Eastern-Roman Architecture: The Theoretical Reconstruction of the Lost Church of Saint Polyeuktos in Constantinople

It is very easy to think in terms of "East versus West" when it comes to liturgical art and architecture. In great part this is due to the divergences of later centuries which hardened some of the differences. Eastern churches with their iconostases and distinctive iconographic style, Western churches without and with more of a fluid, naturalistic style of painted depiction, not to mention more reliance on sculpture. But of course, history is much more complex with that. In point of fact, if you pay attention to the art of the Roman catacombs, if you look at some of the early Roman basilicas with their extant first millennium mosaics, you will become aware of the fact there is a common artistic root and heritage to be found here -- and of course, if you start to expand your focus outside Rome and into places such as Venice, Ravenna and so on, this becomes even more obvious.

A good example of this shared heritage of East and West can perhaps be seen in the lost church of Saint Polyeuktos in historical Constantinople (modern day "Istanbul"). I say "perhaps" only for reason that all that is left of the church are what have been discovered through archeological excavations and through historical descriptions. 

First, a little background. The structure in question was constructed between A.D. 524-527 and was, at one time, the largest church in all of Constantinople -- this was prior to Hagia Sophia which would ultimately surpass it. It was built by a noblewoman named Ancinia Juliana who descended from imperial Roman lineage -- and indeed, local politics between the old and new rulers of the Eastern-Roman empire, Byzantium, may well have inspired the grandiosity of the building which was claimed to have been built after the proportions of the Temple of Solomon. Regrettably the church survived only up until the later middle ages and due to it falling into disrepair, it was pillaged for spolia that would find its way throughout Constantinople and Christendom -- you can find two of this church's columns located outside of the Basilica of San Marco in Venice located on the side next to the palace of the Doge (see images below). 

The church included a seventy-six line epigram by Juliana which was inscribed into the church all along the nave (think of the inscription in St. Peter's basilica for comparison) which was dedicatory in nature and also described the church as part of this. It is in part upon this, as well as the modern archeological excavations, that these reconstructions are based. In that epigram, Juliana compares herself as a monumental builder to the Emperor Constantine (hence emphasizing her imperial and Roman lineage -- in modern terms, one might think of it as being akin to the 'battle' between old and new money); some artifacts of this inscription were found as part of the excavations which also revealed that it was accompanied by beautiful designs that included peacocks -- a common symbol used in early Christian architecture. 

So then, what might this church have looked like in its heyday? Excavations of the foundations suggest it may have had a dome -- which is significant if so because it would be one of the first instances where we see a domed basilica style building. The footprint of the building is roughly square in shape with a central nave and two side aisles (or "naves") as one sees in a typical Roman basilica.  There may have also been an external baptistery in another separate building. 

The epigram (whose full text is found at the end of this article) describes the church as having two stories with colonnades and galleries. Coloured marble revetments covered the interior in typical imperial Roman fashion. The ceiling was gilt in gold and fragments of ivory, amethyst and coloured glass that were inlaid into marble sculptural reliefs that have also been found during the excavations.  Palm trees, pomegranates and lilies featured prominently in the interior decoration programme. Also discovered were marble relief sculptures that depict Christ, the Virgin Mary and the Apostles -- images that would have predated the Eastern iconoclastic controversy. As noted, great images of peacocks were also found, their tail feathers in full display, surrounded by grape vines and leaves of incredibly rich carved detail; aside from the use of gold these were also painted in rich blues, greens and purples -- very difficult to obtain colours in these times that therefore speak to the imperial prerogatives and message of Juliana. Green stones were used for the peacocks eyes and their beaks were such that they appear that they would have held suspended lampada (lamps or lanterns) on chains that would have illuminated the church. 

Based upon the excavations and the epigram (as well as historical precedents from the time) it is believe the interior of St. Polyeuktios might have appears vaguely as follows (but obviously with the sort of rich and colourful decoration described above):

Obviously in looking at this type of arrangement, ti takes little imagination to think of how this compares to some of the Roman basilicas that still retain their historical balustrades, and of course their altar and corresponding ciboria. Seen in behind is the synthronon where the clergy would be seated, and proceeding outward from the balustrade is where the great ambo would have stood. 

