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Posted 12 April 2004 - 14:07


Kariye is located at Edirnekapı section of İstanbul. The dictionary meaning of Kariye (Chora) is "outside of the city", or "rural" in old Greek. The existence of a chapel outside the city walls in very old is mentioned in some sources. The first Khora Church was built on the site of this chapel by Justinianus. The building which managed to survive until the times of the Commenos with various additions and repairs, gained importance when the Imperial Palace Blakhernia near the city walls was expanded. At the end of 11th century Maria Dukaina, the mother-in-law of Emperor Alexi I had it rebuild. The church has a kiborion shaped space whose dome is carried by four arches. During the Latin occupation of 1204 - 1261, both the monastry and the church became extremely run down. During the reign of Andronikos (1282 - 1326), one of the prominent names of the day, the writer, poet and the minister of treasury Theodore Methocite had the monastry and the church repaired towards 1313, and had an annex to the north of the building, an outer narthex to the west and a chapel (Parekklesion) to the south. These new additions were decorated with frescoes and mosaics. Parekklesion, which is a long single naved chapel going along the southern façade, is built above a basement floor. It is partially covered with a dome and the remaining sections are covered by vaults. It has a single abscissa. The outer narthex which runs along the full western facade forms the present façade. The northern wing is only an insignificant corridor. The central dome has a high drum. It is a Turkish period restoration and is made of wood. Outer façades are given plasticity and movement with round arches, half braces, niches and rows of stone and brick. The eastern façade is finished with abscissa extending to the exterior. The middle abscissa is supported with a half arched brace.

The building was used as a church after the conquest of İstanbul but was converted into a mosque in 1511 by the Visier Grand Hadım Ali Pasha, who later added a school and a alm kitchen next to it. After the conversion, the mosaics and frescoes were covered, sometimes by wooden blinds and sometimes by whitewashing over them. All the mozaics and frescoes were uncovered with the work carried out by the American Institute of Byzantine Research between 1948 - 1958.

Chora mosaics and frescoes are the most beautiful examples of the last period of Byzantine art (14th century). They show a striking similarity. The monotonous background of the former period cannot be seen here. The concept of depth, recognition of the placticity and movement of the figures and the elongation in the figures are the characteristic of this style. Scenes from life of Jesus are given on the outer narthex while the inner narthex has scenes from the life of Madonna.On the portal of the door joining the outer to the inner narthex, there is Christ the "Pantocrator". On the left the scenes depict the birth of Jesus, population cencus being carried out under the supervision of Governor Cyrinus, the angel telling Joseph to leave taking Mary with him, the multiplication of loaves of bread, water turning to wine and on the right side scenes such as messanger kings informing about the birth of Christ, healing of the stroke victims and the massacre of children.

The most beautiful mosaic on the inside is Deisis. There is Jesus in the center with Mary on the left, below Mary, Isaac Commenus and a nun on the right of Jesus. This woman is the daughter of the Mikhael Palaiologos VIII. She was married to the Mongolian Prince Abaka Khan and following her husband's death returned to İstanbul and became a member of a religious order. In this section, under the dome there is Jesus and his ancestors are shown in the segments. On the portal of the church proper, there is Christ in the middle and on the left Theodoros Metochites who has restored the church and adorned it with the mosaics presenting a model of the church.

The life story of Mary, which is not included in the Bible is taken from subjects based on the Apostles. At the inner narthex the scenes about Mary can be followed depicting her birth, her first steps, Gabriel telling her that she shall have a child, Mary buying wool for the tebernacle and others. Mosaic above the inner portal of the entrance to the main church depicts the death of the Virgin, Madonna bearing the child Jesus and a Saint. Parekklesion is totally decorated with frescoes. The Anastasia (rebirth) scene seen on the abscissa is a masterpiece. The last judgement above it is shown here in full. It is known that the niche on the right and left sides of the Parekklesion are graves. On the dome of the Parekklesion there is Mary and the child Jesus and 12 in the segments.

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Posted 23 February 2005 - 12:24

The Kariye Museum, which occupies an important place in world art history for its mosaics and frescoes, is a virtual illustrated encyclopedia.

I had heard its name many times. That it was a church left from Byzantium, that it had priceless mosaics and frescoes, that it was converted into a museum years ago. But somehow I had never visited this historical monument. Which of us, I or it, was the stranger to this city of Istanbul whose air I breathe, whose water I drink, whose streets I pound daily? As I was running this question through my mind, I found myself on the highest of Istanbul's seven hills, to see the Kariye Museum in the quarter of Edirnekapi.

I'm flanked by the past on one side, the present on the other. Byzantine walls, palace ruins; streets where boys play ball and girls jump rope, squat houses with smoking chimneys. My companion a breeze off the Golden Horn that's blowing a little too hard for my liking.

