As Above, So Below: Palatial Symbolism in Late Antique and Medieval Constantinople

Mario BaghosSymbolic World Icon
November 7, 2023

It is a truism that for ancient persons, the natural world revealed the sacred. Thus, when the dissociation between human beings and nature occurred with the beginning of agriculture and the rise of the first towns and cities (from c. 5000 BC onwards), this paradoxically prompted people to retrieve the natural order within these spaces. Thus, the sacred was now revealed within these towns and cities also. Since these were monarchical societies, this retrieval involved the use of geometric and other symbols within the city scape, including temples and palaces, the latter comprising dwelling places of rulers, who in many civilisations—beginning with ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian cultures—were considered divine. This brief article, however, will address the palaces of a Christian civilisation within which rulers—while considered the regents of God on earth—could not necessarily be viewed as divine per se.1 Namely, it will address Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman empire that endured from its establishment in AD 330 by its founder Constantine the Great to AD 1453 when it was conquered Ottoman Turks (it is now called Istanbul).

The palaces of this city were meant to reflect cosmic order, and to recapitulate the heavenly paradise within which God dwells (thus, “as above, so below”). To this end, they were endowed with symbolic art, geometric designs, and relics—most of which did not survive or were stolen during the fourth crusade in AD 1204. We will see below that from primary accounts of visitors to the city and from the research of contemporary scholars, we can approximately reconstruct the Great Palace complex at the easternmost edge of the peninsula upon which the city was built, as well as the nearby Boucoleon, and finally the Blachernae Palace in the north-western part of the city near the Theodosian walls. It is to their potent symbolism that we now turn.

The Great Palace Complex: The Magnaura and the Chrysotriklinos

The Great Palace (τὸ Μέγα Παλάτιον) of Constantinople, also known as the Sacred Palace (τὸ Ἱερὸν Παλάτιον), is located in the south-eastern end of the promontory bestriding part of the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara. It was the centre of administration of the Byzantine empire from the time of the founding of the city by Constantine to the reign of the emperor Alexios I Komnenos, who, in AD 1081, moved the imperial residence to a palace in the suburb of Blachernae at the north-western side of the city near the Golden Horn (more on this below). The Great Palace was comprised of several buildings with different functions, some practical, others ceremonial. Although the original palace complex was still used ceremonially by the Komnenoi, when the Latins sacked Constantinople in 1204 it was significantly plundered and underwent even more degradation during their occupation of the city. When the Palaiologan rulers recovered the city in 1261, they settled in Blachernae, and the remnants of the imperial structures in the palace district were abandoned to the elements until the Ottoman conquest. During the reign of Sultan Ahmet I (r. 1603-1617), the remains of the Daphne and Kathisma palaces within the complex were destroyed to make room for the eponymous Sultan Ahmet or “Blue” Mosque opposite Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), the city’s main cathedral. Thus, only remnants of the Great Palace remain.

Illustration of the Chalke Gate, the main entrance to the imperial palace of Constantinople, by Antoine Helbert (Source: Wikipedia)

We saw in my article entitled Of Saints and Gorgons (June 23, 2022) that the emperor Constantine had adorned the main entrance into his original palace with an image of himself and his three sons thrusting the dragon/devil into the abyss. This same image appeared on Constantine’s labarum, a Christian version of the Roman vexillum or military standard. We have no idea where this image was placed: but we have enough information from the primary sources that describe various structures that altogether comprised the Great Palace complex. First, one had to pass through the Chalke or Bronze Gate which was the main entrance into the complex. This was adorned with a giant mosaic of Jesus Christ the Pantokrator or ‘Master of All,’ a very ancient image of Jesus giving the blessing of peace. Eventually, this image would be placed in the centre of circular domes that symbolised the cosmos, denoting that Jesus is truly the ‘Master of All.’2 In any case, when one entered the Great Palace complex they were—consciously or not—symbolically giving obeisance to Christ. (A similar phenomenon can still be discerned in the Theodosian walls, where its many gates were inscribed with crosses and the chi-rho, the first two initials of the name “Christ” in Greek—Χριστός.)

