Reassessing Constantine’s Tomb

Mark J. Johnson, this year’s P. A. Christensen Award recipient, shared his findings on the lost tomb of Constantine I.

SchedelCPHApostlesPROVO, Utah (Feb. 4, 2016)—Few figures of the Early Christian period (AD 300 – 600) receive as much scholarly attention as Constantine I, the first Christian emperor. Under his rule, the Roman empire’s capital moved to Constantinople, and Christianity grew to unprecedented influence. Since his death in AD 337, he has been honored as “the Great,” canonized as “Saint” and christened as “Equal-to-the-Apostles.”

Mark J. Johnson, professor of art history, has dedicated much of his career to studying Constantine’s period, especially the emperor’s final resting place – the Church of the Holy Apostles, also known as the Apostoleion. Built in the fourth century AD, the building served as both a church and his own mausoleum. As recipient of the 2016 P. A. Christensen lectureship, Johnson delivered a special lecture in which he explained the structure, interior and message of this building, now no longer standing but still full of knowledge to be gleaned.

The church was never completed during Constantine’s lifetime, and it continued to undergo renovations and additions until its destruction by the Ottomans in the 1460s. Consequently, historians have competing theories about the building’s actual design. Some of those theories maintain that Constantine had built the Apostoleion with a cruciform design, citing the many cruciform churches built in imitation of it.

Johnson, however, sides with Oxford professor Cyril Mango, who believes that Constantine’s original design was a domed rotunda, and that the cruciform church was a later addition.

“It is important to note that as Constantine was contemplating his final resting place and his architectural setting, he had no precedent to follow in determining what the mausoleum of a Christian emperor should look like,” Johnson said. “He certainly was aware of the appearance of earlier imperial mausolea and of the fact that since the mid-third century the domed rotunda, whether circular or octagonal, had become the exclusive type employed by his immediate predecessors.”

Though the Apostoleion was not a reproduction of mausolea past, he did take inspiration from their design. Johnson explained that, according to Eusebius (Constantine’s contemporary), “Constantine started building it as a church to honor the apostles but kept hidden the fact that he intended to be buried in it as well until later.” He added, “What Constantine started to build was a structure, the design of which was entirely appropriate for a church both in architectural form and in size, while also being appropriate architecturally to serve as an imperial mausoleum.”

The interior furnishings furthered the building’s dual purpose. At some point, relics of the apostles Andrew and Luke were added to accompany those of Timothy, though the emperor had intended to have all of the apostles represented.

According to Eusebius, Constantine hoped that the church’s design would link him to the apostles. But to do so, Constantine broke with then-current traditions of church construction. His other churches were dedicated to martyrs and built on their burial sites, built on important Biblical sites or, in the case of unnoteworthy land, named after their founder or dedicated to abstract concepts.

The Apostoleion, however, was dedicated to the apostles but built in Constantinople. “In order to be tied to the apostles and truly share in the honor accorded them,” Johnson explained, “Constantine needed to build his tomb next to one of theirs, or bring their remains to where he planned to be buried.” Constantine transferred the apostles’ relics to his church, a revolutionary move that set precedent for future cathedrals. The act “demonstrated both the imperial power he held and his own particular view about himself and his place in Christianity.” That is, Constantine viewed himself in some respects as a “thirteenth apostle” by right of the work he had done on Christianity’s behalf.

As he closed his remarks, Johnson described the Church of the Holy Apostles as “a shrine to the apostles, the tomb of some of them, and perhaps the intended tomb of all of them, as well as the tomb of the emperor. It stood as a witness to the faith of the apostles and that of Constantine, as well as to the emperor’s view that his status in life and his accomplishments gave him the right to share in the honor accorded the apostles.”

—Samuel Wright (B.A. American Studies ’16)


Samuel covers events for the Department of Comparative Arts and Letters for the College of Humanities. He is a senior pursuing a degree in American studies with a minor in editing.