This is one of several translated excerpts from Byzantine sources produced and mounted with historical introduction and commentary by Paul Stephenson.


Nicholas Mesarites, Ekphrasis on the Church of the Holy Apostles

Possible plan of the Holy ApostlesNicholas Mesarites composed his Ekphrasis, or Description of the Church of the Holy Apostles between 1198 and 1203. The date is provided by an allusion within the text to the kinship between the incumbent Patriarch John X Kamateros (1198-1203) and his niece, who was at that time Empress Euphrosyne, the wife of Alexios III Angelos (1195-1203). The text is preserved in a single thirteenth-century manuscript, which was at some point divided and bound in two parts (being: Cod. Ambrosianus gr. 350 and Cod. Ambrosianus gr. 352) with other writings by Mesarites.

Mesarites was born c. 1163-4 in Constantinople. At the time he wrote this Ekphrasis he was skeuophylax of the churches of the Great Palace. After the sack of Constantinople in 1204, he remained in the city and became a spokeman for the Greek-speaking population, participating in discussion directed at achieving Church union. From 1206 to 1208 he was resident in Nicaea, maintaining links with Constantinople. He was appointed Metropolitan of Ephesus c. 1213, with the title "Exarch of all Asia." In 1214 he served as representative of the Nicaean Empire at a conference convened by Cardinal Pelagius, aimed at obtaining submission of Orthodox clergy to Rome. The date of Mesarites' death is unknown.

The sections of the Ekphrasis presented here are  his descriptions of the Mausolea of Constantine and Justinian which formed part of the Holy Apostles complex. The plan to the right (by G. Soteriou) is one possible scheme for this complex, as it was rebuilt by Justinian I (527-65). The Mausoleum of Constantine the Great is the rotunda adjoining the apse at the eastern end. Justinian's mausoleum is the cross-shaped structure joining the apse and northern transept. Mesarites states clearly that Constantius, Constantine's son built the Mausoleum, although it has been argued convincingly (following Eusebius) that Constantine built the rotunda himself as a free-standing structure, and the original church, which Justinian rebuilt, was erected later by Constantius.

Several alternative lists of imperial tombs (Peri ton taphon ton Vasileon) housed at the Holy Apostles have survived, none of which replicate Mesarites' description. One, which is contained in the De Cerimoniis, lists emperors who died before the time of composition, in the mid-tenth century. Two later versions, state, like Mesarites, that the tomb of Constantine VIII (1025-8) was the last to be located within the Mausoleum of Constantine. It is identified as that of “Constantine porphyrogennetos, the brother of (Basil) the Bulgar-slayer, the sons of Romanos [II] the so-called good little child.” The fact that both published redactions of the list end with mention of the tomb of Constantine VIII would lead one to believe that a continuation for the list in the De Cerimoniis was compiled soon after that emperor’s death in 1028. However, surviving versions are preserved only in 15th-century manuscripts, which incorporate later interpolations (for example the term Bulgar-slayer, which was not used before the late 12th century). The text's editor, Glanville Downey, working from earlier published versions of both texts by Du Cange and Banduri, and from photocopied extracts obtained from the Paris manuscripts, did not realise that both “Lists of Tombs” were also associated with the rich and varied text known as the Patria Konstantinoupoleos.

A full English translations accompanied G. Downey, "Nikolaos Mesarites: Description of the Church of the Holy Apostles at Constantinople", Transactions of the American Philosophical Association, N.S., 47, part 6 (1957): 855-924

Follow the link to descriptions of the Mausolea of Constantine and Justinian.


Copyright: Paul Stephenson, May 2002; revised January 2012