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Istanbul V: Hidden Gold

Do you mind if we return to my September 2016 trip to Istanbul for some more photos? I’m hoping you won’t when you see them. This destination was, for me, one of the real mindblowers of the trip, and yet it was not promising when, after a protracted wander through one of the pokier bits of the city, we came upon it.

The Kariye Museum, Istanbul, under repair

Open for business… honest

This is now the Chora Museum, but it has previously, over several separate periods, been the Chora Monastery, and indeed the Kariye Mosque between 1511 and 1945, actually its longest continuous period of operation. Nonetheless, it is not as that, or as the building it was from about 536 to 843, from 843 to the end of the 11th century, or even from 1120 to the early 13th century, but that of 1321 to 1511, at the beginning of which it was rebuilt by one Theodore Metokhites, that it has been preserved.

Mosaic depiction of Theodore Metokphites presenting the Chora Church to Christ, Chora Museum, Istanbul

Mosaic depiction of Theodore Metokphites presenting the Chora Church to Christ, not mine because apparently I didn’t photograph it! (Was it covered? It may have been… or I may be a fool, that’s always possible) This version by xennex and public domain via the WikiArt Visual Art Encyclopedia, linked through

This is for the simple reason that at the beginning of each one of those periods pretty much whatever had been there before and fallen into ruin was taken down to nearly floor level and then rebuilt, so Theodore’s building is what we have, though probably substantially on the 1120s plan and structure of Isaac Komnenos, when the church was closest to imperial patronage.1 It was obviously solid enough to survive, even if it’s now in need of a bit of patch-up.

Internal structure and ormanent in the Chora Museum, Istanbul

That’s some good and rather colourful solidity right there, I feel

Sadly, when we were there, that patch-up meant that quite a lot of the inner space, including the actual nave, was closed off. The guidebook we got makes it clear that we therefore missed a quite incredible quantity of pleasantly-daylit marble, but I cannot say I was complaining, because I exited the church quite drunk with ornament already.2

Depiction of the Nativity of Christ, flanked by portraits of saints, with a border of saints in roundels separating it from depictions of the Baptism and Temptation of Christ

Depiction of the Nativity of Christ, flanked by portraits of saints, with a border of saints in roundels separating it from depictions of the Baptism and Temptation of Christ, just to be going on with

Not everything that was once there now is, but even where blank space dominates it just accents the decoration that there is.

View towards the south end of the inner narthex of the Chora Museum, Istanbul

View towards the south end of the inner narthex, with plenty of marble to eke out the partially surviving fresco

North end of the outer narthex of the Chora Museum, Istanbul

North end of the outer narthex, because who can make do with only one narthex these days?

What we could get at fell into two sections, the inner and outer narthexes (narthices? it’s a transverse entry-way corridor, anyway) and the parakklesion (which I might have called an aisle, but it’s separated and self-supporting in such a way that that would be wrong). The outer narthex is dedicated to scenes from the life of Christ, although a few portraits of significant persons with significant holy persons also get in there.

Remains of the Deesis mosaic in the Chora Museum, Istanbul

Christ and the Virgin in partially-surviving mosaic portrait, with just visible at their feet Prince Isaac Komnenos, the 1120s restorer of the church, and the much later patroness Maria Palaiologos (I learn from Dursun et al., Chora Museum, pp. 42-43)

But mainly it’s Christ, and He’s everywhere, caught in the middle of stories that this particular non-believer mainly remembers from primary school but still remembers…

Mosaic depictions Christ Pantokrator, with the Miracle at Cana and the Multiplication of Loaves above Him, in the Chora Museum in Istanbul

Christ Pantokrator, with the Miracle at Cana and the Multiplication of Loaves above Him, not that my primary education covered how to tell Christ Pantokrator from any other way He might be shown

Mosaic depiction of Christ healing the blind, dumb and afflicted, in the Chora Museum, Istanbul

Christ healing the blind, dumb and afflicted, left to right, and don’t ask me what afflictions it’s depicting

Mosaic depiction of the Massacre of the Innocents in the Chora Museum, Istanbul

Also thankfully indistinct at this range, the Massacre of the Innocents

Some of the other decoration, I am not expert enough to recognise straight off and only understood once I’d checked the guidebook, but I presume it would have been more obvious to a practising Byzantine believer! It may be an indictment of my Church of England schooling that almost all of these were from the inner narthex, which depicts scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary. She just wasn’t part of our syllabus, what can I say?

