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Constantine the Builder

Adapted from Constantine the Great: the Man and his Times
by Michael Grant




Although it was not yet a major architectural center, Constantine built important churches in Constantinople (formerly Byzantium) and wrote to Eusebius requesting fifty copies of the Bible to be lodged in them, but scarcely a trace of these buildings has survived.  About his cathedral in Constantinople, the church known as Santa Sophia -- the Holy Wisdom with which Jesus was identified, but which was also a virtue claimed by Constantine, as his coins show -- our knowledge is particularly deficient, because the edifice was burnt down in 404 and totally rebuilt, on a massive scale, in the sixth century by Justinian, whose magnificent construction survives today.  But the first church, completed in 360, had been started by Constantine and was endowed in his will.  Probably his architect designed it as a basilica with double aisles and galleries, approached through a propylaeum and an atrium.

Another building at Constantinople replaced by Justinian was that of the Holy Trinity, soon dedicated instead to the Holy Apostles, on which work was probably started after 330 by Constantine himself (as mausoleum) and which was finished, within his lifetime.  This building, like the church of the Holy Wisdom, has disappeared.  But we have a sort of description of it from Eusebius.  It seems to have been built as a Greek cross, with arms of approximately equal length.  This shape was owed to the intention that Constantine himself would eventually be buried under the central drum, beneath its conical roof, where he was to be surrounded by the emblems of the Twelve Apostles (including coats and cloaks that were said to have belonged to Saints Luke and Andrew).  So the church was planned not only as a martyrium of the Apostles, but also as a mausoleum and martyrium of the emperor himself. Indeed, according to one recent interview, Constantine planned it as a mausoleum, and it only became a church after his death.

The Church of the Holy Apostles was extensively copied elsewhere in the fourth and fifth centuries, but was subsequently obliterated by the Turkish conquerors of Constantinople, to make room for the Fatih Mosque, approximately on the same site.

There are also records of other churches at Constantinople attributed to Constantine.  Sozomen (a Constantinopolitan lawyer who wrote a history of the church from 324 to 439) mentions a shrine of Saint Mocius (a martyr under Diocletian), assigned to the Constantian period by tradition.  It replaced a temple of Zeus or Heracles, on a site that is no longer identifiable.  Another pagan building was made into the church of Saint Menas.  The date of the patriarchal cathedral of Holy Peace (Saint Irene) is uncertain, but Sozomen attributed this, too, to Constantine, and legends attributed the project to the influence of the eunuch Euphratas. Constantine also built the church of Holy Power (Ayia Dynamis) at Constantinople.  And chroniclers added the basilicas of Saint Agathonicus and Saint Acacius.  Moreover, Constantine founded the Church of the Virgin of Blachernae nearby.  Eusebius may have been right to say that all Constantine's religious building at Constantinople was of a purely Christian character.

Antioch in Syria was also the site, not only of a Constantinian cathedral, of which little is known, but also of another important church of the same epoch.  This was the lofty Golden Octagon, next to the imperial palace upon an island in the River Orontes, adjoining the center of the city.  Begun in 327 (but not completed until after Constantine's death), the Golden Octagon was dedicated to Harmony or Concord, the concept to which the emperor was so greatly devoted, uniting, as he hoped, empire and church.  As is so often the case, no trace of the building survives. However, we can form some idea of its appearance by combining written descriptions with a picture on a floor mosaic now in the Archaeological Museum at Antakya.  As its name indicates, the church was centered on an eight-sided core, which was surrounded by a pyramidal or domed, wooden roof, covered with gilt; and it was enveloped, on all sides, by two-storied, colonnaded aisles containing niches.

The Golden Octagon was not, as it is sometimes called, a martyrium, because it does not appear to have housed any significant relic.  Instead, as its formal dedication to Harmony and its proximity to the imperial palace suggest, it was pre-eminently a palace church, like Helena's Sessorian building at Rome; but, in this case, it was more personally related to the imperial founder himself, though his visits to Antioch were rare.

The place, however, where a Constantinian basilica and martyrium were most obviously combined was Jerusalem, at the very place where Jesus himself was believed to have met his death and to have received the burial that preceded his Resurrection: the Church of the Anastasis or the Holy Sepulchre on Mount Golgotha -- upon the site of a Jewish burial chamber and beneath a Temple of Aphrodite. Constantine's mother, Helena, was responsible for the location of the site.  Although our only contemporary source is Eusebius' unreliable Life, it was believed that Helena was shown the correct location in a vision, and by 326/7, the idea of a church had taken shape.  Constantine himself ordered Bishop Macarius of Jerusalem to build on the site "a basilica more beautiful than any on earth," without sparing money, craftsmen, laborers, or materials.Construction was begun in 328. The centrally planned building that emerged from this instruction is shown on an apse mosiac (384-417) in the Church of Santa Pudenziana in Rome.  It inspired a long series of other churches of similar design.

This and all other Palestinian projects were given great encouragement by Constantine's dispatch to the Holy Land of his mother, Helena.  While in Palestine, Helena committed her son, who encouraged and prompted her, to the payment of enormous sums for building churches.  And when she left the country, she took with her some pieces of wood which, she was told and believed, had formed the True Cross.