Monday, February 26, 2018

Sergei Brun on the Cathedral of Saint Peter / Church of Cassian in Antioch

This is excerpt, translated by the author, from his book, The Byzantines and the Franks in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia. 2015,  Vol. II. Chapter 1, sec. 5. P.41-55,  and his article  'The Vanished Churches of Antioch‘ in Panorama Iskysstv, 2017. Read the entire article, with notes and bibliography, here

Brun also informs us that:

Currently a research project is underway, led by myself and some of the most prominent church architects, to create a computer model and full reconstruction of St. Peter‘s Cathedral. God willing, we will complete our work by June of 2018, before the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, making an online source and a book available to the public. There one could finally be able to find detailed imagery from various stages of the Cathedral‘s history, of its panoramic views, exteriors and interiors. The project will be known as Lost Shrines of the Church of Antioch©


Antioch's Lost Shrine:
The Cathedral of St. Peter/Church of Al-Kusyan

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The foundation of the Cathedral and the consecration of its first altar was attributed to the Apostle Peter himself. The 10th century Melkite chronicler and Metropolitan – Agapius of Hierapolis (Menbidj), drawing on earlier legends and accounts, claims that the Apostle Peter ―laid the foundations of the church‖ and ―established the altar there. Another Levantine chronicler – the Coptic deacon Abu‘l-Makarim – obviously pulling on similar sources and historic tradition, gives the exact date of the church‘s foundation: according to his narrative, St. Peter established the al-Kusyan Church in the first year of Emperor Claudius‘s reign (A.D. 41). Originally the church was known as 'The Church of Cassian‘ (al-Kusyan). This name derives from a legend, popular among the Levantine Christians. According to this legend, the Apostle Peter raised the son of the local king, named Cassian, from the dead. When the youth was brought back to life, the king allowed Peter to establish a church in the place of the miracle (in another version – in the king‘s palace). This is obviously a later day apocrypha, since there clearly was no 'king‘ in Antioch since the fall of the Seleucid state (64 B.C.). Moreover, there was not a single Seleucid king nor Roman prefect with the name of Cassian. One way or another, this legend was treated as history and dogma by the Christians in the Middle East (both – Chalcedonian and Miaphysite). The legend of Cassian survives in various versions; the better known ones can be found in the 11th century narrative of the Melkite physician Yuhanna ibn Bhutlan, and in the late 12th century account of the aforementioned Coptic author – Abu‘l-Makarim4. One should also note that the church was never known as 'St. Cassian‘, since Cassian – whether it was the legendary king or his resurrected son – was never venerated as a saint. The name of 'Cassian‘ or 'al-Kusyan‘ was given to the shrine because of Peter‘s miracle, not the resurrected boy or king in question.

Despite its antiquity and ties to the Apostle Peter, the Church of Al-Kusyan was not Antioch‘s cathedral church in the Early Byzantine period. From the times of Constantine the Great and up to the Arabic Conquest that honor belonged to the Golden (or Octagonal) Basilica, the Domus Aurea, built by Saint Constantine and his Arian son and successor – Constantius II. Yet the Church of al-Kusyan was held in great veneration by both – the Christians of Antioch and the Roman/Byzantine Emperors. When, in the reign of Emperor Theodosius II, the body of St. Simeon the Stylite (Simeon the Elder) was brought to Antioch, it was placed for several days in the Church of Cassian, before being transferred for the last funeral service to the Domus Aurea and then – returned to Kalaat Samaan. In the 6th century Emperor Justinian I donated his imperial vestments to the shrine, which was hung in the church for display, drawing the attention of the local congregation and the pilgrims.

 After the final abandonment and destruction of the Domus Aurea in the 7th-8th centuries, the Church of Cassian – 'the House of Mar Peter‘ – finally assumed its long-awaited and well-deserved role as the Cathedral Church, the Patriarchal See, the place of enthronement and burial of the Patriarchs of Antioch all the East. The Arabic geographer Al-Masudi, writing in the 10th century, left a detailed account of how the Melkite Christians in Antioch gathered on the Calends of January (the Roman New Year) before the Church of Al-Kusyan, lit candles and lamps, and served a midnight Liturgy. It is noteworthy that Al-Masudi speaks of the gathering taking place before the cathedral; this might in fact indicate that originally the church was in fact not very large, and not sufficient enough to accept all of the faithful.

