This essay explores the ways in which art communicates political agendas, stances, and ideas. By examining the form, style, materials, historical context, and location of three religious structures, Santa Costanza, Hagia Sophia, and the Dome of the Rock, one can reveal underlying the political and social motivation behind their construction. Santa Costanza, a mausoleum for Saint Constantina, is representative of Emperor Constantine’s blending of pagan and Christian religious ideas during the Roman Empire’s transition from one form of worship to another. Hagia Sophia, with its bold architectural style and luxurious interior, is emblematic of Byzantine imperial power and divine favor. Lastly, the Dome of the Rock, a mosque built atop the holiest site in Judaism, is a metaphor for the belief that Islam is supreme among religions. All three illuminate the deep ties between the state and dominant religious institutions of the time while conveying very specific political notions.
Keywords: architecture, style, material, form, geography, religion, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Roman Empire, Byzantine Empire, Ottomans.
Various beliefs and ideas have shaped the function and aesthetic of architectural forms. Foremost among those influences has been the desire to convey political messages. Until the Age of Enlightenment, matters of state were deeply intertwined with the world of the sacred. Many timeless sanctuaries and shrines were constructed at the behest of and endowed with funding from the state. The Church of Santa Costanza in Rome, Italy (350 CE), the Church of Hagia Sofia (532-537 CE), and Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, Israel (687-692 CE) are structures that serve both sacred and profane purposes; all three buildings represent an official transition from one religious belief to another. Works of art, especially within the realm of architecture, absolutely express political ideas through their impressive composition, appropriation of various artistic styles, and, oftentimes, significant geographic location.
Santa Constanza is a fourth century CE central-plan church in Rome, Italy which served as the tomb of Constantina, the daughter of Emperor Constantine. The building is an excellent example of Early Christian art and architecture due to well-preserved condition of both the building itself and the mosaics within (Stokstad, Cothren, 2014, fig. 7-14B ). A circular structure, the church features a barrel-vaulted ambulatory and a lofty central space beneath a shallow dome. The dome sits upon a round drum which is visible from outside the church. A clerestory with twelve windows provides generous light for the central area of the church beneath the dome but leaves the ambulatory, which lacks any windows or other openings, somewhat dim. Santa Costanza was constructed with brick-faced concrete and the basic structure involves a vertical central axis and two rings supported by granite columns with composite capitals. The mausoleum’s original interior was covered in marble slabs and the apses, central dome, and ambulatory all featured colorful mosaics (fig. 7-15 ).
The political significance of Santa Costanza lies within who commissioned its construction and for whom. It’s purpose as Constantina’s tomb is an extension of her father, Constantine’s, religious reforms in which he ended imperial persecution of Christians and legalized Christianity (fig. 7-12). Throughout his reign, Constantine supported the emerging Christian church in a variety of ways, the most visible of which include the many religious structures he built. It is of significance that there are elements of both paganism and Early Christianity blended within the works Constantine ordered.
This blending of themes is exemplified in the motifs of Santa Costanza’s mosaics and the porphyry sarcophagus which holds the remains of Constantina. Both the sarcophagus and the mosaics in the ambulatory portray putti nestled between grape vines making wine. The addition of peacocks and sheep paint a very nature-inspired picture. These motifs have roots in pagan art, specifically with regard to the connection between wine production and the god Dionysus. Within a Christian context, however, crushing grapes acts as a metaphor for death and resurrection while the wine itself represents the Eucharist. Additionally, peacocks and sheep act as symbols for eternal life within the kingdom heaven and status as a follower of the Christ figure (figs. 7-12, 7-14). These combined images would have been familiar to Romans as emblems of the marriage of Greco-Roman pagan and Christian themes in this transitional time.
Another structure which represents political shifts in favor of a different religion is the Hagia Sophia, a church-turned-mosque-turned-museum located in Istanbul, Turkey. The basilica was commissioned by Emperor Justinian as part of an extensive building campaign and served as a symbol of both imperial power and the physical embodiment of divine wisdom . Designed by Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus and constructed between 532-537 CE, the building features a hybrid longitudinal- and central-plan architectural scheme (figs. 8-2, 8-3). It is dominated by an immense dome supported by four pendentives, which provide an aesthetically pleasing transition between the circular base of the dome and the rectangular base below. The presence of windows along the base of the dome serve three very important purposes: to flood the interior with natural light which reflects off beautiful marble slabs and mosaics, decrease the weight of the dome the base had to bear, and create the illusion that the dome is suspended from the heavens (fig. 8-4). This last point was intended to suggest that both a divine entity was responsible for the structural soundness of the daring architecture and favored the reign of Emperor Justinian. Justinian engineered this image with the intention to broadcast to his subjects the divinity of his rule. Additionally, the splendid interiors featuring polychrome marble, gold mosaics, and sophisticated carving techniques effectively communicated the wealth and prosperity of the Roman Empire to both Roman citizens and visitors to the empire (fig. 8-4).
In the fifteen centuries since the original construction of the Hagia Sophia, its purposed has changed several times. From a church serving several varieties of Christianity in the Dark Ages to mosque after the Crusades to it’s current incarnation as a museum representing secular interests, the Hagia Sophia has certainly acted as a conduit for the expression of political ideas by those who created it and those who appropriated it.
Like the Hagia Sophia, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is significant to those of several faiths. Along with Santa Costanza, the Dome of the Rock features a lavish dome supported upon a round drum as well as alternating piers and columns. The mosque utilizes a central plan with inner and outer ambulatories, reminiscent of Early Christian and Byzantine styles (fig. 9-4). Unlike its counterparts in Rome and Istanbul, however, this structure’s main value to the faithful lies in its physical location. The Dome of the Rock was built upon the remains of the the Temple Mount, a deeply important place where those of the Jewish faith believe the patriarch Abraham prepared his son, Isaac, for sacrifice and Solomon built his temple. The mosque was constructed between 688-692 and houses the Foundation Stone, which Jews believe was the first part of Earth created by God and Muslims believe was Muhammad’s starting point in his night journey from Jerusalem to heaven (fig. 9-4). The mosque’s placement upon the holiest spot of Judaism is an endorsement of the belief that Islam supersedes Judaism (and Christianity, by extension) and is foremost among religions. Additionally, while the exterior of the mosque recalls earlier styles popular among Christians, the interior designs with glass tesserae and inscriptions from the Qu’ran reflect a purely Islamic aesthetic (fig. 9-4).
The use of impressive architecture as means to a political end is nothing new. Just as those two thousand years ago created buildings anew and re-purposed those already standing, leaders today erect monuments to memorialize and legitimize themselves and their agendas. The results can be astounding or staggering. One need look no further than Mount Rushmore or the destruction of Palmyra as the hands of ISIL as examples. It would be foolish not to consider the role of art, and especially architecture, in the proliferation of political propaganda. As we examine fifteen hundred year old structures, we realize that the artists behind them knew, not only would they send a message to their contemporaries, but that these creations would stand the test of time and so would that message.
- Stokstad, M., & Cothren, M. W. (2014). Art History (5th ed., Vol. 1). Boston: Pearson.