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The Rotonda (church of Agios Georgios)
The Rotonda owes its name to its round shape. Located in the eastern part of the historic centre of
Thessalonica, a short distance north of the Via Egnatia, it was founded around 300 AD and is thus
one of the oldest monuments in the city. Part of the complex built by Galerius, it lies on the same
axis as the Arch of Galerius, the palace and the Hippodrome. Although its original function
remains unclear, it is believed to have been a mausoleum for its founder or - according to the
dominant view - a place of worship dedicated to Zeus or the Cabeiri. It has also recently been
suggested that the building was the mausoleum of Constantine the Great.
The Rotonda is a centrally planned building, with an internal diameter of 24.50m covered with a
brick dome rising to 29.80m. The interior is divided into eight oblong recesses ending in semidomes. The southernmost of these faces the Arch of Galerius and the palace, and served as the
main entrance. The piers had shallow conches resembling chapels, as their fronts had pillars that
supported an arc or a triangular pediment.
The monument was converted into a Christian church in the early Christian period, though
precisely when it changed name and function is not known. It was then that alterations and
additions were made to the original building, affecting its stability and architectural coherence. The
east conch was enlarged and widened and the sanctuary was built in the form of a rectangular
room with semicircular apse to the east; a closed portico was also erected around the Roman core
of the building, but probably destroyed by earthquakes in the early 7th century. A new entrance
with a narthex was opened in the west conch, and a propylon added to the south conch, with a
round chapel to the east and an octagonal one to the west.
It is believed that this work was carried out between the end of the 4th century and the early 6th
century, most likely during the reign of Theodosius the Great (379-395 AD). The dominant view is
that the church was consecrated to the Incorporeal Saints, as attested in written sources by the
name of the adjoining gate in the city walls and the neighbourhood around the church. None of the
early Christian additions apart from the eastern conch have survived.
When the building was converted into a church, the lower surfaces of the inside walls were
dressed with marble revetments, below exquisite mosaics by a renowned artistic workshop. The
subjects depicted in the recession vaults and skylights are purely decorative in nature, displaying
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an impressive variety of plant and geometric motifs, birds, baskets of fruit, flowers, intersecting
circles and squares.
The dome has large compositions arranged in three zones, believed to depict the triumphant
appearance of Christ as Heavenly King. The lower zone is wider and divided into eight separate
panels, of which the east was destroyed when part of the dome collapsed. The remaining panels
retain the original mosaics depicting people (probably martyrs) praying, like an illustrated calendar
of saints’ days, in front of two-storey buildings with multiple openings and complex structure,
reminiscent of theatre facades and the tombs of Arabia Petraea. The middle zone contained
depictions of apostles, though only their feet have survived. All that remains in the upper zone is
the heads of three of the four angels supporting a mandorla of stars and a wreath with leafs and
fruit. In their midst is the mythical phoenix, standing out on a radiant red disk. The complex
meaning of the decor culminates in the centre of the mandorla, where there are traces of the
original design of a triumphant Christ shown in full figure, outlined in charcoal at the top of the
dome. A different interpretation of the decoration holds that the representations are associated
with imperial iconography in late antiquity, in which case they may have been created in the 4th
century as part of the monument’s conversion into the third mausoleum of Constantine the Great.
In the late 9th century the apse in the sanctuary was decorated with a wall painting of the
Ascension stylistically reminiscent of the mosaic version in Agia Sophia.
The two surviving sections of the exquisite marble pulpit in the Rotonda are now in the
Archaeological Museum at Istanbul, while the base still stands near the church’s south entrance,
where it was found during excavations in 1918. It is shaped like an open fan and decorated with
scenes from the Adoration of the Magi that are unique among early Christian pulpits.
After the conversion of Agia Sophia into a mosque, the church was probably used as the cathedral
of Thessalonica from 1523/24 up until its conversion in 1590/91. In its current form the Ottoman
period alterations are still visible: the minaret and fountain to the west of the church; the porticoes
at the west and south entrances; and various repairs. The name Agios Georgios is derived from
the chapel dedicated to the same saint a short distance to the west, where the church vessels
were stored after the Rotonda was converted into a mosque.
