First Millennium Liturgical Architecture: The Synthronon

An unused synthronon which has now (regrettably) become a stand for icons

An element of early Christian (and especially Byzantine/Eastern Roman influenced) ecclesiastical architecture is the tiered, semi-circular structure located in the apsidal space of the sanctuary/presbytery know as the synthronon. Invariably questions arise about what it is as it is an arrangement that is seldom seen by many and thus unfamiliar.  It should be noted, however, that while a semi-circular model is common, in other cases they took the more familiar form of of straight rows of seating lined up, facing one another, to either side of the chancel. This, of course, is a much more familiar arrangement for we Latins, often associated with collegiate and monastic arrangements. 

A synthronon seen in the Latin West in the Italo-Byzantine former cathedral church of Santa Maria Assunta in Torcello

As a rule, synthrona (which have been referred to since at least the fifth century) include a throne (generally, but not necessarily, a bishop's throne) at the centre with bench seating surrounding it.  These benches were reserved for the clergy and while they found a presence in some Latin churches, such as Santa Maria Assunta in Torcello, it is a feature that is generally considered native to the Byzantines, being preserved in places like Constantinople, such as the former churches of Hagia Irene or St. Euphania.  It was also a feature of Hagia Sophia.

Recreation of St. Euphamia, Constantiople in the 7th Century

Recreation of the chancel and synthronon of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople

Synthronon seen in the former church of Hagia Irene, Constantinople 

Eerdmans' Encyclopedia of Early Christian Art and Archeology has this to say about them:
C-shaped clergy bench often built following the line of the inner periphery of the main apse in an early Christian basilica. At the center of the tiers of curved benches, an episcopal throne (Cathedra) was built into the s[ythrona]. Large churches might feature a s[ynthronon] several tiers high. Seating was restricted to the top row so that the congregation standing in the nave and aisles could see all the clergy. This is confirmed, e.g., in Paul the Silentiary's description of Hagia Sophia in mid-6th-c. Constantinople. Although the s[ynthronon] itself does not survive, the poet and courtier Paul describes the seating of the priests on the top row of a seven-tiered s[ynthronon]. 
Synthrona survive in the churches of Hagia Eirene and Hagia Euphemia, both 6th-c. Constantinopolitan churches. Beneath each s[ynthrono] an annular passageway followed the line of the apse wall; one entered the passageway from doorways on either end. Of necessity, since the presence of the s[ynthronon] limited the sanctuary space, the altar was situated west of the apse and in front of it. In the Middle Byzantine period, as the sanctuary was increasingly screened off from public view, the high s[ynthronon] declined in importance. A single or double bench replaced the larger form, making room for the altar table within the apse. In Greece, however, the traditional s[ynthronon] remained more or less unchanged in many churches during this later period. It sometimes appears in a secondary apse, suggesting that the s[ynthronon] and its cathedra were not confined only to episcopal churches 
Early Christian writers compared the seating of the bishop amid his priests to Christ with his disciples. Some have noted that the C-shaped arrangement bears a striking resemblance to late antique and medieval depictions of the Last Supper. The comparison is apt, but there were many liturgical variations.
Let's take a look at some examples of synthrona found in both East and West:

Euphrasian basilica in Croatia

Panagia Ekatontapiliani, Parikia, Greece

San Vitale, Ravenna

Ruins of St. Nicholas Church, Demra (Myra) in Turkey -- now a museum

Basilica of San Clemente, Rome

As was mentioned, it is thought that only the top row was actually what was utilized as seating, the rest forming steps to reach this position, but with the corresponding changes to churches in both east and west which saw screens start to form separating the chancel from the nave, these began to be lowered in the way you see above at San Clemente.  

Here are a couple examples of the synthronon seen in liturgical use, first in the Byzantine East to give you a better sense of its actual purpose and use:

Finally, in use in the Latin West:

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