The year 969 inaugurated a new era for Antioch and its cathedral. The city was taken by the Byzantine army; Syria‘s greatest Christian center – after  three centuries of Arab domination – returned to the Empire. With the Byzantine conquest of the city, the Emperor and the Ecumenical Patriarch were faced with a new challenge – a challenge of re-organizing the Patriarchate of Antioch and its cathedral in accordance with the new aesthetic, liturgical and political ideas, long harbored in Constantinople. The Byzantinization‘ of the Church of Antioch has begun. According to the Melkite chronicler Yahya of Antioch, Emperor John I Tzimisces ordered the newly-instated Patriarch of Antioch – Theodore II – to ―make/fashion the Cathedral of Cassian in the likeness of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. This simple phrase ―to make/fashion the Cathedral (…) in the likeness of Hagia Sophia‖ has several of meanings. It most definitely applies to liturgical reform, to the liturgical Byzantinization of the Chalcedonian Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch, as well as to the physical rebuilding and redecorating of the Patriarchal Cathedral itself.

It is more than possible that the early Christian church (even if it underwent some reconstruction in the 6th century or in the later period of Arab rule) did not accord with the Byzantine Imperial ideas on how a grand Patriarchal Cathedral was supposed to look like. After all, even if nothing could ever rival Constantinople‘s Hagia Sophia, the Melkite Patriarchal Seats of Alexandria and Jerusalem were still located in the great shrines of the Roman Empire (the Caesareum in Alexandria, Constantine‘s Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem – rebuilt by the Byzantine Emperors after its destruction by Al-Hakim in 1009). Antioch was clearly different. We should seriously take note of the fact that in Arabic sources, the Church of Al-Kusyan, while mentioned as one of the highly-venerated Christian shrines, is never listed among the most beautiful or spacious churches of the East. Constantine‘s Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem, the Basilica of Hagia Sophia in Edessa, the Church of St. George in Lydda, Justinian‘s Round Church of the Theotokos in Antioch were all considered the jewels of Dar-al-Islam. The Church of Al-Kusyan was never mentioned alongside.

We do not have a single description of the original Al-Kusyan shrine and its architecture. The first detailed account of Antioch‘s cathedral only comes down to us from the mid-11th century – the period after the grand rebuilding, initiated by Emperor John I Tzimisces and Patriarch Theodore II. The account was written by the aforementioned Melkite doctor – Yuhanna ibn Butlan, who visited Antioch and its cathedral in 1052. ―In the centre of the city is the church of Al Kusyan (…). It consists of a chapel, the length of which is 100 paces,, and the breadth of it is 80, and over it is a church, supported on columns‖9. This description‘s significance is beyond value. First of all, it gives us the exact measurements of the lower (possibly – Early Christian/Late Antique) church, which Ibn Butlan calls a 'chapel'. Judging by the fact that a medieval pace is usually equal to about 71 cm, the length of the lower church was 71 meters, the width – 56,8 meters, and the overall floor space – 4032,8 square meters. Thus, the lower church of the Patriarchal Cathedral at Antioch was about a quarter smaller than Constantinople‘s Hagia Sophia. Second, Yuhanna ibn Butlan is in fact the first author who speaks of the Cathedral of St. Peter/Church of Al-Kusyan as a two-story structure, consisting of a lower church (again, most probably the Early Byzantine church, founded on the place of the Early Christian site), and the imposing upper cathedral church, built on pillars and beams over the original shrine.
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Now let us turn to the interior decoration and relics of the Antiochian Patriarchal Cathedral. Yuhanna ibn Butlan tells us that all of the churches at Antioch, including the city‘s cathedral, were decorated with ―gold and silver, and colored glass, meaning – mosaics. If we take into account that the Cathedral was rebuilt and refurnished in the reign of John I Tzimisces and his immediate successor Basil II (in the last decades of the 10th century), it would be fair to assume that the closest surviving parallel of monumental Byzantine art would be the mosaics of Hosios Loukas in Phokida (1011). Yet it is also possible that the mosaics at St. Peter‘s reflected an earlier period of Macedonian art, a period that is reflected in a handful of surviving icons and the mosaic depiction of Emperor Leo VI the Wise at the feet of Christ in Hagia Sophia. Ibn Butlan also left us a unique, highly detailed description of the Cathedral‘s décor and altar furnishings. The templon, according to the Melkite doctor, was incrusted with mother-of-pearl. The ciborium stood over the altar table on four marble columns, crowned with a dome of silver. Brocade liturgical veils flowed down from the arches of the ciborium. Before the altar there hung a great silver 'crown‘ (either a great polycandelon or an early choros), suspended on chains. A large silver tray (most likely a large lampadophore) with glass lamps hung on a hemp rope near the altar. Three silver gilt processional crosses, adorned with precious stones (crux gemmata) stood beyond the altar table, on square wood-carved stools.

