Sunday, December 22, 2013

Chora: the Church of the Holy Savior Outside the City Walls

The Anastasis, Church of the St. Savior in Chora, Parekklesion1316-21
Chora Museum
The image of the Hagia Sophia always looms commanding and magnificent when one thinks of Istanbul but there is one other Byzantine church that also deserves just as much attention as her bigger, more famous sister, the Church of the St. Savoir in Chora. The magic about the Chora starts with its name, giving us a glimpse into a time and a city that was so far removed from what we know as Istanbul today. The name Chora comes from the Greek word Hora which has been translated as "land", "country" or "in the country," and in this case "outside the wall." Although it is located inside the Land Walls built by Theodosius II in the 5th century, near Adrionople gate, the first church built on this spot was outside of the city walls Constantine established in 324, hence the name. This was due to the ascetic lives lead by monks - at first monasteries would be built away from the city, outside of the city walls, a characteristic that would change in time as private, aristocratic houses in Constantinople would start to be turned into monasteries.

Walking around the neighborhood surrounding Chora (Kariye Muzesi) today, with it's typical winding streets bordered with traditional Istanbul houses, artist's ateliers, gift shops and teahouses, it is really hard to imagine the monastery and church out in the middle of fields. If anything there is a very Ottoman aura about the whole neighborhood.

As hard as it is to visualize the urban landscape of 5th century Edirnekapi, as the area is known today, once inside the church, the visitor is treated to the splendid mosaics and spellbinding drama Byzantine churches were renowned for. The Byzantine church was not just the space where the fateful congregated and worshiped their lord, it was a complete concept that incorporated the architecture, the iconographic program as well as the objects used as part of the liturgy, reinforcing the church as symbol of heaven on earth.

Inner Narthex Southern Dome,
Geneology of Christ. Center medallion is Christ Pantocrator,
the 24 grooves representing his ancestors beginning with Adam. 
According to Robert Ousterhout:
... Byzantine church interior could be interpreted as an "emblem of temporality." The combination of monumental narrative and liturgical reenactment could combine to evoke the real presence of biblical events, transporting the worshipper from transient, linear time into eternal. divine time. Through the so-called Festival cycle and the accompanying annual program of liturgical celebration, events from the lives of Christ and the Virgin were both visually represented and ritually recreated, with the congregation acting as spectators to or participants in the unfolding drama. 1
It is assumed that this enthralling drama was achieved by the artist, architect and church planner working congruently. The number of flutes in the two domes of the inner narthex matching the number of ancestor of Christ and the Virgin Mary (24 in the south and 16 in the north) are noted as being the prime example of the cooperation between the artisans who worked on the Chora.

Inner Narthex Northern Dome, Geneology of the Virgin. (photo Claus Kemp via Panoramio)  Center medallion is Virgin as "the Mother of God"
the 16 grooves below her are the 16 Kings of the House of David believed to be her ancestors 
Chora considered to be an archetype of its kind, is a cross-in-square church, a form of architecture that developed in the more egalitarian setting of monasteries.3 In this type of architectural space with its post-iconoclasm iconography, the dome became a shell for the depiction of icons and the believer in the church experiencing something akin to participating in the liturgy in heaven. Christ Pantokrator is center top with a hierarchical progression of the apostles surrounding him and scenes from the life of Christ below them.  The mosaics on pendentives here show Christ performing miracles which continue on the arches.
Christ Healing Two Blind Men
(Inner narthex)
Christ turns water
into wine at Cana
(Outer Narthex)
Christ Healing
a deaf and mute man
(Inner Narthex)
Today, even for those who are not of the Christian faith or even familiar with the gospels, the profound experience the Byzantine monks must have felt in this space is still evident. There is a heavenly aura that surround the individual as one makes their way through spaces filled with luxurious mosaics, variety of exquisite marble revetments, and golden depictions of the most sacred narratives from Christian history.

Parekklesion (Side Chapel)
Chora museum, almost like a palimpsest, has been rebuilt and renovated several times over the centuries, different sections of the present structure attributed to different individuals, changing functions according to the changes taking place in the city. According to some historical sources and archaeological evidence it has been suggesteted that the first structure here was the monastery Justinian rebuilt (r. 527-565) that was destroyed in an earthquake. The present church bears the characteristics of the 11th and 14th century rebuildings and renovations. During the Komnenian period (1081-1185)  Maria Doukaina, the mother-in-law of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos and later her grandson and the brother of Emperor John II Komnenos, Isaac Komnenos are attributed with making major renovations to the building, the most important of which seems to be the large apse replacing the earlier narrow apse and the raised, larger dome with broad arches that allowed for a more spacious interior.

