The domes of the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople

By accident I came across an old exchange on Twitter, criticising a reconstruction of the vanished church of the holy apostles in Constantinople.  The church was demolished by the invading Ottomans.

The church was originally constructed by Constantine, with his mausoleum at the rear, and rebuilt by Justinian.  It was in the usual square cross shape, with four aisles, each with a dome on it, and a higher central dome.

There is a depiction of it, from around 1000 AD, in Vaticanus gr. 1613, on fol. 353 (the Vatican site seems to be offline, but the ms should be here).  Here it is:

Note the tall domes, on a circular base pierced with windows.

The tweeter added images of churches following the same pattern: the church of San Marco in Venice:

Domes of St Mark’s in Venice

These may be rather higher than those of the Holy Apostles were, although it is hard to say how accurate the painted depiction is.  And the church of St Anthony in Padua likewise has domes atop circular bases:

Basilica of St Anthony in Padua

The tweet also referenced John Beckwith, Early Christian and Byzantine Art, 1986, p.222, to support the idea that the church was altered during the 10th century to raise the height of the domes:

Moreover, in spite of the lack of documentary sources the structure of the church of the Holy Apostles seems to have been thoroughly altered between 944 and 985. From representations of the church in the Menologion of Basil II (Vatican, gr. 1613) executed about 985 it appears that Justinian’s cupolas, of which four had been pendentive domes and only the central fifth had windows, were considerably modified.

In the Menologion all the domes are raised on drums pierced by windows, and the central dome is taller than the others. If the identification is correct, this form is confirmed by a miniature in two early-twelfth-century copies of the homilies of James of Kokkinobaphos (Vatican, gr. 1162, fol. 2; Paris, gr. 1208, fol. 3 verso [207]) showing a five-domed church with tall drums and windows and with the representation in one of the vaults of the Mission of the Apostles.

Now this scene is described by Nicolaos Mesarites shortly after 1200 as being in the central dome of Holy Apostles, and from his description, which is again incomplete, we learn that this decoration, though by and large conforming to the general pattern of the Twelve Feasts, was a great deal more complex than that described by Constantine of Rhodes. There were, for example, representations of St Matthew among the Syrians, St Luke preaching at Antioch, St Simon among the Persians and the Saracens, St Bartholomew preaching to the Armenians, and St Mark at Alexandria. Some of the scenes after the Resurrection are given in greater detail, such as the attempts of the priests to bribe the soldiers on guard at the Sepulchre and to suborn Pilate.

Whether this programme was worked out in the middle of the tenth century is difficult to confirm, but the church of the Holy Apostles was second only to Hagia Sophia in importance and more than once served as a model for other churches (in particular all three versions of S. Marco at Venice), and it continued to be the pantheon of the Byzantine Emperors until well into the eleventh century, the last Emperor to be buried there was Constantine VIII (d. 1028). The decoration of this church must always have been of prime importance. When the central dome collapsed after an earthquake in 1296, Andronicus II lost no time in rebuilding it.[10]

The claim that the domes were raised derives from Krautheimer’s Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture (many editions).  The claim was rejected by A.W. Epstein in “The rebuilding and redecoration of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople” (GRBS 23, 79-92, 1982; online here), mainly on the grounds of lack of evidence and the unreliability of manuscript decorations.

The original church raised by Justinian is clearly enough described by Procopius, as similar to that of Hagia Sophia but smaller, and likewise in the shape of a cross:[1]

That portion of the roof which is above the sanctuary, … is built, in the center at least, on a plan resembling that of the Church of Sophia, except that it is inferior to it in size. The arches, four in number, rise aloft and are bound together in the same manner and the circular drum which stands upon them is pierced by the windows, and the dome which arches above this seems to float in the air and not to rest upon solid masonry, though actually it is well supported. Thus, then, was the central portion of the roof constructed. And the arms of the building, which are four, … were roofed on the same plan as the central portion, but this one feature is lacking: underneath the domes the masonry is not pierced by windows.

