Click! Let’s try that again…

Agios Nikolaos, Kiriakoselia, Crete

In the midday sun we have just done a long drive along a road continually coiling itself into hairpin bends and twisting around the contours of the mountains to find a highly recommended Byzantine church. It is stuck out in a little valley near the village of Kiriakoselia, south of ancient Aptera in western Crete.

The guide book claims that it has ‘fantastic thirteenth century frescoes, as good as any on Crete’. Unfortunately, the church is locked up and, wilting in the heat, we decide to wait and see whether someone else has followed the instructions on how to get in touch with the keyholder. Holiday laziness is setting in…

As we sit on a patch of ground outside the church re-hydrating ourselves and eating lunch, I become fascinated by the challenge of trying to capture the simple scene in front of me. There’s an old olive tree with a pile of slates next to it, and behind a pink stuccoed wall with a flaking, painted wooden double door inset into it. The light on the wall, door and tree is changing all the time, so the scene is never quite the same. I shoot it standing up, kneeling down, in portrait and landscape formats, nearer and further away.

There’s something about the scene that makes me want to capture is as faithfully as I can. But each shot fails to do justice to it. So I take more and more shots and with each one become a little bit more frustrated at my efforts.

My son is also taking shots of the area and he can’t see any value in what I am trying to capture.

Perhaps it’s midday Greek madness affecting me. Is that Pan laughing behind a tree in the woods behind us?

Sometimes the harder we try, the worse things turn out. The more pictures I take, the more I realise they are just snaps, record shots. I try and and compose my shots, be aware of what’s in the frame, attempt to recognise patterns, apply the rule of thirds and other half digested rules. Still they turn out like snaps. I shoot regularly to keep my eye in. I look at lots of photographs. I try and develop my visual sensibility.

What eludes me is how to take better quality photographs, ones that please me in themselves (rather than as a record of somewhere I have been and enjoyed), ones that I would be pleased to stick on my wall at home. And I just don’t know how to make that breakthrough.

Recently I went to hear a renowned photographer of children give a talk. Her story was quite amazing. Her husband gave her a Hasselblad for Christmas one year and she only took 11 frames on her first roll of film (this was way before digital). But the quality of the shots on that roles was remarkable and led to some even more incredible opportunities when she showed the pictures to a local Abbey National branch manager.  Apart from the part that chance and coincidence played in her story, it was apparent even in that first roll of film and even though she knew not the first thing about the technicalities of photography, that she had an artist’s eye.

Perhaps that’s what is missing. No matter how much I know about technique, without that innate talent for composition or for just seeing, maybe I will never be able to shoot anything more than snaps. It’s a depressing thought.

Oh, well. I’ll just have to keep practising. I’m nowhere near my 10,000 hours yet.

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The Church of the Holy Saviour in the Chora – part 4

In my final post on the Chora in Istanbul, I want to share some of my pictures showing the decorative richness of this Byzantine Church.

Even by the time that Metochites had the Church decorated in the early fourteenth century the mosaic technique must have been phenomenally expensive. Perhaps when it came to the Parecclesion, he had started to run short of money which may explain why the great depictions of the Resurrection of the Dead and the Last Judgment are executed as frescoes.

Here are some other frescoes in the Chora. First a couple of warrior saints:

A fresco of two martyrs:

In an apse there is a fresco depiction of several bishops who became saints:

In places the decoration just seems to be there for its own sake, rather to contribute to the narrative of the different thematic cycles:

The decoration unusually extends to the sculptured elements on the pediments of some of the columns:

There are also sculptured decorations over several tomb niches in the Parecclesion which appear to have been vandalised in Ottoman times, as in the following example:

Back to the mosaics and here are two wonderful depictions of SS Paul & Peter:

One of the many things I like about this church is the large number of small mosaic roundels of individual saints. Here are just a selection:

Here are some full length mosaics of martyrs:

Perhaps the greatest shock about visiting the Chora comes when, having admired the wealth of decoration in the inner and outer narthexes and the Parecclesion, you come at last to the nave of the church. What could possibly exceed the artistry you have already seen? The answer is nothing, because there is very little decoration left in the nave. I have mentioned the mosaic of the Dormition of the Theotokos on the inside of the entrance to the nave. However, other than that there are just two fragmentary mosaics of the Mother of God and Christ Pantokrator:

Finally from inside one of the domes, the Theotokos with Christ:

The Church of the Holy Saviour in the Chora – part 3

The third main theme of the mosaics in the Chora is the life of Christ.