Donor Mosaic Entrance above the Naos, Theodore Metochites
offering the church to Christ
The magnificent mosaics and the frescoes in the parekklesion are all attributed to the 14th century reconstruction by the statesman Theodore Metochites who was appointed ktetor (founder) of the monastery by the Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos. The most powerful man after the emperor, Metochites who described himself as statesman by day and scholar at night, was the first non-imperial founder of an imperial monastery.4 Considered to be the greatest scholar of his day, who wrote extensive poetry, Metochites is thought to have built the most important library of the Constantinople of the Palaiologian period which is why the depiction of the Four Hymnographers on the pendentives below the dome covering the western section of the parekklesion becomes more relevant.

St. John of Damascus, the Four Hymnographers
depicted on the four pendentives below the western dome
According to Metochites, the main purpose of the church's decoration program was "to relate, in mosaics and painting, how the Lord Himself became a mortal man on our behalf."  A distinguishing feature of the Chora from other contemporary churches was the inclusion of scenes from the life of Virgin Mary from the Apocryphal Gospels which were not included in the four Canonical Gospels. The mosaics with the cycle of Life of the Virgin include scenes not found in any other church like Mary receiving the Skein of Purple Wool and Enrolment for Taxation at Bethlehem.

Enrolment for Taxation at Bethlehem, Outer narthex
While the main church was dedicated to Christ, the monstery was dedicated to the Virgin Theotokos (GodBearer). The concept of Theotokos was at the root of the major controversy in the 5th century that concerned Constantinopolitans over if the Virgin Mary should be called "The Birthgiver of Christ" or "The Birthgiver of God"which was actually about the nature of Christ. Metochites played on this concept by having a mosaic above the entrance door that depicts the Virgin Mary with the Christ child placed as if he is in her womb, inscribed "The Mother of God, the dwelling place of the Uncontainable."

The Virgin Blachernitissa (Praying) and the angels
Another facet of the decorative program that might have broader appeal is the fact that it is possible to encounter real personalities from the Byzantine empire that might or might not be directly linked to the church. Metochites also included the previous donors who had contributed to the reconstruction of the Chora in the Deesis mosaic. Prince Isaac Komnenos, who was responsible for the renovations in the 1120's is seen next to Mary, and at the right side of the mosaic is the depiction of Maria, daughter of Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos (r. 1259-1282) who is thought to have made some minor repairs to the monastery after the Latin occupation (1204-1261.)
Deesis mosaic in the inner narthex. Prince Isaac Komnenos on the left of the Virgin and Princess Maria Palaiologos (Illegitamate daughter of Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos) on the right of Christ. 
The parakklesion, a funerary chapel decorated with frescoes, was also added by Metochites.  This part of the church with monumental frescoes including the Last Judgement, The Entry of the Elect into Paradise and the Anastasis also depicts the patriarchs and bishops of the Church dressed in their ecclesiastical attire. These figures can be identified by the inscriptions beside their heads but Saint Cyril of Alexandria (who was one of the most important protagonists of the Theotokos controversy) does not even need the inscription since he is identifiable due to his hooded costume.

The Patriarchs and Bishops of the Apse Wall 
Metochites, who referred to the Chora as his sanctuary ended up being an actual prisoner there after he was ousted from power and exiled to Thrace for two years. He lived as a disallusioned monk for two more years before dying in 1332 and being burried in the parakklesion in a tomb he had prepared for himself.  Chora's artistic program which was almost contemporaneous with Giotto's Arena Chapel in Padua is considered to be the pinacle of late Byzantine art. It is a project that showed originality and innovation compared to earlier Byzantine works while complying with the demands of Orthodox liturgy. Although it is possible to see an interest in depicting perspective in the decorations of the Chora monastery, the treatment of the spatial elements does vary from its quattrocento counterparts. Especially in one particular wall painting, of the last tomb monument made in the second quarter of the fifteenth century, the Renaissance style is clearly noted in the foreshortening of the throne Virgin Mary is sitting on as well as the foot stool, and the receding marble floor.

Wall Painting of Tomb G with the deceased woman in the presence of the Virgin and Child.
Second quarter of the fifteenth century
Chora church became very important after the Latin conquest due to its close location to the Blachernea palace which was being used instead of the Great Palace at this time. The protective icon of the Virgin that was supposedly painted by Saint Luke and taken out to be paraded along the walls to protect Constantinople was stored there as well. Several distinguished aristocrats and minor members of the imperial family were buried there.

