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Quick Facts on the Church of the Holy Apostles

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Church of the Holy Apostles Church of the Holy Apostles, Constantinople
Istanbul, Marmara Region
Istanbul  locality
Turkey  country
Middle East  continent
Main date(s)
41.019845° N, 28.950294° E

Description of the Church of the Holy Apostles

The Church of the Holy Apostles was erected in 330 by Emperor Constantine the Great, the first Roman emperor to embrace Christianity. He intended it to be his mausoleum and included a tomb for himself and tombs for each of the Twelve Apostles. The mausoleum-church broke with imperial tradition in several ways: it was built within the city walls, it was not associated with a palace complex, and the imperial tomb was surrounded by religious figures rather than previous rulers.

The historian Eusebius of Caesarea described Constantine's construction as follows: "He had the church built to a great height, and he decorated it splendidly with slabs of various colors which covered it from the foundation to the roof. And over the roof he put finely fretted work and overlaid it everywhere with gold. The outside portion, which protected the edifice from rainfall, was of bronze rather than tiles, and this too gleamed with the abundance of gold. It brilliantly reflected the rays of the sun and dazzled the distant onlooker. A well-carved tracery of bronze and gold encircled the entire dome."

The following inscription was placed over the main gate to the church, recording the deaths of the Twelve Apostles:

"Mark is put to death by the people of Alexandria.
The great sleep of life Matthew sleeps.
Rome sees Paul die by the sword.
Philip is given what was given Peter.
Bartholomew suffers death on the cross.
Simon too on the cross ends his life.
In Rome vain Nero crucifies Peter.
In life and death John lives.
Luke died peacefully at the end.
The men of Patras brutally crucify Andrew.
A knife severs the life paths of James.
Lances kill Thomas in India."

The Church of the Holy Apostles was the only church built in Constantinople in Constantine's lifetime. When he died in Nicomedia in 337, the emperor was laid to rest in the sarcophagus prepared for him. Constantius, his son and successor, later procured the relics of the apostles Andrew, Luke, and Timothy to be enshrined in the church.

Two centuries after its completion, the Church of the Holy Apostles was rebuilt by Emperor Justinian and re-consecrated on June 28, 550. Justinian's church was designed by the celebrated architects Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus. Emperor Basil I "the Macedonian" (867-886) later renovated the building. This second form of the church had a Greek-cross plan with five domes, one above each arm of the cross and a fifth above the central bay. The main altar, made of silver and other precious materials with a marble pyramidal ciborium, was under the main dome. A row of columns along the interior walls formed a kind of upper gallery, the so-called catechumena, reached by a spiral staircase. The west arm of the cross extended westward forming the atrium. Tradition has it that Justinian built a second mausoleum, for himself and his family, at the east end of the north cross-arm of the church.

There is little to see today of the Church of the Holy Apostles. Some building materials of the church, such as column pieces and stone blocks of the foundations, have been identified in the courtyard of the Fatih Mosque. One important relic of the church, part of the "Column of Flagellation" to which Christ had been bound and flogged, is preserved in the Patriarchal Church of St. George in Istanbul. Outside Istanbul, the best place to see the remains of the Church of the Holy Apostles is the Treasury of St. Mark's Basilica in Venice, which displays many reliquaries and glittering treasures plundered during the Crusades.

Holly Hayes
October 27, 2011

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