Church of St. Polyeuktos
The Church of St. Polyeuktos was a large church built by Anicia Juliana in the 520s. Built before Justinian’s major building program that included Hagia Sophia, it was one of the largest and most sumptuously decorated churches in Constantinople. It seems to have been abandoned by the 13th century and its ruins were discovered in 1960.
The Church of St. Polyeuktos was accidentally discovered in 1960 during the construction of an overpass in Saraçhane, Istanbul. Excavations uncovered the foundations of a church along with a large number of richly carved architectural blocks. Sections of archaeological remains had inscriptions which match an epigram from a work known as the Greek Anthology. This allowed for its identification with Hagia Polyeuktos.
The church is in the vicinity of the Aqueduct of Valens and the Column of Marcian. It was on the northern branch of the Mese, between the Forum Tauri and the Church of the Holy Apostles. It was built near the palace of Anicia Juliana, who commissioned the church. Anicia Juliana, the daughter and granddaughter of emperors, was an important aristocratic woman during the reigns of Anastasius, Justin and Justinian.
This church replaced an earlier, small church dedicated to St. Polyeuktos by Empress Aelia Eudocia, wife of Theodosius II. St. Polyeuktos, to whom the church was dedicated, was a Roman soldier martyred around 250 in the garrison-town of Melitene (modem Malatya, Turkey). Other churches dedicated to him are recorded in Melitene, Jerusalem, and Ravenna. It seems that it housed the relic of St. Polyeuktos (his head) which was later moved to the Church of the Holy Apostles. The church was modeled on the Temple of Solomon as described in the Bible.
The Book of Ceremonies informs us that Hagios Polyeuktos was included on the emperor’s Easter procession from the palace to the Church of the Holy Apostles. It was certainly in existence at the end of the tenth century as it is referred to as existing five hundred years later. There appears to be no later mention of our church, which may mean that it was abandoned during the Latin occupation.
Much of its valuable materials have been looted, while pieces of architectural material have been used in the construction of other Constantinopolitan churches, such as the Pantokrator Monastery. The Crusaders, during the sack of Constantinople in 1204, stole some of these valuable pieces, transporting them as far as Venice, Barcelona and Vienna. The so-called Pilastri Acritani, which stand near the southwest corner of the Basilica of San Marco in Venice comes from St. Polyeuktos.
The excavations of Harrison and Fıratlı at Saraçhane in Istanbul between 1964 and 1969 brought to light most of the church’s foundations, revealing what was once one of the largest and most sumptuously, perhaps even gaudily decorated churches in the Early Byzantine city. It was built just prior to the great artistic flowering under Justinian. It was modeled on the Temple of Solomon as described in the Bible. Whatever the exact architectural form of the church, it was not a conventional basilica: it appears to have had a transept, and may even have been domed.
What we know of the architectural form of St. Polyeuktos is derived entirely from the epigram in the Anthology which is couched, as usual, in highly flowery language. The church was oblong from east to west, and had, on either side of the central aisle, a row of "columns upon columns"; in other words, the church was basilical and had a gallery. The columns supported a gilded roof. Furthermore, on right and left, there were arched recesses which, in the poet's obscure words, "gave birth to the ever-shifting light of the moon." This may suggest the presence of a transept terminating in semicircular apses. The lateral walls were reveted with colored marble. In the narthex or courtyard was a representation of Constantine's baptism.
The shape and size of the foundations indicate that the building was very large, in the shape of a basilica with three aisles, with a protruding apse on the eastern side. The main part of the church, on the eastern side of the narthex, appeared to be square-shaped, each side being 52 m. long, and it was divided into a central and two side aisles. On the western side, there was an atrium, around 26 m. in width, almost half of the church’s total size. The inscription, which runs all the way round the architrave, informs us that the church had two levels of colonnades, as well as galleries. The excavation had not revealed much concerning the roofing of the church. Scholars debate whether it had a dome.
