Hagia Irene

Every magic city has its magic symbol and the examples are very well known, from Taj Mahal in India, le Tour Eiffel in France, Liberty Statue in USA to the mighty Hagia Sophia in Turkey. Symbol of religious and political power in Justinian’s Constantinople, Hagia Sophia was the actual successor of Hagia Irene (Eirene), symbol of early Byzantine power during Constantine’s IVth century Constantinople.

Hagia Irene, which stands for „Holy Peace” was built during Constantine the Great’s era on the site of ancient pagan temples dedicated to Apollo, Aphrodite and Artemis. Although there is no detailed information regarding the appearance of the first church that occupied the site of Hagia Irene, it is known that was enlarged by Constantius (340-361) and stood as the most important church of Constantinople until Hagia Sophia was completed[1]. After the completion of Hagia Sophia, the Church of Holy Peace preserved its significance and was administrated by the Patriarchate as part of the same complex. Hagia EireneThe first building phase of the present structure dates back to 532, when emperor Justinian I decided to rebuild Hagia Sophia and Hagia Irene after their destruction during the Nika Revolt[2]. Soon after its reconstruction major parts of it were damaged by a fire and restored by Justinian in 564. The 3rd phase of construction dates from the 8th century when the building was seriously damaged by an earthquake in 740. A very interesting fact is that after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, Hagia Irene was not converted in a mosque. It was incorporated in the Topkapı Palace complex and used as an arsenal with an enlargement during the reign of Sultan Ahmed III in the 18th century. During Sultan Abdülmecid I (1839-1861) it was turned into a museum for antiquities, another interesting fact, unusual for churches in that period. The collection of antiquities was moved to Çinili Kiosk in 1880 and the building served as armaments museum until the beginning of the 20th century. Finally, the building was included in the administration of Hagia Sophia Museum in 1939[3].

One of the most striking elements of the church is the mosaic of a golden cross in the main apse that greets the visitor in the most solemn way. Hagia Irene Golden CrossThis cross stood at the center of the dark period of Byzantine history called “Iconoclasm” (image-breaking) between 726-843. Iconoclasm rejected the use of figural imagery in religious art and manifestation, substituting figures with symbols. Instead of the Virgin Mary and Child, or Christ seated, traditional in church decoration across the empire, Constantine V’s mosaics at Hagia Eirene illustrates the veneration of the True Cross, iconoclast vision of the divine contemplation. The cross stands on a three-stepped platform, which rests on a graded green ground, whose five bands change from light yellow-green to dark blue-green as they ascend. Both cross and platform are traced in black, their interiors filled with the same gold-glass tesserae that make up the background. The cross seems to stand out from its gold ground, looking perfectly straight and perpendicular, although from close range or oblique angles its true nature can be observed: the cross’s arms actually curve downward, adjusted to visually correct against the bend when seen from a distance[4]. The mosaic cross at Hagia Eirene could also speak with the emperor’s voice. Byzantine emperors since Constantine I had cultivated a special veneration of the cross. The particular type represented here, with the stepped platform, was associated with the cross of the Crucifixion. In Constantinople the emperors kept possession of the most holy of all relics, the True Cross. Indeed the apse mosaic stands for an extreme divine admiration for the symbolism of the cross and the rejection of the figural imagery and the deeds of Emperor Constantine V illustrate perfectly the depths of iconoclasm. While on campaign in eastern Anatolia in 742, Constantine’s throne was temporary taken by his brother-in-law general Artabasdos, an iconophile (opposite side of iconoclasm). Constantine retook the capital, restituted Iconoclasm and blinded Artabasdos and his sons in the Hippodrome[5]. He also publicly humiliated the iconophile patriarch Anastasios, leading him through the Circus seated backwards on an ass. The cleric kept his office by adopting the emperor’s iconoclast policy[6].

Hagia Irene InteriorGoing back to present times, visitors can still find the imperial Byzantine atmosphere of the church overwhelming. The afternoon sun that shines into the church’s windows reminds the visitor that this is a place of peace, peace guarded by the apse’s cross. The name, “Holy Peace” was given after a female saint – Penelope who devoted her life spreading the faith. She was thrown by pagans into a pit of snakes, stoned, tied and dragged by horses, but she managed to survive all attempts. After witnessing her miracles, the pagans converted to Christianity and Penelope was named Irene[7].

Thanks to its amazing acoustic and atmosphere, the museum also serves as a concert hall for classical music performances. Since 1980 many of the Istanbul International Music Festival concerts have been held here. The museum is now open to visitors every day except Tuesdays, and the access to the Byzantine Glory is only 20 TL per person.


[1] Ayşe Dilsiz, Istanbul: Resource or Burden? A study on the surviving ecclesiastical architecture of the historical peninsula within the framework of perception, preservation and research in the Turkish Republican Period, Koç University, 2006, p. 84.
[2] For Nika Revolt see also the We Love Istanbul article – www.weloveist.com
[3] Ayşe Dilsiz, op. cit. p. 85.
[4] Jordan Pickett, The Apse Mosaic of Hagia Eirene, The Splendor of Iconoclasm, www.academia.edu
[5] Theophanes, Chronographia, AM 6325, (trans. and ed. C. Mango and R. Scott Oxford, 1997, 580-581), apud Jordan Pickett, op. cit., p. 4.
[6] I. Rochow, Kaiser Konstantin V. (741-775): Materialien zu seinem Leben und Nachleben, Berliner Byzantinische Studien 1 (Frankfurt, 1994), 199-200, apud Jordan Pickett, op. cit., p. 4.
[7] www.traveltoeat.com

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