Truth in Stone and Flesh

Hagia Sophia, located in Turkey, is one of the greatest structures ever built. Erected in the 6th century, it is the culmination of a long, rich architectural tradition stretching back to ancient Egypt, Greece, and Imperial Rome. The basilica was built by Greek Christians and named in honor of Christ, “the Holy Wisdom” of God, the mystery of the eternal Logos indwelling human flesh.[1]

The thesis of this article is that the church of Hagia Sophia represents the truth, beauty, and goodness of the Christian message in stone, brick, and glass. It is a prime analogy, or perhaps an archetype of how the beauty and wisdom of Christ should draw and attract people to God. This great old Christian basilica is an example of the evidential power of beauty and its role in leading people to truth and faith.

Great architecture, like all art forms, must be experienced to receive the fullest knowledge of everything that it represents. One must be captivated by it and open to what it has to offer the entire person – mind, emotions, and will. A medieval scholar, for example, might describe in the finest detail an ancient manuscript of a Gregorian chant, providing a carefully nuanced translation of the Latin lyrics into English and detailing the notes of the music, but this would not provide us the same experience as hearing the chant. Reading a description about choral music is a far cry from actually listening to the music sung by a live choir in a cathedral. In hearing the music live, one is immersed in it through space and time. Likewise, an architectural historian could brilliantly describe the Pantheon in Rome in great detail but, once again, this is much different than actually visiting the Pantheon and being captivated and immersed in its beauty, harmony, and grandeur.[2]

C.S. Lewis highlights this vitally important difference in at least two places. In his essay, “Meditation in a Toolshed,” he makes the important distinction between “looking at” and “looking along” while describing a beam of sunlight he saw shining through the door of his tool shed. After seeing the stream of light, Lewis states:

Then I moved so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.[3]

Likewise, in his brilliant sermon, “The Weight of Glory,” Lewis dives even further into the differences between “looking along,” and “looking at.” When we look at something beautiful, Lewis says, “We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words — to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.[4]

Upon entering and seeing Hagia Sophia, one is “looking along” the beam and entering into a bright spiritual world where one feels the desire to pass through the beauty of the mosaics and stones to become a part of it. In Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, something very similar actually happens when Lucy, Edmund, and their cousin Eustace enter the magical world of Narnia as they start to look at a painting of a ship on the ocean in Lucy’s room; the ship comes to life before their very eyes and floods the room with sea water.[5]

In a similar vein, Christian apologetics works on the same principle. Christian truth must be presented with clarity and logical precision, but it should also be experienced via the beautiful and the good. Christian apologists today sadly overlook the fact that the heart and the imagination are involved in persuading skeptics to accept the truth of Christianity, as well as the mind. Much effort is placed on propositional truth, and, indeed, it is essential that Christian truth be grounded in reality. But Christianity also needs to be incarnated, as it were, into the physical world and into the place where people live, work, and raise their families. It is imperative today that truth be translated into flesh as well as stone.

This translation work is especially important in our current cultural context. It is no exaggeration to say that we are living in an age of upheaval and great distraction on multiple fronts. In his brilliant and prophetic book, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, Neil Postman states that ours is a “peek-a-boo world, where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again. …We are a culture consuming itself with information, and many of us do not even know how to control the process.”[6] Not only do events pop “into view” for a moment and then vanish again, so do hundreds of images and pictures on our phones, as we scroll through social media. Perhaps this overstimulation via images has made many blind to beauty, which has led to other unforeseen consequences.