There is a description written between 931-944 by Constantine of Rhodes, which I have just acquired, and need to read through.  It is full of flowery descriptions, so we’ll have to see what it actually contains!

  1. [1]Aed. 1.4.9-24, at 14-16.  See Loeb.

A drawing of the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople?

When the Muslims conquered Constantinople in 1453, one of their first actions was to tear down and demolish the Church of the Holy Apostles, the church to which the mausoleum of Constantine was attached, and to build on it the mosque of Mehmet the Conquerer.

I have never seen a drawing of the church until today.  But Ste Trombetti has kindly sent me a link to a digitised manuscript online, which contains an early map of the city of Constantinople!

The link is to a manuscript at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Plut.29.25, Christophori Ensenii descriptio cycladum et aliarum insularum.  It appears here, on p.74:

Constantinople 1420, Ensenius / Cristoforo Buondelmonti
Constantinople 1420, Ensenius / Cristoforo Buondelmonti

The image is not as high resolution as one might like, but I have zoomed in and got this, with the now vanished church in the very centre of field:

Ensenius_Constantinople_detail

The building is labelled “s[an]ctorum apostolorum” (“of the holy apostles”), with abbreviations.  The Hippodrome is to the right – note the towers of fortification around it.  Left of that are two columns, the right hand one labelled “hic Justinianus in equito porphyia” (“here is Justinian on a porphyry horse”).  Above the Church of the Holy Apostles is another column, labelled “hic Constantinus …” with two words underneath which I cannot read, referencing Constantine, of course.

It looks as if most of the churches stand inside a walled enclosure – remember that most of the city was just fields by this date.  But this may not be so, as we shall see.

The depiction of Hagia Sophia does not fill one with confidence that the pictures are very accurate, it must be said.  But it is certainly better than nothing!

The image itself is not an original, but a copy of a drawing by Cristoforo Buondelmonti, an early traveller, from his Liber insularum archipelagi.  Another copy of the map is at Wikimedia commons here, from a Paris ms, apparently:

Map_of_Constantinople_(1422)_by_Florentine_cartographer_Cristoforo_Buondelmonte

This is very low resolution, but seems to give a better and more believable image.

Yet another version of the map is owned by the Metropolitan Museum in New York, from where someone has copied a bitmap to Wikimedia.

Constantinople_mediaeval_map

This is drawing gives us a much more likelike picture.  Hagia Sophia looks more accurate.  The churches no longer stand in courtyards but have high walls with domes atop them, which is probably correct.

But … this isn’t a perfect copy.  Note that Justinian on his horse is now perched atop the column.  It is just as well that the copy was put on Wikimedia, for the link to the Metropolitan Museum no longer works.  It is infuriating that curators do this, considering that locating images is very hit and miss anyway.

Thankfully libraries are getting more sensible, and a visit to the Gallica site at the French National Library can pay dividends.  Doing so reveals a volume containing Ptolemy’s Cosmographia which also contains plates by Buondelmonti, such as this one, Ms Latin 4802 (1552), on f.134r:

constantinople_bnf_f275

But this is a late copy, and various important bits have vanished.  Also the walls of the churches have turned into courtyard walls – perhaps this is a feature of later copies?  Here I was hoping for an early copy, but evidently this is not available yet.

A different image in many ways – and one in which the writer has just put stuff wherever he likes, seemingly, is here, a 1450 manuscript copy of the Liber insularum archipelagi sold in Chicago.

auction_4_0329

The copies of the map of Cristoforo Buondelmonti, from the Liber insularum archipelagi, vary greatly it seems.  What we need, I think, is some nice, high resolution images of all the copies that we can find.  The results could not fail to be interesting and informative.

UPDATE: Ste Trombetti has kindly sent me a bibliography on Ensenius/Buondelmonti.  This includes T. Thomov, “New information about Cristoforo Buondelmonti’s drawings of Constantinople”, Byzantion 66 (1996) 431-453, which seems to be sadly offline but is often referenced where these maps are concerned.  Also a link to another image, a copy of Buondelmonti’s “Liber insularum Archipelagi”, in MS Lat.X.123, at the Bib. Marciana:

constantinople_venice_marciana

This is clearly not an accurate copy.