The many different layers of Chora fitted into one frame. The structure at the bottom is from the 6th century, the outer wall of the apse covering most of the right is from the 12th century reconstruction while the 14th century additions of the flying buttress can be idetified at the very edge of the picture on the right and the paracclesion on the very left edge of the photograph. Finally the minaret added sometime between 1495-1511 is at the top left.
After the Turkish conquest in 1453, it was converted into a mosque with the addition of a mihrab in the main apse and replacing the belfry with a minaret and opened to worship, ensuring the continued survival of the building. It is noted by European visitors to Istanbul that up until the 19th century the mosaics on the domes were still visible and the ones on the walls were covered by wooden doors which were opened by a guard to visitors interested in seeing the mosaics. 

The Virgin and Child and Attendant Angels, Crown of the Parekklesion's Western Dome
There is a brief mention of Chora in the 10th century Patria:
"Chora:  this monastery was at first a chapel. Krispos, the prefect and son-in-law of Phokas the Cappadocian (602-610), was exiled there and built a beautiful and large church, also bestowing much property upon it.  It was called Chora, because under Byzas (Constantine) a village (field) was there, as also Ta Stoudiou was a village outside <the city of> Byzas." 5
The Byzantine church in the field is now a museum in the middle of a typical, traditional Turkish neighborhood that still manages to retain the intimate setting the monks must have experienced within its walls. Having said all that, the many layers of meanings different individuals can garner from Chora can be as varied and complex as the architectural and decorative program. As Robert Ousterhout states "like the mosaics and frescoes, the architecture of the Kariye is similarly artfully distorted, chaotic, asymmetrical and decorative." The interpretations can also vary from representations of stories from holy books to the reflection of the rituals of Byzantine liturgy on the spaces of a monastic church to "the patronage of one of Byzantium's greatest intellectuals; it is as sophisticated and erudite as a work of contemporary Byzantine literature, structured like a vast epic poem."6

Christ Pantocrator, Mosaic above the door to the inner narthex. Note the irregularity of his ears; the modeling on the face and the disproportionate ears should be noted as the Byzantine artist's attempt at naturalism in mosaic that mirrors what their counterparts were doing with paint in western Europe. 
For those who cannot make it to Istanbul anytime soon, thanks to digital technologies, it is possible to take a step by step virtual tour from the Chora Museum official website. But my favorite and the definite recommendation is the Chora app from itunes which allows you to float around the different sections of the museum, understanding the spaces as they relate to each other as well as providing information on the fundamental details of the most important mosaics and frescoes. For more indepth information, history, images, plans, as well as 3-D animations,  the website for an exhibit that took place at Colombia University,  Miriam & Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery in 2004 Restoring Byzantium: The Kariye Camii in Istanbul and the Byzantine Institute Restoration is a great resource although I have not run across any book, website or blog that can encompass all of the lavish decorations and duplicate the wonder of being surrounded by it all - for that you would have to travel to Istanbul. 

Angel rolling up Heaven, Parekklesion, Chora, Istanbul  


1 Robert Ousterhout, "Temporal Structuring in the Chora Parekklesion," Gesta, The University of Chicago Press, Vol. 34, No. 1 (1995), p. 63
2 Robin Cormack, Byzantine Art, Oxford, Oxford University Press, p206
3 Marina Mihaljevic, "Change in Byzantine Architecture," Approaches to Byzantine Architecture and Its Decoration: Studies in Honor of Slobodan Ćurčić. By Slobodan Ćurčić, Mark Joseph. Johnson, Robert G. Ousterhout, and Amy Papalexandrou. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2012
4 Robert Ousterhout, "The Kariye Camii, Introduction"
5 trans. Albrecht Berger, The Patria:  Accounts of Medieval Constantinople, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2013 3.184
Robert Ousterhout, "The Kariye Camii, Introduction"

"Restoring Byzantium: The Kariye Camii in Istanbul and the Byzantine Institute Restoration" Exhibition/Symposium website (link)

Robert Ousterhout, "The Kariye Camii, Introduction", Restoring Byzantium: The Kariye Camii in Istanbul and the Byzantine Institute Restoration Exhibition website (link) (link)

Ministry of Culture and Tourism Museum website (link)


  1. Wonderful post, Sedef! Visiting this church was one of the highlights of my trip to Istanbul a few years ago. I vaguely remember seeing "Mary Receiving the Wool with Purple Skein" when I was there, but I'd love to go back and pay more attention to that image next time. I didn't realize that imagery doesn't appear elsewhere!

    My favorite details in the Anastasis (Resurrection) scene are the little fragments of keys, nails, bolts, and locks that are underneath Christ's feet. These locks once sealed the Gates of Hell shut, but Christ triumphantly has burst through these doors. I have a fairly good detail images on a post on my blog:

  2. Monica, I really like your post! Yes the Anastasis fresco at the Chora is quite striking.There are so many details in the narrative scenes in the Chora that it is possible to write a separate post about each one.Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...