Essential Architecture-  Turkey

Saint Irene




Istanbul, Turkey


450-775 AD




Brick, originally tile roof, later lead roof.


Present-day Mosque, former Church
Similar to Hagia Sophia this large church was not dedicated to a saint, but to a concept: Peace. It would be more appropriate to call it Holy or Divine Peace rather than St. Irene. This was the name of the goddess of peace and she was depicted as a beautiful woman; the church was built on a previous temple to Venus, the goddess of beauty, an indication of a smooth transition from the old beliefs to the new faith. Its construction is attributed to Emperor Constantine, thus it is the oldest church of the city. It was damaged by an earthquake and the current building is mainly due to the restorations made by Emperor Constantine V (741-75), a keen supporter of iconoclasm.
Owing to the decrease of the population of the city and to the relocation of the imperial court to the Blachernae Palace, Hagia Irene lost importance as it was too big and too close to Hagia Sophia.
When Sultan Fatih Mehmet II conquered Constantinople he realized this fact and he did not turn Hagia Irene into a mosque as he did Hagia Sophia. The building was included in his new residence (Topkapi Sarayi) and it was mainly used as an armoury by the Janissaries, the sultan's guards.
It is now part of the Topkapi Museum.



The church of S. Irene stands at a short distance to the north-east of S. Sophia, in the first court of the Seraglio. Its identity has never been questioned, for the building was too much in the public eye and too near the centre of the ecclesiastical affairs of the city to render possible any mistake concerning its real character. It is always described as close to S. Sophia. According to the historian Socrates, it was originally one of the Christian sanctuaries of the old town of Byzantium, a statement we may well believe, seeing Byzantium was the seat of a bishop before the foundation of Constantinople. The designation of the church as 'the Ancient' or 'the Old Church,' Ecclesia Antiqua, and the special regard cherished for the church during the earlier history of the city, are also thus best explained. The original sanctuary was small, but when Byzantium became the capital of the East the old fabric was enlarged and beautified by Constantine the Great to harmonize with its grander surroundings, and was dedicated to Peace, in honour of the rest and quiet which settled upon the Roman world when the founder of the city had vanquished all his rivals after eighteen years of civil war.



S. Irene, from the south-east.

S. Irene, from the south-east.




Other churches of the same name were found in Constantinople: S. Irene in the Seventh Region, according to the Notitia. S. Irene in Sykai (Galata); Theophanes, p. 353. S. Irene by the Sea ; Nicetas Choniates; Synax., Jan. 10. The last was also known as the New; Synax., Jan. 23. Erected in the reign of the Emperor Marcian, it was partially restored by the Emperor Manuel Comnenus after its destruction by fire; Nicet. Chon. ut supra. It was styled likewise 'at the Ferry; Codinus, De aed. p. 89; Banduri, ii. p. 31.


Until the year 360, when the church of S. Sophia was opened to public worship by the Emperor Constantius, S. Irene appears to have been the cathedral of the city. Hence, probably, the name sometimes given to it, the Patriarchate. Nor did the church lose its primacy altogether even after the erection of S. Sophia. On the contrary, the two churches were regarded as forming one sanctuary; they were enclosed within the same court, served by the same clergy, and known by the same name, 'the Great Church,  S. Irene was again the sole cathedral building, while S. Sophia lay in ruins for eleven years after being set on fire in 404, on the occasion of the final banishment of John Chrysostom.


S. Irene comes prominently into view during the fierce struggle between the adherents of the Nicene Creed and the Arians, in the half-century which followed the inauguration of New Rome. Having been persuaded that the point at issue between the two theological parties was not essential, and that the agitation of the question was due to love of disputation, Constantine the Great, who valued peace at almost any price, attempted to suppress the controversy by his authority, and accordingly ordered the Patriarch Alexander to admit Arius, then present in the city, to the Holy Communion. With this order Alexander, a champion of the Nicene Creed, refused to comply. Whereupon the followers of Arius decided to have recourse to violence. But on the very eve of the day fixed to carry out their purpose, Arius was taken suddenly ill in the Forum of Constantine and died on the spot. The historian Socrates regards the event as the act of God, for when the patriarch heard what the heretics intended to do, he retired to the church of S. Irene, and there for many days and nights, with fasting and tears, and with his lips pressed to the altar, implored divine succour in his terrible extremity. 'If the opinions of Arius be true, the patriarch prayed, 'let me die; but if they are false let him be judged.' The tragic end of Arius was considered the answer to that prayer.


