The three great Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have their own ideas on how far the depiction of the human form in religious art is appropriate. Islam takes the clearest-cut stance, with the hadith (the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) expressly forbidding human representation in worship as idolatrous.
In today’s synagogues, depictions of the human form are similarly notable only for their absence, as idolatry is also a sin in Judaism -- though this did not prevent figurative art, in the form of both mosaics and frescoes, being used to embellish synagogues in Dura Europos (in modern Syria) in the fourth and third centuries B.C. In Christianity, however, despite similar injunctions against idolatry, figurative art was generally embraced by both the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, and the places of worship of both these faiths are still today often liberally adorned with images.
Whether the use of the human form in a place of worship constitutes idolatry or not is, then, one of interpretation. What is certain, however, is that the depiction of Christ, Mary, biblical figures and assorted saints in many churches has resulted in some unique and sublimely beautiful religious art. Nowhere is this truer than in İstanbul’s dazzling Kariye Museum. Undoubtedly one of İstanbul’s top attractions, this mosaic and fresco-filled wonder, formerly the Byzantine Church of St. Savior in Chora, receives far fewer visitors than it should because of its slightly inconvenient location -- almost on the line of the land walls of Theodosius, a short walk northeast of the famous gate of Edirnekapı, the scene of Sultan Mehmet II’s (the conqueror) triumphant entry into Constantinople on May 29, 1453.
A myriad of mosaics
While students of Byzantine architecture will find much to admire in the church’s simple exterior, with its leaded domes, walls composed of alternate bands of pale limestone blocks and warm red-brick and blind arches, it is the interior that the average visitor will find simply ravishing. For here, and in a remarkably good state of preservation, the walls, ceiling vaults and domes and arches of the outer and inner narthexes (the twin entry vestibules to the main body of the church) are liberally covered with striking mosaic scenes of extraordinary intensity. The nave, or main prayer hall, has lost many of its mosaics to the vicissitudes of time, but retains a few mosaic panels of outstanding interest, while in the funerary chapel or pareclession, are a series of elaborately executed frescoes that many art historians view as the equal of masters of the Italian Renaissance such as Giotto.
For many visitors, what is really alluring about the mosaics decorating the interior of the former Church of St. Savior in the Chora is that they are themed to tell a series of biblical tales in almost comic-strip fashion. Following the stories is quite tricky, as related scenes are sometimes separated from each other by an (apparently) random mosaic of a saint, or may jump from a lunette (a semicircular niche, usually above an arch) to a ceiling vault or the underside of an arch. With perseverance and a good guidebook, however, it’s possible to make some sense of the veritable jumble of images.
The obvious place to start exploring this compact church is the north wall of the inner narthex, where a story unfamiliar to many people, even devout Christians, begins. Usually referred to as the Cycle of the Life of the Virgin, it relates episodes from the life of the Virgin Mary. The story comes from the apocryphal Gospel of St. James, which was very popular in the Middle Ages, and tells how a child is miraculously born to Joachim and Anne, a prodigy who is later presented to the temple and at the age of 12 married off to the widower Joseph before miraculously falling pregnant herself. My favorite scenes here include Joachim looking shyly in from a doorway at Mary’s birth, an angel feeding her manna (life-sustaining food provided directly by God) and, aged 6 months, her first tottering steps. This sequence is relatively easy to follow, as all 17 scenes are confined to the northern portion of the inner narthex.
Although the history of the church and its attached monastery may go back as far as the fourth century, the building probably did not begin to take its present cross-in-square plan until the 11th century. The narthexes and funerary chapel were not added until the early 14th century, at the behest of a leading Byzantine dignitary of the time, Theodore Metochites. A very wealthy man, he funded both the additions to the church and their remarkable decorative panels. Unfortunately for Metochites, who is depicted in the superb mosaic panel above the doorway to the nave humbly presenting a model of St. Savior in Chora to Christ, he was exiled following a palace coup. Stripped of his riches, he was eventually permitted to return to Constantinople but, ironically for a man who had so glorified Chora, lived out his last few years here as a penniless monk.
