a hilltop above Marseille lies a beautiful church. That sentence is so ridiculous that I’m leaving it in the blog post. Ha! Anyhow, it’s true, Notre Dame de la Garde sits high above Marseille on a hilltop. Specifically it sits high above the Vieux Port of Marseille, the ancient port. Given the decorative motif and the maritime history of the city, one has to wonder if the same hilltop played host to a temple of Poseidon in the Greek times, or perhaps Neptune in the Roman. I think you’ll see why in just a moment or two. First, though, let’s talk about getting there.

Marseille, FranceThe key direction is UP

Finding Notre Dame is pretty easy from the old city of Marseille. Start at the Citadel or Abbey of St. Victor and walk up the hill. Keep walking. and walking. and walking. and walking. It’s farther than it looks from the port, but you get to walk through fields of beautiful Provençal flowers and you’ll also get a stunning view of the port and Chateau d’If floating out there in the Mediterranean.

Marseille, FranceWait…there’s more climbing involved?!?

After the long trek up the hill, we didn’t really think there was a better place to start our visit at Notre Dame de la Garde but the bottom. Yeah. We started in the crypt.

Marseille, FranceThose candles put off a lot of heat. A different take on fire-and-brimstone.

The crypt was crowded, fairly compact for a church of this size, and full of the living. I thought the heat was being put off by the candles, but it could have also been the accumulation of body heat from the visitors. Certainly not the body heat of the residents I would imagine (yeah, I just said that.)

Marseille, France
The chancel from the crypt’s exit

After moving up from the crypt to the main level, it becomes obvious very quickly that this basilica is thematic. Thematic in the sense that all of the decoration seems to be nautical. Nautical in the sense that this is a place where sailors and fishermen would worship before heading out to sea. The colors and patterns are not that different from Marseille Cathedral or San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome, but the ships, airplanes, anchors, octopi, and everything else nautical certainly sets it apart.
Marseille, FranceShips, planes, anything that could move cargo

The church itself is beautiful, and the ships and airplanes and basically all of the artwork are beautifully done, if a bit morbid. There is an entire wall of paintings of maritime and other transportation disasters. Kids getting run over by horse-drawn carts, sinking ships, plane crashes, etc. That’s a bit dark and contrasts in a strong and beautiful way against the otherwise ethereal surroundings.

Marseille, FranceSee, I told you. Transportation disasters.

According to Atlas Obscura, the miniatures and paintings are examples of “ex-voto” or rather, appreciations for the help of Notre Dame de la Garde in recovery from accidents, acts of war, or whatever might be depicted in the particular item. In addition to these crafted pieces are also life rings from boats, bandages, crutches, and other items. The site is a pilgrimage destination every Assumption Day (August 15) and people will leave ex-voto items to thank Le Bonne Mere for her assistance in the pilgrimage.
Marseille, FranceLe Bonne Mere herself

Between the nearly Arabesque gold leaf and repetitive patterns of the decoration, the marble from Florence laid in striated patterns, and its nautical ex-voto, the Basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde is one of the most interesting churches I have ever visited. It’s definitely a treasure that we should all be glad was restored after it’s damage during the French liberation in 1944, and dare I say if I were a sailor in Marseille, this would be a regular stop for peace of mind.

Masterpieces of Light and Space: Ruins of St. Paul’s church, Macau, China

MacauWhat remains of St. Paul’s, on top of a hill in Macau

I thought maybe for my next post I should get away from the super obvious stomping grounds of Italy, France, Spain, and you know, the entire western world. I was thinking back, when I realized that we had visited a very old church in China, on the formerly Portuguese island of Macau.

MacauNot sure. Could be St. Paul himself.

Truth be told, we ended up making our day in Macau all about the old churches and Portuguese food. I guess after a couple of years in Asia we were just craving some western culture. St. Paul’s is remarkable for it’s location overlooking the city, and the fact that aside from the facade, it’s not there anymore.

MacauDragons make me think Asia. Caravels make me think Portugal

The church was apparently at one time the largest in East Asia, burned down a few times, and finally completely destroyed in a typhoon.

