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Saints and Feasts of November 19

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Commemoration of the Consecration of the Nea Ekklesia in Constantinople

An approximate reconstruction of Nea Ekklesia.

On this day (1st of May) is celebrated the Consecration of Nea Ekklesia, when the Patriarch goes to the palace, and from there goes by procession to the Nea Ekklesia, and liturgizes there.

Emperor Basil I the Macedonian was the founder of the Macedonian dynasty, the most successful in Eastern Roman history. Basil regarded himself as a restorer of the empire, a new Justinian, and initiated a great building program in Constantinople in emulation his great predecessor. The Nea Ekklesia was to be Basil’s Hagia Sophia, with its very name, "New Church", implying the beginning of a new era.

The Nea Ekklesia was built under the personal supervision of Emperor Basil, in the southeastern corner of the Great Palace complex, near the location of the earlier tzykanistērion (polo field). Basil built another church nearby, the "Theotokos of the Pharos". The Nea was consecrated on 1 May 880 by Patriarch Photios, and dedicated to the Savior Christ, the Archangel Michael (in later sources, Gabriel), the Prophet Elijah (one of Basil’s favorite saints), the Theotokos and Saint Nicholas.

Emperor Basil I

It is indicative of Basil's intentions for this church that he endowed it with its own administration and estates, on the model of Hagia Sophia. During his and his immediate successors’ reign, the Nea played an important role in palace ceremonies, and at least until the reign of Constantine VII, the anniversary of its consecration was a major dynastic feast. During this feast, the Patriarch would begin a procession from the palace to the Nea, where he celebrated the Divine Liturgy. At some point in the late 11th century it was turned into a monastery, and was known as the "New Monastery" (Νέα Μονή). Emperor Isaac II Angelos stripped it of much of its decoration, its furniture and liturgical vessels, and used them to restore the Church of Saint Michael at Anaplous. The building continued to be used by the Latins and survived the Palaiologan period until after the Ottoman conquest of the city. The Ottomans however used it for gunpowder storage. Thus in 1490, when the building was struck by lightning, it was destroyed and subsequently torn down. As a result, the only information we have about the church comes from literary evidence, especially the mid-10th century Vita Basilii, as well a few crude depictions in maps.

Map of the Great Palace district. The approximate location of the Nea Ekklēsia is marked on the southern end.

Description

As noted, not much is known about the details of the structure. The church was built with five domes: the central dome was dedicated to Christ while the four smaller ones housed chapels of the four other saints to whom the church was dedicated. The exact arrangement of the domes and the type of the church are disputed. Most scholars consider it to have been a cross-in-square structure, similar to the later Myrelaion and Lips Monastery churches. Indeed, the widespread use of this type throughout the Orthodox world, from the Balkans to Russia, is commonly ascribed to the prestige of this imperial building.

The church was the crowning achievement of Basil's building program, and he spared no expense to decorate it as lavishly as possible: other churches and structures in the capital, including the mausoleum of Justinian, were stripped, and the Imperial fleet employed with transporting marble for its construction, with the result that Syracuse, the main Byzantine stronghold in Sicily, was left unsupported and fell to the Arabs.

Basil's grandson, the Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitos, gives the following description of the church's decoration in a laudatory ekphrasis:

This church, like a bride adorned with pearls and gold, with gleaming silver, with a variety of many-hued marble, with compositions of mosaic tesserae, and clothing of silken stuffs, he [Basil] offered to Christ, the immortal Bridegroom. Its roof, consisting of five domes, gleams with gold and is resplendent with beautiful images as with stars, while on the outside it is adorned with brass that resembles gold. The walls on either side are beautified with costly marbles of many hues, while the sanctuary is enriched with gold and silver, precious stones, and pearls. The barrier that separates the sanctuary from the nave, including the columns that pertain to it and the lintel that is above them; the seats that are within, and the steps that are in front of them, and the holy tables themselves — all of these are of silver suffused with gold, of precious stones and costly pearls. As for the pavement, it appears to be covered in silken stuffs of Sidonian workmanship; to such an extent has it been adorned all over with marble slabs of different colors enclosed by tessellated bands of varied aspect, all accurately joined together and abounding in elegance.

The atrium of the church lay before its western entrance, and was decorated with two fountains of marble and porphyry. Two porticoes ran along the northern and southern sides of the church up to the tzykanistērion (polo field), and on the seaward (southern) side, a treasury and a sacristy were built. To the east of the church complex lay a garden, known as mesokēpion ("middle garden").


Relics

Along with the Oratory of Saint Stephen in the Daphne Palace and the Church of the Virgin of the Pharos, the Nea was the chief repository of holy relics in the imperial palace. These included the sheepskin cloak of the Prophet Elijah, the table of Abraham, at which he hosted three angels, the horn which the Prophet Samuel had used to anoint David, and relics of Constantine the Great. After the 10th century, further relics were apparently moved there from other locations in the palace, including the rod of Moses from the Chrysotriklinos.


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