Map of Constantinople’s Imperial Palace District (Source: Wikipedia)

Next, on the right after passing the Chalke Gate, one could find the barracks of military guard units known respectively as: the scholae palatinae or calvary guard, excubitores or “sentinels,” and the candidati or personal bodyguard of the emperor, which were all founded during different imperial reigns.3 To the left of the Gate, an imperial throne room known as the Magnaura (ἡ Μαγναύρα) or “Great Hall”—which is sometimes conflated with the senate house and which was adorned with a mosaic of Christ Pantokrator—could be accessed. In this room, the image of the Pantokrator gave authority to the enthroned sovereign; one could infer that it was from the former that the latter had received the power to rule.

Also known as “the throne of Solomon,” the impression made on foreign ambassadors to the Magnaura was famously described in the tenth century by Liutprand, bishop of Cremona in Italy, as follows:

There is in Constantinople, next to the palace, a building of extraordinary size and beauty which the Greeks call Magnavra (the letter V taking the place of the digamma), i.e. “strong breeze” (magna aura). In front of the emperor’s throne was set up a tree of gilded bronze, its branches filled with birds, likewise made of bronze gilded over, and these emitted cries appropriate to their species. Now the emperor’s throne was made in such a cunning manner that at one moment it was down on the ground, while at another it rose higher and was to be seen up in the air. This throne was of immense size and was, as it were, guarded by lions, made either of bronze or wood covered with gold, which struck the ground with their tails and roared with open mouth and quivering tongue. Leaning on the shoulders of two eunuchs, I was brought into the emperor’s presence. As I came up the lions began to roar and the birds to twitter, each according to its kind, but I was moved neither by fear nor astonishment … After I had done obeisance to the Emperor by prostrating myself three times, I lifted my head, and behold! the man whom I had just seen sitting at a moderate height from the ground had now changed his vestments and was sitting as high as the ceiling of the hall. I could not think how this was done, unless perhaps he was lifted up by some such machine as is used for raising the timbers of a wine press.4

The machines that could make an emperor levitate in a simulated garden not only demonstrate that the Byzantines had sophisticated engineering knowledge and practices, but that they wished to depict the emperor in a sort of pre-lapsarian Eden. Eden was of course the garden—paradise—where Adam and Eve5 were placed by God in Genesis chapters 2-3. Filled with plants and animals of every kind, they were supposed to “till” and “keep” it (Gen 2.15) and to avoid “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen 2.9). In the story, death entered into the world when they transgressed the commandment and partook of the latter. In Christianity, however, Jesus is described as the New Adam who, instead of being condemned by a tree, reopens paradise—understood in a multivalent way as the kingdom of heaven, the new Jerusalem, etc.6—when he obeys the will of God the Father and dies on another tree, the cross.7 Because he is the Son of God, however, death could not contain him, and he defeats it on behalf of all humans with his resurrection on the third day. Thus, the presence of the image of Christ Pantakrator in a throne room made to resemble paradise symbolises the re-inauguration of this state by Jesus, with the emperor, as God’s regent, as a sort of intermediary on earth.

In any case, as astounding as this building was internally, externally, according to the sixth century Byzantine historian Procopius, it was just as impressive. Preceded by a marble, peristyle courtyard,8 the building itself was in a rectangular, basilica style, with galleries tapering off the centre of the structure and multiple apses at its eastern end. Turning to the right of Magnaura and following the path of the military barracks, one would come upon the Palace of Daphne—named after a statue of the eponymous nymph from Greek mythology brought from Rome—which was the main imperial residence of emperors and empresses since Constantine’s reign. It included two internal chapels, one dedicated to the Virgin Mary and another to the Holy Trinity, and was connected to an octagonal chapel dedicated to St Stephen. It is also believed that coronations of empresses and weddings took place in this palace, and it is important to note that it was from Daphne that a passage led directly to the kathisma or imperial box of the Hippodrome, the main circus in the city which could fit sixty-thousand spectators and was, like the palace, a cosmicising space. According to Sarah Bassett, within the Hippodrome took place

ceremonies in which the structure of the circus and the workings of the races were understood as a microcosm … a microcosm over which the emperor himself held sway.9