The late Catholic writer, Father Thomas Dubay believes that it is our blindness to beauty that fuels modern boredom and our lack of capacity for genuine love. He writes:

It seems fair to say that a person blind and deaf to beauty, uninterested in anything noble in literature, science, philosophy, religion, and the arts, focused on sense pleasures alone (licit or illicit), is not only unattractive to others but most likely incapable of genuine love and delight. This tragic illness seems identical to what a few decades ago the atheistic existentialists of absurdity (e.g., Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus) had in mind when they spoke about existential boredom. This was not simply a particular boredom with a book, a lecture, a cocktail party. It was an insipid tedium with existence itself. Reality was a colossal blah. Dim indeed.[7]

A result of the rampant boredom in our culture is that we become too easily pleased, or we are pleased with the wrong things. Drawing once again from his sermon, The Weight of Glory, Lewis states that,

We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.[8]

What was true in Lewis’ day (1947), is all the more true today. In addition to drink, sex and ambition, there are now a host of other distractions in the world of the internet and social media which promise fulfillment and satisfaction but ultimately fail to deliver. For this very reason, Holly Ordway argues that “Christian apologists need to awaken that longing from its slumber, to awaken people from the numbness of overstimulation and distraction. Literature, the arts, and architecture will serve us well here, helping us to show the beauty of Christ, to give a glimpse into the Kingdom; just a glimpse, but enough perhaps to awaken curiosity, or a longing for that peace which passes understanding.”[9]

The basilica of Hagia Sophia is one such shining architectural example which embodies the truth, goodness and beauty of the Christian message in masonry and stone – the Wisdom of God incarnated in the person and life of Christ. In this essay, we will be “looking along” the history of this remarkable building to help serve as a guide and an analogy for those of us who wish to present and defend the truth, goodness, and beauty of Christ in flesh and blood.

Hagia Sophia – The Church of Holy Wisdom

In his excellent study on medieval aesthetics, the late Italian philosopher Umberto Eco wrote:

It has been said that, where aesthetics and artistic production are concerned, the Classical world turned its gaze on nature, but the medievals turned their gaze on the Classical world; that medieval culture was based, not on a phenomenology of reality but on a phenomenology of a cultural tradition.[10]

Without a doubt, the aesthetic and cultural tradition that Western medieval architects and artisans drew from were the achievements of the late Eastern Roman Empire (called Byzantium).[11] At the heart of the Byzantine empire stood the glorious Hagia Sophia, also called “The Great Church.”

By the time of the High Middle Ages, the great cathedrals of Europe created a visual lesson of medieval theology set in stone.[12] In his study of Gothic architecture, Erwin Panofsky noted that the task of the cathedral builder was “to make reason clearer by an appeal to the imagination; [he] sought to embody in stone and glass the whole Christian knowledge, theological, moral, natural, and historical, with everything in its place and with all that no longer found its place suppressed . . . a Summa Theologiae to be visually apprehended.”[13]

By far, the greatest theologian of the Middle Ages was St. Thomas Aquinas. His comprehensive Summa Theologiae (Summary of Theology), was the very ideal of the Scholastic Method.[14] Thomas’s Summa distilled Aristotle’s metaphysics and biblical truth with the teachings of the great Church Fathers. Those who were wealthy enough to afford a university education would have been trained by scholar-monks like Aquinas, or his mentor Albert the Great. For common people, and those who couldn’t afford an education, cathedrals were used as a poor man’s Bible to learn theology by elaborate sculptures or stained glass images. One of the many remarkable examples are the intricately crafted stained glass windows of the 13th century cathedrals of Chartres and Sainte-Chapelle in France. The iconography in the windows of Sainte-Chapelle recounts the stories and characters from the Old Testament, leading ultimately to John the Baptist and the Passion of Christ.

At the cathedral of Notre Dame, in Paris, Christian pilgrims and worshippers would have walked under the central doorway of the west portal and seen the tympanum, a large panel over the doorway covered with elaborate carvings depicting Christ and the Last Judgement as it is described in the book of Revelation. Even though it is much earlier than the great cathedrals of Western Europe, Hagia Sophia also embodies theological truth in its design, function and purpose.

