Patriarchal Church of St. George


Saint George Cathedral

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 Istanbul from the Byzantine and Ottoman periods, when it was also the main quarter for Greeks. In 1454, the Great School of the Nation was established in this area by prominent Phanariotes. The name “Phanar” is 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.


Saint George Cathedral

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 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, 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. 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 furrier merchants that brought the water system to 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.

The Candle Stand

The first thing that every Orthodox Christian will do upon entering a church is to kiss an icon and, then, light a candle. A representation of the light of Christ, this candle will be placed in a special stand alongside other candles, a symbol of the community that characterizes the body of Christ.

The candle stand of the patriarchal church is the center of profound prayer and daily devotion. Constructed out of walnut and decorated with large ivory petals in the shape of a pentagon, this seventeenth-century candle stand is a replica of early Egyptian craftsmanship. The inscription cites that it was a gift by “Manuel, son of Peter, from Kastoria, Greece, donated in the year 1669.” A furrier by trade, Manuel was a great benefactor of Constantinopolitan education.

The Iconostasis

The screen of icons separating the nave from the altar space is known as the iconostasis (templon), which generally may range from a low, ornate railing to a full ceiling-to-floor wall, normally depicting scenes from the life of Christ, the martyrs, and the saints. The icon screen of the patriarchal church does not adhere to any specific iconographic style, resembling more a conglomeration of Byzantine and Renaissance, as well as Baroque and even Ottoman influence. It is carved out of wood, which was gilded in the twentieth century. Some of its icons—specifically the icons of Christ the True Vine (see John 15.1–2) and St. George (with scenes of his life and martyrdom), as well as the icons of the Theotokos as Jesse’s Tree (Root) and St. Nicholas (beside the icon of St. George)—date back to 1746. The icon of St. Euphemia (beside her reliquary) dates to 1741.

The icon screen in the church of St. George is divided into three sections and three levels. Smaller icons are placed on ledges in front of the icon screen itself in order to render them more accessible for personal devotion and veneration.

The middle section of icons contains the royal doors in the center, with two small icons depicting the Annunciation (the archangel Gabriel and the Theotokos on the top panels) and the two small icons on the lower panels depicting the renowned archbishops of Constantinople, St. Gregory the Theologian (329–89) and St. John Chrysostom. As visitors gaze at the icon screen, the right hand of the royal doors is the traditional position for the icon of Christ, in this case Christ enthroned as the Great High Priest and pictured as the “true vine.” The traditional place for the icon of the Virgin Mother, or Theotokos, is on the left-hand side of the royal doors. She is depicted here as the “Tree (Root) of Jesse,” manifesting the generations prior to the birth of Christ. Other traditional positions of icons include the depiction of St. John the Baptist, or Forerunner (normally beside the icon of Christ) as well as the icon of the saint or feast to which the church is dedicated (normally beside the icon of the Virgin Mother), in this case the icon of St. George the Great Martyr.

The northern (or left-hand) section is a small chapel dedicated to the Three Hierarchs (St. Basil the Great, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Gregory the Theologian, whose joint feast is commemorated on January 30). On the right side of the smaller gate, there is an icon of the Virgin Mother holding Christ and an icon of St. Nicholas. On the left side, there is an icon of the Three Hierarchs and a full-length icon of the archangel Michael (traditionally also the northern door to the altar).

The southern (or right-hand) section is another small chapel dedicated to the “supplication of Panaghia Pammakaristos.” On the right side of the smaller gate, there is a mosaic of St. John the Baptist and an icon of St. Euphemia. On the left side, there is an icon of the two great martyrs, St. George and St. Demetrios, as well as an icon of the archangel Michael (traditionally also the southern door to the altar).

The two higher levels of icons include smaller panels depicting scenes and feasts from the New Testament (and especially the life of Christ) and the Old Testament (and especially from the life of the prophets). They traditionally also depict the twelve apostles of the Lord and the twelve major feast days of the church. These icon panels are sometimes lowered for veneration on certain feast days.

The Cantors’ Stalls

The two stalls used by the cantors of the Ecumenical Patriarchate are among the artifacts transferred in 1712 to the Phanar from the (former) holy convent of Panaghia Kamariotissa (or Koumariotissa) on the island of Halki. This island, well known for its theological school, also housed the Palmons Commercial School. The stands, made of walnut and decorated with ivory, were restored in 1947, as attested to by an inscription on the base of the left stall. 

The style of chanting in the patriarchal church of St. George, but in general in the tradition of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, is unique, conveying at once a sense of triumphant glory and prayerful simplicity. 

The Pulpit

The pulpit is again attributed by legend to the most famous preacher of the early Christian church, St. John Chrysostom, who preached many historical sermons during his tenure as patriarch of Constantinople. St. John was renowned for his inspired homilies; hence his epithet “Chrysostomos,” which means “the golden-mouthed.” Nevertheless, an inscription inside the pulpit states that it was constructed in 1703, during the second tenure of Gabriel III (1702–7), as attested to by the inscription. The pulpit, which is wrapped around a column on the left side of the nave, is made of walnut and mother of pearl. It is decorated with the motif of a vine, although in simpler form than the throne. In general, the craftsmanship is simpler than that of the throne, bearing the form of later pulpits. 

Three Historical Icons

The Icon of Panaghia Pammakaristos

The exquisite and rare mosaic icon of Panaghia Pammakaristos, which depicts the Mother of God holding and pointing to the child Christ, was the patron icon of the ancient Byzantine church of Panaghia Pammakaristos, which formerly served as patriarchal church from 1456 to 1587. From there, the icon was transferred to each of the subsequent patriarchal churches in Constantinople, including the present church of St. George in the Phanar, where the icon has remained since the beginning of the seventeenth century. It is located to the right of the iconostasis. Its artistic style dates back to the mid-eleventh century, when the icon was created during the Macedonian dynasty, thereby predating the iconography of Haghia Sophia and Chora Monastery.

The Icon of St. John the Forerunner

The icon of St. John the Forerunner, or John the Baptist, is located on the right side of the nave in the patriarchal church. It is traditionally believed that the original site of this icon was in the church of Panaghia Pammakaristos. This eleventh-century icon, like the Panaghia Pammakaristos, is a mosaic predating the iconography of Haghia Sophia and Chora Monastery. 

St. John is depicted pointing (to the Son of God) and bearing a scroll, which reads: “Behold, the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”

The Icon of Panaghia Faneromeni

The icon of Panaghia Faneromeni—literally, “the Mother of God, who appeared”—is a painted icon located in the left aisle of the patriarchal church. This icon is honored for its miraculous properties. There are numerous styles of depicting the Mother of God. Like the mosaic of Panaghia Pammakaristos, this particular icon depicts the Virgin Mother as “Odigitria,” which means “Directress” because she is pointing to the child Christ. The icon was transferred from Kizikos (present-day Kapıdağ, in Turkey) and is overlaid with a gold and silver cover, or shirt. The figures of Mary and Christ are quite worn, almost completely faded. The painting of the icon is estimated to date around the twelfth century, certainly much earlier than the Palaeologan Renaissance of the fourteenth-fifteenth centuries.

The Column of Christ’s Flagellation

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.

Three Remarkable Women

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 and the church triumphant. 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 (d. c. 304–7) 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 its 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.

The Return of the Relics of St. Gregory the Theologian and St. John Chrysostom

Historical Background

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 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.

Recent Events

In the early 1960s, in an act of fraternal fellowship, Pope Paul VI (d. 1978) returned the 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 anniversary since the 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.” 

The Synthronon

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.