Upon the death of Alexander in 343, at the age of ninety-eight, the two parties came into collision in regard to the question of his successor. The deceased prelate had recommended two persons as suitable to fill his place: the presbyter Paul, because of his abilities; the deacon Macedonius, on account of his age and venerable appearance. The Arians favoured Macedonius, as more in sympathy with their opinions; the orthodox, however, carried the election and installed Paul in S. Irene. The defeated party seems to have submitted, but the Emperor Constantius, a violent Arian, quashed the election, and appointed Eusebius of Nicomedia, a prominent upholder of the views of Arius, bishop of the capital. Upon the death of Eusebius in 346 the theological combatants again seized the opportunity to try their strength. The orthodox recalled Paul; the Arians consecrated Macedonius. Incensed by these proceedings, Constantius, then at Antioch, ordered Hermogenes, the magister militum in Thrace, to proceed to Constantinople and drive Paul from the city. But no sooner did Hermogenes attempt to execute his instructions than the populace rose, burnt his house to the ground, and after dragging him along the streets, killed him. The emperor was furious. He hurried back to Constantinople, banished Paul, and reduced by one-half the amount of free bread daily distributed among the citizens. Nor did he fully recognize Macedonius as bishop. Under these circumstances Paul made his way to Rome, and, having secured the support of the Pope, reappeared in Constantinople as the rightful bishop of the see. But the emperor, again in Syria, was not to be baffled. More angry than ever, he sent peremptory orders to Philip, the prefect of Constantinople, to expel Paul and to recognize Macedonius. By skilful arrangements Paul was quietly removed from the scene. But to install Macedonius was a more difficult undertaking. The prefect, however, ordered his chariot, and with Macedonius seated by his side made for S. Irene, under an escort of troops carrying drawn swords. The sharp, naked weapons alarmed the crowds in the streets, and without distinction of sect or class men rushed for the church, everybody trying to outstrip his neighbour in the race to get there first. Soon all the approaches to the building were packed to suffocation; no one stirred backwards or forwards, and the prefect's chariot was unable to advance. What seemed a hostile barricade of human beings welded together obstructed his path. In vain did the soldiers brandish their swords in the hope of frightening the crowd to disperse. The crowd stood stock still, not because it would not, but because it could not move. The soldiers grew angry, resorted to their weapons, and cut a way to the church through that compact mass of humanity at the cost of 3150 lives; some of the victims being crushed to death, others killed at the point of the sword. So was Macedonius conducted to his throne in the temple of Peace. But the conflict between the opposite parties continued, and after six years spent in efforts to recover his position, Paul was restored to office through the intervention of the Pope of Rome, of the Emperor Constans, and of the Synod of Sardica. It was a brief triumph. In 350 Paul was exiled for life to Cucusus, and Macedonius ruled once more in his stead. For the next thirty years S. Irene with the other churches of the capital remained in the hands of the Arians.



S. Irene, South Side.

S. Irene, South Side.

S. Irene, North Side.

S. Irene, North Side. In the Distance, S. Sophia.


During that period the Nicene faith was preached by Gregory of Nazianzus only in a small chapel, subsequently dedicated to S. Anastasia. But with the accession of Theodosius the Great the adherents of the Creed of Nicaea prevailed, and the Second General Council, held in Constantinople in 381, adopted that creed as the true faith of the Christian Church.


According to the biographer of S. Stephen the Younger, who enumerates the six ecumenical councils, and indicates, in most cases, where each met, that famous Council met in the church of S. Irene. But Theodore Lector says the Council assembled in the church of Homonoia, and explains the name of that church as commemorative of the harmony which prevailed among the bishops who gathered there on that occasion. As a matter of fact, one of the churches of the city bore the name Homonoia. Possibly the discrepancy between the statements of the authors just mentioned may be due to a confusion arising from a similar meaning of the names of the two churches.


According to the Anonymus, the usurper Basiliscus took refuge with his wife and children in S. Irene, when he was overthrown in 477, and the Emperor Zeno recovered the throne. But, according to the Paschal Chronicle, Basiliscus fled on that occasion to the great baptistery of S. Sophia. As that baptistery stood between S. Irene and S. Sophia and may have served both churches, the difference between the two statements is not serious.