Justinian’s Hagia Sophia: Origins

On December 27, 537, Hagia Sophia (The Church of Holy Wisdom) was ceremonially dedicated with great pomp and celebration. Its soaring dome, marble pillars, and dazzling gold mosaics were witnesses to the great throng of celebrants and worshippers, including the Emperor Justinian himself and his wife, Empress Theodora, their royal entourage bedecked with fine jewels and dressed in their finest for the occasion.

The massive structure dedicated in 537 was not the first church built on that spot. There were two other buildings before it. The first one was known as Megale Ekklesia (The Great Church), and was built either by Emperor Constantine himself, or more likely by his son, Constantius II (A.D. 340-361). The rectangular Roman styled basilica was dedicated in 360. In 404, the timbered roof church caught fire and burned to the ground. A second church was built on the same spot in the following centuries. It was commissioned by Theodosius II (A.D. 408-450), but it too was destroyed in a fire in the aftermath of a massive city-wide riot that broke out in the Hippodrome—the infamous Nika riots of January, 532. The Nika riots were some of the most violent in the city’s history, resulting in the destruction and burning of a great many buildings, and the death of nearly thirty thousand rioters. The massive conflagration hit the center of the city, destroying part of the Imperial Palace, the church of St. Irene, and the baths of Zeuxippus among other notable buildings in Constantinople.

As the city lay smoldering from the riots, plans were already underway to rebuild, with special emphasis given to the Great Church. Citizens of the city, as well as the Emperor himself, were eager to begin rebuilding. As noted Byzantine historian John Julius Norwich explains:

…for the Emperor and people alike, there was work to be done. Their capital lay in ruins around them; it must be rebuilt – where possible, on a yet grander and more impressive scale than before. The priority was St. Sophia itself. This, Justinian resolved, was to be his own creation, and he lost no time. On 23 February 532, work began on the third and final Church of the Holy Wisdom.

Justinian’s building was to bear no resemblance to its two predecessors. First, it was to be infinitely larger – far and away the largest religious building in the entire Christian world. It would be square rather than rectangular, reaching its climax not with its apsed sanctuary at the eastern end, but with its high central dome. So revolutionary was the concept, indeed, that it seems likely that the Emperor was already planning it with his two chosen architects, Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus, long before the Nika rising made it necessary; for all their undoubted genius, they could hardly have prepared their drawings under six weeks. From the outset Justinian seems to have given the two men carte blanche. His only stipulations were that the building should be of unparalleled magnificence, and that it should be erected in the shortest possible time.[15]

In order to speed up construction, Emperor Justinian held competitions in order to encourage workers to complete their work early. Those who were successful were rewarded with gold from the Emperor. Construction on Hagia Sophia started on February 23, A.D. 532, and was completed in just 5 years and 10 months. It was consecrated on December 27, A.D. 537.

Procopius of Caesarea was a contemporary historian in the court of Justinian. In his book, De Aedificiis (On Buildings), he refers to the previous church and makes a bold comparison to the third and final one built by Justinian.

Thus the [previous] church was entirely reduced to ashes, the Emperor Justinian not long afterwards adorned it in such a fashion, that if anyone had asked Christians in former times if they wished their church to be destroyed and thus destroyed, showing them the appearance of the church which we now see, I think it probable that they would have prayed that they might as soon as possible behold their church destroyed, in order that it might be turned into its present form.[16]

One might be tempted to think Procopius’s account was hyperbolic for royal propagandistic purposes, except that the latest building remains today, and one can see the truth of his descriptions. Continuing in his book, De Aedificiis, Procopius goes to great lengths to describe the Hagia Sophia built by Justinian. One of the many unique and distinguishing characteristics of the church, according to Procopius, is the great amount of sunlight which pours into the interior space. He writes that the church,

…is distinguished by indescribable beauty, for it excels both in its size and in the harmony of its proportion, having no part excessive and none deficient; being more magnificent than ordinary buildings, and much more elegant than those which are out of proportion. It is singularly full of light and sunshine; you would declare that it is not lighted by the sun from without, but that the rays are produced within itself, such an abundance of light is poured into this church.[17]

