Monastery of the Myrelaion
The Monastery of Myrelaion (Bodrum Camii) was once located west of the Forum of Theodosius on the Mese in Constantinople. It is an important example of a cross-in-square plan from the Middle Byzantine era.
The church was constructed around 920 as a palace chapel attached to the palace of the emperor Romanos I Lekapenos. The palace was constructed on a platform created by a huge rotunda, which was the remains of a Late Roman palace. It is unclear if Romanos built or acquired this palace. To adjust the church to the height of the palace, a tall substructure was constructed for it, creating a lower level similar in plan to the upper level.
The Myrelaion is unique because it was constructed as a mortuary chapel to house the remains of Romanos and his family members, including his sons Christopher and Constantine. This is a major break from the tradition of his predecessors who were buried at the imperial Church of the Holy Apostles (at the location of Fatih Mosque) in Constantinople. He reportedly had ancient sarcophagi brought into the building for this purpose, though unfortunately there is no evidence where they were placed. Romanos became emperor by quietly pushing aside the underage Constantine VII of the Macedonian dynasty. While he married his daughter to Constantine VII, he also aspired to found his own imperial dynasty. It seems that the lack of legitimacy led Romanos to create an alternative burial place – the Myrelaion. This in turns possibly encouraged the later Byzantine practice of founding private burial churches.
Later Romanos converted the palace and its chapel into nunnery. This church, along with the Monastery of Constantine Lips, is evidence of how the spread of monasticism went hand in hand with Byzantine political and military influence in this period. The monastery had received many imperial donations in land in Asia Minor and Greece, and its convent had several illustrious members, including Katherine (daughter of the Bulgar Tsar Ivan Vladislav) and Maria, the wife and daughter of the emperor Isaac I. By 1315 it had evidently been converted into a male monastery. During the Palaiologan period its substructure was adapted to serve as a funerary chapel. After the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, the church was converted into a mosque late in the fifteenth century by Mesih Pasha, a member of the Palaiologan dynasty and relative of Constantine XI who converted to Islam and led the forces of Sultan Mehmet II. It then took its current name, Bodrum Camii (“Basement Mosque") from the substructure of the church and was given a mihrab (prayer niche) to reorient it to Mecca and a minaret for the call to prayer.
The Myrelaion church is a cross-in-square structure (around 10 x 17 m) and has a tripartite bema and a three bay narthex. It was constructed entirely of brick and built over a lower story so as to bring it to the same level as the palace Romanos, to which it was directly attached. The Myrelaion katholikon and the north church of the Monastery of Lips (which dates earlier) are the earliest surviving examples of the complex cross-in-square covered with dome in Constantinople. These two churches are considered to have copied the monument named Nea Ekklesia, founded by Basil I in 880 and destroyed in the 15th century.
While it can be considered as a typical example of the cross-in-square church, it is also unique in certain ways. For example, in the interior the vaults are elaborated: the dome and drum have a fluted surface, forming what is known as a “pumpkin dome,” and the cross arms of the naos are topped by groin vaults rather than by simpler barrel vaults. A series of semi-cylindrical buttresses on the external walls reflect the internal structure of the monument, and create a flowing and complex effect on its western, northern and southern side. Its small, round windows are also unusual. A corbeled walkway extended around the church on the main level, and the design of the building was remarkably open.
Its bricks and mortar formed only a portion of the final product, which was lavishly embellished. It is difficult to realize the elegance of the original since it has suffered from both fires and heavy-handed restorations. Its original columns have been replaced with stone piers. The marbles and mosaics have vanished, though some fragments were found in excavations. A fragmentary fresco can be seen in the substructure, the lower part of a panel depicting a female donor kneeling before a standing figure of the Virgin Hodegitria. The building was excavated in 1964–6 by Professor Cecil L. Striker of the University of Pennsylvania, who identified the church as the Myrelaion. The building was restored in 1965–6, along with the chapel beneath it, and it is once again serving as a mosque, while the nearby rotunda was later rebuilt as a subterranean shopping mall, with its entrance on the south side of the terrace opposite the mosque.
Also see Rotunda of Myrelaion
Dome photo from 1981
From Byzantine Studies by Paspates (1877)
From The Life of St. Andrew the Fool:
The young thief becomes possessed by a demon but is cured by the Mother of God in the Myrelaion
But the youth, whom the righteous man had commanded not to steal, for getting his words, walked in his earlier, or rather even worse, ways. When the righteous man saw that his forbearance towards him was of no avail, he came in his spirit to the place where he lived and ordered one of the evil angels to interrogate him and proclaim all his sins through his own words. When he was thus caught by the evil spirit, he understood at once, remembering the slap he had received from the righteous man’s hand. Overcome by distress he fled to the oratory of the most holy Mother of God which is called the Myrelaion. Having sought refuge there with that wonder-working Aid, he began with tears to entreat her, the unfailing helper of all the afflicted, particularly of those who come to her with warm love and unwavering faith. Taking of the oil, furnished by God, and anointing his whole body he stood making his prayer to the Protection of our race. As he prayed an ecstasy came upon him and he saw a woman standing before the doors of the holy sanctuary dressed in fine linen and purple. Her face was shining, more dazzling than the sun. With fierce anger and suspicion in her eyes she looked at the demon and said, “Are you still there, you blackened rogue? Come out of the creation of my Son, for he has taken refuge in my arms!” But he replied through the boy’s organs of speech, “Andrew, he who for the sake of your Son has taken upon himself to play the fool, allowed me to interrogate him.” She, however, told him, "Come out and do not talk nonsense, otherwise I shall make him, too, pass sentence on you!" At this reply the demon cringed for fear and came out. After she who had appeared to him had disappeared into the sanctuary, as it were, the youth at once became himself again, realizing that he had been relieved of the evil demon. And he praised the benevolent God and offered fervent thanks to the Mother of God, swearing an oath that he would never more steal, nor fornicate nor fraternize with fools and sinners. Having given this promise before the holy icon of the Mother of God he went home rejoicing.
Thanks to the intercessory prayers of her who had vouched for him he reached the highest level of virtue, so that everybody was amazed at the sudden transformation of the boy and his way of life. Each time he walked in the street and saw that he would meet the blessed man, as he played his game, he turned off into a side-street, approached him and said, “By the Lord Jesus, you are a stern saint!” And he thanked him for having been the cause of his salvation.
From the Nicholas V. Artamonoff Collection
Photos by David Talbot-Rice
Reconstruction of Fresco of Hodegetria and Female Donor from Striker
Fragments of glazed revetment tiles
Myrelaion Church, 10th century
The Myrelaion (Bodrum Camii) in Istanbul by Cecil Striker
Master Builders of Byzantium by Robert Ousterhout
Architecture and Ritual in the Churches of Constantinople: Ninth to Fifteenth Centuries by V. Marinis
Bildlexikon zur Topographie Istanbuls: Byzantion, Konstantinupolis, Istanbul by Wolfgang Müller-Wiener
The Byzantines by Averil Cameron
The Life of St. Andrew the Fool edited by Lennart Rydén