After standing for two centuries the Constantinian edifice was burnt to the ground by the fire which the rebel factions in the Nika Riot set to the offices of the prefect on Friday, the 16th of January 532. The building had narrowly escaped the same fate in the fire which destroyed S. Sophia earlier in the course of the riot, and might have survived also the conflagration in which it actually perished, but for the strong wind which carried the flames from the praetorium to the church, devouring on their way the bath of Alexander, a part of the hospice of Eubulus, and the hospital of Sampson with its patients.


The restoration of the church was included in the magnificent scheme of Justinian the Great to build on the wilderness of ashes created by his rebel subjects the finest monuments of his empire. And so S. Irene rose from its ruins, the largest sanctuary in Constantinople, except S. Sophia. The bricks bearing the mark 'the Great Church,' Μεγάλη Ἐκκλησία, which are built into a raised bank against the northern wall of the atrium, afford no indication of the date when S. Irene was rebuilt. The bank is of comparatively recent origin.


In the month of December 564, the thirty-seventh year of Justinian's reign, another great fire threatened to destroy the buildings which that emperor had erected in the quarter of the city beside S. Sophia. The hospital of Sampson was again burnt down; the atrium of the Great Church, known as the Garsonostasion, suffered; two monasteries close to S. Irene perished, and, what most concerns us, the atrium and part of the narthex of S. Irene itself were consumed. How soon these injuries were repaired is not recorded.


During the 176 years that followed the reconstruction of the church by Justinian, S. Irene does not appear in history. But in 740 it was injured by the earthquake which shook Constantinople in the last year of the reign of Leo III. the Isaurian. Theophanes is very precise in regard to the time when the disaster occurred; it was on the 26th of October, the ninth indiction, on a Wednesday, at eight o'clock. The damage done both in the city and in the towns of Thrace and Bithynia was terrible. In Nicaea only one church was left standing, while Constantinople deplored the ruin of large portions of the landward fortifications and the loss of many churches, monasteries, and public monuments. S. Irene was then shaken, and, as the examination of the building by Mr. George has proved, sustained most serious injuries. The Emperor Leo died about six months after the disaster, and it is therefore uncertain whether the church was rebuilt before his death. His first attention was naturally directed to the reconstruction of the fortifications of the city, where his name still appears, with that of his son and successor Constantine Copronymus, as the rebuilder of the fallen bulwarks. But although there is no record of the precise date at which the ruined church was repaired, we may safely assume that if the work was not commenced while Leo III. sat upon the throne, it was undertaken soon after the accession of Constantine Copronymus. S. Irene was too important to be long neglected, and was probably rebuilt during the ascendancy of the iconoclasts.


The church reappears for a moment in 857 during the dispute which raged around the persons of Ignatius and Photius as to which of them was the lawful patriarch. While the partisans of the latter met in the church of the Holy Apostles to depose Ignatius, the few bishops who upheld the claims of Ignatius assembled in S. Irene to condemn and depose Photius with equal vehemence.


The church comes into view once more in connection with the settlement of the quarrel caused in 907 by the fourth marriage of Leo VI. the Wise. As the union was uncanonical, the Patriarch Nicholas deposed the priest who had celebrated the marriage; he, moreover, refused the Communion to the emperor, and treated Zoe, the emperor's fourth wife, as an outcast. For such conduct Nicholas lost his office, and a more pliant ecclesiastic was appointed in his place. The inevitable result followed. The religious world was torn by a schism which disturbed Church and State for fifteen years. At length Romanus I. summoned a council of divines to compose the agitation, and peace was restored in 921, by a decree which condemned a fourth marriage, but allowed a third marriage under very strict limitations. So important was this decision regarded that it was read annually, in July, from the pulpit, and on that occasion the emperor, with the patriarch, attended service in S. Irene, and at its close took part in a procession from S. Irene to S. Sophia, on the way back to the Great Palace.



S. Irene. The Interior, Looking East.

S. Irene.
The Interior, Looking East.


On Good Friday the patriarch held a service for catechumens (κατήχησις) in S. Irene, which the patricians were required to attend.


