Saturday, November 20, 2010

Chora Church

The Kariye Camii, Kariye Kilisesi, or Kariye Müzesi, is Chora Church. It sits on the edge of the city within a few hundred yards of the old city walls. It is famous for housing one of the best-preserved collections of late-period Byzantine Mosaics in the world. Late-period Byzantine translates to the fourteenth century, as opposed to early-period Byzantine mosaics from the 5th century, as in Ravenna, Italy. Chora Church dates from the fourth century, but nothing much remains of the original. The current structure was built in the 11th century. It was vandalized severely during the crusades, then restored and decorated with mosaics. Like many other Constantinople churches, it was converted into a mosque during the Ottoman period, which means the mosaics were plastered over and painted with Islamic arabesque patterns. Chora was deconsecrated as a mosque, restored, and turned into a museum in the 1950’s. The museum’s frescos and mosaics are not in pristine condition, having suffered from several earthquakes. There are almost no frescos or mosaics left under the largest dome in the central nave. We are very attracted to some of the mosaics on the walls that are only fragments, with the under painting showing through. 

The mosaics of Chora’s inner and outer narthexes, the entranceways to the church, are in very good condition. One of the long, narrow narthexes is devoted to Mary, the “Container on the Uncontainable” as it says in Chora. Mary’s childhood is narrated here, and the mini-Mary, a shrunken version of the virgin, complete here with blue cloak costume, is great. This narthex describes events through the birth of Christ and his early life. Very strangely, the slaughter of the innocents is situated over the current day gift shop. It is truly odd to hear tour guides, speaking all different languages, pointing out the dismembered children parts over the post cards and DVDs. 

It is often terribly crowded here with busloads of tourists and their guides, but that doesn’t detract from the offerings of Chora, which are all above our heads. A wonderful dome in the second narthex is surrounded by very vivid depictions of the miracles and healings of Christ. The parakklesion, or side chapel, is covered in frescos with some truly beautiful imagery. We love the image of Christ pulling VIPs from the grave, kind of like “Come on guys, I’ve been waiting a long time for this!” He stands over a collection of locks and keys, precisely laid out as if they were in a Byzantine hardware catalogue. In another image, an angel is carrying all the stars and planets, swirled together in the form of a big nautilus shell. What a great shape for the universe. 

A beautiful fragment on the walls of Chora Church.

Mini Mary's first steps

Frescoed dome in the side chapel

Angel holding the universe 

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