Underneath the main aisle, an underpass connected the space under the narthex with a crypt, situated under the altar. To the west of this crypt there was a transversal wall, possibly supporting a rectilinear chancel screen. A little further to the west, almost in the very center of the building, there was an oval-shaped construction, in the middle of the passageway; it was there that the ambo must have stood. Two extremely strong walls within the foundation - each being 8 m. thick and 8 m. deep – supported most of the weight of the upper section of the building, as well as the colonnades that divided the three aisles. Underneath the aisles, two long underpasses s supported the floor. The excavations did not bring to light enough evidence concerning the altar, and its shape remains vague. It appears that a staircase connected the altar with the square-shaped crypt under it; it was probably situated on both sides of the altar, much like the two rooms at the north and south sides, where the stairs to the galleries were situated. North of the atrium, foundations found there indicate that this space could have belonged to the Baptistery of the church.
It seems that St. Polyeuktos had many similarities with Hagia Eirene, which was built by Justinian a little later. If it had a dome, then it could have been the first example of this architectural type that would be perfected in Justinian’s Hagia Sophia. However not all scholars accept this reconstruction and even doubt the existence of a dome due in part to the lack of archaeological evidence. Gregory of Tours records that the Anicia Juliana had the roof of St. Polyeuktos was made of gold in order to ensure her wealth did not fall into the hands of Justinian.
Hypothetical model by Ousterhout (based on Bardill's model)
The excavation of St. Polyeuktos discovered a large number of fragments of its decoration. There was a great variety of fragments in good condition, surpassing any other church in early Byzantine Constantinople in that respect. The inside walls of the building were reveted with polychrome marble, brought in from all around the Mediterranean. Inlaid material used in the lavish decorations also included ivory, amethyst, gold fragments and colored glass. Many mosaic fragments suggest that the vaults of the building were covered in mosaic. A mosaic fragment from the altar probably is part of the face of a person and it constitutes a unique find for Constantinople before the period of Iconoclasm.
The architectural sculpture pieces, made in their majority of Proconnesian marble, are the most impressive find. The capitals of columns and of piers, the entablature and parts of the architrave that bears the inscription are decorated with a variety of floral, animal and geometrical ornaments, originating from different cultures including Sasanian (Persian) and Arabic. This seems to reflect an interest in Persian fashion in Constantinople at the time. St. Polyeuktos also has parallels with the decorations of the Dome of Rock built later. Its sculptural decorations are quite innovative compared to the tradition of Late Antiquity and appear to have influenced later monuments, including San Vitale in Ravenna.
Fragments of an inscription found in some of the architectural remains matches an epigram in the Greek Anthology describing Anicia Julianna’s church dedicated to St. Polyeuktos. The scholia on the epigram inform us that its text was inscribed in various parts of the church of St. Polyeuktos. The inscription appears to have been a single line, similar to what is found in Church of SS. Sergius and Bacchus.
The monograms are difficult to ascertain, though none of them seem to include the name of Anicia Juliana or her relatives. Many of the monograms broke over time, partly because of the deep undercutting of the letters. Seven monograms are either completely or partly legible - all of the "box" type (as distinct from the cruciform) and all different.
Pilastri Acritani outside San Marco in Venice
“Lily Capitals” on the southwest corner of San Marco
From Papadopoli Gardens in Venice
Watercolors by John Ruskin
Spolia from Polyeutkos used in the mimbar (pulpit) from Zeyrek Mosque (formely Pantokratos Monastery)
Plan by Müller-Wiener
Click to see map of Byzantine Churches of Constantinople
Istanbul Archaeological Museums
Fragment of Great Entablature
This entablature piece was one of the architecture fragments discovered in Saraçhane. It is made of Proconnesian marble and is decorated with vines and cluster of grapes along with peacock feathers. The fragmentary inscription reads: “Even you do not know how many houses dedicated to God your hand has made” (...πειθέα δώματα τεύχει...) corresponding to line 30 in the epigram from the Greek Anthology.
Niche Fragment of Great Entablature
This piece of the entablature includes a niche decorated with peacock feathers, twisting vine stems, intricate floral ornamentation, and part of an inscription. The inscription is the first part of line 31 of an epigram from the Greek Anthology. The fragmentary inscription reads: “For you alone, I think, have built innumerable temples throughout the whole earth” (...οὐδ’ αὐτὴ δεδάηκας· ἀμετρ...).
