The Patriarchal Church of St. George

October 31, 2021

The Patriarchal church is located at Phanar (Fener), meaning `lantern’ or `lighthouse’ in Greek, which refers to the old lighthouse quarter along the Golden Horn in the Fatih District of Constantinople from the Byzantine times and the Ottoman period, when it was also the main quarter for the Greeks who were allowed to remain in the city. In 1454, the Great School of the Nation was established in this area by prominent Phanariotes. The name `Phanar’ is now regarded as coterminous with the Ecumenical Patriarchate since the patriarchal residence, offices, and church are there.

The current patriarchal church of St. George formerly served as the site of a small chapel for an Orthodox convent. When Patriarch Matthew II (1598-1601) converted it to the home of the Ecumenical Patriarchate toward the end of his tenure, the nuns transferred to another community, and the Phanar has served as a community for monks and the center of Orthodoxy to this day. Indeed, the Phanar is sometimes referred to as `the Great Monastery.’ Monastics play a vital and prophetic role in the Orthodox Church, providing a powerful source of prayer in a world of turmoil and serving as a reminder of the heavenly kingdom, which Christians expect and anticipate. In this way, monks and nuns comprise a balance between worldly power and Divine Love. To this day, the site itself of the Ecumenical Patriarchate comprises a monastic brotherhood under the spiritual guidance of the Ecumenical Patriarch.

The Patriarchal church of St. George is a basilica with three aisles, reflecting the beauty and simplicity of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. It was reconstructed and refurbished around 1614 by Patriarch Timothy II (1612–20), as attested to by the inscription on the façade of the church over the main entrance. During his third patriarchal tenure, Kallinikos II (1694-1702) restored its walls and roof. Destroyed by fire in 1720, the church was completely rebuilt and a dome was added by Patriarch Jeremiah III (1716–26), as commemorated by the inscription over the right entrance door along with the two major donors, Constantinos Kapoukechagias and Athanasios Kiourtsibasis. Around 1798, Patriarch Gregory V (1797-8, 1806-8, 1818-21) constructed the present royal and side altars. Later, the dome was destroyed and the church was once more repaired to its present form in 1836 by Patriarch Gregory VI (1835-40). Patriarch Joachim III (1878–84, 1901–12) refurbished the floor and synthronon (the bishop’s throne and seating for clergy, behind the altar table, a form which was first adopted in the fourth century), while also enriching the full-size reliquaries, which date back to 1707.

Under the current Patriarch Bartholomew, it has been restored to its former beauty and redecorated through the generosity of Grand Benefactor of the Great Church of Christ Panagiotis Angelopoulos and his family. In 2000, three mosaics were installed at the back of the church, featuring `Christ resting’ and flanked by two angels, who are depicted as offering the restored patriarchal church and building to Christ.

The patriarchal church of St. George further retains the classical threefold division of the vestibule (narthex), the nave (naos), and the altar area. It also reflects the early sixth-century basilicas with three aisles that were found in Constantinople. The narthex contains the icons of St. George, to whom the church is dedicated, and of the prophet Elijah (Elias) wearing fur clothing in commemoration of the fur merchants whose generosity brought the water system into the Phanar. The nave is the central place of congregation for the faithful and of celebration of the liturgy, other than the altar itself. The patriarchal church has particular stalls reserved for the hierarchs of the Throne (bishop-members of the Holy Synod and visiting bishops from throughout the world), as well as for visiting clergy and dignitaries. The traditional monastic arrangement of seating in the nave is of ebony wood.