Glossary (10)
centrally planned building: architectural form widely used during the early Christian period. Unlike
the basilica, which is developed along the long axis, this type of building lends weight to the
vertical axis, around which available space is organized. Depending on their form, these buildings
can be circular, octagonal or hexagonal, with three or four apses.
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dome: hemispherical vault resting on a cylindrical or polygonal drum. Widely used in Christian
church architecture.
conch (Sanctuary niche): Niche in the eastern end of a basilica. Semicircular on the inside, with a
horseshoe shaped, rectangular or polygonal exterior.
pediment: the uppermost triangular architectural structure on the long sides of an ancient temple,
used in the facades of churches in Byzantine times. Pediments often have arched windows and
surmount ciboria, fountains, porticos and porches.
Paleo-Christian (early Christian) era: in Byzantine history, the period that typically starts in 330
AD, when Constantine the Great transferred the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to his
newly-founded city of Constantinople, and ends with the death of Justinian in 565.
narthex: oblong reception area extending along the western side of a basilica. Originally the east
portico of the atrium, it was later incorporated into the church, and served as a waiting area for
catechumens, who were not allowed to attend the Divine Liturgy.
propylon: the monumental entrance to sacred enclosures or imperial palaces.
marble revetment: facings of colored marble slabs that covered walls from the floor to the starting
point of arches.
mosaic: patterns or images composed of small, colored tesserae. Mosaic decoration can be
applied to all the surfaces of a building: floor, walls or ceiling.
ambon (pulpit): raised area from which the clergy reads the Scriptures and delivers sermons.
Located in the central nave of churches, it originally occupied the centre of the church, though in
some cases abutted the north or south colonnade. Called ambon from the ancient Greek “baino”
(step), because it was mounted via one or two steps. Occasionally made of wood, ambons were
more usually built of masonry with marble facings or constructed entirely of large pieces of marble.
In rare cases, such as at Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, they were decorated with precious
materials.
Information Texts (2)
Arch of Galerius: Arch erected in Thessaloniki shortly before 305, to commemorate the victorious
wars of Galerius against the Persians. Located in the eastern part of the historic centre of
Thessaloniki, close to the hippodrome and the palaces, it consists of four pillars that form a square
covered by a dome. Marble reliefs arranged in zones depict Galerius’ victorious campaign in 297
AD.
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Constantine the Great : Roman emperor from 324 to 337. Born in Naissus c. 272 to Roman
Caesar Constantius I Chlorus and Helena. Constantine received military training, took part in
campaigns alongside his father and attained the rank of tribuno, head of the imperial bodyguards.
After a series of conflicts in which he eliminated all his opponents, he ascended the throne in 324.
As sole emperor, Constantine reorganized the administrative and military system, changed the
currency and founded Constantinople, which he made new capital of the empire (330). A
perceptive man who realized the growing power of the new religion, he lent subtle support to
Christianity, and signed the Edict of Milan in 313, establishing the principles of religious tolerance.
He took an active part in religious debates and convened the first Ecumenical Council of Nicaea,
which proved crucial to the development of the Christian Church. Through these actions, and
above all by supporting Christians and transferring the capital to Constantinople, he was in
essence responsible for shaping the future course of the Byzantine Empire.
Bibliography (7)
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αναστηλωτικές εργασίες, 1992
3. Ćurčić S, Some Observations and Questions Regarding Early Christian Architecture in
Thessaloniki , Thessaloniki, 2000
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5. ΜΑΥΡΟΠΟΥΛΟΥ- ΤΣΙΟΥΜΗ Χ., Μπακιρτζής Χαράλαμπος, Ψηφιδωτά της Θεσσαλονίκης. 4ος14ος αιώνας, Καπόν, Athens, 2012
6. Τούρτα Α., Κουρκουτίδου - Νικολαϊδου Ε., "Περίπατοι στη Βυζαντινή Θεσσαλονίκη", 1997
7. Υπουργείο Πολιτισμού και Τουρισμού | Ροτόντα, Θεσσαλονίκη,
http://odysseus.culture.gr/h/2/gh251.jsp?obj_id= 1812
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