These massive sunlit corridors described by Procopius, were put into full service, displaying vibrant mosaics depicting saints, angelic beings, and biblical characters. Byzantine mosaicists were masters of their art. On each tiny surface of each mosaic tile, craftsmen would carefully cut them to face the closest, and largest, windows of the building in order to capture and reflect the maximum amount of sunlight, so the image in the mosaic would glow and come to life. Like digital pixels, the dazzling sunlit mosaics of Hagia Sophia were an ancient precursor to the jumbotron screens found in most large stadiums today. Visitors would have been awestruck at the sight of them, and worshippers were visually transported back in time to the world of the Old Testament saints and New Testament apostles.

Architectural historian Cyril Mango confirms Procopius’s account of the grandiosity and uniqueness of Justinian’s Hagia Sophia. He writes:

The design had no close antecedents. It was made up of elements that were current at the time, but these elements, as far as we know, had not been previously put together in the same combination. Nor was St. Sophia imitated in the following centuries – that is, not until the Ottoman mosques of the sixteenth century. This uniqueness makes St. Sophia difficult to classify. It has been called a domed basilica because it has a longitudinal axis and rows of columns on either side of the nave …The main problem of St. Sophia lay, however, in its scale. Byzantine architects had long experience in building domes, but a dome 100 feet in diameter that was not resting on solid walls but was “hanging in the air” – this was something that had not been done before.[18]

Justinian’s brilliant architect-geometers, solved the massive dome “problem” with mathematical and structural genius and precision. They designed towering stone piers to support the dome, seamlessly hidden into the external structure. The result was the tallest domed building in the world for nearly a thousand years. Its height would not be surpassed until Brunelleschi’s dome was completed in 1436 on the Florence Cathedral (Duomo di Firenze). Hagia Sophia’s dome is 108 feet in diameter, and soars 180 feet from its crown to the marble floor below. Upon completion of the massive undertaking, Justinian is said to have uttered the words, “Solomon, I have outdone thee!”

The dome’s cavernous space added to the building’s ability to evoke transcendence and otherworldliness, not only in terms of interior space, but also in the acoustic signature of the space itself – something that cannot be explained, but only experienced in person. In recent years, Bissera V. Pentcheva, a professor of art history at Stanford University, has conducted extensive research into the unique sound inside Hagia Sophia.[19] Utilizing high-tech audio equipment, Pentcheva was able to capture a digital-acoustic signature of the interior space of the building. In a fascinating process called “auralization,” she is now able to imprint the interior space of Hagia Sophia onto pre-recorded or live sounds. Using recordings from the Portland based choral group Capella Romana which features ancient music of the 13th Century, Pentcheva has reproduced what medieval chants and songs actually sounded like in the interior space of Hagia Sophia. The results are thrilling.[20]

The beauty of Hagia Sophia is truly multifaceted. Not only does the structure contain architectural marvels never before achieved until that time and the greatest mosaic art ever created, Hagia Sophia also had a soul designed for one purpose only—to glorify Christ, the Holy Wisdom of God in human flesh.

The Battle for Beauty

After his conquest of Constantinople in 1453, Mehmed II rode into the city through the Canon Gate (called Topkapi in Turkish), went straight to Hagia Sophia, and ordered it to be protected. Shortly thereafter, he called for an Imam to go inside and chant the Muslim shahadah, “I testify that there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet.” The cavernous walls of the basilica that once resonated with music in praise of Christ and homilies of the “golden tongued” preacher John Chrysostom were now reverberating with the Muslim call to pray and worship Allah alone. The moment this happened, something of the original beauty and truth of the building was lost.

When Mehmed II walked into Hagia Sophia, it had already been standing for nearly a thousand years. Very soon thereafter, he converted the largest, and most elaborately decorated Christian basilica in the world into a mosque, using funds from a trust called a waqf (a charitable endowment under Islamic law).