The church of S. Irene has never been used as a mosque. After its enclosure within the precincts of the Seraglio soon after the Turkish conquest, it was converted into an armoury, probably because it stood in the court occupied by the body of Janissaries who formed the palace guard, and it has served that military purpose, in contradiction to its name, for the most part ever since. For several years it contained the first collection of antiquities made by the Turkish Government, and some of the objects in that collection still remain to recall the use of the building as a museum; the most interesting of them being the chain stretched across the mouth of the Golden Horn during the siege of 1453, the monument to the charioteer Porphyrios, and the pedestal of the silver statue of the Empress Eudocia, which played a fatal part in the relations of that empress to the great bishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom. Since the establishment of the constitutional régime in the Ottoman Empire the building has been turned into a Museum of Arms.


Architectural Features


Until the recent establishment of constitutional government in Turkey it was impossible to obtain permission to study this church in a satisfactory manner, so jealously was even entrance into the building guarded. The nearest approach to anything like a proper examination of the building was when Salzenberg was allowed to visit the church in 1848, while the church of S. Sophia was undergoing repairs under the superintendence of the Italian architect Fossati. But the liberty accorded to Salzenberg was not complete, and, consequently, his plan of the church published in his Altchristliche Baudenkmäler von Konstantinopel is marred by serious mistakes. Happily the new Government of the Empire is animated by an enlightened and liberal spirit, and at the request of His Excellency Sir Gerard Lowther, H.B.M. Ambassador to the Sublime Porte, permission was granted to the Byzantine Research and Publication Fund to have the church examined as thoroughly as its condition allowed, and to make all the plans, drawings, and photographs required in the interests of a scientific knowledge of its architectural character. The Byzantine Research and Publication Fund was fortunate in having as its president, Edwin Freshfield, LL.D., so long distinguished for his devotion to Byzantine archaeology, and it is mainly due to his generosity that the means necessary for carrying on the study of the church were provided. The society was, moreover, most happy in being able to secure the services of an architect in Mr. W. S. George, who already possessed considerable experience in the investigation of Byzantine buildings at Salonica and elsewhere. Fortunately, also, the building was at the same time placed under repair, in view of its conversion into a museum of arms, thus affording exceptional facilities for the erection of scaffolding and the removal of plaster and other obstructions. Mr. George gave nearly five months to the study of the church, and the results of his careful investigations will appear in a monograph to be published by the Byzantine Research and Publication Fund. But with great courtesy, in view of the fact that I was engaged on the present work, and also because I waived my own application for leave to study S. Irene in favour of the application made by the Byzantine Fund, I have been allowed to anticipate that monograph by making use of some of the results of Mr. George's investigations. For this permission I am very grateful, as it will add much to the value of this volume. I visited the church frequently while Mr. George was at work upon it, and my account of its architectural features is based entirely upon the information he then kindly supplied, and upon the notes he has communicated to me since his return to England.




S. Irene. Vaulting at the North-west Corner Of The Atrium.

S. Irene.
Vaulting at the North-west Corner Of The Atrium

S. Irene. The Northern Arch of the Main Dome, seen from the South Gallery.

S. Irene.
The Northern Arch of the Main Dome, seen from the South Gallery


The architectural feature which gives to this building a peculiar interest, in the study of the development of planning and construction, is the more complete fusion of the basilican type of plan with a domical system of roofing which it presents than is found in any other example of a similar combination.


On the west, where the ground retains its original level, stands the old atrium, though much modified by Turkish repairs and alterations. It had covered arcades on the north, south, and west sides, but only the outer walls of the northern and southern arcades, with some portions of their inner walls, and three complete vaulted bays at the northern end of the western arcade, are Byzantine. The walls, vaults, and piers in other parts of the arcades are Turkish. There is no trace of the west door which, under ordinary circumstances, would form the main entrance to the atrium, but a Byzantine doorway, now built up, is found close to the narthex, in the outer wall of the south arcade. The area of the atrium has been, moreover, greatly reduced by the erection, on its four sides, of an inner range of Turkish vaulting.

Five doors led from the atrium to the narthex, but only the central and the northernmost of these doors are now open, the latter entrance still retaining its original architrave and cornice of white marble, with the usual mouldings and a cross worked on the crowning member of the cornice. The present entrance to the church, however, is on the north side of the building, through a porch that leads down a sloping Turkish passage to the western end of the north aisle.


The narthex is in five bays, the two terminal bays having cross-groined vaults, the three central, vaults of a domical character with blunt rounded groins at the springing. The whole vaulting surface of the narthex was once covered with mosaics exhibiting mainly a geometrical pattern.


