The Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople (modern Istanbul) was one of the most important churches in Christendom. Although it no longer survives, it is worth an entry for its great historical importance.
Originally built by Constantine the Great and rebuilt by Emperor Justinian, the church was was the burial place of the Byzantine Emperors and Patriarchs of Constantinople from the 4th century to the 11th century.
At one time, the Church of the Holy Apostles held the relics of the Christian saints Andrew, Luke, Timothy, John Chrysostom and Gregory the Theologian.
The Church of the Holy Apostles was ruthlessly plundered in the Crusades and later toppled by a severe earthquake. Today, almost nothing of the great church remains, and the Fatih Mosque was built over the site.
The Church of the Holy Apostles was originally erected by Emperor Constantine the Great, the first Roman emperor to embrace Christianity, in 330. The church included a large tomb intended for himself as well as 12 empty reliquaries in which he intended to place the relics of the Twelve Apostles.
The mausoleum-church that was the Church of the Holy Apostles broke with imperial tradition in several ways. It broke with funerary custom by establishing a tomb within the city walls and unlike previous imperial mausolea it was not associated with a palace complex. And Constantine's burial alongside the apostles instead of amongst images of earlier rulers showed his desire to be seen as a saint and a successor to Christ's own successors.
Constantine died in Nicomedia in 337 and was laid to rest in a sarcophagus in the Church of the Holy Apostles, which was the only church in the city built before his death. Constantius, Constantine's son and successor, later procured the relics of St. Andrew, Luke, and Timothy to be enshrined in the church.
Two centuries after its completion, the church of the Holy Apostles required total reconstruction. The church was rebuilt by Emperor Justinian and consecrated on June 28, 550. Justinian's church was designed by the celebrated architects Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus. (See below for description.) Emperor Basil I "the Macedonian" (867-886) later renovated the building.
Second only in importance to the Hagia Sophia among the great churches of the Eastern Empire, the Church of the Holy Apostles was at the center of many great events. Some of its prelates, like Nicetas I (765 780), acceded to the patriarchal throne, and many councils and secret meetings were held under its domes. On certain feast-days, such as the Sunday of St. Thomas and the 21st May, the Emperor and his court attended the liturgy in the church of the Holy Apostles. Until the 11th century, most emperors and many patriarchs and bishops were buried in this church and the relics of many of them were venerated by the faithful.
The true riches and glory of the Church of the Holy Apostles were the impressive collection of relics it possessed. In addition to the skulls of St. Andrew the Apostle, St. Luke the Evangelist and St. Timothy, it had the relics of St. John Chrysostom and St. Gregory the Theologian, placed in reliquaries on either side of the main altar. There were also rows of reliquaries containing the relics of a great number of other saints and martyrs.
During the sack of Constantinople of 1204 in the Fourth Crusade, the church and the imperial sarcophagi were devastated and plundered by the Crusaders: most of the reliquaries, the gold and silver vessels decorated with precious stones, the icons, the imperial crowns, the somptuous vestments and other important objects were carried off to Western Europe. The Crusaders plundered the imperial tombs and robbed them of gold and gems. Not even Justinian's tomb was spared. Today, many of these relics and treasures remain in the collections of European museums, especially in Rome and St. Mark's Basilica in Venice.
When Michael VIII Palaeologus (1261-1282) recaptured the city from the Crusaders, he erected a statue of the Archangel Michael atop a pillar at the church to commemorate the event. In 1328 a severe earthquake toppled the statue. The church, once again restored to a large extent by Andonicus II Palaeologus (1282-1328), was thenceforth abandoned to the ravages of time and neglect as the Byzantine Empire declined and Constantinople's population fell. The Florentine Cristoforo Buondelmonti saw the dilapidated church in 1420.
In 1454, shortly after the Fall of Constantinople, Mehmet the Conqueror allowed Patriarch Gennadios to install the See of the Orthodox Patriachate at the Church of the Holy Apostles. But because the church was in a dilapidated state and stood in a district where few Christians lived, the Patriarcate was soon transferred to the Theotokos Pammacaristos Church where it remained until 1586 before moving to St George Church. In 1461 Mehmet II demolished the church and built the Fatih Mosque over its foundations.
What to See
There is very little to see today at the site where the Church of the Holy Apostles once stood. Some reused 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 today preserved in the Patriarchal Church of St. George in Istanbul. Outside of 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.
Thanks to contemporary descriptions, we have a general idea of what the church looked like. The historian Eusebius of Caesarea described Constantine's construction of it 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.
Other manuscripts have preserved the text of an epigram that 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.
As rebuilt by Justinian in 550, the church had a Greek cross plan with five domes, one above each arm of the cross and a fifth above the central bay where the arms intersected. The main altar was at the center of the nave, under the main dome, and was made of silver and other precious materials with a marble pyramidal ciborium. 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.