Mehmed’s conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque was symbolic in at least two ways: first, as a casualty of becoming a trophy of war and, secondly, as a gesture of the triumph of Islam over the Christian East. As recently as July 2020, the Turkish government under president Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that Hagia Sophia would be converted back into a mosque, annulling an earlier 1934 ruling which designated the building as a museum. The decision sparked an international outcry including concerns from UNESCO which designated the building as a “World Heritage Site” and the World Council of Churches.[21]

Whether it is the debate over the use of icons in worship during the iconoclastic controversy or the question of whether or not to designate the structure as a mosque, church, or museum, the battle over Hagia Sophia is a bold reminder that beauty can be a fierce battleground. Dostoyevsky reminds us of this truth in The Brothers Karamazov:

Beauty is a terrible and awful thing! It is terrible because it has not been fathomed, for God sets nothing but riddles. Here the boundaries meet, and all contradictions exist side by side. The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there, and the battlefield is the heart of man.[22]

The battle over the meaning, purpose and function of Hagia Sophia serves as a mirror to what goes on in the hearts of every person living today. Like Eve in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:6), we desire the beautiful, but we’d rather dispense with the truth and the goodness interconnected to it. The three, however, are cemented together with an unbreakable bond. In his monumental work, The Glory of the Lord, Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar states that, “Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance.”[23]

Simply put, beauty should not and cannot be separated from truth and goodness, and conversely, truth and goodness should not be separated from beauty. This is simply the way God has structured reality. God is good, true, and beautiful and his very being is the fountainhead and source of that is.

It is precisely in the midst of this tangled and yet unbreakable bond of truth, goodness, and beauty that the modern day apologist must wrestle with in our attempts to communicate truth to the current cultural milieu. The primary reason why all three are necessary in communicating and defending the Gospel is because we are made in God’s image. As philosopher Peter Kreeft points out, “We are head, hands, and heart. We respond to truth, goodness and beauty … because we are images of God.”[24]

Divorcing Beauty

If the mysterious and unbreakable bond of goodness, truth, and beauty is true of all reality, then it also holds true for the church of Hagia Sophia. In 1453, when Mehmed II saw the church upon entering Constaninople, he recognized its physical beauty and refused to raze it to the ground. He did not, however, see the truth of why it was built, nor the goodness of giving honor to and worshipping Christ as God’s only Son. Having lost its connection to truth and goodness after it was converted into a mosque, Hagia Sophia’s beauty was dimmed and tarnished from its previous effulgent grandeur. It now only contains vestiges of its former glory and beauty.

We can learn a lot from the history of a building. Just as Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror divorced the beauty of Hagia Sophia from its goodness and truth, so do many people today, in search of fulfillment and happiness in beautiful things, divorce and amputate beauty from truth and goodness.

Thinkers through the centuries, from King Solomon to St. Augustine, Blaise Pascal, Søren Kierkegaard, and Oscar Wilde, have pointed out that those who seek the beautiful as sensual pleasure (Kierkegaard’s “Aesthetic stage”) to the exclusion of the good and the true are doomed to a life of futility and unfulfillment.[25] This may explain our modern culture’s obsession with bodily beauty, outward appearances, and illicit sensuality that is still characterized by great emptiness and longing for spiritual significance.[26] One might be tempted to say that this is unique to our modern culture, but in reality it has always been this way.

The problem we grapple with today, which has been grappled with since the Garden of Eden, is the fact that beauty can be utilized by Satan in the service of falsehood and evil (Genesis 3:1-10). What is evil and false can be presented in a beautiful manner. Indeed, Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14).[27] In his brief introduction to beauty, English philosopher Roger Scruton highlights this paradoxical dynamic.