MacauClear glass panels let you look into the foundation

St. Paul’s stood for about 300 years, and it seems that with nothing but the facade intact, there wouldn’t be much to see. However you can look down into the foundations through glass panels, and the crypt is still very much in one piece. It’s pretty crazy to see the bones of Portuguese explorers from the 1500s, but they are lying there, probably unaware that the once great church above them is nearly gone. Most interesting were the descriptions of the bodies, who they were, and how and where they died. Lots of violence, all over Asia. Apparently exploration was a tough business.

The only picture I took in the crypt, didn’t think it was respectful to photograph the dead, I guess.

So while St. Paul’s certainly has more natural light than just about any church I’ve ever been in, due to its lack of walls and a roof, I think it still merits a post in this series. I think the crypt alone merits a post. To see the reach of the European explorers who destroyed civilizations, wrought havoc, and created the world as we know it in such a dramatic fashion is enlightening. To see the interplay of east and west in the bas-reliefs on the remains of the facade makes you think that the Portuguese process of conversion was perhaps a bit more likely to incorporate the local traditions than the Spanish. But the bones. They tell the story without saying a word.

Masterpieces of Light and Space: Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence, Italy (aka omg so many famous dead Italians in one place!)

Florence, ItalyThe beautiful facade of the church that holds the remains of like, every important artist from the Italian Renaissance

Our Florence guidebook took us on walking tour after walking tour of the city, and each one was amazing in the sense of “I’m totally walking in the steps of some of my favorite renaissance artists and scientists.” When the guidebook took us to Santa Croce, I didn’t expect for all of those Renaissance masters to be freakin’ entombed in one place.

Florence, ItalyInterior of of Santa Croce with *womp womp* renovations at the chancel

The interior of the church was of course beautiful, although we could not clearly see the chancel for the scaffolding of ongoing renovations. When we got inside we paid particular attention to the Medici chapel as our guidebook suggested, took in some art, wandered around the expanse of the nave, and generally saw the sites…as you do when you’re church-hopping in perhaps the most church-rich country on earth. Then we started running into the “residents.”
Florence, ItalyBlast! It’s Galileo’s grave!

For example…Galileo. He’s been resting here for quite some time. For a few minutes it seemed that every important character you have read about from the Italian Renaissance, from art to science to literature was buried here.
Florence, ItalyMichelangelo Buonorotti

Michelangelo? Are you for real?!

Florence, ItalyDANTE!?

Dante is entombed here too! But not really. There’s a tomb for him here, but he never came back to Florence after he was exiled. He’s actually buried in Ravenna. The Florentines just wanted to take credit for his great work, which occurred mostly after his exile.


So it just goes on and on. Even the great Italian opera composer Rossini is buried here, though of course a couple hundred years after these guys.

Florence, ItalyThe pulpit with a beautiful starry sky

I really love the art style of the Italian Renaissance, with the deep colors and overcalled stars evidenced in the photo of the pulpit above.

Florence, Italy
The entire nave is lined with famous people.

So round and round we walked, even snapping selfies in front of Galileo’s grave since our first “date” was kinda cosmic (mommyPrimate used my new telescope to show me Jupiter’s moons that night.)

Florence, ItalyReliquary in Santa Croce

I really don’t remember the story of Santa Croce (I’m guessing whose relics are in this reliquary), but I remember something about her head being separated from her body and I think it might be inside the case shaped like her head. Totally scraping the bottom of my memory pile for details remembered from our honeymoon, because searching the internet doesn’t seem to be helping at all. At any rate, super cool presentation of the reliquary.


Upon leaving the basilica we were immediately swept up by what appeared to be a 15th century marching band of sorts, with cool costumes, loud trumpet fanfares, and dudes throwing flags. I’m not sure what it was all about, but we followed them for a little while (some people followed them all the way across the Arno river) and got a coffee.

Florence, ItalyItalian Beer Drinkers

We were also treated to these dudes in felt costumes who were trolling the members of the marching band. Not sure what it was all about, but they said “Medici” quite a lot. Santa Croce and the Piazza della Republica in front of it sure had a lot to offer for one afternoon. Of course, if you ever need to sit down and talk to Machiavelli’s bones, you know where to do it now.