It is most fitting that the church of the Ecumenical Patriarchate be dedicated to St. George the Great Martyr. The dimension of martyrdom is a fundamental spiritual characteristic of Orthodox people and places. Persecutions and divisions have always marked the history of the Orthodox Church – not unlike the story of the early Christian church. These have shaped Orthodox identity and Orthodox spirituality alike. In this way, martyrdom has profoundly marked the Church’s life and culture. While it may not always appear to be a normal feature of Christian life, martyrdom is definitely a normative factor of the Eastern Christian way. Martyrdom – whether a `red martyrdom’ of blood in the case of those who suffer, or a `white martyrdom’ of conscience in the heart in the case of the monastics – is part and parcel of the Orthodox way of living and thinking.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, leads the Easter service at the Patriarchal Church of St. George in Istanbul, Sunday, April 19, 2020, with no worshippers in attendance, to help contain the spread of the coronavirus. (Ozan Kose/Pool photo via AP)


The patriarchal throne is one of the most precious and valuable artifacts of the patriarchal church of St. George. Legend attributes the throne to the renowned patriarch of Constantinople in the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom (347-404). According to the inscriptions beneath the eaves of the throne’s gables, it was a gift offered in 1577 by Patriarch Jeremiah II to the then-patriarchal church of Panaghia Pammakaristos, a magnificent example of Byzantine architectures and iconography that still exists in Constantinople. An inscription at the base of the throne recognizes it as the craftsmanship of an Athenian artist, Laurentios.

The throne stands four meters tall and is made of walnut. It is inlaid with ivory, mother of pearl, and colored wood, fashioned in the form of a vine. In the past, it was also decorated with precious stones, but these are no longer there.

According to a third inscription, on one of the gables over its eaves, the throne was damaged between 1652 and 1654 during the tenure of Patriarch Paisios I (1652-3 and 1654-5). It was renovated by Patriarch Iakovos (1679-82). The damage probably caused the loss of numerous gems as well as two icons, which formerly decorated the throne. These two icons were: a) Christ the Pantokrator, or ` Ruler of All,’ and b) the Descent into Hades and Burial of Christ. The latter icon is described by Malaxos in 1577; its exact position on the throne remains unknown. The present icon on the throne also depicts Christ the Pantokrator; it is not the original icon, but a replacement icon commissioned in the seventeenth century by Patriarch Paisios I.

The proper throne of the Ecumenical Patriarch – the current usual location of thrones is where the emperors’ thrones were placed – is in fact the (usually curved) synthronon, located within the altar area (see below). The prominent patriarchal throne in the middle of the nave is the traditional seat of the abbot. The patriarch, therefore, sits here as head of the monastic brotherhood, of The Great Monastery, and may invite other, or visiting, hierarchs to officiate from this throne. On the two annual feasts of St. John Chrysostom – the commemoration of his repose on November 13 and the celebration of the transfer of his relics on January 27 – the icon of the saint is placed with a bishop’s staff on this throne, as though he were presiding. On those days, the Ecumenical Patriarch is seated at the side-throne (parathronion), which is now normally the seat of the grand chancellor.


Located in the southeast corner of the patriarchal church, adjacent to the relics of the three women saints mentioned below, this column is one of the most treasured and ancient relics of the patriarchal church. It is a portion of the column where our Lord was bound and whipped by Roman soldiers during his passion and before his crucifixion. Two other portions of this column are preserved in Jerusalem and in Rome. It is said to have been brought to Constantinople by St. Helen, the mother of the emperor Constantine, after she visited the Holy Land.


Like icons, relics are a central aspect of Orthodox Christian worship. The theology of relics is grounded in the Orthodox doctrine of deification (Theosis), namely the sanctification of the entire human person – body and soul. The relics underline the fullness of the transfiguration of the material world by Divine Grace and serve as a reminder of the essential unity between the living church on Earth and the church triumphant in Heaven. They are normally enshrined in elaborately crafted containers, or reliquaries, displayed for veneration and commemoration by the faithful.

Evidence for the preservation and veneration of sacred relics dates back to at least the mid-second century. Popular veneration of relics further contributed to the unity of the church during the Byzantine era.

The Relics of St. Euphemia

The relics of the great martyr St. Euphemia (died c. 304) are preserved intact and are located on the right side of the nave of the patriarchal church. They rest alongside the relics of two other women saints of the church.

