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.
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.
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.
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
Not everything that was once there now is, but even where blank space dominates it just accents the decoration that there is.
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.
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…
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?
Not all the decoration is fresco and mosaic, either, though a giddying amount of it is.
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…
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.
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.