The major part of the treasures, described by Ibn Butlan, were looted by the Sultan of Rum after he took the city in 1084. Yet in the era of Latin Rule (1098-1268) the Cathedral of St. Peter accumulated new treasures and furnishings. Wilbrand of Oldenburg, who visited Antioch in 1211, remarks that the city‘s main shrine was a ―greatly decorated church‖13. In this last period of its history, the Cathedral was adorned with the works of both – Western (Frankish and Italian) as well as Eastern (Byzantine, Syrian, Georgian) masters. A registry of items from the Patriarchal sacristy, entrusted to the Knights Hospitaller and returned to Patriarch Peter II of Ivrea in 1209, mentions various precious vestments and veils, reliquaries, covers and liturgical objects, made of gold and silver, adorned with gems and ivory. There was a large altar cross and a chalice – both made of gold, covered with pearls and precious stones; there were censers and vessels for myrrh made of pure silver; liturgical books (the Altar Gospel, Apostle, Missal) in silver casings; a brocade antependium; covers for chalices embroidered with silver; three episcopal miters, embroidered with gold; a crosier made of gold and ivory; an icon cast of pure silver; ivory combs; gold rings crowned with topazes; patriarchal seals; numerous liturgical vestments (dalmatics, stoles, maniples, chasubles, a cappa magna, liturgical gloves, mantles, tunics), died into precious purple, embroidered with gold and silver threads and gems14. Again, these items formed only a part of the Patriarchate‘s (and the Cathedral‘s) treasures.
Along with her Roman sister-basilica, the Cathedral at Antioch was one of the two principal shrines of the Christian world, dedicated to Saint Peter, the Rock of the Church, the Prince of the Apostles. Over the gate that let into the atrium of the Cathedral and to the Patriarchate there was a sign in gold lettering: ―Depart from here Iezi, for here stands the Throne of Law and Truth; and the Third part of the Earth is obedient to it‖ (Sit procul hinc Iezi, thronus hic sit iuris et aequi; Tercia pars mundi iure tenetur ei). The Cathedral held three great relics, associated with the Prince of the Apostles: the cathedra or Episcopal Throne of Saint Peter (that very 'Throne of Law and Truth‘ mentioned at the Gate), the chains of Saint Peter and the cage, where the Apostle was said to be held during his stay at Antioch. The Throne of St. Peter was described in detail by Melkite authors of the 11th century (Ibrahim ibn Yuhanna and Yahya of Antioch). It was a throne of palm wood, incrusted and elaborately decorated with silver16. St. Peter‘s Throne, on which the Orthodox (and later – the Latin) Patriarchs would preside on, was seen as the central relic of the Cathedral and of the entire Patriarchate of Antioch and all the East; a relic which symbolically and physically connected the eastern successors of St. Peter with the Prince of the Apostles himself. The Protospapharios Ibrahim ibn Yuhanna in his Life of Christophore, the Patriarch of Antioch, gives us a partial list of the main relics, kept at the Cathedral and the Patriarchal Sacristy. These included ―the staff and throne (…) of the Foremost of the Apostles, the relics and vestments of several Father Patriarchs – including Ignatius, the relics of Mar John the Baptist, the venerable Spear of Our Lord, the staff of John Chrysostom, the belt of Mar Simeon the Stylite of Aleppo, and other sacred objects.

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Read the entire article here.

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