James Turrell & the Hagia Sophia: Meditation and Contemplation of Light, Time, and Space

Written November 8, 2017

By definition, a formative space is a space that elicits a certain reaction from a viewer in context to the atmosphere.  Mainly the color, design, or environment will generate an emotional or intellectual response.  In churches and museums, often it is the architectural details that cue the viewer in how to respond. One of the best examples for this effect in churches is the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey.  Originally built as a church in the 7thcentury, the Hagia Sophia was later converted into a mosque and today is a museum.  Despite its different occupations, the grandness of the architecture has always stayed the same.  For galleries, James Turrell is the master at creating atmospheres with clean cut, simple architecture.  His exhibit on the top of the Student Activity Center at the University of Texas in Austin provides a calming refuge for students.  Both the Hagia Sophia and James Turrell’s “The Color Inside” create a hyperawareness of both self and surroundings through their use of light, time and space.  However, the Hagia Sophia leads the viewer to a state of meditation while “The Color Inside” leads to a state of contemplation. 

According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, meditation is the process of “[thinking] deeply or carefully about something.” In the Hagia Sophia, Anthemius, the architect, combines a grand scale with an overabundance of light to create a microcosm for a perfect universe. Needless to say, the whole universe seemingly caught in a single room is a wildly overwhelming setting.  In response, the viewer must turn inward to find their place in relationship to their surroundings, and in turn, the world. 

The Hagia Sophia was designed by Anthemius of Tralles in the 6thcentury and reconstructed after an earthquake by Isisdore.  Its grandest feature is the central atrium, the main sanctuary of the church.  It runs east to west like most churches, but at first sight it looks almost like a square.  In a description of the place, Procopius confesses the church can “without impropriety be described as both very long and extremely broad” (Bell 74).  The massive dome heightens the grand scale of the building that diminishes the viewer’s importance to their surroundings.  To prevent being swallowed by its size, the viewer must reestablish his or her significance within the Hagia Sophia by finding some purpose within themselves.

Along the base of the dome, arches harness the natural light.  When the rays hit at the right angle, it becomes almost impossible to see the arch supports through the brilliance of the sunshine.  The effect causes the dome to “float” above the rest of the church. The light’s thick beams also overlap and cross over each other, creating a plane of light that blocks the view of the dome.  Both of these effects fashion an illusion of a new sky overhead.  However, the sources of light are not just found around the dome. There are forty windows total in the main atrium (Jarus).  Also at night, candles lit in front of polished silver plates cast a cool sheen while the light from the chandeliers reflects off of other metallic surfaces nearby. According to Paul the Silentiary, the light looks “as if one were gazing at the midday sun in spring” (Bell 86).  Dazzlingly lit at all times, only a few shadows may change as the sun rises and falls.  To a viewer who is there for no more than a few hours, the place is stagnant. 

In so many ways the Hagia Sophia is a microcosm for a perfect universe.  The space is vast, light-filled, and never changing, similar to the eternal bliss the Christian God promises.  While it is not certain that Anthemius designed the Hagia Sophia to reflect these specific qualities, the architecture of later churches often alludes to a chosen attribute of God, mostly His power or omnipotence.  This is often done through the daunting height of some churches as well as the use of intimidating and inhospitable architecture.  In contrast in the Hagia Sophia, the light shining from the windows could symbolize a greater light that penetrates the soul and exposes the darkness within.  While the viewer may not jump to these conclusions right away, the formative nature of the place draws the viewer to a state of meditation as he or she comes to terms with not only their relationship to the space but also their relationship to God.  

While often thought to be the same thing, contemplation is very different than meditation.  According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, contemplation is “the action of looking thoughtfully at something for a long time.”  In 2013, James Turrell installed “The Color Inside,” a Skyspace, on top of Student Activities Center.  A Skyspace is a “[room] with sharp edged apertures in the ceiling that open to the sky” (Herbert).  In “The Color Inside,” Turrell uses simplistic architecture to highlight the ever-changing lights both within the Skyspace and without, leading viewers to constantly challenge their perception of their surroundings. 