Basket capital with split-palmettes
Similar capitals are located at San Marco
Canopy Column for Altar
Marble carved in a geometric pattern
Inlaid with amethyst and green glass
Inv. No. 5679
Plaque of Virgin and Child
Basket capital with split-palmettes
In the garden of Hagia Sophia
Inscribed Corner Block
Fragment of Line 27: …ὺς καμάτους μέλπο…
“The inhabitants of the whole world sing your labours, which are always remembered”
Pier capital probably from the Church of St. Polyeuktos
Found Edirnekapı in 1978
Plaque of Apostle
Ten relief plaques depicting Christ, the Virgin Mary and the Apostles were discovered in the excavation. They are a unique find in Constantinople for the period before the Iconoclasm.
Epigram from the Greek Anthology
The empress Eudocia, in her eagerness to honour God, was the first to build a temple to the divinely inspired Polyeuktos; but she did not make it like this or so large, not from any thrift or lack of resources—for what can a queen lack?—(5) but because she had a divine premonition that she would leave a family which would know how to provide a better embellishment. From this stock Juliana, bright light of blessed parents, sharing their royal blood in the fourth generation, did not cheat the hopes of that queen, who was mother of the finest children, (10) but raised this building from its small original to its present size and form, increasing the glory of her many-sceptred ancestors. All that she completed she made more excellent than her parents, having the true faith of a Christ-loving purpose. For who has not heard of Juliana, that, heeding piety, she glorified even her parents by her finely-laboured works? (15) She alone by her righteous sweat has made a worthy house for the ever-living Polyeuktos. For indeed she always knew how to provide blameless gifts to all athletes of the heavenly King. (20) The whole earth, every city, cries out that she has made her parents more glorious by these better works. For where is it not possible to see that Juliana has raised up a glorious temple to the saints? Where is it not possible to see signs of the pious hands of you alone? (25) What place was there which did not learn that your purpose is full of piety? The inhabitants of the whole world sing your labours, which are always remembered. For the works of piety are not hidden; oblivion does not wipe out the contests of industrious virtue. (30) Even you do not know how many houses dedicated to God your hand has made; for you alone, I think, have built innumerable temples throughout the whole earth, always revering the servants of the heavenly God. Following on all the well-labouring footsteps of her ancestors, (35) she fashioned her ever-living stock, always treading the whole path of piety. Wherefore may the servants of the heavenly King, to whom she gives gifts and for whom she built temples, protect her readily with her son and his daughters. (40) And may the unutterable glory of the family of excellent toils survive as long as the Sun drives his fiery chariot.
What choir is sufficient to sing the contests of Juliana who, after Constantine, embellisher of his Rome, after the holy all-golden light of Theodosius, (45) and after royal descent from so many forebears, accomplished a work worthy of her family, and more than worthy in a few years? She alone has overpowered time and surpassed the wisdom of the celebrated Solomon, raising a temple to receive God, the richly wrought and gracious splendour of which a great epoch cannot celebrate. (51) How it stands forth on deep-rooted foundations, springing up from below and pursuing the stars of heaven, and how too it extends from the west, stretching to the east, glittering with the indescribable brightness of the sun (55) on this side and on that! On either side of the central nave, columns standing upon sturdy columns support the rays of the golden-roofed covering. On both sides recesses hollowed out in arches have given birth to the ever-revolving light of the moon. (60) The walls, opposite each other in measureless paths, have put on marvellous meadows of marble, which nature caused to ﬂower in the very depths of the rock, concealing their brightness and guarding Juliana’s gift for the halls of God, so that she might accomplish divine works, (65) labouring at these things in the immaculate promptings of her heart. What singer of wisdom, moving swiftly on the breath of the west wind and trusting in a hundred eyes, will pinpoint on each side the manifold counsels of art, seeing the shining house, one ambulatory upon another? (70) Thence, it is possible to see above the rim of the hall a great marvel of sacred depiction, the wise Constantine, how escaping the idols he overcame the God-fighting fury, and found the light of the Trinity by purifying his limbs in water. Such is the contest that Juliana, after a countless swarm of labours, accomplished for the souls of her ancestors, and for her own life, and for those who are to come and those that already are.