From the narthex three tall arched openings conducted to the nave, and one opening to each aisle. But the direct communication between the narthex and the northern aisle is now cut off by the insertion of the Turkish entrance to the church, although the old doorway to the aisle remains complete.


The nave is divided into two large bays of equal breadth but unequal length, the western bay being the shorter. In the latter the arches which support its roof are, to the east and west, semicircular, while those to north and south are roughly elliptical, springing from the same level and rising to the same height as the semicircular arches, but being of shorter span. These elliptical arches extend to the outer walls of the church, thus partaking of the character of short barrel vaults.


Upon these arches is raised what has been called an elliptical dome. But in no part has it the character of a true ellipse, nor does it spring from its supporting arches in the simple regular manner of a dome, but in the complex manner of a vault built upon arches of unequal curvature. It should therefore rather be called a domical vault. Where it shows above the roof it has the appearance of a modified and very low cone covering an irregular elliptical drum.


The eastern bay of the nave is square on plan, bounded by semicircular arches, all extended so as to form short barrel vaults. The western arch is joined to the eastern arch of the western bay, thus forming a short barrel vault common to both bays. The vault to the east runs to the semi-dome of the apse; whilst the vaults to north and south, like the corresponding vaults in the western bay, extend to the outer walls and cover the eastern portions of the aisles and galleries. Above the supporting arches regular pendentives are formed, and above these there is a drum carrying a dome. The apse to the east of the nave is semicircular within and covered by a semi-dome.


Between that semi-dome and the eastern barrel vault of the nave a break is interposed, giving the bema arch two orders or faces, with their external and internal angles rounded off, and the whole surface of the semi-dome and of the bema arch is covered with mosaic. At one time the mosaic extended also over the surface of the barrel vault. The decoration in the semi-dome consists of a large cross in black outline upon a gold ground; below the cross there are three steps set upon a double band of green that runs round the base of the semi-dome. A geometrical border bounds the semi-dome, and then comes the following inscription, an extract from Psalm lxv. verses 5, 6 (the lxiv. in the Septuagint version), on the inner face of the arch:



(Come we will go?) in the good things of thy house. Holy is thy temple. Thou art wonderful in righteousness. Hear us, O God our Saviour; the hope of all the ends of the earth and of them who are afar off upon the sea.


The letters enclosed within curved brackets and the accents above them are paint only; the letters within square brackets are not in the inscription, but are supplied where evident contractions render that course necessary. The remaining letters are in unrestored mosaic.


Probably is a mistake of the restorer for the word in the original text. 'We shall be filled with the goodness (or the good things) of thy house.


Three other geometrical patterns in mosaic succeed, after which follows a broad wreath of foliage on the outer face of the bema arch and the words:



The mosaic above the crown of the semi-dome has been injured and restored imperfectly in plaster, paint, and gilt. Hence the large black patch in it which includes the upper arm of the cross.


The letters enclosed within curved brackets are in paint and are manifestly the work of a restorer who has spoiled the grammatical construction of the words and obscured the meaning of the inscription. The remaining letters are in unrestored mosaic.

I venture to suggest that the original text was a quotation from Amos ix. 6, with possibly some variations:

'He who builds his ascent up to the heaven and his command on the foundations of the earth.'

'Yea, Lord God Almighty our Saviour, the hope of all the ends of the earth, hear us sinners when we call upon thee, and send thy Holy Spirit, the worshipful and all powerful, and sanctify this house.


Below the windows of the apse are ranges of seats for the clergy, forming a sloping gallery, and consisting of eleven risers and eleven treads, so that, according to the method of seating adopted, there are five or six or eleven rows of seats. There is no vestige of a special episcopal seat in the centre, but the stonework has been disturbed; for some of the seats are built with portions of the moulded base of the marble revetment of the building. Underneath the seats runs a narrow semicircular passage originally well lighted through openings in the riser of one range of seats, and having a doorway at each end.




