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Hagia Sophia Trompe L’Oeil

Hagia Sophia trompe l'oeil, optical illusion painting

Something is not quite right with the Hagia Sophia gallery level.

The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul is one of the most beautiful buildings in the world.  The dome upon dome design creates an immense open space, but things are not exactly as harmonious as they seem.  To cover up the huge support structure, trompe l’oeil murals were added in the 19th century so that gallery would appear more uniform.  Finding these panels while you take in the breath-taking sight is an odd touch of reality in an otherwise divine architecture.

Hagia-Sophia layout with trompe l'oeil illusion paintings noted

Hagia-Sophia layout with arrows noting the optical illusion paintings

As you can see in the architectural plan above, there are massive piers along the central aisle.  Between these essential structural elements are arch and column lined balconies.  From the ground you can see through these arches to the bright yellow, blue and crimson painted gallery.  This current decorative scheme is contemporary to the 19th century restoration (see this image) but may have been based on designs developed during the conversion of the Hagia Sophia to a mosque in the 15th century.

Hagia sophia upper gallery

Hagia Sophia upper gallery

Presumably to give the space a more open appearance, panels imitating a ground floor view of the gallery were painted on the piers within the rhythm of the colonnade.  The red arrows on the plan mark the locations of the trompe l’oeil paintings.

Hagia Sophia trompe l'oeil, optical illusion painting

The trompe l’oeil illusion falls apart when viewed from the gallery level in the Hagia Sophia

The illusions are pretty obvious from the second story.  But as overwhelmed viewers try to take in the entirety of the Byzantine basilica from the ground floor, the illusions are actually fairly effective.

hagia sophia trompe l'oeil

Spot the trompe l’oeil panels here

 Hagia Sophia trompe l'oeil painting

Another section of Hagia Sophia trompe l’oeil panels viewed from the gallery

If anything, this is a good lesson in taking your time when viewing a work of art or building.  You’ll get a richer understanding of the object or place and may sometimes find a few hidden secrets!

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Reblogged this on Art History Ramblings.


    December 11, 2012
  2. Wow! I had no idea! Thanks for such a great post — will for sure look for them next time!


    December 12, 2012
  3. stunning


    December 14, 2012
  4. Great piece, and very interesting about the trompe l’oeil, I had no idea. I was lucky enough to go to Istambul, but when I was about 17/18, which unfortunately is now quite a long time ago! But I do remember what an incredible, spectacular city it is, stuffed with history & amazing things. Dying to get back, ever-increasingly so, these last few years. And, having read that, now more than ever.


    April 23, 2013

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  1. Set in Heaven: Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia) | Turkish Delight 2012

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