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The church of the Holy Apostles at Constantinople: the MYth and its Reception across the CEnturies

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - MYRiCE (The church of the Holy Apostles at Constantinople: the MYth and its Reception across the CEnturies)

Reporting period: 2017-06-05 to 2019-06-04

Human history has shown how monuments embody the experiences and expectations of their creating cultures, their self-idealization, political necessities and system of beliefs, their æsthetic traditions and values. MYRiCE has focused on a monument of a central symbolic significance for Byzantine culture, the now lost church of the Holy Apostles, a monument originally dating back to the age of Constantine the Great, the founder of Constantinople and the first Christian emperor of the Roman Empire. This monument, like the other major foundation of the Byzantine capital—Hagia Sophia—attracted a great deal of attention across the centuries, from that of emperor Justinian I, who renovated it magnificently during the 6th century, with a cruciform building crowned by five domes, to that of Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos, who put it at the core of his promotion of Constantinople as the new Holy City; and again, from that of the intellectuals and clerics of the 12th century engaged in discussions around the apostolicity of the ecclesiastical sees, to that of sultan Mehmed II, who eventually decided to dismantle it, after his takeover of Constantinople (1453), in order to build on its site his own celebrative külliye and burial place.

MYRiCE aimed at providing the first thorough cultural-historical study of this monument by concentrating on a significant timeframe, the middle-Byzantine epoch (c. 945-1204), in an integrated and broad-sweeping perspective combining intellectual and cultural history with art history. The investigation has scrutinized the great diversity of indirect sources about the church: texts, iconography, architectural comparanda, foremost above all the church of San Marco in Venice. These sources, wide-ranging in time, play a considerable role not only in adjusting our understanding of the church’s lost morphology but also in enabling us to grasp the shifting cultural significance of the monument, its role and perception throughout the ages.

The very multiplicity of images used in describing the monument demonstrates how perceptions of its historical meaning significantly differed across the centuries. Whether a reflection of the Biblical cosmology and the prefiguration of the celestial Jerusalem or the symbol of the apostolicity of the Constantinopolitan church, namely the principle of its apostolic origin, this monument has played a crucial role in the history of the Byzantium, becoming one of its major mediums of cultural transmission beyond its borders.

This study eventually demonstrates how a monument could act as a prism for understanding successive historical and political contexts in which a culture evolves, allowing to illuminate key aspects of its development. The interpretive model offered in this study may serve as a framework for decoding any monument and the network of auxiliary rhetorical and visual media through which it may be conveyed across time and space.
The investigation has proceeded with a fresh grouping, systematization, hierarchical arrangement and interpretation of source material pertaining to the Holy Apostles, opening up a new interpretive perspective for the understanding of this conspicuous medieval monument.

As a preliminary step, a few aspects related to the monument and its reflection—san Marco—have been the object of specific investigations, incorporated into scientific articles. More specifically, the structure of the complex of the Holy Apostles in the middle-Byzantine epoch (church and annexes) and its location within Constantinople’s urban fabric has been re-discussed, giving a substantial contribution to our knowledge of it; aspects of the ‘myth of Venice’ having to do with Byzantium have been clarified. Other contributions develop research strands which will be incorporated in the forthcoming monograph.

The major output of the project will be a monograph focusing on two crucial phases of the church’s history: the first is the period stretching from 945 through to around 959, marked by the figure of Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos; the second, is the mid- and late 12th century, an epoch witnessing the twilight of the Byzantine ruling dynasty, the Komnenoi, and the fall of Constantinople to the crusaders (1204). The first is a phase of substantial re-establishment of the identity of the Byzantine kingship following the end of the iconoclastic struggle, a phase during which political and ideological forms are transformed and remoulded into systems of belief and self-representation deliberately referring back to late antique antecedents and especially to the ‘Golden Age’ of Justinian. In the second of the aforementioned phases we have to reckon with a period of institutional instability, about which scholars of the Constantinopolitan ‘republic of letters’ more or less figuratively speak in their rhetorical works. It is in this broader framework that the representation of the church of the Holy Apostles in the two main rhetorical descriptions (ekphraseis) of it, respectively a 10th c. poem by Constantine the Rhodian and a 12th c. oration by Nikolaos Mesarites, is understood.

Such sources are a taught way of organizing, preserving, recreating the image of the monument in response to specific cultural historical circumstances.
MYRiCE has engaged with the structures by which Byzantines, throughout the epochs, comprehended and appraised the church of the Holy Apostles, based on cultural codes particular to specific historical milieus. Since the meanings ascribed to this monument were themselves conditioned by the socio-political contexts in which successive spectators formulated their interpretations, its representation in the written sources has not been a fixed one but has varied according to changing judgements and subjective criteria. By bringing to the fore this “historical relativism” in the representation of the monument, this project has significantly contributed to go beyond the focus of traditional scholarship, namely the “positivistic” reconstruction of the monument’s lost morphology.

MYRiCE has engaged with decoding the meaning of a conspicuous Byzantine monument across the ages. The interpretive model outlined in our study may serve as an interpretive framework for any monuments across civilizations, giving tools for the understanding of them up to contemporary times. Recurring debates over monuments are primarily about the forms in which the past is made accessible. More often than not, they become objects of political and ideological controversy. Through a cultural-historical investigation, MYRiCE has aimed at raising the awareness that monuments, in any contexts, are significant forms involved in the challenge of transmitting historical memories.