Unlike the Hagia Sophia, “The Color Inside” is relatively small.  The Skyspace is a much more intimate setting compared to the vast atrium in the church, giving the viewer a sense of propinquity to the space and the sky. The minimalistic design helps produce this effect by guiding the eye to the oculus. However, because the oculus removes the context of a horizon or even the variation in shades of color a sunset produces, the sky looks flat.  After gazing at the oculus for a period of time, the eyes lose focus and the oculus seems to expand, looming over the viewer.

Not only does the oculus highlight the sky, but so does the light show from within the Skyspace.  Unlike the Hagia Sophia, the sources of light in the Skyspace are easily identifiable and accent the space rather than overwhelm the viewer.  The main source of light within the Skyspace is the colored LED lights that border the rim of the dome.  Although these lights do not dismember the top half of the dome, they do cast light around the oculus.  As the sky changes color with the sunrise and sunset, the LED light display changes colors too in order to highlight certain colors in the sky. According to Turrell, the color of the LED lights removes the same color of the light display from the sky, creating a contrast in colors between the sky and the dome.  For example, when the dome is purple, the sky is green.  The complementary colors form a visual paradox. Assuming the viewer has seen more than a few sunrises and sunsets, he or she knows that the sky never turns the shade of green that looms overhead.  However according to the eyes, there is also no doubt that the sky is that shade of green. Defining reality becomes an instant challenge. 

Even if the viewer is lucky enough to come to a conclusion about the color of the sky, the conclusion will stand for no longer than a few minutes when the LED lights change colors again.  The atmosphere within the Skyspace evolves rapidly, holding the viewer’s attention captive.  The fluid environment challenges the viewer to reevaluate the oculus and contemplate its reality. 

In order to move to a state of meditation, the viewer must establish his or her relationship to their surroundings. Since “The Color Inside” is always changing, the viewer cannot establish a solid relationship.  Thus, the viewer is stuck contemplating the space, never able to move toward meditation.  This seems to be the desired effect of “The Color Inside,” to cause the viewer to think about the artwork.  Unlike the Hagia Sophia, the Skyspace has no higher purpose or use other than to experience the art.  It is not a place designed for gathering, worship or community.  Rather it is made for the individual’s personal interaction with the light, sky, and architecture.

Both the Hagia Sophia and “The Color Inside” use space, light, and time as mediums to challenge the viewer.  However, while the Hagia Sophia challenges the viewer to meditate on their significance to the space, “The Color Within” causes the viewer to contemplate the space and their perception of it as it evolves.  The end results of the environments are indicative of their purposes.  The Hagia Sophia’s vast size and grandeur lead to a meditation on self in relation to surroundings, and important idea to be aware of in a church, especially self in relation to God and others.  “The Color Inside” is art made for the sake of art with no communal purpose, so it makes sense that the induced contemplative state is a personal one. 

Both Anthemius and Turrell were masters at using light as an art medium, harnessing its power and glory in ways never used before. They both managed to take something with no mass or substance and turn it into a solid entity that is almost more solid than the structure manipulating it.  Using the light, they created formative spaces that force the viewers to challenge their view and relationship with the world.  By challenging them to meditate and contemplate, Anthemius of Tralles and James Turrell slowly transform each person who enters their place, creating an effect that reaches far beyond the walls of their buildings.

Works Cited

Bell, Peter Neville, et al. Three Political Voices from the Age of Justinian: Agapetus “Advice to the Emperor” ; “Dialogue on Political Science” ; Paul the Silentiary “Description of Hagia Sophia”. Liverpool University Press, 2009.

Herbert, Lynn. “Essay by Lynn Herbert.” The Color Inside | LANDMARKS, Andrée Bober, landmarks.utexas.edu/artwork/color-inside.

Jarus, Owen. “Hagia Sophia: Facts, History & Architecture.” LiveScience, Purch, 1 Mar. 2013, www.livescience.com/27574-hagia-sophia.html.

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