Someone charmed by a myth may be tempted to believe it; and in this case beauty is the enemy of truth. A man attracted to a woman may be tempted to condone her vices; and in this case beauty is the enemy of goodness. Goodness and truth never compete, we assume, and the pursuit of the one is always compatible with a proper respect for the other. The pursuit of beauty, however, is far more questionable. From Kierkegaard to Wilde the ‘aesthetic’ way of life, in which beauty is pursued as the supreme value, has been opposed to the life of virtue.[28]

Throughout the Bible, we see concrete, flesh and blood examples of this Dostoyevskian  battleground. Adam and Eve are lured away from intimacy and fellowship with God because Eve “saw that the fruit was good (טוֹב֩ ṭôḇʹ- from the Hebrew, meaning “beautiful”), and gave it to her husband.”[29] The problem wasn’t in the intrinsic beauty of the fruit, but in the fact that God had stated beforehand that “it wasn’t good to eat of it, lest they would surely die.”[30] In Genesis 6 the great worldwide flood is brought on because “the sons of God, saw that the daughters of men were beautiful, and took wives for themselves.”[31] The writer of Proverbs warned his sons against the charms and beauties of the wayward woman, a danger displayed in vivid and tragic detail in the story of Samson and Delilah as well as David and Bathsheba.

Once again, the task of the modern apologist is to communicate Christian truth into a “peek-a-boo culture” saturated with highly curated, edited, and sensuous images and videos. There are three powerful allies at our disposal: truth, goodness, and beauty. It is in the realm of the beautiful that truth needs a voice today among apologists and theologians. It is a powerful ally that has been neglected. Additionally, and somewhat paradoxically, goodness and truth are beautiful in and of themselves, apart from any outward adornment or decoration.[32] Mother Teresa of Calcutta was not beautiful by the standards of the world, but her beautiful spirit radiated outwardly in her acts of love and compassion for the poor and impacted the world even to today. Indeed, there is great beauty in holiness, self-sacrifice, love, and reconciliation.

The Incarnation and the Reason Behind Beauty

The idea of making a connection between the human body and buildings dates back to at least the time of the New Testament. In 2 Cor. 5:1 the Apostle Paul states, “…we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.” Elsewhere, in 1 Cor. 6:16 he rhetorically asks, “…Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, who you have received from God?” In addition to the Apostle Paul, another 1st century writer and scholar made the connection between the human body and buildings. His name was Vitruvius, and in his book, De Architectura, he codified the principles of Greco-Roman buildings which would impact hundreds of generations of architects and designers up to the present day. Essentially, Vitruvius held that in order for a building to be beautiful, it had to be symmetrical and have the same proportions as a human body.[33]

Symmetry springs from the proportion that the Greeks called analogy: no building can be satisfactorily ordered in the absence of analogy with the correct proportions of the human body.[34]

What Hagia Sophia represents in stone, masonry, and glass is the architectural expression of the truth of the Incarnation, where the eternal God entered a human body and displayed the truth and the goodness of His being and love. In coming to earth in human form, God the Father displayed His holy wisdom, His Hagia Sophia, in the person of Christ, who both evangelizes (kerygma) us and defends (apologia) the Truth of Who He is by rising from the dead. His crucifixion was ugly and yet beautiful at the same time. It was both evil and good at the same time. In Christ, all of the apparent contradictions and tensions between truth, goodness, and beauty are met in one Person.

It is precisely in the crucifixion of Christ that the three polar opposites of truth, goodness and beauty (lies, evil, and ugliness) meet and crash in a head-on cosmic collision. It is here at the cross, as Thomas Dubay so eloquently points out, that “In this consummate ugliness, this unspeakable outrage, shines a picture of divine beauty immeasurably beyond all earthly splendors: utter love from the depths of kenosis, the divine emptying sung in a very early liturgical hymn reported to Paul to the Philippians (Phil. 2:5-11).”[35]

In our work of evangelism and apologetics, we must always remember that beauty is ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit who sings within and through us as we also humbly empty ourselves in order to allow His beauty to shine forth in us.[36]

