Byzantine Art

St. Hermas

Beloved brothers and sisters in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,


O Master that loves all men, will not this couch be my grave? Or wilt Thou again enlighten my condemned soul with the day? Behold, the grave lieth before me; behold, death standeth before me. Thy Judgment, O Lord, I fear and the unending torments, yet I cease not from doing evil. O Lord my God, continually I anger Thee and Thy Most Pure Mother, and all the heavenly powers, and my holy guardian Angel. I know indeed, O Lord, that I am not worthy of Thy love towards men, but am worthy of every condemnation and torment. But, O Lord, whether I wish it or not, do Thou save me. For if Thou savest the just, it is nothing great; and if Thou hast mercy upon the pure, it is nothing marvellous: for they are worthy of Thy mercy. But upon me, a sinner, shew the wonder of Thy mercy; in this manifest Thy love toward all men, and let not my evil nature overcome Thy grace and kindness that cannot be told; and as Thou wishest, order my goings aright. Lighten mine eyes, O Christ my God, that I sleep not in death: lest mine enemy say, I have prevailed against him.


On May 31st Our Holy Orthodox Christian Church commemorates, honors and entreats the holy intercessions of the following Saints, Forefathers, Fathers, Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles, Preachers, Evangelists, Martyrs, Confessors, Ascetics and Teachers of Our Holy Orthodox Christian faith: Saint Hermias the holy Martyr at Comana; Saint Hermas, Apostle of the 70; Saints Evsevius and Haralambos the holy Monk-Martyrs.

THE HOLY APOSTLE HERMAS. One of the Seventy, he is mentioned in the Epistle of Saint Paul to the Romans (16:14). A Greek by birth, he spent a long time in Rome. He was bishop in Philippoupolis, and finished his life a martyr. He compiled the very instructive book 'The Shepherd' through revelation from the Angels of God. Hermas was a rich man, but fell into extreme poverty through his own sins and those of his sons. A man appeared to him, clad in white and with a staff in his hand, and told him that he was the Angel of Repentance, sent to him before the end of his life. The Angel gave him Twelve Commandments:

1. To believe in God.
2. To live in simplicity and innocence.
3. To love truth and flee from falsehood.
4. To guard his thoughts in chastity.
5. To learn patience and magnanimity of soul.
6. To know that a good and an evil spirit attend every man.
7. To fear God, but not the devil.
8. To perform every good deed and to restrain himself from every evil one.
9. To pray to God in faith from the depths of his heart, so that his prayer might be heard.
10. To preserve himself from melancholy, the daughter of doubt, and from anger.
11. To try true and false prophecies.
12. To preserve himself from every evil desire.

+By the holy intercessions of Your Saints and Holy Martyrs, O Christ Our God, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.


Holy Epistle Lesson: Acts 25:13-19
Holy Gospel Lesson: St. John 16:23-33


"When a thought strikes you to judge or condemn your superior, leap away as though from fornication. Give no trust, place, entry, or starting point to that snake. Say this to the viper: 'Listen to me, deceiver, I have no right to pass judgment on my superior but he has the authority to be my judge. I do not judge him; he judges me." [Saint John Climacus]


The Church of Saint Sophia in Constantinople is the masterpiece of Byzantine art, and it is at the same time one of those monuments where some of the most characteristic features of that art appear most clearly. Thus if one would understand the nature of the Christian art of the East and in what its originality consisted, one must go first of all to this essential building--to this 'Great Church' as it was called throughout the East during the Middle Ages.

When, in 532 A.D., the Emperor Justinian decided to rebuild the church which Constantine had formerly erected and dedicated to the Holy Wisdom of God--for this is the meaning of Saint Sophia--he was determined that the new sanctuary should surpass all others in splendor. In the words of a Byzantine chronicler, it was 'a church, the like of which has never been seen since Adam, nor ever will be.' A circular was issued to all the provincial governors, instructing them to send to Constantinople the riches spoils in ancient monuments and the most beautiful marbles from the most famous quarries in the Empire. To add to the magnificence of the building and dazzle the eye of the beholder by a display of unrivalled wealth Justinian determined to make a lavish use of costly materials, gold, silver, ivory, and precious stones. A taste for the sumptuous in all its forms--a passion for splendor--is indeed one of the foremost characteristics of Byzantine art.