Jesus: the early years
Returning to the mosaics, the next sequence to follow, the Cycle of the Infancy of Christ, begins in the lunette in the north wall of the outer narthex. The tale begins where the Cycle of the Life of the Virgin ended and is relatively easy to follow as all the scenes are in the lunettes of the outer narthex and the western end of the funerary chapel. Just proceed clockwise from the north lunette along the west wall of the outer narthex, where you’ll see a marvelous scene of Mary and Joseph enrolling for taxation, the unmistakable nativity scene and, beyond the entrance to the inner narthex, the Magi arriving on horseback and then seeking the newborn’s whereabouts from Herod. On the south wall of the funerary chapel, right above the museum’s souvenir shop, is a chilling scene of Herod ordering the massacre of Jewish infants in order to eliminate Christ. One soldier is depicted looking into a small and very real aperture in the wall, once a window onto the long-since vanished bell tower. Above the museum shop on the west wall is a gory scene of infants being butchered, including one impaled on the spear of one of Herod’s soldiers. The story continues in the lunettes of the west wall of the outer narthex, concluding with Christ journeying to Jerusalem for Passover.
Miracles and the end of an icon
The next story is harder to follow, as the scenes depicted spread over the vaults, pendentives and lunettes of both the inner and outer narthexes. The iconography is so familiar, however, that visitors will be able to identify many scenes. For this is the Cycle of Christ’s Ministry, where you can see Jesus healing an almost comic-book spotty leper, turning wine and water and multiplying loaves and fishes -- and many other miracles besides. These three clearly defined story sequences apart, there are a whole host of other glorious mosaic panels to seek out. In the nave is a wonderful mosaic showing the Virgin Mary on her death bier (the Dormition of the Virgin). To the right of the apse is the Virgin Mary cradling the infant Christ in her right arm. This mosaic is based on an icon, the Hodegetria, which, according to Byzantine tradition, was painted by St. Luke. The inhabitants of Constantinople genuinely believed the icon protected Constantinople from harm, and it was paraded around the city walls whenever danger threatened. When the city fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, this icon was being held in Chora. Discovered by a handful of soldiers allowed the three days of pillage customary under Islam, the icon was hacked into pieces for the sake of its silver frame.
Mary of the Mongols
Don’t miss the largest panel of all, in the inner narthex, which depicts an enthroned Christ beseeched by the Virgin Mary to save mankind. One of the two figures at Christ’s feet is Melanie the Nun. An illegitimate Byzantine princess, known before her vows as Maria or Mary, in the late 13th century she was married off to the Mongol Abaga Khan. En route to the khan’s court in Persia, he died, and she ended up marrying his son instead. After many years in Persia, her husband died and she returned to Constantinople. All “khaned-out,” she rejected a suggestion from her father to marry yet another Mongol leader and became Melanie the Nun instead. The monastery church where she spent her last years, Mary of the Mongols, is a short distance from the Kariye Museum, and is still a (barely) functioning Greek Orthodox church.
However bewildered you may be by the sheer number of mosaics to be seen, don’t leave before admiring the beautiful frescoes in the funerary chapel, which also contains the tomb of Theodore Metochites. As with the mosaics, the names of the fresco artists are unknown, but the quality and power of their work is superb. The most striking image of all is in the apse of the chapel -- the Anastasis or Resurrection -- which depicts Christ trampling down the doors of hell (you can see the locks, keys and springs scattered at his feet) and pulling Adam and Eve from their tombs.
The Aya Sofya (Church of the Holy Wisdom or Hagia Sophia), set right in the heart of the tourist area of Sultanahmet, may be the biggest and boldest architectural statement ever made in Byzantine Constantinople, but St. Savior in Chora’s gorgeous interior makes it every bit its equal. And it’s perhaps thanks to the Ottoman Turks, who converted the church into a mosque and plastered and whitewashed over its graven images, that this dazzling artwork has survived so well to the present time.
Getting here: Most straightforward is to take the T1 tram to the Pazarteke stop and walk north along the line of the walls for 1.5 kilometers. Alternatively, take the M1 metro from Aksaray to the Ulubatlı stop and walk the shorter distance to the museum. The 38E bus runs from Eminönü right to Edirnekapı, a few minutes walk from Kariye. A good way to return to the city is to walk down the line of the walls north to the Golden Horn (Haliç), about 20 minutes or so, and take the ferry to Eminönü (ferries depart every hour).
Admission: TL 15, daily -- except Wednesday -- from 9 a.m.-6 p.m.
Guides: “Strolling through İstanbul” by Hilary Sumner-Boyd and John Freely or, detailed and beautifully illustrated, “The Art of the Kariye Camii” by Robert Ousterhout. Available on-site for TL 5 is a useful fold-out glossy pamphlet, part of the “Quick Guide İstanbul Series,” which has photographs of some of the best mosaics and frescoes and a ground plan showing where to find them.