The Dome of Paracclesion and Theodore Metochides
Church Chora, or Kariye Camii in Turkish, is one of my very favorite and very craftily built late Byzantine monasteries. I definitely suggest anyone to take this place into their itinerary for Istanbul. Everyone visits Hagia Sophia which is undoubtedly glorious, but you see better mosaic composition and pre-Renaissance frescos here. Here I will not bombard you with unnecessary details but I will just give you some tips, so you can enjoy your visit better.
There is no certain date about when it was built. However, we can say that the monument we see today is mostly rebuilt by Isaac Komnenoi (d. after 1152), restored and decorated by Theodore Metochides (d. 1332) who was the mesazon (prime minister) under the Palaiologos dynasty rule. The church is strongly associated with the personality of Metochides, the building represents his wealth and character. The monument is full of very beautiful and great samples of Byzantine mosaics and frescos. Moreover, some scholars suggest that Chora is some early renaissance ideas in the base of visual art, of course. Furthermore, the dome I will tell about is a good example to discuss on.
Metochides presenting Chora to Jesus with his Islamic clothing
It is commonly known that Orthodox Greeks did not want to engage with the Catholic church after the Latin invasion to Constantinople and the following occupation until 1261. Both churches exerted each other from Christianity as "infidels", and this situation kept its validity until 1970s. However, Metochides' father was one of the ones who supported the "peace" between two groups, and this made him a "bad guy" in the eyes of the public. Therefore, we see Metochides did not join the current disscusions, but he chose to be "self-exiled" in the Monastery of Chora, which means "village" in Greek. He spent his life by seeking for forgiveness from his God, and kept reading, writing, researching as many of us are doing during this Corona quarantine days.
Dome in Paracclesion
Let's move on to the dome in paracclesion section, the part of the church built for funerals and burying bodies. The composition of the dome corroborates the idea, because it represents heaven in which Virgin Mary with her son is the Queen, and angels are the imperial guards. The Virgin and Jesus have gold on their tunics which gives them an imperial appearance. The circle around them reminds a rainbow in the meaning of colorfulness of the heaven.
Who is Theodore Metochides?
Firstly, I will give information about the patron, Metochides, because this will help us understand the art in the church. He was an intelligent person who was interested in science, ancient philosophy, poetry, writing and politics. According to Ousterhout, there are 1900 pages left of his works today. His student, Nikephoros Gregoros (d. 1360), indicates that he did not spend time for any other work except science and politics. The environment he grew up, very importantly, was an era that people became interested in old antiquity, after the end of Latin occupation (1204- 1261). Ousterhout indicates that one of the reasons why Byzantine could not resist against Ottomans, a new power from the medieval Anatolia, was that they cared about the antiquity instead of warfare. He continuous saying that there were many renovations under the control of Andronikos II Palaiologos and Metochides. However, he seems like he was also inspired by Muslims and Islam as he made himself depicted in a Muslim-like dressing even with a turban.
Really, why a pious Christian who devoted his life and wealth to Jesus and Mary would wear a Muslim cloak? In fact, 13th and 14th centuries were peak times of Islamic civilization. Islam was influencing and expanding beyond its borders, even in fashion wise. Also, the size of turban shows knowledge in Muslim tradition, clearly Metochides refers to his intelligence in favored Islamic culture.
The Dome of Paracclesion; Heads of the Hymograpers, 12 Angels, at the Center Virgin Mary and Jesus
The angels are clothed as like honorable or imperial guards of a court. They all have sticks with five pearls, which support their imperial look. The one on the middle of the east part holds a small labarum on which the word “holy” (agios) is written. This is a reference to a Byzantine hymn known as trisagion. I will discuss more about this matter below.
There are also twelve ribs, each of them has a different pattern. It is obvious that the artisans did avoid repetition, this shows the talent and skillfulness of the artisans; and also the idea that they were paid a lot of money for that unusual and difficult patterns. Metochides had the knowledge and wealth, so he was able to make Chora an amazing place.
Another point very interesting and unusual with Chora, is the pendentives. Generally, we see the four archangels described on the pendentives. However, in Chora we see four hymograpers whose names are Theophanes Graptos, Joseph, Cosmos and John the Damascene. Here Metochides used his intelligence as he was a writer and a poet as well. Moreover and interestingly, with his pen, Theophanes points the staircase of Jacob and Metochides’ grave. It seems that the hierarchy, which is not unexpected for a Byzantine church, was used in a very genius way in paracclession. Metochides as the mortal on the basement, then four hymographers as human beings like him but also saints, and above the angels as the imperial guards in the heaven, at the top the Queen and her son, Jesus, as the savior. Metochides tried to make himself closer to them as much as he could, his desire was to be saved by Jesus via saints and prays. In addition, those four hymographers were known with their hymns for the Virgin Mary whom the monastery of Chora was dedicated to.
Metochides' Graveplace on the right under the hymographers
Is Chora a Renaissance Church?
The idea that Chora is one of early Renaissance examples would not be wrong. We know that renaissance began with the movements of Byzantine artisans and scholars from Constantinople, after the conquest by the Ottomans in 1453, to Italy where renaissance began as we commonly know. Additionally, the word of renaissance means rebirth or revival, because it was the era that the old antiquity inspired Europe again. We have also mentioned that Byzantines had been interested in the old antiquity after the Latin occupation. For instance, Methochides wrote a book to criticize Aristoteles, here is a sign for interest in the ancient Greek world which highly inspired Renaissance with the 15th century. So we are talking about a time period in which the re-exploration of the antiquity had already begun.
Church of Chora is where Byzantine visual art flourished thanks to Metochides’ wealth, knowledge and interest. Ihor Sevcenko says only a man who was wealthy, epicure and clever could leave Chora to us. I hope you enjoy your visit there.
I am thankful to Dr. Ivana Jevtic for giving me the idea about the relation between the dome and location of Metochides’ grave.
Arça, Halil and Haluk Dursun (ed.), ‘Chora Museum’, Bilkent Kültür Girişimi, (İstanbul, 2013).
Kariye Mozaik Sanatının Son Çiçeği. Directed by Süha Arın. 1984. İstanbul: MTV Film. (DVD).
Ousterhout, Robert, ‘Sanatsal Açıdan Kariye Camii’, Trans. By Aynur Durukan, Arkeoloji ve Sanat Yayınları – Scala Publisher Ltd., (İstanbul, 2002).
Özsoy, Güngör and Erdal Yazıcı, ‘St Sophia – The Chora Church’, Mert Basım Yayıncılık, (İstanbul, 2007), (e-book).
Underwood, Paul A., ‘The Kariye Djami’, Vol.1, Routledged Kegan Paul, (London, 1967).
“The Dome and Pendentives of the Western Section of the Paracclession.” Chora Museum. Accessed December 23, 2014. http://kariye.muze.gov.tr/en/museum/collections/outer-narthex-mosaics/the-dome-and-pendentives-of-the-western-section-of-the-parecclesion_66.html
Eyice, Semavi. “KARİYE CAMİİ.” KARİYE CAMİİ - TDV İslâm Ansiklopedisi, islamansiklopedisi.org.tr/kariye-camii.