Indeed, the Hippodrome was filled with pagan statuary from ancient Greece and Rome—such as the tripods from Delphi, the ‘navel of the world,’ and the wolf-mother suckling Romulus and Remus—that demonstrated that Constantinople was the new centre. Its connection to the Great Palace symbolises that both the monuments of government and public entertainment were organically connected; together with the cathedral of Hagia Sophia, which was also within the palace complex, this triptych of State, Church, and public square was meant to demonstrate sacred and cosmic order in an otherwise chaotic world.

Next could be seen the Octagon or imperial bedchamber (another one, the koiton, was in Daphne), and the Delphax or Tribunal, which was an open court surrounded by meeting rooms and a dining room (the so-called “hall of the nineteen couches”). Also, near these structures were the consistorium, which was the highest political council of the empire, and, famously, the Chrysotriklinos (ὁ Χρυσοτρίκλινος), the main imperial audience chamber in octagonal shape that was built during the reign of the emperor Justin II (565-578) and was completed under Tiberius II (r. 578-582).

The Chrysotriklinos, which means “golden reception hall,” was shaped octagonally with a dome, much like the emperor Justinian’s (c. 527-565) church of San Vitale in Ravenna or St Sergius and Bacchus in Constantinople. Symbolically, the octagon is often used to refer to the “eighth day” of God’s eschatological kingdom—an eternal kingdom that is beyond time and space symbolised by the recurrent seven-day weekly cycle. (Eight [8], when turned on its side, is also the symbol for infinity because it returns upon itself in an endless loop.) This was reflected upon extensively in patristic writings, and as a design can be found as early as Constantine’s church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Two centuries later, Justinian’s church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus also contained eighth-day symbolism in its dome,10 so it is not surprising to find such octagonal designs repeated in Ravenna,11 in the capital Constantinople, and throughout the Byzantine world.

The Chrysotriklinos no longer exists, but for an approximation of what it looked like, we must turn to the Frankish ruler Charlemagne’s (a French rendering of “Charles the Great,” Karolus Magnus in Latin) palatine chapel in Aachen, which was deliberately modelled on the Chrysotriklinos in an attempt to recreate Byzantine imperial prestige and power, exemplified by the symbolic significance of the number eight. In the late 700s, Charlemagne, having inherited a powerful Frankish kingdom, managed to protect the Papacy from the Lombard invasions of Italy at a time when the Roman see was in schism with the Patriarchate of Constantinople due to the latter’s support of Byzantine imperial iconoclasm, the “breaking of the icons.” While this situation was overturned twice by subsequent Byzantine rulers and Patriarchs (Sts Irene and Tarasios during the first iconoclastic controversy, Sts Theodora and Methodius during the second), nevertheless during the two phases of Byzantine iconoclasm the Papacy, quite understandably, turned elsewhere for military assistance and protection. Thus, the Papacy embraced the emerging power of the Franks, and, on Christmas day 800 AD Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne “emperor of the Romans,” thereby officially establishing the Carolingian empire named after him. This caused friction with the Byzantines who considered themselves the legitimate continuation of the Roman empire in the East.

To legitimise his claim to imperial power—which he desired to have on an equal footing with the Byzantines—Charlemagne even tried to marry the iconodule (i.e. “servant of icons” or pro-icon) empress of Byzantium St Irene, but his efforts came to nothing. This failed union was exacerbated by the Carolingian scholars’ misreading and refusal to accept the seventh ecumenical council held in 787 AD in Nicaea that re-established the veneration of icons—for they saw it as a form of idolatry (which it clearly was not)12—and it also put them in tension with the Papacy that accepted this council. In any case, Charlemagne eventually received the recognition of the Byzantines from emperor Michael Rhangabe I, but only as “emperor” and not as “emperor of the Romans.” This led to the rise of the Holy Roman Empire of Germany that was announced by Charlemagne’s successors, the Ottonians, as a direct rival to Byzantium, and which was dissolved by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1806.