I also found a bibliography on the Vatican website, giving Thomov’s article as a reference for the following Vatican manuscripts (which, presumably, must contain also copies of the Buondelmonti map): Chig.F.V.110, Ross.702, Ross.704, Urb.lat.277.  Sadly none of these appear to have been digitised as yet.

Another find, an article by Michel Balard,[1] tells us more about the map:

Buondelmonti’s positive appreciation of the Turks can be perceived not only from the text of the Liber insularum Archipelagi, but also from the illustrated maps which complete his vision of the Aegean world. The most important are those of Constantinople, which can be found in 16 manuscripts of the Liber. Ian Manners has demonstrated how at the beginning of the fifteenth century, the cartographers changed their way of constructing their work.[19] In their bird’s eye views, they wanted to represent places and landscapes as they appeared to the travellers. For instance, when they drew the design of Pera, the Genoese colony on the north of the Golden Horn, they show the galleys waiting along the shore, the wooden piers, the walls, the churches and some specific building known by everyone at that time. The maps display the city “as known, as experienced, as remembered, as imagined by artists and cartographers”, with a growing realism and a tendency to accentuate and add particular facts of peculiar interest to themselves. In so far as the manuscripts and their drawings can be dated, the maps depict the transformation of Constantinople according to the main events of its history, and particularly according to the contrast between the last years of the Byzantine domination and the reconstruction by the Ottomans after 1453.

When he visited Constantinople in 1421-2, Buondelmonti received from Vitold of Lithuania, father-in-law of John VIII Palaiologos, a commission for a map of Constantinople, which perhaps could have been a model for the illustrations of Buondelmonti’s text on the city. The oldest maps, drawn between 1420 and 1450, depict a city quite ruined, with very few indications of monuments and places. The representation insists on the fortifications, sometimes with a single line of walls and towers, sometimes with a double line, similar to the reality. The city has a triangular shape, as is described by many chroniclers and travellers using a frequent topos and comparing the triangle-shaped city to a lateen sail.[20] Very few monuments are drawn inside the walled city: the imperial palace of the Blachernai, two monumental colums, and some churches, but no effort has been made to emphasize or even identify the great church of Hagia Sophia. Pera, described in the text as “Januensium pulcerrima civitas”, is shown on the opposite site of the Golden Horn as a very small suburb of Constantinople. The general impression is that of an open and empty city, with a few scattered buildings. Buondelmonti with his text and drawings wants to show the miserable condition of the city and of its inhabitants, whose hostility towards the Latins is underlined by reference to the Franks put to death by the Greeks who, during the crusades, offered them bread mixed with lime (a legend related by many chroniclers since the First Crusade).

The fall of Constantinople in 1453 changed the representation of the city in the copies of the Liber insularum of the second half of the fifteenth century. Buondelmonti died probably after 1431, but those who used his text and illustrated it shared partially his representation of Constantinople. The majority, especially the authors of the copies made in Chios, give many details about the city’s system of fortification: a moat, a double line of walls studded with strong towers, a single but mighty line for Pera. And, above all, inside the urban perimeter, a great number of churches, differentiated by their shape and denomination.  The more recent maps also show the Byzantine standard: a cross with the quadruple “b” of the Palaiologoi. It seems that the illustrators, longing for the city’s Christian past, wanted to enhance its Christian heritage. For them, Constantinople, which possessed so many relics and shrines, is still the New Jerusalem, a holy city with the benefit of divine favour. These copies are often linked with the writings of Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, who, when he became pope, attempted to…

It is, then, clearly important to have a list of manuscripts, and to get the images from each.

The article is an interesting one, and it is a pity that it is offline.  It seems to give a biography of the Florentine priest, Christopher Buondelmonti, who knew Niccolo Niccoli, based himself at Rhodes and visited Constantinople twice, in 1420 and 1421-22, while hunting for Greek manuscripts.