St. Euphemia was born in Chalcedon, the daughter of devout parents, Philophron and Theodosiani. She was tortured during the persecutions of emperors Diocletian (r. 284–305) and Maximian (r. 286–305) in the late third century. The saint played a major role in inspiring the Fathers of the Fourth Ecumenical Council (451). During that council, St. Euphemia worked a miracle that determined a final doctrinal definition. The 630 Fathers, who gathered for this council in Chalcedon, were deliberating about the two natures of Christ. Eutyches and Dioscoros claimed that Christ possessed only a single nature. To test this teaching, the Holy Fathers inscribed the differing opinions on two separate decrees, which they placed inside the reliquary of St. Euphemia. When the reliquary was later opened, the decree of the heretics had fallen to the feet of the saint, while the Orthodox doctrine rested in her hands. The Orthodox Church celebrates this miracle on July 11. The repose of St. Euphemia is commemorated on September 16.

According to her biography, the relics of St. Euphemia adorned many churches of Constantinople prior to the Ottoman conquest in the fifteenth century. Thereafter, the relics were successively relocated to each of the patriarchal churches. The icon of St. Euphemia records scenes from the life, martyrdom, and miraculous interventions of the saint.

The Relics of St. Theophano

St. Theophano the Empress came from a devout and noble family of Constantinople. She married Leo, an heir to the Byzantine throne. Leo became known as Leo VI the Wise (r. 886–912). Remarkably, while St. Theophano was born into an aristocratic house and married into the imperial palace, she always led an ascetic life. Hymnography recalls how she renounced earthly riches, leading instead a life of prayer and almsgiving. St. Theophano is commemorated on December 16.

The Relics of St. Solomone

St. Solomone was of Jewish ancestry and the mother of the seven Maccabees: Abheim, Antonios, Gourias, Eleazar, Eusebonas, Acheim, and Markellos. Solomone was martyred with her children and their teacher, Eleazar, in 168 BC. They defended the Law of Moses against King Antiochus IV of Syria (r. 175–64 BC). In this way, they served as forerunners of numerous Christian martyrs, who suffered torture at the hands of the state in the name of Christ. St. Solomone is commemorated on August 1.

Historians have suggested that the relics do not in fact belong to Solomone, since she was burned to death, being thrown into a fire with the seven Maccabees. The relics probably belong to Mary Salome, one of the women who stood at the foot of the crucified Christ and one of the myrrh-bearing women.

Three Remarkable Men

The Three Hierarchs – Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom – are the most renowned and influential theologians of the early church, venerated universally in Christendom but especially throughout the Christian East. Together, they are commemorated each year on January 30.

St. Basil (330-79) was archbishop of Caesarea (today’s Kayseri) in Cappadocia (Central Anatolia). Beyond his theological brilliance, which earned him the title `revealer of divine mysteries,’ he became known for his innovative and inspirational work with the poor and underprivileged as well as for his monastic vision and guidelines. His relics are found in Orthodox churches throughout the world.

The other two saints served as archbishops of Constantinople during the late fourth to early fifth centuries, a creative period for Christian theology and liturgy. St. Gregory was regarded as the theologian par excellence, delivering five extraordinary Theological Orations on the Holy Trinity and preparing the way for the triumph of orthodoxy during the Second Ecumenical Council (381), which completed the Symbol of Faith, also known as the (Nicean-Constantinopolitan) Creed.

St. John Chrysostom is widely recognized as the greatest of preachers and one of the most popular of the Greek Church Fathers in both East and West; his remarkable sermons On the Priesthood remain formative reading on the ministry.

In November 2004, the sacred relics of the two renowned archbishops of Constantinople were solemnly restored to the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The relics of these archbishops were formerly treasured in the church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople, where they lay side-by-side from the tenth century until the time of the Crusades. St. Gregory was originally buried in Cappadocia, where he retired around 381; his relics were transferred to Constantinople in the tenth century by the emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitos (r. 913-59). St. John was originally buried in Kokussos of Asia Minor (modern Göksun, in southeastern Turkey), where he died while in exile; his relics were returned to Constantinople in 438 by the emperor Theodosius II (r. 408-50).