Octagonal interior of Charlemagne’s palatine chapel, Aachen (Source: Wikipedia)

Returning to Charlemagne’s palatine chapel, not only did he commission a table for it depicting maps of Rome and Constantinople, but he also displayed Byzantine mosaics in the interior, and, as mentioned above, modelled the building on the Chrysotriklinos in octagonal form. The “eighth day,” God’s kingdom, was here claimed to be present in both the Byzantine and Carolingian empires.

In Constantinople, the octagonal-shaped dome of the Chrysotriklinos, pierced by sixteen windows, was supported by eight colonnaded arches on the upper level and massive piers on the ground level that distributed the weight of the structure to the foundations. The Chrysotriklinos in fact comprised an imperial throne room where the throne itself was placed on an elevated platform (a bema) in the eastern apse, which is the symbolic location, in the patristic sources, of paradise13. This is, of course, because the sun rises in the East, and as such this cardinal point is associated with sustenance and life-endowment. It also housed the emperor’s crown, along with holy relics including the rod of Moses that budded, were kept in a dressing room in the north-eastern apse. The underside of the dome was, like the Magnaura’s throne-room, decorated with an image of Christ Pantokrator. The building also contained an imperial bedroom, a waiting room for officials and dignitaries, a steward’s room, a room with a sundial, and even had its own chapel located to the south of the structure dedicated to the Virgin Mary that was said to have included more relics. These included: the Holy Lance of St Longinus, the Crown of Thorns, part of the True Cross and a nail that pierced Jesus, as well as his garments, the purple mantle placed on him by the Roman soldiers and the reed cane that was thrust into his hand. This chapel was known as the Theotokos of the Pharos—Theotokos or God-bearer comprising a traditional epithet of the Virgin Mary—because of its location next to the lighthouse on the banks of the Sea of Marmara. Of course, when the Frankish and Venetian soldiers looted the city during the fourth crusade in AD 1204, they stole these relics. Thus, famously, the Crown of Thorns was transferred first to the Saint-Chappelle within Paris’ medieval palace, before later being moved (in 1801) to Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris until the fire in the church in 2019 prompted its transferral to the Louvre.

Finally, one of the best preserved features of the Great Palace can today be seen in Istanbul’s Great Palace Mosaic Museum (Büyük Saray Mozaikleri Müzesi). Dating possibly either to the reign of Justinian or Heraclius (r. 610-641), the exquisitely preserved floor mosaics that can be seen in this museum were used to decorate a peristyle court to the southeast of the Daphne palace.

A mythological scene featuring a Griffin from the floor mosaic of the Great Palace (Photo by Author, 2011)

Sarah Bassett deftly summarises the motifs and symbolism represented in the floor mosaics:

…covering approximately 20,000 square feet (1,872 square meters), scenes of bucolic harmony and sylvan bliss are punctuated by violent episodes in which all manner of wild animals are shown attacking domestic animals, each other, and men. Leopards attack antelope in one section. In another a griffin devours a lizard. Next to this grizzly pair, in complete antithesis, a young boy plays with a puppy. Elsewhere an eagle attacks a snake, while goats lounge to one side, deer wander, and a hunter brandishes his spear. As in other contexts, the presence of wild animals in this mosaic suggests the menace of alien, uncivilized forces in need of the control offered by the imperial house.

