The Church of the Divine Wisdom, Santa Sophia

In the year 324 ad Constantine chose Byzantium, on the Bosphorus, as the capital of his Empire. Extensive rebuilding and development continued for six years, and in May 330 the city was officially refounded as New Rome, or Constantinople. Public buildings of the most splendid character were erected, apparently in the balanced classical style adopted also by successive emperors in the fourth and fifth centuries. But little of Constantine's own work survives, except perhaps parts of the Hippodrome, and even the great walls protecting the city were superseded by those, still in part remaining, that Theodosius II constructed about 412 AD.

A similar fate has befallen Constantine's churches. His New Rome was designed to be essentially a Christian community and 'since the city became the capital of Empire during a period of sound religion', in the words of Sozomen, an historian of the fourth century, 'it was not polluted by altars, Grecian temples or sacrifices, while Constantine adorned it with numerous and magnificent houses of prayer'.

The most celebrated of all these buildings was the Church of the Divine Wisdom, 'Santa Sophia', set beside the imperial palace. This may have been started by Constantine, though Socrates, another historian of the period, attributes it to Constantine's son, Constantius, and in any event it was not completed until 356 ad. Fragments of foundation walls found beneath Justinian's noble rebuilding (536 ad) have been held to suggest that the original was constructed on a straightforward basilican plan with aisles and galleries, the whole enclosed within a precinct and having a forecourt in front of the entrance doorways. Nearby, within the same precinct, stood the church of St Irene, 'Peace'. T

his was an older sanctuary 'of small dimensions' which Constantine 'considerably enlarged and adorned', re-dedicating it in honour of the peace which his reign had brought to the world. The edifice was burned down, however, and then so completely restored by Justinian that its original form can only be guessed at. Constantine's great Church of the Holy Apostles, built to contain his coffin of gold, has disappeared also but a description of it, offered incidentally by Eusebius when he tells of the emperor's funeral, gives some impression of what it looked like. From Eusebius's account, it appears that the church was placed within a large rectangular precinct, with a portico at each side as well as several meeting halls, baths and lodgings for the staff.

The shrine itself was notable for its height and for the brilliance of its decoration. Marble of every variety lined the walls; the panelled ceiling was overlaid with gold. The roof had a covering of gilded bronze so that the central dome appeared from a distance to glow with a brightness like that of the sun. A carved balustrade, also of gilded bronze, ran round the inside of the building, which appears to have taken the form of a circle inscribed within the arms of a cross. The emperor's tomb occupied the central place of honour, protected by twelve columns representing the Apostles and with the altar set nearby. Constantine's position here seems in fact to surpass the prestige which he claimed for himself as 'bishop of those outside the Church' and to reach that attributed to him in a later hymn: 'Thou didst not receive thy call from men but, like Saint Paul, thou hadst it, glorious one, from on high — Constantine, the equal of the Apostles'.

Twenty years later, the emperor's coffin was transferred to a nearby mausoleum, resembling that of S. Costanza at Rome, but the Church of the Holy Apostles, though losing thereby something of majesty, gained in return an added lustre from relics of the Apostles themselves. Justinian completely rebuilt the church, but the influence of its pattern, the cross with central tower and dome, spread far and wide and persisted for centuries, as did the versatility and technical skill fostered by the demands of imperial patronage.

 






Date added: 2022-12-11; views: 280;


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