The Church and its Reflections

The Church and its Reflections

The Holy Apostles was one of the earliest foundations of Constantinople. According to Eusebius of Caesarea, the first structure—a mausoleum destined to house Constantine’s own mortal remains—was completed by the time of the emperor’s death in 337. As the same source records, it was originally conceived as twelve cenotaphs or markers raised in memory of the Apostles surrounding the emperor’s sarcophagus, an arrangement reminiscent not only of the Tomb of Christ set within the Anastasis Rotunda in Jerusalem, but also, according to a now lost Coptic source by a certain Chaeremon, possibly a member of the Museum in Alexandria in ca. 80 AD, of the setting of Alexander the Great’s burial.

It was most probably during the reign of Constantine’s son Constantius that the church of the Holy Apostles was built as a cruciform, timber-roofed basilica. In the middle of the sixth century, the basilica was replaced by a second magnificent edifice, meant to celebrate the glory of Justinian I. As Procopius of Caesarea records, the new plan kept the shape of a cross and was crowned by five domes, one on top of each of the arms and another at their intersection. On the occasion of this renovation, a new layout for the imperial tombs was also envisaged, since by then the church had become the official burial place of Byzantine rulers. With its profile defined by its domes—“five stars, welded together”—standing above the fourth of the city’s seven hills, the shrine shone brightly like a precious reliquary in the spiritual landscape of Constantinople. It was an important pilgrimage site through the centuries, housing the remains of the Apostles Andrew and Timothy, the evangelist Luke, the church fathers John Chrysostom and Gregory of Nazianzos, as well as fragments of the Column of the Flagellation of Christ.

Interest in the architectural complex continued into the middle Byzantine period (ninth–twelfth centuries), when it found reflections in the literary space of visually evocative rhetorical descriptions (ekphraseis), which describe the forms of the church and elaborate on the symbolic meanings associated with it. It is by way of these texts, notably the tenth-century poem of Constantine the Rhodian and the early thirteenth-century description of Nicholas Mesarites, that the image of the Holy Apostles has resisted oblivion, despite its destruction during the second half of the fifteenth century, when it was replaced by the Fatih Camii, a mosque dedicated to the conqueror of the Byzantine capital, the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II.

Across the centuries, the Holy Apostles remained influential, both as an architectural paradigm and an ideological referent. Morphologically related to it is the ninth-century church of St. Andrew at Peristera (near Thessalonike) and the tenth- or eleventh-century Ala Kilise in Cappadocia. Both reflect the Constantinopolitan prototype in their cruciform plan topped by five domes.

Moreover, the splendid forms of the church of the Holy Apostles found echoes in sumptuous architectural copies, such as the basilica of San Marco in Venice, an example of multilayered appropriation and reinterpretation of the Constantinopolitan model both at the level of architectural typology and symbolic meaning. An apostolic shrine, housing the remains of St. Mark, the building also reflected Venice’s growing political and commercial competition with the Byzantine capital. A further but less thoroughly investigated example of appropriation is the twelfth-century cathedral of Cefalù, envisaged by Roger II (r. 1130–1154) to serve both as a church for the newly founded archbishopric and as a dynastic mausoleum. Here, the church of the Holy Apostles became a powerful symbol in the definition of the ecclesiastical identity of the Norman reign of Sicily.

The church of the Holy Apostles is also depicted in Byzantine manuscript illumination. It appears in the Menologion of the Vatican Library, a late tenth-century hagiographical compilation prepared for the emperor Basil II, as well as in the twelfth-century Homilies on the Life of the Virgin by James the Monk of Kokkinobaphos. Early modern maps of the city of Constantinople show the monument with different shapes, varying according to the visual and cultural backgrounds of their creators, as exemplified by the Liber insularum archipelagi (The Book of the Islands of the Archipelago) by Cristoforo Buondelmonti (ca. 1380/90–after 1430) or the Liber Chronicarum (Book of Chronicles) by Hartman Schedel (1493).

This selective list of examples demonstrates how the church of the Holy Apostles became a powerful symbol, persisting across space and time, and serving the purposes of different historical and institutional contexts. Through these examples we might view the building as a floating referent, subject to reappropriation and transformation. In this elusive form, the church reemerged in the modern scholarly imagination.

 

Exhibit Items

Translation of St. Mark’s relics with the church of San Marco in background

Lunetta of the portal of St. Alipio, Basilica of San Marco, Venice. Photograph: Fani Gargova.

Dome of the Pentecost, Basilica of San Marco, Venice

First half of the twelfth century (fifteenth-century restorations). Photograph: Ekkehard Ritter, MS.BZ.009-SM0268.

View of the archaeological remains of the church of St. John, Ephesus

Fifth century. Photograph: Robert Ousterhout.

Architectural comparisons for the church of the Holy Apostles: central piers (St. John, Ephesus)

Notes and drawing by Paul A. Underwood. MS.BZ.019-03-01-051-226.

Translation of John Chrysostom’s relics with church of the Holy Apostles in background

Menologion of Basil II, BAV, ms. Vat. Gr. 1613, f. 61 r. Photograph from facsimile (Dumbarton Oaks RARE-FOLIO AO 78 .M4V32)

Translation of Timothy’s relics with church of the Holy Apostles in background

Menologion of Basil II, BAV, ms. Vat. Gr. 1613, f. 341r. Photograph from facsimile (Dumbarton Oaks RARE-FOLIO AO 78 .M4V32)

Translation of Luke’s relics with church of the Holy Apostles in background

Menologion of Basil II, BAV, ms. Vat. Gr. 1613, f. 121r. Photograph from facsimile (Dumbarton Oaks RARE-FOLIO AO 78 .M4V32)

Mosque of Mehmed II (Fatih Camii)

Photograph: Fani Gargova

Prospect of Constantinople, detail showing the mosque of Mehmed II (Fatih Camii)

Melchior Lorck (1526/27–after 1583). MS.BZ.019-03-01-051-187.

Architectural comparisons for the church of the Holy Apostles: intercolumniation

Notes and drawings by Paul A. Underwood. MS.BZ.019-03-01-051-226.

Architectural comparisons for the church of the Holy Apostles: central piers (San Marco, Venice)

Notes and drawing by Paul A. Underwood. MS.BZ.019-03-01-051-225.

Summary of G. Sotiriou’s architectural reconstruction of the Holy Apostles

Notes by Paul A. Underwood. MS.BZ.019-03-01-052-014.

Summary of K. Wulzinger’s architectural reconstruction of the Holy Apostles

Notes by Paul A. Underwood. MS.BZ.019-03-01-052-020.

Arrangement of the mosaic decoration of the Holy Apostles

Reconstruction by A. Heisenberg, copy made by Paul A. Underwood. MS.BZ.019-03-01-053-019.