S. Irene. Mosaic on Soffit of an Arch Between the Narthex and the Atrium.

S. Irene.
Mosaic on Soffit of an Arch Between the Narthex and the Atrium

S. Irene. Portion of the Mosaic Inscription on the Outer Arch of the Apse.

S. Irene.
Portion of the Mosaic Inscription on the Outer Arch of the Apse



On either side of the nave, towards the eastern end of each aisle, there is an approximately square compartment covered with a domical vault, and having an opening communicating with the nave immediately to the west of the bema. To the east of these compartments stands what was the original eastern wall of the church, and in it, in the north aisle, a large doorway retaining its architrave and  cornice, is still found. Of the corresponding doorway in the south aisle only the threshold is left. These doorways must have communicated with the outer world to the east of the church, like the doorways which occupy a similar position in the Studion. The northern compartment had an opening, which is still surmounted by architrave and cornice, also in its north wall. There are, moreover, four other openings or recesses in the northern wall of the church, and two in the southern.


The main portions of the aisles are divided from the nave by light screens of columns, the eastern and western portions being connected by passages driven through the dome piers. In the eastern nave bay there are four columns, giving five aisle bays on each side. The columns are very slender, without any base moulding, and stand upon square pedestals, now framed round with Turkish woodwork. On opening one of these frames the pedestal was found to be a mutilated and imperfectly squared block of stone. Such blocks may have served as the core of a marble lining, or may be damaged material re-used.


The capitals are of the 'Pseudo-Ionic' type, with roughly cut Ionic volutes. The sinking on their lower bed is too large for the necks of the columns. Towards the aisles they bear the monograms of Justinian and Theodora, identical with the monograms of these sovereigns in S. Sophia, while on the side towards the nave they have a cross in low relief. Usually monograms are placed in the more conspicuous position.

Above the capitals the vaulting that covers the aisles and supports the galleries is of an uncommon type. Towards the nave the arches are narrow and raised upon very high stilts; from each capital a semicircular arch is thrown across to the outer wall, where is a range of windows, each of which has an extrados at a slightly higher level than the extrados of the corresponding nave arch; and thus a long narrow space is left between the four arches of each vault compartment that could be filled, wholly or in part, without the use of centering. The result is a narrow, irregularly curved vault, shaped to the backs of each of its surrounding arches, and having, in the main, the character of a spherical fragment.


The western portion of each aisle is divided from the nave by an irregular arcade supported by a pier and one column, and, consequently, there are three aisle bays to the western nave bay, and not four as shown by Salzenburg.


The whole interior surfaces of the walls, up to the level of the springing of the gallery vaulting, and the nave walls, up to the gallery level, were once faced with marble. This is proved by the presence in the walls of many marble plugs and some iron holdfasts, as well as by remains of the moulded base of the facing.


At the eastern extremity of the aisles there are chambers formed by walls built, as the vertical straight joints and difference of materials employed indicate, at various periods. The chamber at the end of the northern aisle has an archway, now built up, in its eastern wall, and seems to have served as a vestibule. It is in these chambers that Salzenberg supposes the staircases leading to the galleries stood, but it is evident from the character of the walls and vaulting that no such staircases could ever have existed there.


The galleries extend over the narthex and over the whole length of the aisles. Access to them is now obtained by a wooden staircase and landing of Turkish construction, but how they were reached in Byzantine times is not evident. Possibly the fragments of wall on the exterior face of the south wall of the narthex and the traces of vaulting beside them may be the remains of a staircase. Or a staircase may have stood to the west of the narthex over the vaulting of the atrium, where projecting spurs of walls appear.


The vaulting of the gallery over the narthex was originally similar to that of the narthex itself, but only the cross-groined vaults at the corners are Byzantine; the three central compartments are Turkish. Five windows in the western wall looked into the atrium, and as many openings in the eastern wall into the nave and side galleries. Below the former range is a string-course corresponding to that which runs round the interior of the building at gallery level.


The gallery over each aisle consists of two open portions under the dome arches, divided from each other by the dome piers, which are pierced to connect the different parts of the gallery with each other, and with the gallery over the narthex. In the side walls there is a range of windows at gallery level; five on each side of the eastern nave bay, three in the south wall of the western nave bay, but none, at present, in its northern wall. Above these windows are two ranges of windows in each lunette under the dome arches, a system of five and three in the eastern bay, and of four and two in the western bay. All these windows, now square-headed, had originally semicircular heads. The lunette filling the western dome arch had doubtless a similar window arrangement, though at present it has only one window.




S. Irene. Interior, Looking North-west.

S. Irene.
Interior, Looking North-west.

S. Irene. Door at the East End of the North Aisle.

S. Irene.
Door at the East End of the North Aisle.


The eastern ends of the side galleries have been formed into separate chambers since the Turkish occupation. Of the additions beyond the original east wall of the church, that to the north was connected with the gallery by a tall wide arch, while that to the south was divided off from the gallery with only a small door as a means of communication. The southern addition was divided into two chambers as on the ground floor.