  1. [1]Michel Balard, “Buondelmonti and the Holy War”, in: Ruthy GertwagenElizabeth Jeffreys, Shipping, Trade and Crusade in the Medieval Mediterranean: Studies in Honour of John Pryor, (2013), 414-424 (?). Google books preview here is rather odd and I can’t make out much about the pagination.

The church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople – already in ruins before 1453?

The church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople was the location of the mausoleum of the emperors.  It doesn’t exist any more, as it was demolished by the Turks after 1453 and a mosque built on the site, the mosque of “Mehmet the Conquerer”.

I’ve seen the statement online, made in such a way as to palliate the destruction, that the church was a ruin before the Turks demolished it.  But I did wonder what the evidence was.

Well, I’ve been working away at Van der Vin’s marvellous book on medieval travellers to Constantinople,[1] which I mentioned earlier.  The website on which it resides did a splendid job and scanned the missing half of the book and fixed the upload in a day!  And this gives us the answer.

From Cristoforo Buondelmonti (ca. 1414-1422), Liber insularum archipelagi:[2]

Next to the church of the Holy Apostles stands the fifth column, the top of which bears an angel of bronze and Constantine on his knees.

The aforesaid church, already ruined by time, contains the sumptuous tombs of the emperors, cut out of purple marble, notably the vast sarcophagus of Constantine.  The column to which Christ was attached for the flagellation may be seen there.

This statement, however, is our only such statement.  Buondelmonti refers to ruins all over the place in Constantinople.

In fact the city was largely in ruins and extensive areas within the walls were just fields and olive groves.  the population had shrunk to a mere 40,000, living in 13 villages scattered here and there over the immense area.

The population estimate comes from an anonymous account written in Munich in 1437.[3]

Ibn Battuta, an Arab traveller who visited the city in 1332 as part of the entourage of a Greek princess, says that the citadel and palace are “is surrounded by the city wall, which is a  formidable one and cannot be taken by assault on the side of the sea.  Within the wall are about thirteen inhabited villages.”[4]

Buondelmonti tells us that the Constantinoplitans are “very few”[5] and concerned with nothing but food.  In 1432 Bertrandon de la Broquiere, a Burgundian nobleman on pilgrimage, tells us that “the city is made up of villages and that there is much more open than built-up.”[6]  Pero Tafur, a Spanish nobleman on pilgrimage who visited around 1437-8, writes:[7]

The city is sparsely populated. It is divided into districts, that by the sea-shore having the largest population. The inhabitants are not well clad, but sad and poor, showing the hardship of their lot which is, however, not so bad as they deserve, for they are a  vicious people, steeped in sin. …

It must have been a sad place, full of ruins and poverty, and an impoverished emperor and his court.  Yet how we would love to see it!

  1. [1]J.P.A. van der Vin –   Travellers to Greece and Constantinople. Ancient Monuments and Old Traditions  in Medieval Travellers’ Tales (PIHANS 49), 1980. [27 cm, softcover; IX, 751].  ISBN: 90-6258-049-1. Online at the Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten – Netherlands Institute for the Near East site.
  2. [2]Van der Vin, p.688.
  3. [3]P.254, 443.  The text is Terre hodierne Grecorum et dominia secularia et spiritualia ipsorum; see “Neos hellenomnemon” 7 (1910), p.361.  It reads: “habitantes in ea, ut extimo, quadraginta milia hominum vix possunt interesse, qui in tempore guerrae de suis internis vineis, pratis et ceteris necessariis vivere possunt, prout frequenter probatur.”
  4. [4]P.569.
  5. [5]Van der Vin, p.669.
  6. [6]P.684: I am not entirely certain of the translation of the old French “Tout ainsi que les grosses carraques peuvent venir devant Pere, semblablement font à Constantinoble[sic]. Et est cette cite cy faicte par villaiges et y a beaucop plus de voide que de plain.”  Edition: Ch. Schefer, Le voyage d’Outremer de Bertrandon de la Broquiere, Paris, 1892.
  7. [7]P.703.