Εὐδοκίη μὲν ἄνασσα, Θεὸν σπεύδουσα γεραίρειν,
πρώτη νηὸν ἔτευξε θεοφραδέος Πολυεύκτου·
ἀλλ’ οὐ τοῖον ἔτευξε καὶ οὐ τόσον· οὔ τινι φειδοῖ,
οὐ κτεάτων χατέουσα (τίνος βασίλεια χατίζει;)
ἀλλ’ ὡς θυμὸν ἔχουσα θεοπρόπον, ὅττι γενέθλην (5)
καλλείψει δεδαυῖαν ἀμείνονα κόσμον ὀπάζειν.
ἔνθεν Ἰουλιανή, ζαθέων ἀμάρυγμα τοκήων,
τέτρατον ἐκ κείνων βασιλήιον αἷμα λαχοῦσα,
ἐλπίδας οὐκ ἔψευσεν ἀριστώδινος ἀνάσσης,
ἀλλά μιν ἐκ βαιοῖο μέγαν καὶ τοῖον ἐγείρει, (10)
κῦδος ἀεξήσασα πολυσκήπτρων γενετήρων·
πάντα γὰρ ὅσσα τέλεσσεν ὑπέρτερα τεῦξε τοκήων,
ὀρθὴν πίστιν ἔχουσα φιλοχρίστοιο μενοινῆς.
τίς γὰρ Ἰουλιανὴν οὐκ ἔκλυεν, ὅττι καὶ αὐτοὺς (15)
εὐκαμάτοις ἔργοισιν ἑοὺς φαίδρυνε τοκῆας,
εὐσεβίης ἀλέγουσα; μόνη δ᾿ ἱδρῶτι δικαίῳ
ἄξιον οἶκον ἔτευξεν ἀειζώῳ Πολυεύκτῳ.
καὶ γὰρ ἀεὶ δεδάηκεν ἀμεμφέα δῶρα κομίζειν
πᾶσιν ἀεθλητῆρσιν ἐπουρανίου βασιλῆος.
πᾶσα χθὼν βοάᾳ, πᾶσα πτόλις, ὅττι τοκῆας (20)
φαιδροτέρους ποίησεν ἀρειοτέροισιν ἐπ᾿ ἔργοις.
ποῦ γὰρ Ἰουλιανὴν ἁγίοις οὐκ ἔστιν ἰδέσθαι
νηὸν ἀναστήσασαν ἀγακλέα; ποῦ σέο μούνης
εὐσεβέων οὐκ ἔστιν ἰδεῖν σημήια χειρῶν;
ποῖος δ’ ἔπλετο χῶρος, ὃς οὐ μάθε σεῖο μενοινὴν (25)
εὐσεβίης πλήθουσαν; ὅλης χθονὸς ἐνναετῆρες
σοὺς καμάτους μέλπουσιν ἀειμνήστους γεγαῶτας.
ἔργα γὰρ εὐσεβίης οὐ κρύπτεται· οὐ γὰρ ἀέθλους
λήθη ἀποσβέννυσιν ἀριστοπόνων ἀρετάων.
ὅσσα δὲ σὴ παλάμη θεοπειθέα δώματα τεύχει (30)
οὐδ’ αὐτὴ δεδάηκας· ἀμετρήτους γάρ, ὀίω,
μούνη σὺ ξύμπασαν ἀνὰ χθόνα δείμαο νηούς,
οὐρανίου θεράποντας ἀεὶ τρομέουσα Θεοῖο.
Ἴχνεσι δ’ εὐκαμάτοισιν ἐφεσπομένη γενετήρων
πᾶσιν ἀεὶ ζώουσαν ἑὴν τεκτήνατο φύτλην, (35)
εὐσεβίης ξύμπασαν ἀεὶ πατέουσα πορείην.
τοὔνεκά μιν θεράποντες ἐπουρανίου βασιλῆος,
ὅσσοις δῶρα δίδωσιν, ὅσοις δωμήσατο νηούς,
προφρονέως ἐρύεσθε σὺν υἱέι τοῖό τε κούραις·
μίμνοι δ’ ἄσπετον εὖχος ἀριστοπόνοιο γενέθλης, (40)
εἰσόκεν ἠέλιος πυριλαμπέα δίφρον ἐλαύνει.