As the Roman architect Vitruvius states, “The nature of a beautiful building lies in its proportion, the quality of the materials, the inner and outer adornment, and its setting in the landscape or city.”[37] And as Procopius said of Hagia Sophia, it “stood out” from all the other buildings. Yet, the beauty of Hagia Sophia was not merely in its architectural grandeur, but in the substance of the message for which it was created – to tell the truth about the world, about God, and His unspeakable love for humankind in sending the person of Christ (Jn. 3:16). The nature of a saint is to reflect the beauty of Christ, who had no outward beauty, and yet was beautiful because of the truth of who He was, and because of the goodness of what He did on the cross. For as Paul tells us, “we are his workmanship [artwork], created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”[38]

In a broken world filled with spiritual and physical ugliness, the truth and goodness of Christ, as it is beautifully lived through His saints, and embodied in structures designed to glorify Him, can perhaps be like John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness, opening hearts, eyes, and ears to truly see and hear the good news of Christ.

Citation Information

Ted Wright, “Hagia Sophia and the Evidential Power of Beauty: Divine Architecture as Apologetics,” An Unexpected Journal 3, no. 3. (Fall 2020), 199-230.

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[1]See Jn 1, Col. 1.

[2] For a more fully developed philosophy of architecture see, Roger Scruton, The Aesthetics of Architecture (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979).

[3] “Meditation in a Toolshed,” in God in the Dock (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 212-15 [italics mine].

[4] C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” in The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses (San Francisco: Harper, 1949), 25 [italics mine].

[5] C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (New York: Harper Trophy, 1998), 8-14.

[6] Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), 70.

[7] Thomas Dubay, The Evidential Power of Beauty: Science and Theology Meet (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999), 73.

[8] Lewis, The Weight of Glory, 26.

[9] Holly Ordway, Apologetics and the Christian Imagination: An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith (Steubenville, Ohio: Emmaus Road, 2017), 129-30. A similar sentiment is echoed by Rod Dreher, in his book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (New York: Sentinel, 2017), 117: “As times get uglier, the church will become brighter and brighter, drawing people to its light. As this happens, we Christians should not be afraid to consider beauty and goodness as our best evangelistic tools. ‘Art and saints are the greatest apologetic for our faith,’ said Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI. Why? Because seeing examples of beauty and extraordinary goodness bypasses our rational faculties and strikes the heart. We immediately respond to beauty and goodness and desire what they reveal. As philosopher Matthew Crawford puts it, ‘Only beautiful things lead us out to join the world beyond our heads.’”

[10] Umberto Eco, Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002), 4.

[11] Gothic architecture of the middle ages emerged out of the earlier Romanesque style, which itself contained innovative developments adapted from earlier simpler Byzantine basilicas.

[12] See, Brenton H. Cook, “Theology in Stone: Gothic Architecture, Scholasticism, and the Medieval Incarnational View of Knowledge,” in Christus Cultura: Journal of Christianity and the Social Sciences. Volume 2, Issue 1, April 2020, 15-24. For a more fully developed philosophy of architectural aesthetics see Roger Scruton’s, The Aesthetics of Architecture (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979).

[13] See, Erwin Panofsky, Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism: An Inquiry into the analogy of the arts, philosophy, and religion in the Middle Ages (New York, Meridian Books, 1985). Also, H. Reed Armstrong, “Art and Liturgy: The Splendor of Faith,” in Crisis Magazine (October 1998).

[14] The term “Scholasticism,” and “Scholastic” comes from the Latin word, scholasticus, meaning of or pertaining to schools. The “Scholastic method” was a method of study by raising questions, then answering them, then asking counter-questions, and finally counter answers, arriving at a conclusion or solution to the initial question. The method was intended to mimic a live discussion, dialogue, or debate.

[15] John Julius Norwich, A Short History of Byzantium (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), 65.