As mentioned earlier, this church regrettably fell into abandonment by the eleventh century and successive centuries saw some of its remaining architectural elements removed and taken elsewhere. I had mentioned some of its columns had made their way to San Marco in Venice, and those can be seen here:

Here too are some other remnants from St. Polyeuktos, including part of Juliana's epigram and the peacock designs discovered from whence lampada would likely have been suspended:

Further capitals also found in the Basilica of San Marco

One of the sculptural reliefs of one of the Apostles - the faces were likely intentionally damaged during the iconoclastic controversy

Details of the columns for the ciborium over the altar. One will note that originally these had coloured stones and glass in greens, golds and reds. 

A capital showing a peacock

The following is a translation of the full text of Julian's epigram taken from The Greek Anthology:
The empress Eudocia, in her eagerness to honour God, was the first to build a temple to the divinely inspired Polyeuktos; but she did not make it like this or so large, not from any thrift or lack of resources—for what can a queen lack?— but because she had a divine premonition that she would leave a family which would know how to provide a better embellishment. From this stock Juliana, bright light of blessed parents, sharing their royal blood in the fourth generation, did not cheat the hopes of that queen, who was mother of the finest children, but raised this building from its small original to its present size and form, increasing the glory of her many-sceptred ancestors. All that she completed she made more excellent than her parents, having the true faith of a Christ-loving purpose. For who has not heard of Juliana, that, heeding piety, she glorified even her parents by her finely-laboured works?  She alone by her righteous sweat has made a worthy house for the ever-living Polyeuktos. For indeed she always knew how to provide blameless gifts to all athletes of the heavenly King. (20) The whole earth, every city, cries out that she has made her parents more glorious by these better works. For where is it not possible to see that Juliana has raised up a glorious temple to the saints? Where is it not possible to see signs of the pious hands of you alone?  What place was there which did not learn that your purpose is full of piety? The inhabitants of the whole world sing your labours, which are always remembered. For the works of piety are not hidden; oblivion does not wipe out the contests of industrious virtue. Even you do not know how many houses dedicated to God your hand has made; for you alone, I think, have built innumerable temples throughout the whole earth, always revering the servants of the heavenly God. Following on all the well-labouring footsteps of her ancestors, she fashioned her ever-living stock, always treading the whole path of piety. Wherefore may the servants of the heavenly King, to whom she gives gifts and for whom she built temples, protect her readily with her son and his daughters. And may the unutterable glory of the family of excellent toils survive as long as the Sun drives his fiery chariot.

What choir is sufficient to sing the contests of Juliana who, after Constantine, embellisher of his Rome, after the holy all-golden light of Theodosius, and after royal descent from so many forebears, accomplished a work worthy of her family, and more than worthy in a few years? She alone has overpowered time and surpassed the wisdom of the celebrated Solomon, raising a temple to receive God, the richly wrought and gracious splendour of which a great epoch cannot celebrate. How it stands forth on deep-rooted foundations, springing up from below and pursuing the stars of heaven, and how too it extends from the west, stretching to the east, glittering with the indescribable brightness of the sun on this side and on that! On either side of the central nave, columns standing upon sturdy columns support the rays of the golden-roofed covering. On both sides recesses hollowed out in arches have given birth to the ever-revolving light of the moon. The walls, opposite each other in measureless paths, have put on marvellous meadows of marble, which nature caused to flower in the very depths of the rock, concealing their brightness and guarding Juliana’s gift for the halls of God, so that she might accomplish divine works, labouring at these things in the immaculate promptings of her heart. What singer of wisdom, moving swiftly on the breath of the west wind and trusting in a hundred eyes, will pinpoint on each side the manifold counsels of art, seeing the shining house, one ambulatory upon another? Thence, it is possible to see above the rim of the hall a great marvel of sacred depiction, the wise Constantine, how escaping the idols he overcame the God-fighting fury, and found the light of the Trinity by purifying his limbs in water. Such is the contest that Juliana, after a countless swarm of labours, accomplished for the souls of her ancestors, and for her own life, and for those who are to come and those that already are.
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