The walls above gallery level and the large vaulting surfaces of the building are now covered with plaster, but a close examination proves that if any mosaic or marble revetment ever existed above gallery level, none of it, excepting the mosaic in the apse, remains.


Looking next at the exterior of the building, it is to be observed that the ground on the north, south, and east has been raised as much as fifteen feet. In many places the walls have undergone Turkish repair. The apse shows three sides. The drum of the dome is pierced by twenty semicircular-headed windows (of which only five are now open), and as their arches and the dome spring at about the same level the heads of the windows impinge upon the dome's surface. Two low shoulders cover the eastern pendentives. The plan of the drum is peculiar. From the shoulders, just mentioned, to the windows, it is a square with rounded corners, one side of the square being joined with and buried in the drum of the western dome vault; but upon reaching the base of the windows it becomes an accurate circle in plan, and at the springing of the window arches is set back, leaving a portion of the piers to appear as buttresses. The upper portion of the drum is carried well up above the springing of the dome, leaving a large mass of material properly disposed so as to take the thrusts produced.


The careful examination of the building by Mr. George has proved that the fabric is not the work of one age, but consists of parts constructed at different periods. For the full evidence on the subject we must await the forthcoming monograph on the church. Here, only the main results of Mr. George's survey can be presented.


Up to the level of the springing of the aisle vaults, the walls of the main body of the building, excepting the narthex and the additions at the east end of the church, are built of large well-squared stones laid in regular courses, and are homogeneous throughout.


Above that level the walls are built in alternate bands of brick and stone, five courses of brick to five courses of stone being the normal arrangement. The stones in this portion of the walls are smaller and much more roughly squared than those below the springing of the aisle vaults. This brick and stone walling is, so far as could be ascertained, homogeneous right up to the domical vault and the dome. As usual the arches and vaults are in brick. A point to be noted is that the recesses or openings in the lower part of the north and south walls of the church do not centre with the windows and vaulting above them; sometimes, indeed, the head of an opening comes immediately below a vaulting arch or rib. Again, at the north-eastern external angle of the apse the wall up to the level of the springing of the aisle vaulting is in stone, but above that level in brick, and the two portions differ in the angle which they subtend. Evidently there has been rebuilding from a level coinciding with the springing of the aisle vaulting. Projecting above the ground at the same place is a square mass of stonework that was left unbuilt upon when that rebuilding took place. The narthex is built of brick, with bands of large stone at wide intervals, and is separated by distinct joints from the upper and lower walls of the body of the church. Furthermore, while the two eastern bays on each side of the western portion of the nave continue and belong to the unusual system of vaulting followed in the aisles, the bay on each side immediately adjoining the narthex belongs to the vaulting system found in the narthex, and has, towards the nave, an arch precisely similar to the arches between the nave and the narthex. The division between the two systems is well marked, both in the nave and in the aisles, and points clearly to the fact that the narthex and the body of the church are of different dates.



S. Irene. Vaulting Over the South Aisle.

S. Irene.
Vaulting Over the South Aisle.

S. Irene. A Compartment of South Aisle Vaulting (looking directly upward).

S. Irene.
A Compartment of South Aisle Vaulting
(looking directly upward).


Thus the architectural survey of the building shows that the principal parts of the fabric represent work done upon it on three great occasions, a conclusion in striking accord with the information already derived from history. For we have seen that after the destruction of the original Constantinian church by fire in the Nika Riot, Justinian the Great erected a new sanctuary upon the old foundations; that later in his reign another fire occurred which necessitated the reconstruction of the narthex of that sanctuary; and that some two centuries later, towards the close of the reign of Leo the Isaurian, the church was shaken by one of the most violent earthquakes known in Constantinople, and subsequently restored probably by that emperor or by his son and successor Constantine Copronymus. Accordingly, leaving minor changes out of account, it is safe to suggest that the walls of the body of the church, up to the springing of the aisle vaults, belong to the new church built by Justinian after the Nika Riot in 532; while the narthex, the aisle vaults immediately adjoining it, and the upper portion of the western end of the south wall, represent the repairs made probably by the same emperor after the injuries to the fabric caused by the fire of 564. The earthquake of 740 must therefore have shaken down or rendered unstable all the upper part of the building, but left standing the narthex, the gallery above it, and the lower part of the walls of the church. Consequently, the upper part of the building, the apse, the dome-arches, the dome-vault, and the dome with its drum, belong to the reconstruction of the church after that earthquake.