The wild animals also may have been understood in a different, but related, sense as apotropaia. Because of their threatening aspect, representations of these creatures were often used to ward off evil. This was the case in the Hippodrome, for example, where animals such as the hyena, notorious as a trickster and killer of men, were displayed with such equally nefarious half-human creatures as sphinxes. Captured and harnessed in a civilized setting, their own dark powers were turned loose against the very forces that had spawned them, thereby keeping other evil spirits at bay.14

A scene of children playing with geese from the floor mosaic of the Great Palace (Photo by Author, 2011)

The Boucoleon and the Blachernae Palaces

Next to the Theotokos of the Pharos mentioned above was another structure directly on the slope leading to the Sea of Marmara, known initially as the Palace of Hormisdas. It was redesignated after Justinian’s reign as ‘Boucoleon,’ which comes from the Greek words for “bull” (βοῦς) and “lion” (λέων)—since a statue of these creatures stood in front of it. These animals could also be interpreted, like the creatures on the floor mosaics in the Great Palace, as apotropaia, warding off evil. This would have especially been the case on account of the identification of the lion as a symbol for Jesus, who, in the Gospel of St Mark, appears suddenly after his resurrection (Mk 16:9-20), like a triumphant “Lion of Judah” (Revelation 5:5),15 victorious over death. It is for this reason that St Mark was associated with the lion in the zoomorphic representations of the evangelists in late antiquity.16 Moreover, in C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia—especially in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe—the fictional lion Aslan, ruler of Narnia, comprises a zoomorphic representation of Jesus.

The Lion of St Mark intersecting the Cosmos on the Clock Tower (Torro dell’Orologio) in the Piazza San Marco, Venice (Source: Wikipedia)

In any case, the Boucoleon lay desolate when the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II conquered the city in AD 1453. It was upon entering its empty halls that he was heard to recite an anonymous Persian poet’s lyrics:

The spider weaves the curtains in the palace of the Caesars; the owl calls the watches in Afrasiab’s towers.17

The remains of the façade of the Boucoleon palace (Source: Wikipedia)

The Boucoleon was mostly destroyed to build a railway in the late 1800s. Today, a vaulted structure with three marble framed windows, along with its substructure, have survived and have been recently restored by Istanbul municipality’s Cultural Assets Conservation Department.

Around 500 AD, a palace was built in the north-western section of Constantinople near the Theodosian walls in a region known as Blachernae; for this reason it goes by the name “Blachernae Palace” (τὸ ἐν Βλαχέρναις Παλάτιον). While it did not take prominence as the main imperial residence until the eleventh century, it was indeed used for court ceremonial. As we saw above, it was the emperor Alexios Komnenos who moved the imperial residence here, and he and his grandson Manual fortified and added to it considerably, including new halls. The crusaders who conquered Constantinople in 1204 AD preferred to reside in Boucoleon, but when the city was recaptured by the Byzantines the Palaiologans once again dwelt in Blachernae, to which they added an annex known as τὸ Παλάτιον τοῦ Πορφυρογεννήτου, or the Palace of Porphyrogennetos; the “one born in the purple,” named after the custom of emperors being born within the palace itself (purple being an imperial colour). It is one of the best preserved Byzantine palace structures in Istanbul, and displays Western architectural influences18

The Palace of Porphyrogennetos in Blachernae (Photo by Author, 2011)

Constructed of alternating red-brick and white ashlar marble, the three-story building, supported on the ground floor by colonnaded arches (an arcade)—and pierced on the first and upper floors with arched windows—was severely damaged during the Ottoman conquest of the city in 1453. While it was originally reserved for those “born in the purple,” its purpose shifted throughout the centuries from a central to a peripheral space: from housing the Sultan’s menagerie of exotic animals, to a brothel, a pottery workshop and poorhouse for Istanbul’s Jewish population. In recent times it has undergone a full restoration by Istanbul’s Metropolitan Municipality, and is currently open to the public as a museum that still goes by its designation in Turkish, Tekfur Sarayı, or “Palace of the Sovereign,” a reminder that, at one time, it was inhabited by those who believed themselves to be God’s appointed rulers on earth.

