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December 29, 2018

The Bronze Tetrapylon and the Church of the Holy Forty Martyrs in Constantinople

Reconstruction of the Bronze Tetrapylon

1. Tetrapyla in Constantinople

An architectural structure on four columns, as its name literally means, the tetrapylon had a long-established meaning of a triumphal structure in the Mediterranean tradition. Established as triumphal structures in pagan tradition, situated at the intersection of major thoroughfares within the street grid, monumental quadrifrons (four-way arches) and tetrapyla were imperial markers over the locus mundi, the navel of the world. Comprised of four single pillars identical in size and shape, standing apart from each other and forming a coherent square plan, sometimes connected with an entablature, and occasionally toped by vaults, quadrifrons and tetrapyla were essentially colossal canopies (ciboria). In the Mediterranean these Late Antique structures were usually associated with the canopied throne of the Emperor in the audience hall and symbolized the presence of the Roman Emperor even in his absence.

Though we do not have enough material evidence on exact number and physical appearance of the tetrapyla in Constantinople, most likely these monuments resembled, in form and function, other tetrapyla from the period of Roman Tetrarchy, as Constantinople was clearly designed to be on a par with the major cities of the Empire: Rome, Alexandria and Antioch, to name but a few. The imperial civic programme, set by Constantine I (d. 337), accomplished by Emperor Theodosius II (r. 408-450), and followed by Middle Byzantine emperors included an imperial ceremonial pathway, marked by tetrapyla. Most often the triumphal way followed the long main city avenue, known to the Byzantines as the Mese, or central street, which connected the so-called Golden and Chalke (Bronze) Gates, those being the main entrances to the City and the Great Palace respectively.

Following the Mese, Byzantine emperors on their ceremonial path were passing through triumphal structures, which marked special stations according to the urban topography. Often described in conjunction with imperial victorious and honorific monuments, sculptures and columns, such hybrid architectural installations effectively imbued the stations marked by tetrapyla with ceremonial associations of imperial triumph. The Emperor passing on his ceremonial route below the canopy-like tetrapylon would have been associated with canopy-like throne and symbolically transformed into a divine person. On the Mese, there were at least three such monumental tetrapyla – the domed tetrapylon over the Milion, the mile marker at the Augustaion square; the tetrapylon near Sigma square, sometimes referred to as the Golden Tetrapylon; and the so-called Bronze Tetrapylon (Chalkoun Tetrapylon), between the fora of Constantine and Theodosios.

2. The Bronze Tetrapylon

Though none of the above mentioned Constantinopolitan tetrapyla remains, the Bronze Tetrapylon is known in modern scholarship as the Tetrapylon par excellence. This bronze - or copper - reveted Tetrapylon, as its epithet Chalkoun (mean. bronze) suggests, was the main landmark in the south-western quarter of Constantinople and one of the major public monuments in general. Built under Emperor Constantine I (d. 337), the Tetrapylon marked the place where the Mese running east-west intersected with a transverse avenue connecting the Golden Horn and the so-called Julian Harbour at the Sea of Marmara, today approximately coinciding with the intersection of Divanyolu (ancient Mese) and Uzunçarşi Streets. In the 7th century, Emperor Phokas (r. 602-610) placed his public statue on a column near the Tetraplyon, following essentially pagan tradition. However, the survival of the Late Antique concept of the tetrapylon and its appropriation in the Christian canopies of Byzantine Constantinople became manifest in the case of the Bronze Tetrapylon, at least since the 10th century.

Recorded in the Synaxarion and later mentioned by Clavijo in the early fifteenth century, the Bronze Tetrapylon also sheltered the relics of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste. Such a practice effectively combined the meaning of saintly shrine with the honorific meaning of the tetrapylon. The use of no-longer extant Bronze Tetrapylon, as a major public monument in Constantinople, thus confirms the long-living tradition of the triumphal tetrapyla within a Christian context in the Byzantine realm. The Church of the Forty Martyrs next to the Bronze Tetrapylon is where several of their feasts were celebrated, including its consecration which took place on December 29th. In the early 1400's the Bronze Tetrapylon was in ruins, which may account for the fact that the relics of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste were now venerated on the Church of Hagia Sophia, according to the testimonies of pilgrims.