At some time during the early thirteenth century, the relics of the two saints were stolen and taken to Rome after the Fourth Crusade (1204), which left a dour and deep wound in the memory of the Orthodox Church. St. John Chrysostom’s relics were placed in the medieval church of St. Peter’s at the Vatican, while St. Gregory the Theologian’s were kept in the convent of St. Maria in Campo Santo.

In 1580, with the construction of the new St. Peter’s Basilica in the sixteenth century, Pope Gregory XIII (d. 1585) transferred the relics of St. Gregory to a side altar, which came to be known as the Capella Gregoriana, in the nave of St. Peter’s. In 1626, the relics of St. John were transferred to another altar in the nave, known as the Choir Chapel. The relics of the two patriarchs of Constantinople remained in Rome for 800 years and in St. Peter’s Basilica for 400 years.

In the early 1960s, in an act of fraternal fellowship, Pope Paul VI (d. 1978) returned sacred relics of certain saints belonging to the Orthodox Church, including those of St. Andrew (formerly preserved in Amalfi, Italy) to Patras, Greece, and St. Mark (formerly preserved in Venice, Italy), to the Coptic Church (the Oriental Orthodox Church centered in Egypt).

The mid-1960s and 1970s also witnessed the extraordinary vision of Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, who embarked on a Dialogue of Love with the Roman Catholic Church. In 1980, the Dialogue of Truth marked the commencement of the theological discussions between the two churches.

In June, 2004, the Ecumenical Patriarch attended the Patronal Feast of the Roman Catholic Church on June 29. While the invitation is extended each year and the Ecumenical Patriarch is represented annually, that year also marked the fortieth anniversary since the inception of the Dialogue of Love established in Jerusalem in 1964, as well as the 800th dark anniversary of Fourth Crusade. On this occasion, Pope John Paul II (d. 2005) officially apologized for the tragic events of the Fourth Crusade. In response, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew observed that no material compensation was at that time appropriate, but the rightful return of the sacred relics of the two archbishops of Constantinople would comprise a spiritual restoration of that church’s legacy. The return of their relics would be a tangible gesture of the acknowledgement of past errors, a moral restoration of the spiritual legacy of the East, and a significant step in the process of reconciliation.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew personally accompanied the relics of the great hierarchs to Istanbul on 27 November 2004, following an official service and ceremonial procession at St. Peter’s in Rome. In the patriarchal church of St. George, the crystal case containing the relics was placed on the solea (the floor – sometimes raised – outside the altar space leading to the main part of the church), immediately before the patriarchal throne. In accordance with ancient practice and protocol, the Ecumenical Patriarch symbolically deferred to the saints by offering the throne in honor of their preeminence, while he sat in the parathronion, or side-throne.

The return of relics is more than a purely historical event of theological importance; traditionally, it is a liturgical feast of spiritual significance. The new Feast of the Translation of the Relics of St. Gregory the Theologian and St. John Chrysostom, commemorated henceforth on November 30 as the official date of their reinstallation, coincides with the Thronal Feast of the Church of Constantinople, namely the Feast of St. Andrew, the `first-called of the Apostles.’


Located within the holy sanctuary, behind the holy altar, the synthronon consists of an elevated marble throne surrounded by eleven smaller, wooden thrones. According to canonical and liturgical tradition, only the patriarch may be seated on the marble throne, while the other thrones are reserved for bishops of the holy and patriarchal synod. This is in fact the proper throne of the Ecumenical Patriarch. And, since some of the marble on the synthronon dates back to the early fifth century, it may well have been graced by the presence of St. John Chrysostom.

The synthronon is an ancient liturgical practice of the Christian church, symbolizing the unity of the faithful around the local bishop, who serves as president of the eucharistic gathering. It is also symbolical of the collegiality of the body of bishops, chaired by the president of the local synod. The episcopal throne indicates the teaching authority of the bishop; the synthronon signifies the unity of love and faith that characterizes the Church.


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