Arched windows of the upper floor of the Palace of Porphyrogennetos (Photo by Author, 2011)

Concluding Remarks

Like other ancient cities, Constantinople was replete with buildings and monuments that were supposed to make it an ordered microcosm. Palaces, domiciles of rulers, were meant for more than just leisure and rest. They were replete with symbols that encapsulated this civilisation’s vision of the cosmos; a Christian vision where Christ was depicted as ‘Master of All’; where the ruler acted as God’s regent on earth in spaces that were designed as recapitulations of Eden. This was done to demonstrate that, while the heavenly kingdom was indeed transcendent, nevertheless one could have a foretaste of it in the here-and-now; and this was irrespective if the reality—the reigns of particular rulers—was often far from this. The mosaics, symbolic geometric designs, and relics housed in chapels in these palaces—chapels named after the Holy Trinity, the Virgin Mary and the other saints—show us that the Byzantine rulers desired proximity to the sacred in their dwellings, and that they tried to bring heaven down to earth in their city. As such, it is clear that the well-worn adage “as above, so below” can seriously be applied to this civilisation as they attempted to ensconce themselves in an ordered worldview that gave meaning and purpose to their lives.

Dr Mario Baghos is Adjunct Lecturer in Theology in the Faculty of Arts and Education at Charles Sturt University, teaching at St Mark’s National Theological Centre. From 2010 to 2022, he taught Patristics and Church History at St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College (Sydney College of Divinity). He has also lectured in the disciplines of Studies in Religion and Biblical Studies at the University of Sydney and the University of Notre Dame (respectively). His most recent book is entitled From the Ancient Near East to Christian Byzantium: Kings, Symbols, and Cities (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2021).

This article is currently being edited and will be reposted soon

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  1. Though some tried and behaved that way, namely the Arian rulers of the fourth century, and the iconoclasts in the eighth, among others.
  2. Mario Baghos, From the Ancient Near East to Christian Byzantium: Kings, Symbols, and Cities (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2021), xx-xxi, 180, 190.
  3. R. I. Frank, Scholae Palatinae: The Palace Guards of the Later Roman Empire (Rome: American Academy in Rome, 1969).
  4. Liudprand of Cremona, Antapodosis VI.5, in The Art of the Byzantine Empire, ed. and trans. Cyril Mango, 209-210.
  5. Adam, whose name actually means “human,” can be interpreted as the first literal human being, the first to experience the spiritual state, or as representative of “the whole of humanity”; Eve, the “mother of all the living” (Gen 3:20), can also be seen in these three ways.
  6. Baghos, From the Ancient Near East to Christian Byzantium, xxxiv-xxxv
  7. Ibid., 100.
  8. Procopius, Buildings I.v, in Procopius VII: Buildings, trans. H. B. Dewing (London: Harvard University Press, 2002), 83.
  9. Sarah Bassett, The Urban Image of Late Antique Constantinople (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2004), 65.
  10. Richard Krautheimer, Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986), 203.
  11. Judith Herrin, Margins and Metropolis: Authority Across the Byzantine Empire (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2013), 224.
  12. The Byzantines had distinguished between “worship” (λατρεία) given to God alone and “veneration” (προσκύνησις) given to icons, whereas the Carolingian translators of the acts of the seventh ecumenical council rendered both words as adoratio in Latin, which means “worship.” This led the Carolingians to accuse the Byzantines of idolatry.
  13. Mario Baghos, ‘The Recapitulation of History and the “Eighth Day”: Aspects of St Basil the Great’s Eschatological Vision,’ in Cappadocian Legacy: A Critical Appraisal, ed. Doru Costache and Philip Kariatlis (Sydney: St Andrew’s Orthodox Press, 2013), 165.
  14. Sarah Guberti Bassett, ‘“Excellent Offerings”: The Lausos Collection in Constantinople,’ The Art Bulletin 82:1 (2000): 16.
  15. “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”
  16. Of the four living creatures described in Ezekiel 1:10 and Revelation 4:7, one is a lion, and it is associated with St Mark. To quote the latter: “And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle.” In fact all four evangelists are associated with these creatures: Matthew is the man, Mark the lion, Luke the bull, and John the eagle.
  17. Steven Runciman, The Fall of Constantinople 1453 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965), 149.
  18. Krautheimer, Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture, 309.

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