Saturday, November 29, 2014

Why Art History - The Treasures of Constantinople

Pope Francis is on a three-day visit to Turkey where he is spending Saturday and Sunday in Istanbul as a guest of Patriarch Bartholomew. I thought this would be a good occasion to recall another Papal visit to Constantinople in 523 by Pope John I. Bishop Ecclesius of Ravenna (mentioned below) was part of his entourage. There is one theory that Anicia Juliana might have commissioned the Church of St. Polyeuktos in accordance with this trip.

The following is an article that was originally posted on Hasan Niyazi's website Three Pipe Problem in August 2013 as a response to the question Hasan posed "Why Art History?"

The remains of the 6th century Church of St. Polyeuktos
It all started with peacocks... those dazzling creatures that represented the eternity of the spirit and had associations with Roman empresses... There once was a church, built by a royal princess who was the noblest in the land, that had a golden dome and was lavishly decorated with the most precious marbles from the empire, colors of green, blue and gold glittering everywhere, with peacock motifs decorating column capitals and niches around the church, it was known to have been inspired from the temple of Solomon. No one knew of its existence till half a century ago when magnificent marble fragments appeared as if by magic in the middle of Istanbul... This, was the Church of St. Polyeuktos in Constantinople, built in the 6th century by Anicia Juliana, a descendant of both Eastern and Western emperors ...

Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem
The first time I had every heard of the Church of St Polyeuktos was when I was doing a book review for this blog on And Diverse are their Hues, exploring the significance of color in Islamic art and culture. In his article "Blue Behind Gold: Inscription of the Dome of the Rock and its Relatives" Dr. Lawrence Nees gave the example of St. Polyeuktos as being one of the fore-bearers for the color scheme and type of decoration used on Dome of the Rock. Dr. Nees painted a radiant picture of a Byzantine church with peacock blue and green used behind gold inscriptions that left me enthralled with this mysterious, magnificent structure and its founder, I had to find out more...

It was during my semester in Istanbul last fall, at a visit to Istanbul Archaeology Museum, I recalled Anicia Juliana and her church once again, upon seeing a capital with peacock motifs. I found the section set aside for the Church of St. Polyeuktos among the Istanbul galleries of the museum, identified by the name of the present day neighborhood where they had been excavated, Saraçhane. There were some beautiful, intricately carved late antique marble works, capitals and columns with a few colored glass still intact, but visualizing the splendor and comprehending the significance of this church required more research.

After inquiring, I learned that Saraçhane was the neighborhood directly across from the Istanbul municipality, near the aqueduct of Valens and the fragments leading to the discovery of this church were found during grading operations in the area in the 1960's. As a matter of fact, I had probably passed by the site, which is labeled an "Archaeological Park," thousands of times in my lifetime. It had been right there, where I took the right turn to go to the antique flea-market, Horhor, one of my favorite haunts in Istanbul. This was just another one of the remains of the Byzantine past buried beneath that great capital of Empires, Istanbul, it's fate, sadly recalling the neglected history of Byzantium.

Ruins of St. Polyeuktos with the view of Aqueduct of Valens
Ruins of St. Polyeuktos with the view of the Istanbul Municipality
So, what was so special about this church and how did we compile a whole picture from the bits of marble strewn about? And where did Solomon's temple fit into all of this? This, is the great wonder of archaeology and art historical research, they tell us the tales of the people and places of the past, bringing to life a culture, a way of life that has been long gone and sometimes even forgotten for centuries but still relevant to us today. From the myth surrounding it about being an exact replica of the Temple of Solomon to its extraordinary decoration program which appropriated distinctly Sassanian motifs next to classical Roman ones, the most ostentatious structure of it's day, Church of St. Polyeuktos, standing in the middle of the processional way, between the Forum Taori and the Church of the Holy Apostles, was waiting to tell us the story not only of its remarkable patron, who dared to challenge Justinian, but also the establishment of signs and symbols of divine and heavenly kingship in Late Antiquity.

One of the primary finds that helped to identify St. Polyeuktos was the inscriptions that were to be found around the fragmentary niches, the apse of which were filled with the outspread tail feathers of a peacock. The inscription was identified as the seventy-six line epigram recorded in a 10th century source, Palatine Anthology, which stated that it belonged to the church of the martyr Polyeuktos built by Anicia Juliana, the great-granddaughter of the empress Eudocia (wife of Theodosius II) "who built a structure to rival the temple of Solomon." Dr. Martin Harrison, who excavated the dig also discovered that the unit of measurement used in the church was the royal cubit as opposed to the Roman foot and the church measured 100 royal cubits feet square, the measurement of the Temple at Jerusalem, built by King Solomon in tenth century BCE. Princess Anicia Juliana had not only planned and executed one of the predominant signs of kingship in every detail of her church but she had also brazenly declared it like a manifesto in one of the most visible elements of the structure, the decorative inscription.

The Church of St. Polyeuktos appears in the Byzantine Book of Ceremonies, which mentions the emperor stopping here during imperial procession for Easter Mondays where he changed his candle before continuing along the Mese to the Church of the Holy Apostles. Another literary source that mentions the church of St. Polyeuktos and adds an interesting dimension to the whole construct is the sixth century story by Gregory of Tours. In this story, Juliana's confrontation with the "upstart" Justinian (he was of peasant stock while she had the blood of the Theodosian dynasty coursing through her veins) and her victory over him is told. Justinian looking for more revenue to fund his defense and building projects requests Juliana make a contribution to public funds. She humbly asks for time to gather her treasure and meanwhile instructs her workers to plate the roof of the church using all of her gold. When Justinian comes back, she takes him to the church where they kneel in prayer and when they are done, she points to their surroundings, and tells him to take what he likes. Since he is not about to take apart a house of God, Justinian is about to leave when Juliana gives him her emerald ring saying, "Accept, most sacred Emperor, this tiny gift from my hand, for it is deemed to be worth more than this gold." The passing on of the ring has been interpreted by scholars as the last member of the Theodosian dynasty passing on the right to rule to her successor. It is also assumed that Juliana was a disillusioned, old woman by now, neither her husband nor her son attaining what she deemed was rightfully theirs, the position of emperor.

