July 31, 2019

Commemoration of the Consecration of the Church of the Theotokos in Blachernae

On July 31st we commemorate the consecration of the revered temple of our Most Holy Lady the Theotokos in Blachernae.

In 450, Empress Aelia Pulcheria started to build a church near a fountain of holy water situated outside the walls of Theodosius II at the foot of the sixth hill of Constantinople. After her death in 453, the shrine was completed by her husband, Emperor Marcian.

Emperor Leo I erected near the church two other buildings: a parekklesion to the Holy Soros, since it hosted the holy mantle and robe of the Theotokos brought from Palestine in 473, and the Holy Bath edifice, which enclosed the fountain.

The importance assumed by the whole complex encouraged the Emperors to lodge in the surroundings and to build there the nucleus of what would in later centuries become the imperial palace of Blachernae. During the first quarter of the 6th century, Emperors Justin I and Justinian I restored and enlarged the church. The name of Blachernae may come from the old name of Romanians (Vlach, Blach, etc.) and from a small colony of vlachs.

The Church of Blachernae hosted a famous icon of the Theotokos, named after the church Blachernítissa. It was painted on wood and revetted with gold and silver. This icon and the relics of the Theotokos kept in the parekklesion were considered by the Romans as most powerful, useful during a war or in case of natural disasters. The first proof of the power of these objects came in 626. During that year Constantinople was besieged by the combined armies of the Avars and the Persians, while Emperor Heraclius was away fighting the Persians in Mesopotamia. The son of the Emperor, Constantine, together with Patriarch Sergius and Patrician Bonus carried in procession along the ramparts the icon of the Blachernitissa. Some time later the fleet of the Avars was destroyed. The Khan of the Avars afterwards said that he had been frightened by the vision of a young woman adorned with jewels scouring the walls.

After the end of the siege, the Romans learned with joy that the building of the church, which at that time lay outside the walls, was the only one not to have been plundered by the invaders. When the victorious Heraclius came back to Constantinople, bringing back the True Cross which had been captured by the Persians in Jerusalem, the Patriarch received him at Blachernae. Sometime later, the Emperor built a single wall to protect the church, thus enclosing in the City the suburb of Blachernae.

The protection of the Theotokos of the Blachernae was also credited with the Roman victories during the Arab siege of 717-718, and in 860, during the invasion of the Rus'. In this occasion, the Veil of the Virgin (mafórion), which by that time had joined the other relics in the church, was shortly plunged in the sea to invoke the protection of God on the fleet. Some days later the Rus' fleet was destroyed. In 926 too, during the war against Simeon of Bulgaria, the potency of the relics of the Theotokos helped convince the Bulgarian Tsar to negotiate with the Romans instead of assaulting the City.

On August 15, 944, the church received another two important objects: the letter written by King Abgar V of Edessa to Jesus and the Holy Mandylion. Both relics were then moved to the Church of the Theotokos of the Pharos.

Blachernae Church, being a center of the veneration of the icons, played also an important role in the religious fights of the Romans. During the Iconoclastic period, the final session of the Synod of Hieria, where the veneration of the images was condemned, took place in the church. As a consequence of that decision, Emperor Constantine V ordered the mosaics of the interior destroyed, and substituted them with others representing natural scenes with trees, birds and animals. On that occasion the Icon of the Blachernitissa was also hidden under a layer of silvery mortar. In 843, with the end of Iconoclasm, the Feast of Orthodoxy was celebrated for the first time in the \Church of Blachernae with an holy vigil, which occurred on the first Sunday of Lent.

The Blachernitissa was discovered again during restoration works executed during the reign of Romanos III Argyros, and became again one of the most venerated icons of Constantinople. The Church of Blachernae was completely destroyed during a fire in 1070, and was rebuilt by Romanos IV Diogenes and Michael VII Doukas respecting the old plan.

According to Anna Komnene, the so-called "habitual miracle" occurred in the church before the Icon of the Theotokos the Blachernitissa. On Friday after sunset, when the church was empty, the veil which covered the icon moved up slowly, revealing the face of the Virgin, while 24 hours later it fell again slowly. The miracle did not occur regularly, and ceased completely after the Latin conquest of the City.

After the Latin invasion of 1204, the church was occupied by the Latin clergy and placed directly under the Holy See. Already before the end of the Latin Empire, John III Doukas Vatatzes redeemed the church and many monasteries for the Orthodox clergy in exchange for money.

On February 29, 1434, some noble children who were hunting pigeons on the roof of the church accidentally started a fire, which destroyed the whole complex and the surrounding quarter. The area was largely neglected during the Ottoman period. In 1867, the Guild of the Orthodox furriers bought the parcel around the holy fountain, and built there a small church.