The genealogy of the Virgin illustrated in mosaic in a dome of the Chora Museum, Istanbul

The genealogy of the Virgin illustrated in mosaic in a dome

Mosaic depiction of Joseph (and James) taking leave of the Virgin, in the Chora Museum, Istanbul

Mosaic depiction of Joseph (and James) taking leave of the Virgin

A riot of mosaic illustration depicting scenes from the Life of the Virgin in the Chora Museum, Istanbul

A combination of scenes including the presentation of the Virgin at the Temple and her being entrusted to Joseph

Not all the decoration is fresco and mosaic, either, though a giddying amount of it is.

Carved capitals in the Chora Museum, Istanbul

Carved capitals on the way from the outer narthex to the parekklesion

Really, I can’t give half the impression of the place, even if I doubled up the count of photos, not least as the light was better for eyes than for my camera, but I can at least move you round the corner into the parekklesion…

View into the parekklesion from the shop in the Chora Museum, Istanbul

View into the parekklesion from the shop, which lurks at the junction between outer narthex and parekklesion

Fresco depiction of the Resurrection of Christ, in the apse of the parekklesion of the Chora Museum, Istanbul

Fresco depiction of the Resurrection, with as many people as possible present and quite a lot going on above and below, too

Fresco depiction of an array of patriarchs and bishops in the apse of the parekklesion of the Chora Museum, Istanbul

An array of patriarchs and bishops in the apse

Fresco paintings of four unidentified figures from a burial recess in the parekklesion of the Chora Museum, Istanbul

Fresco paintings of four unidentified figures from a burial recess, their actual sarcophagus long since removed

There is, even with the biggest room in the church shut, far too much to take in, and it’s so much closer to you and more accessible and coherent than the bigger places we’d been to that I really did find it quite overpowering. (I also admit that main reason it’s coherent is because Theodore did a pretty good job of replacing all the earlier decoration.) I could have spent longer here, but I badly needed water, coffee and a sit-down once I got outside (which an extremely rambling café with about five times as much space as they could then fill is extremely well-placed to provide). Mind you, as we see both above and below, some people have in the past determined to spend a lot longer in here even than I cheerfully would have.

Southeastern arcosolium of the parekklesion of the Chora Museum, Istanbul

The other major burial recess, or arcosolium, in the parekklesion, this one for one Michael Tornikes and his wife, about whom I know nothing more (I get the attribution from Dursun et al., Chora Museum, p. 173)

But I not only would go again, I already have been, to enjoy the effect of it for the first time on someone else. I heartily recommend that you also attempt this, which will of course mean going twice; but it’s worth it.


1. All of this history, I recount to you with the aid of A. Halûk Dursun, Halil Arça, Sefer Arapoğlu, Sabriye Parlak, Hüseyin Öcük, Işin Fıratlı, Defne Tekay, Tülay Urun and Bilgen Deveci, Chora Museum, ed. and transl. Michael D. Sheridan (Istanbul 2013), pp. 6-11.

2. The drunkenness mainly because of rotating for ages with my head tilted back. I took a video trying to convey the interior space by doing this that still makes me dizzy to watch. The guidebook is, in case it wasn’t obvious, Dursun et al., Chora Museum, and that’s where all the artistic interpretation that follows comes from too.

3 responses to “Istanbul V: Hidden Gold

  1. Agree with the idea of a second visit. Too much to see and appreciate in one visit. I would put it on my must see list if I ever return.

  2. Pingback: Istanbul VI: city limits | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  3. Pingback: Istanbul VII: a mosque with a longer history | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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