The buttresses to the apse where it joins the main eastern wall are later additions, and still later, but before Turkish times, are the short walls at the north and south-eastern corners forming the small eastern chambers.


Of the building erected by Constantine the Great the only possible vestige is the square projection at the north-eastern angle of the apse, but that is an opinion upon which much stress should not be laid.


In harmony with these conclusions is the evidence afforded by the mosaics found in the church. Those of the narthex are of the same character as the mosaics in S. Sophia, Constantinople, and may well have been executed under Justinian. On the other hand, the mosaics in the apse are characteristic of the iconoclastic period, the chief decoration there being a simple cross. For, as Finlay has remarked, Leo the Isaurian 'placed the cross on the reverse of many of his gold, silver, and copper coins, and over the gates of his palace, as a symbol for universal adoration.' A similar iconoclastic decoration and a portion of the same verses from Psalm lxv. formed the original decoration of the apse in S. Sophia, Salonica.


Thus also is the presence of capitals bearing the monograms of Justinian and Theodora explained, seeing those sovereigns were intimately connected with the church. And thus also is a reason suggested why those monograms face the aisles instead of the nave; it was a position which would be assigned to them by a later restorer of the church who was obliged to use old material, and at the same time felt anxious to conceal the fact as much as possible, lest the glory of the previous benefactors of the church should eclipse his own renown.



S. Irene. Capital in South Arcade, seen from the South Aisle.

S. Irene.
Capital in South Arcade,
seen from the South Aisle.

S. Irene. Base of Column in the South Aisle, seen from the South Aisle.

S. Irene.
Base of Column in the South Aisle,
seen from the South Aisle.


The conclusion that in the present building we have parts representing different periods solves also the problem of the elliptical domical vault. For it is difficult to imagine that a Byzantine architect with a free hand would choose to build such a vault. But given the supports Mr. George believes were left standing after the earthquake of 740, and given also the narthex on the west, the architect's liberty was limited, and he would be forced to cover the space thus bounded in the best way the circumstances allowed.


How the western portion of the church was roofed in Justinian's time it is impossible to say with certainty. There are buttress slips in the south wall at gallery level and in the nave below, where the break occurs in the arcade, that suggest the existence, in the church as originally built by Justinian, of a narthex carrying a gallery. In that case the length of the barrel vault over the western part of the church would be about the length of the barrel vault over the eastern part, and the church would then show in plan a regular cross with a dome at the centre, two lateral doors, one of which is now built up, giving access to the ends of the narthex.


The dates here assigned to the different parts of the building simplify the problem of the tall drum below the main dome. That this could have been built by Justinian, as has been supposed, is difficult of belief if the large domes which are known to have been built by him are carefully examined. It is true that the drum dome of S. Sophia, Salonica, has also been claimed for Justinian, but that drum is low and only partially developed, and although its date is not known, the consensus of opinion is against its being so early. The whole question of the development of the drum still awaits treatment at the hands of an investigator who has thoroughly studied the buildings themselves, and perhaps the publication of the results obtained by Mr. George at S. Sophia, Salonica, and S. Irene, Constantinople, two crucial examples, will throw some light on the subject. For the present the date here given for the drum of S. Irene (i.e. towards the middle of the eighth century) is an inherently probable one.


In the foregoing description of S. Irene there is no  pretence to an exhaustive statement of facts, or any claim that the conclusions reached are final. There is still too much plaster on the walls to permit a complete examination of the building. But the conclusions here suggested are those which agree best with the evidence which has been brought to light by Mr. George under present circumstances.



Ground Plan of the Atrium and Church.

Fig. 31.

Gallery Plan.

Fig. 32.

Longitudinal Section.

Fig. 33.

South Elevation.

Fig. 34.

 West Elevation.

Fig. 35.

Text quoted from-
Byzantine Churches in Constantinople, Their History and Architecture.
MACMILLAN AND CO., Limited, London, 1912.
by Alexander Van Millingen and Ramsay Traquair and W. S. George and A. E. Henderson.