Benjamin Anderson is a professor of art history who specializes in late antique and Byzantine art, architecture and visual culture; as well as the cosmology of the medieval world. He offers his insight into eight recently released images of the new St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church designed by architect Santiago Calatrava, a resurrection of the only house of worship destroyed during the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City.
“There is a long tradition of drawing on Byzantine architecture for American ecclesiastical architecture. So in one sense, this is not terribly remarkable.
“However, two things stand out here: the location, of course, and the specific reference to Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, including the 40 ribs of the dome.
“To the location, there is a tradition in the West of understanding Byzantium – and Constantinople in particular – as a ‘bulwark against the spread of Islam.’ In this sense the design of the church could be understood as provocative. On the other hand, there is a tradition in both Byzantine and Ottoman sources of understanding the design of Hagia Sophia as miraculous and divinely inspired. Byzantine sources tell us that an angel revealed its design. A 17th century Ottoman source tells us that the Prophet himself aided in the construction of its dome. In this sense one can understand the design as appropriately hopeful and ecumenical gesture.
“It is also worth remembering that the sixth century Hagia Sophia, the version that essentially stands today, also ‘rose from the ashes’ – it was built in the aftermath of a fire that destroyed most of the core of Constantinople.
“A complicating angle is that the proper function of the Hagia Sophia today remains a matter of controversy. Dedicated in its present form in 537, it was converted to a mosque in 1453 and became a museum in 1934 – but there has been a strong push lately to reopen it as a mosque. And, of course, it remains the ambition of many Orthodox Christians to be able to celebrate mass there.”