When I asked a boy on his way home from school where the Kariye Museum was, all the kids in earshot piped up in unison: Just ahead, on the left. When I made that left, I was completely bowled over. A charming tea garden, a clutch of shops selling touristic items, historical mansions newly restored, a restaurant offering variations on Ottoman Palace cuisine, and the Kariye Museum, a few tourists gathered around its door. Everything is like an architect's scale-model. The museum is quite modest-bare and unadorned. Taking a glance around, I enter the museum and am further astonished. For the interior of the Kariye, which appears so plain on the outside, is brilliantly colorful and impressive. The church, which was built as a monastery over the ruins of a chapel by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in 536, suffered severe damage at the hands of the 'iconoclasts' in the 8th century. The temple, whose church portion underwent an architectural transformation when restored in the 11th century by Maria Doukaina, mother-in-law of Emperor Alexius I, was unfortunately unable to escape a further round of looting during the Latin occupation of Istanbul at the time of the Crusades.

Let us relate the church's subsequent history as we tour the museum.

Our guide is museum official Selçuk Eracun. "Some of the paintings in the Museum are taken from the Apochrypha and are not in the Bible. They are all told in chronological order," he explains, ushering me to the outer narthex. "We see here scenes from the days before the birth of the Virgin Mary and from her life." The figures in the mosaics, which are made of bits of stone, metal, glass, tile and seashells of various colors, are so lifelike! Indeed, this church's importance lies in its documenting the start of the Byzantine Renaissance--the liberation of Byzantine art from the Church's strict dogma and a return to the naturalistic approach of ancient art. These mosaics, which incorporate concepts such as space, volume and perspective, are from the 14th century, the period of Emperor Adronicus II. The church acquired its present form in a project undertaken by Theodore Metochites, treasury minister of the time and simultaneously a writer and poet.

"The outer narthex contains scenes from the life of Jesus and his miracles," explains Eracun. The arrival of the Three Magi from the East to inquire into the Nativity of Jesus, the slaying of other infants in Jesus' place, Jesus healing a paralytic, and many other stories. "By looking at these pictures," says Eracun, "we can see how people dressed and the accessories they used, in short, snippets of everyday life at the time the church was constructed."

The church's name, Chora, has two meanings, one of which is 'countryside' or 'rural area' from the ancient Greek. Metochites however, who dedicated the church to the Virgin Mary, had a mosaic made based on the Latin meaning of Chora ('womb') and depicting an 'unbounded space, the maternal womb that held the body of Jesus, who was larger than earth and sky'. He also appealed to the Virgin in a poem: "Oh Mary, I founded this church for you. For you I named it Chora. You, who became the instrument for this great miracle that brought life to the dead, a temple for you, Oh immortal God..."

The image of Christ Pantocrator above the entrance to the inner narthex is as if newly made. "When you stand directly across from this mosaic and look at it," says our guide, "one of Jesus's ears appears higher that the other, as if it's out of proportion. But if you look from the left side, the ears appear even. We see here that three dimensions were employed in Byzantine art." Through the language of painting, we also learn here of incidents from the lives of the Virgin Mary's mother Anna and her father Joachim, the birth of the Virgin Mary and her first seven steps which she when she six months old. Jesus is also depicted in the center of the dome in this section with the Fathers of the Church in the dome segments. Meanwhile, in the church's Naos, or sanctuary, are mosaics depicting the death of Mary, Mary holding Jesus, and a saint.

The Kariye, which continued to serve as a church for 58 years following the conquest of Istanbul, was converted into a mosque in 1511 by the eunuch Grand Vezir Ali Pasha.

Concealed behind wooden planks and whitewash, the mosaics and frescoes were brought to light in a Byzantine Institute of America project carried out between 1948 and 1958.
We are now in the fresco-adorned Parecclesion. Thanks to this technique, by which pigment dissolved in water is applied on wet plaster with strokes of a coarse, long-bristled brush, the images retain their vibrancy despite the passage of the centuries. What impressed me most in the Paracclesion, where life after death is depicted, was a snail borne on the back of an angel symbolizing the universe. And then the marble. The veins of these marble revetments, which are white, grey, pink and yellow in color, have been so expertly paired up that a myriad of figures seems to emerge.
"Look," says Eracun, "there's one that looks like a spectre, a demon. And below it a man." I am speechless as he points them out. Fossils of marine creatures millions of years old in some of the marbles represent yet another astonishing aspect of this church.

The niches on either side of the Parecclesion meanwhile are sepulchral monuments, two of them for palace functionary Michael Tornikes and his wife. Eracun explains that the actual graves were moved elsewhere by the museum administration. If you visit this historic monument, don't leave without taking a stroll through its luxuriant green garden. Or without having a glass of tea under the 'Kismet Tree' just opposite the museum, said to produce three different kinds of blossoms every year.


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