Legacy

Legacy

One of the series of reconstruction drawings by Underwood refers to the dome of the Nea Ekklesia (New Church), the lost Constantinopolitan church founded by Basil I. The church was once located in the southern area of the Great Palace, and is now known only through literary sources, as is its major counterpart, the Holy Apostles.

Underwood’s drawing of the design was displayed at the 1946 Dumbarton Oaks Symposium dedicated to Hagia Sophia. The few handwritten notes that accompany the drawing disclose the working method of the team, which was based upon the meticulous scrutiny of textual evidence and “controlled”—in Underwood’s own words—“by the comparison of parallel monuments.”

The iconographic layout of the dome, crafted through the combination of motifs drawn from middle Byzantine manuscript illumination and monumental painting, is based upon a description found in Photios’s tenth homily. Today his text is almost unanimously accepted as referring, rather, to the palatine chapel dedicated to the Virgin of the Pharos, built at the very end of the Iconoclastic controversy by Basil’s predecessor, Michael III (r. 842–867). In the absence of any archaeological remains whatsoever, the words of the patriarch supply the imagination of scholars with an impression of the central dome’s decoration: “On the very ceiling is painted, in colored mosaic cubes, a man-like figure bearing the traits of Christ. Thou mightest say He is overseeing the earth, and devising its orderly arrangement and government. . . . In the concave segments next to the summit of the hemisphere, a throng of angels is pictured, escorting our Common Lord.” This very image served as the basis for the dome mosaic in Saint Sophia Cathedral in Washington, D.C., when Underwood suggested that it should be used to create an iconographic program close to post-iconoclastic ninth-century examples from Constantinople.

In a letter of 17 June 1963 to Father John Tavlarides from Saint Sophia Cathedral in Washington, D.C., Paul Underwood recommended that the iconographic program for the newly built Saint Sophia church should follow the programs introduced in Constantinople in the second half of the 9th century by the great theologians of the period following the end of the iconoclastic controversies. In his view, the dome should be devoted to the arrangement of the celestial hierarchy as revealed by Isaiah and should “be worked out along the lines of the drawing which [he] made some years ago.” Underwood’s very precise ideas for the entire iconographic program materialized when he became Head of the Interior Decoration Committee for Saint Sophia. In this capacity, he supervised the mosaic artist Demetrios Dukas in the creation of the mosaic decoration from 1964 until his death in 1968.

 

Exhibit Items