Church of Zoodochos Pege
The Monastery of Zoodochos Pege ( Ζωοδόχος Πηγή) was an important early Byzantine monastery famous for its holy spring (hagiasma). It was located outside Theodosian Walls, near the Gate of Selymbria of Constantinople. The site is associated with a large number of miracle stories and legends. It had a source of water or spring (pege) that came to be regarded as miraculous. Many miracles were were also attributed to mud from the spring. In the Ottoman era, this became known as Balıklı Kilisesi (the “Fish Church”) due to the fish in the spring.
The origins of the church are unclear, though it certainly existed by the 6th century. Procopius records that Justinian (527-565) built a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary here. Other traditions state that there was already a small shrine on the site and Justinian came across it while hunting. When learning of the healing water of the site (which cured his urinary infection), he then ordered a large church to be built from the surplus materials from Hagia Sophia.
Another tradition claimed that Leo I (457-474) founded it before he was emperor. When he was still merely a soldier, Leo I met a blind man on the road, begging for water. Leo guided him until they reached a marsh filled with mud. Leo tried in vain to find fresh water, until a voice of Theotokos called out and assured him there was water. Theotokos then told him to rub mud over the blind man’s eyes, which restored his sight. It is possible that Leo built a small shrine on the site, over which Justinian later built a large church.
In addition to the church, there was a hagiasma, which consisted of a subterranean structure with a nave was three times as long as it was wide and a dome raised above arches. From either side, marble stairs led down to the spring, set within a space said to be about twelve feet wide. This sounds quite similar to what can be found today. The miraculous spring water flowed into a marble basin accessible by staircases inside the church.
It was renovated several times in the Middle Byzantine Era. Empress Eirene, with her son Constantine VI, reportedly restored the church at Pege. After being seriously damaged by an earthquake in 869, Basil I rebuilt the church and decorated it with a cycle of mosaics. Burned by Tsar Symeon of Bulgaria in 924, the church was soon repaired and a palace was built near the church. The church was the focus of the imperial procession on Ascension Day during this era as well.
Early in the Palaiologan era, the epitaph Zoodochos Pege was first applied to the Virgin of the Spring and a new iconography developed, perhaps based on a mosaic in its hagiasma. A mosaic image at Pege empowered the spring and the spring, in turn, empowered the icon of Zoodochos Pege. During this period it became a major site of pilgrimage and a feast day of Zoodochos Pege was instituted on the Friday of Bright Week (the Friday following Easter). The monastery underwent a period of revival during the reign of Andronikos II Palaiologos (1282-1328). This revival followed a period of decline caused by the Latin occupation of Constantinople following the Fourth Crusade. During this time, it is said the spring at Pege lost its miraculous powers. This only changed when Andronikos II reversed his father’s attempts to unite the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. This period marked a resurgence of miracles at the shrine. A large number of miracles were recorded by Xanthopoulos. In addition, Manuel Philes and others composed epigrams on the church and its paintings. Later the waters were said to cure emperor Andronikos III from a serious illness in 1330.
In 1422 Sultan Murad II made it his headquarters while besieging Constantinople. Following the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the church later disappeared, though the spring continued to be visited by a small number of pilgrims. It was rebuilt only in the 18th century. The current building was built in 1833 under the Patriarch Constantius I. In 1837 the monastery was renamed Holy Hospital Monastery of Zoodochos Pege and funded the building of a new hospital, outside the walls.
A legend dates to the Ottoman period about a half-fried fish that jumped into the spring. As the story goes, a monk was frying fish that leap back into the spring half-fried when Constantinople fell to the Ottomans. Their descendants, which had different colors on each side, continued to be attested for centuries. The existence of fish in the spring, along with the legend, gave rise to its Turkish name, Balıklı Kilisesi – the Fish Church.
The sick lying on a mattress
Icon of Zoodochos Pege
In the 14th century, early in the Palaiologan era, the epitaph Zoodochos Pege was first applied to the Virgin of the Spring and a new iconography developed which depicted the Virgin Orans holds the Christ Child before her chest and sits in a basin from which water flows. According to descriptions of Pege by Xanthopoulos, its most impressive element of was a mosaic of the Theotokos in its dome of the hagiasma. It seems to have represented what was to become the standard iconography for representing the Virgin as Zoodochos Pege.
There are three miracles often appearing in the iconographic program of the Zoodochos Pege: the cure of the possessed man (identified by the demon springing out of his mouth or by chains), the cure of the barren woman (Zoe, mother of Constantine Porphyrogennitos who is depicted holding a child) and the resurrection of the sick Thessalian (who died during a journey to the spring and was brought back to life by its water).
Procopius on Justinian building the Church of Pege
“He dedicated to the Virgin another shrine in the place called Pege. In that place is a dense grove of cypresses and a meadow abounding in flowers in the midst of soft glebe, a park abounding in beautiful shrubs, and a spring bubbling silently forth with a gentle stream of sweet water — all especially suitable to a sanctuary. Such are the surroundings of the sanctuary. But the church itself is not easy to describe in such terms as it deserves, nor can one readily form a mental vision of it, nor do it justice in whispering speech. It must suffice to say only this, that it surpasses most shrines both in beauty and in size.”
Xanthopoulos on the Church of Pege
“In the middle of the dome, where there is the ceiling of the church, the artist perfectly depicted with his own hands the life-bearing Source who bubbles forth from her bosom the most beautiful and eternal infant in the likeness of transparent and drinkable water which is alive and leaping; upon seeing it one might liken it to a cloud making water flow down gently from above, as if a soundless rain, and from there looking down toward the water in the phiale so as to render it effective incubating it, so to speak, and rendering it fertile.”
“Water and Healing in Constantinople” by Robert Ousterhout
“Epigrams of Manuel Philes on the Theotokos tes Peges and Its Art” by Alice-Mary Talbot
“Pilgrimage to Healing Shrines The Evidence of Miracle Accounts” by Alice-Mary Talbot
“The cult of the Virgin Ζωοδόχος Πηγή and its reflection in the painting of the Palaiologan era” by Tatjana Starodubcev
“Le monastère de la Source” by S. Bénay
Η Ζωοδόχος Πηγή και τα ιερά αυτής προσαρτήματα by Eugenios
Η Ζωοδόχος Πηγή Σειρά Βυζαντινών Μελετών by Nomidis
La géographie ecclésiastique de l'Empire byzantin by R. Janin
Miracle Tales from Byzantium translated by Talbot and Johnson
Fountains and Water Culture in Byzantium edited by Shilling & Stephenson