Ποῖος Ἰουλιανῆς χορὸς ἄρκιός ἐστιν ἀέθλοις,
ἣ μετὰ Κωνσταντῖνον, ἑῆς κοσμήτορα Ῥώμης,
καὶ μετὰ Θευδοσίου παγχρύσεον ἱερὸν ὄμμα
καὶ μετὰ τοσσατίων προγόνων βασιληίδα ῥίζαν, (45)
ἄξιον ἧς γενεῆς καὶ ὑπέρτερον ἤνυσεν ἔργον
εἰν ὀλίγοις ἐτέεσσι; χρόνον δ’ ἐβιήσατο μούνη,
καὶ σοφίην παρέλασσεν ἀειδομένου Σολομῶνος,
νηὸν ἀναστήσασα θεηδόχον, οὗ μέγας αἰὼν
οὐ δύναται μέλψαι χαρίτων πολυδαίδαλον αἴγλην· (50)
οἷος μὲν προβέβηκε βαθυρρίζοισι θεμέθλοις,
νέρθεν ἀναθρώσκων καὶ αἰθέρος ἄστρα διώκων.
οἷος δ’ ἀντολίης μηκύνεται ἐς δύσιν ἕρπων,
ἀρρήτοις Φαέθοντος ὑπαστράπτων ἀμαρυγαῖς
τῇ καὶ τῇ πλευρῇσι· μέσης δ’ ἑκάτερθε πορείης (55)
κίονες ἀρρήκτοις ἐπὶ κίοσιν ἑστηῶτες
χρυσορόφου ἀκτῖνας ἀερτάζουσι καλύπτρης·
κόλποι δ’ ἀμφοτέρωθεν ἐπ’ ἀψίδεσσι χυθέντες
φέγγος ἀειδίνητον ἐμαιώσαντο σελήνης·
τοῖχοι δ’ ἀντιπέρηθεν ἀμετρήτοισι κελεύθοις (60)
θεσπεσίους λειμῶνας ἀνεζώσαντο μετάλλων,
οὓς φύσις ἀνθήσασα μέσοις ἐνὶ βένθεσι πέτρης
ἀγλαΐην ἔκλεπτε, Θεοῦ δ’ ἐφύλασσε μελάθροις
δῶρον Ἰουλιανῆς, ἵνα θέσκελα ἔργα τελέσσῃ,
ἀχράντοις κραδίης ὑπὸ νεύμασι ταῦτα καμοῦσα. (65)
τίς δὲ φέρων θοὸν ἴχνος ἐπὶ ζεφυρηίδας αὔρας
ὑμνοπόλος σοφίης, ἑκατὸν βλεφάροισι πεποιθώς,
τοξεύσει ἑκάτερθε πολύτροπα δήνεα τέχνης,
οἶκον ἰδὼν λάμποντα, περίδρομον ἄλλον ἐπ’ ἄλλῳ,
ἔνθεν καὶ γραφίδων ἱερῶν ὑπὲρ ἄντυγος αὐλῆς (70)
ἔστιν ἰδεῖν μέγα θαῦμα, πολύφρονα Κωνσταντῖνον,
πῶς προφυγὼν εἴδωλα θεημάχον ἔσβεσε λύσσαν
καὶ Τριάδος φάος εὗρ<εν> ἐν ὕδασι γυῖα καθήρας.
Τοῖον Ἰουλιανή, μετὰ μυρίον ἑσμὸν ἀέθλων,
ἤνυσε τοῦτον ἄεθλον ὑπὲρ ψυχῆς γενετήρων (75)
καὶ σφετέρου βιότοιο καὶ ἐσσομένων καὶ ἐόντων.
Fragment of Cornice
Impost with peacock
Lion-headed water spout from St. Polyeuktos
Sculpture from Anicia Juliana’s palace
Remains of the Church of St. Polyeuktos at Constantinople by Mango and Ševčenko
Excavations at Sarachane in Istanbul, Volume 1 by R. Martin Harrison
A New Temple for Byzantium: Anicia Juliana, King Solomon, and the Gilded Ceiling of the Church of St. Polyeuktos in Constantinople by J. Bardill
Unseen Photographs from Prof. Harrison’s Byzantine Excavations in Istanbul
Oxford University Press Dictionary of Byzantium
Istanbul Archaeological Museums by Fatih Cimok
Byzantine Churches of Constantinople (Byzantine Legacy Google Map)