For the execution of his design and the realization of his dream the Emperor was fortunate enough to discover two architects of genius, Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus, both of whom, it must be borne in mind, came from Asia. Contemporary writers are unanimous in praise of their knowledge, skill, daring, and inventive power; and, since Justinian grudged neither money nor labor, the work progressed at an amazing speed. In less than five years Saint Sophia was completed, and on 27 December 537 A.D. it was solemnly consecrated by the Emperor.

It has been truly said that the Great Church is 'one of the mightiest creations in all architecture', a statement the truth of which is clearly shown by a close study of this famous monument. The impression given by the exterior is, it is true, by no means striking; a sixth-century Byzantine building, with its bare walls of brick, always presents a somewhat poor and monotonous aspect from without. But before entering the basilica, when one has crossed the space formerly occupied by the great atrium, surrounded by porticoes, and the narthex which opens into the church by nine doors, the effect produced by the interior is in truth incomparable. A vast rectangle, 77 meters by 71.70 in area, forms a broad nave flanked by aisles with galleries above them which pass over the narthex and extend all round the church. At a height of 55 meters from the ground this central nave is crowned by an enormous dome, 31 meters across, which rests upon four great arches supported by four massive piers. Whereas the arches on the north and south sides of the nave are filled by solid walls pierced with windows and carried on two tiers of pillars, those on the east and west are buttressed by two semi-domes, each of which in it its turn is supported by two great semicircular niches and in this way strength and balance are given to this astonishing central dome. An apse projects from the middle of the hemicycle which is covered by the eastern semi-dome; exedrae, embellished with columns, together with the arcades on the right and left serve to connect the nave with the aisles. But what most impresses the beholder is the dome--henceforth a characteristic feature of Byzantine architecture--which has truly been described by a sixth-century writer as 'a work at once marvelous and terrifying', seeming, so light and airy it was, 'rather to hang by a golden chain from heaven than to be supported on solid masonry'.

There was doubtless nothing new in such a plan. Saint Sophia is related to the type of building, familiar in Asia Minor since the fifth century, known as the domed basilica. But, in virtue of its great size, harmony of line, boldness of conception, and constructive skill, it appears none the less as a true creation--'a marvel of stability, daring, fearless logic and science', as Choisy put it. When on the day of its inauguration Justinian saw the fulfillment of his dream, one can well imagine that in a transport of enthusiasm he did indeed exclaim: "Glory be to God Who hath deemed me worthy to complete so great a work. I have outdone thee, O Solomon!"

The decoration which covers the interior of Saint Sophia is of equal significance in the history of Byzantine art, the splendor of its ornament designed to dazzle the beholder being no less characteristic than its mastery use of architectural forms. Tall columns of porphyry, white marble, and verd antique, crowned by marble capitals, wrought like goldsmith's work and often picked out by touches of blue and gold, rise from the pavement of mosaic and marble, which has been likened to a garden where the rich lawns are strewn with purple flowers. In the spandrels and round the soffits of the arches, delicate decorative carvings of an unmistakably oriental style stand out around disks of porphyry and verd antique, like lacework against a dark ground. The walls are sheeted over with marbles of many colors, their tones blended as if by the most skillful of painters, giving the effect of rich and velvety oriental carpets. And above, on the curves of the vaults, on the pendentives, on the conch of the apse, the crown of the dome, and on the walls that fill that great lateral arches, brilliant mosaics shone out from the dark blue and silver backgrounds that the new art--and this was one of its most essential innovations--was beginning to substitute for the light backgrounds of Alexandrian painting. When Saint Sophia had been converted into a mosque the Turks covered every representation of the human figure in these mosaics with a coating of whitewash or paint. Of recent years the process of uncovering the mosaics had been conducted under the authority of the Turkish Government; when the whole work was finished the church recovered completely its marvelous splendor. It must, however, be noted that most of the mosaics in Justinian's church were of a purely ornamental character and that the majority of the figure subjects date from the 10th and 11th centuries.

Please note: This work of uncovering the mosaics was conducted under the direction of Professor Whittemore: he completely cleared the narthex and over the southern door a fine mosaic which appears to date from the tenth century. In the interior of the church in the tribune over the right aisle he uncovered some curious mosaics of the eleventh and twelfth centuries representing portraits of emperors.

This is just a glimpse of the grandeur of the Great Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Sophia which is still held hostage by the Muslim Turks.

With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George