[16] Procopius, On Buildings, Book I, In The Complete Procopius Anthology,, Digital edition, Loc 9866 [brackets mine].

[17] Ibid. Loc 9918. Procopius continues, describing as best he could, the experience of entering the Great Church of Holy Wisdom: “The entire ceiling is covered with pure gold, which adds glory to its beauty, though the rays of light reflected upon the gold from the marble surpasses it in beauty… Who could tell of the beauty of the columns and marbles with which the church is adorned? One would think that one had come upon a meadow full of flowers in bloom: who would not admire the purple tints of some and the green of others, the glowing red and glittering white, and those too which nature, like a painter, has marked with the strongest contrast of colour? Whoever enters there to worship perceives at once that it is not by any hands of human strength or skill, but by the favour of God that this work has been perfected; his mind rises sublime to commune with God, feeling that He cannot be far off, but must especially love to dwell in the place which He has chosen; and this takes place not only when a man sees it for the first time, but it always makes the same impression upon him, as though he had never beheld it before. No one ever became weary of this spectacle, but those who are in the Church delight in what they see, and, when they leave it, magnify it in their talk about it…”

[18] Cyril Mango, Byzantine Architecture (New York: Rizzoli, 1978), 61.

[19] See her fascinating book, Hagia Sophia: Sound, Space and Spirit in Byzantium (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2000).

[20] To listen, go to, “The Sound of Hagia Sophia More than 500 Years Ago,” featured on NPR. Also,

[21] “UNESCO Statement on Hagia Sophia, Istanbul,” UNESCO, July 10, 2020, accessed September 7, 2020,,said%20Director%2DGeneral%20Audrey%20Azoulay.

[22] Fyodor Dostoyevsky, “The Brothers Karamazov,” Project Gutenberg, accessed September 7, 2020,

[23] Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, Vol. 1: Seeing the Form (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1982), 18.

[24] Peter Kreeft, “Lewis’s Philosophy of Truth, Goodness and Beauty,” in David Baggett, Gary Habermas, and Jerry Walls, Editors, C.S. Lewis as Philosopher: Truth, Goodness and Beauty (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 25.

[25] Kierkegaard said that all men advance through three stages of human existence, which also represent certain lifestyles that people can choose (referred to as the “Stages along life’s way”). The first stage he called the “Aesthetic stage” in which man is defined primarily as a spectator, leaving his life completely to the mercy of external events. In order to escape from his boredom and tedium with existence, he plunges himself into hedonistic experiences yet is miserable. The second stage is the ethical stage, and the third and final is the religious stage, arrived at by a “leap of faith.” For more on the three stages, see Kierkegaard’s Stages on Life’s Way, Edited and Translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988).

[26] For example, see my, blog post,

[27] 2 Cor. 11:14. See also C.S. Lewis’s, The Screwtape Letters: Annotated Edition (New York: Harper One, 2013), and Peter Kreeft’s, The Snakebite Letters: Devilishly Devious Secrets for Subverting Society as Taught in the Tempter’s Training School (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993).

[28] Roger Scruton, Beauty (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 3.

[29] Gen. 3:6

[30] Gen. 2:17

[31] Gen. 6:2

[32] David Bentley Hart develops this theme extensively in his book, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003).

[33] In about 1490 the Italian Renaissance artist, Leonardo Da Vinci, made a drawing called “Vitruvian Man,” with notes accompanying it, based on the Roman architect Vitruvius. The drawing shows the symmetry and proportion of the human body as mentioned  by Vitruvius in his book De Architectura.

[34] Vitruvius, De architectura, III, 1.

[35] Dubay, 311.

[36] Matt. 5:14-16; 1 John 1:5.

[37] For more discussion of this quote, see Umberto Eco, History of Beauty, trans. Alistair McEwen (New York, Rizzoli, 2004) 61-81.

[38] Eph. 2:10.