Meditation in Hagia Sophia: The Throne of Humanity

Christianity is a sneaky religion and can be surprisingly subversive - even in its triumphalism. Hagia Sophia is an extended meditation of the glory of thrones: the Omphalos ('navel of the world' although the 'real' one is, of course, in the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem) is here where the Emperors were crowned for centuries; 

the great dome represents the Throne flanked by seraphim; the mosaics are all of Christ enthroned either as child or as king. 

However I apprehended something today in a new way. I was meditating on the mosaic of the Blessed Virgin and St John the Baptist interceding with Christ as judge (Pantocrator), in an upstairs gallery for the clergy, to have mercy on mankind. 

Several teenage girls wandered by stopping briefly to fix their hair, puff out their lips and take selfies with Him, a young man was jealously telling off his girlfriend for having allowed her photo to be taken with a male friend of his that had appeared on Facebook, a western woman was scowling self-righteously at a Turkish woman in a full body burka and niqab, while some intoxicated Russians wandered through laughing way too loudly. I was thinking about the sack of Constantinople by the Western crusaders, the fall of Byzantium and Christianity to Islam, the fate of the Syrian and Armenian Christians that followed under the Ottoman Empire, the conversion of Hagia Sophia from Patriarchal and Imperial Cathedral to a Mosque and then a government museum, the current persecution of the original Greek Christians in the city, and even the peril and tension being faced by His All Holiness following the recent coup and the government purges. Needless to say I was being a bit melancholic. 

Then the Friday call for prayer began from the Blue Mosque and broke my reverie. I looked again and realised that the Virgin and the Baptist’s faces were both so sad and yet also so loving.- and it became peacefully and compassionately clear. The throne of Christ IS humanity in all its weakness and glory. The Blessed Virgin who holds Him as child in her lap is His Throne. 

I have known this aspect of Christian iconography for years, but I suddenly experienced it in a subtle new way and the people around me no longer looked quite the same as they had a minute before. 

Whilst I made my way outside I noticed that this message had been there all along in plain sight: the simple depiction of Christ as an enthroned Book of the Gospels 

above the grandiose Imperial Doors; 

the humble image of the cross as an enthroned emperor opposite the place of the Emperor's coronation; 

the use of the Blessed Virgin as the central throne motif in the apse instead of the usual Christ Pantocrator, 

thereby emphasising the humbling of Christ to become man in the Incarnation and thus imbuing all humanity with dignity; and the passage of the Gospel open in Christ' lap in the mosaic of the emperor prostrate at Christ's feet that he had to pass under to be enthroned and attend divine services. The passage? 

John 10:11 - "’I am the Good Shepherd’…and the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the life of the sheep’.