From what can be gathered from the archaeological evidence and the remaining artifacts, St. Polyeuktos had been pillaged during the fourth crusade, some parts making their way to Europe and finally collapsed around the 13th century. Except for a few marble fragments in museums and the two pillars gracing the Piazzetta outside of the south walls of the San Marco under the auspices of Pillars of Acre, all that remains in place of this once magnificent church whose influence can be seen from the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul to the S. Vitale in Ravenna is the substructure. Some scholars believe the workers that created the splendid, marble decorations for the church were recruited by Bishop Ecclesius on his visit to Constantinople to go to work in S. Vitale in Ravenna while others probably worked on Justinian's two churches, SS. Sergius and Bachus, and Hagia Sophia, that bear a striking resemblance in the quality and type of marble sculpture to St. Polyeuktos. This is why Justinian's legendary quote upon completion of the Hagia Sophia, "Solomon I have outdone thee!" is believed actually to be addressing Juliana.

Pillars of Acre, Venice, from the Church of St. Polyeuktos, Constantinople (source)
San Marco, Venice, taken from the Church of St. Polyeuktos, Constantinople (source)
Today, when I stand in Saraçhane Square and look around me, instead of seeing another busy, Istanbul thoroughfare with a sea of bustling humanity and throngs of vehicles passing through on their way to some other destination, I imagine the imperial procession approaching St. Polyeuktos, with large tapers in their hands or members of the factions, the demarche of the Blues with the deme of the Whites receiving the emperor and the criers saying "Your divine Majesty is welcome" and the acclamations of eulogy being chanted by the criers and the people... It's almost as if a silent, black and white movie just became a technicolor movie with sound. As I venture around the ruins, I try to imagine and draw courage from Anicia Juliana, a woman who was bold enough to compare herself to King Solomon 1500 years ago. When I consider the decorative cycle with those unique Sassanian inspired plant motifs, I get a glimpse of the far-reaching interaction between the two rival courts, cultures, and can't help but wonder how much more there is to know that we still haven't discovered or been able to see through our Greco-Roman centric, point of view. I liken the site to a momento mori in the inevitable abandonment and destruction of even such a significant structure when it fulfilled its usefulness.

Standing amidst the ruins of St. Polyeuktos
Art history is the visual manifestation of the common link that connects us to the past, the present day as well as the future. Every work of art I encounter has a story to tell about the time, the people, the culture and the world at large which broadens my perspective about the world I am living in and my place in it. My journey in the world of art history is a very personal one that has given me a sense of belonging. By studying the history of art, I not only discover the details of different cultures from history, I also find the common link that bonds us all together as human beings. St. Polyeuktos was obviously not the first work of art that I encountered to get me interested in this type of study and Byzantine art is not the only concentration I am interested in, when it comes to art history, I am not discriminating, I will take it all in. I have favorite artists and favorite time periods of course but as I progress further into my research, I realize that the two fundamental aspects that has me so enthralled every single time is how each work touches my soul and my intellect. I would like to thank Hasan for giving me this opportunity to share my thoughts on 3 Pipe Problem. One of the greatest benefits of blogging about art history has been the connections I have made with like minded individuals and I feel I owe a special thanks to Hasan for this as well. His generosity of spirit has been a connecting force for a lot of art history bloggers from all the corners of the world.

Marble bust of Anicia Juliana, Metropolitan Museum of Art (source)

1. Nees, Lawrence. Blue Behind Gold: Inscription of the Dome of the Rock and its Relatives. Video hosted by (link)

2. Canepa, Matthew P. Two Eyes of the Earth - Art and Ritual of Kingship between Rome and Sasanian Iran. University of California Press. 2010. Preview available at Google Books (link)

3. De Cerimoniis (ed. A. Vogt, pp. 68 and 43-4; ed. Reiske, pp. 75-6 and 50) Translated by M. Harrison. Excavations at Sarachane in Istanbul. Vol. 1. Princeton University Press. 1986. pp.9-10

4. Gregory of Tours - Glory of the Martyrs. Translated by R. Van Dam. Liverpool University Press. 1988. Preview available at Google Books (link)

5. Harrison, RM Excavations at Sarachane in Istanbul. Vol.1 The Excavations, Structures, Architectural Decorations, Small Finds, Coins, Bones, and Mollusc. Princeton University Press, 1986

6. Harrison, M. A Temple for Byzantium. University of Texas Press. 1989.

7. Mango, C and Sevcenko, I. Remains of the Church of St. Polyeuktos at Constantinople. Dumbarton Oaks Papers. Vol. 15. 1961.

8. Palatine Anthology. Book I - Christian Epigrams. pp.7-11. Available online at The Internet Archive (link)

1 comment:

  1. Hello
    Excuse my english. You have any informations about a huge earthquake that took place in the southeast europe in the late 520s, with destructions leveling C/ple port(s) and affecting climate from M.East to W.Europe and secondly if you think that Anastasius (Justinian was just a soldier who overthrow Anastasius and maybe thanks to natural disasters)was the obstacle for a kind of christianity that Anikia and people from her class wanted to implement?


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