Here John the Forerunner bears witness to Jesus before baptising him in the river Jordan:

Then there are a series of miracles, starting with the miracle at Canaa:

The miracle of the loaves and fishes:

Healing the mother-in-law of St Peter:

Curing the blind:

Healing the halt and the lame:

Curing the young man with the withered arm:

Over the entrance door to the inner narthex is a wonderful mosaic of Christ Pantokrator:

In the inner narthex itself there is a huge Deesis depicting Christ Pantokrator

and the Mother of God. Below the Mother of God kneels the figure of Isaac Komnenos, son of the Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, who extensively re-built the Chora in the twelfth century.

Kneeling to the right of Christ Pantocrator is the figure of Melani Komnenos, though I haven’t been able to discover why she is depicted in this particular mosaic:

The Chora - Deesis - Melanie Komnenos

Finally in this cycle are two of my favourite frescoes in the Parecclesion (a place of burial) of the Chora, and possibly also in Byzantine art. The first is in the semi dome over the apse and is a wonderful depiction of the Resurrection of the Dead, with Christ trampling down the gates of hell and raising Adam and Eve from their tombs. It is simply jaw-droppingly beautiful:

The second is in a vault of the Parecclesion and shows the Last Judgement:

Christ is surrounded by angels and saints. Above him an angel rolls up the skies (the snail-like object) containing the sun, moon and stars. Beneath Christ a throne for the Second Coming has been prepared: Adam and Eve bow down before it to ask forgiveness for the sins of mankind. And beneath that scene two angels weigh the sins and good deeds of the souls of the dead: sinners are sent to hell (the fiery area to the bottom right) and the righteous are sent to paradise on the left.

Between the two frescoes is a depiction of the Archangel Gabriel:

In a separate fresco, St Peter is shown opening the door to paradise for the crowd of the righteous. The rather surreal figure in the doorway is supposed to be a cherub guarding the gate.The repentant thief, who was crucified with Christ, is on the right (holding a cross) and escorting the righteous into paradise. Two angels stand on either side of the enthroned Mother of God.

In my final post on the Chora, I will include some of the other rich decorations that make this such an extraordinary Byzantine church.

The Church of the Holy Saviour in the Chora – part 2

The second main theme of the Chora church is the life of the Theotokos. The scenes depicted in these mosaics are based on the life of the Mother of God contained in the apocryphal Gospel of St James. Most of this is unfamiliar territory, though it fed through into Renaissance iconography. Here are some examples of this theme illustrated in the Chora.

Zechariah rejects the sacrifice of Joachim and Anna (the parents of the Mother of God) who long for a child though Anna is barren and unable to bear a child:

Joachim spends 40 days and nights fasting and praying in the wilderness:

An angel brings the good news to Anna about the birth of a child: I love the combination of the everyday (Anna about to draw water from the well) and the transcendent; the movement implied by her robe and her foot as she steps onto the area surrounding the well, as she suddenly freezes: and the surprise on her face as she looks over her shoulder and sees the angel.

The birth of Mary:

Zechariah entrusts Mary to Joseph who has been recognised by the fact that his staff has turned green:

The Annunciation: I love the setting of this mosaic, with the elaborate buildings behind and the garden with its trees and fountain. I wonder whether the inclusion here of the running fountain is a reference to the curious Greek icon of Mary as the life-giving spring (zoodokhos pigy).

Joseph’s dream:

The Nativity – Mary is shown as giving birth in a cave (an Orthodox tradition), rather than a stable, whilst Joseph is deep in thought and the angel announces the news of the birth to the shepherds:

The Census – Mary stands before Quirinius, Governor of Judaea, and remains silent when she is asked who is the father of her child, whilst Joseph steps forward.

The Magi arrive on horseback and ask Herod where they can find the king of the Jews:

The Massacre of the Innocents – Elizabeth, holding the baby John the Forerunner, escapes from a Roman soldier by hiding in a cave:

The holy family visit Jerusalem during the Passover. Interestingly, Christ in the centre of the mosaic, is depicted as beardless:

The final mosaic in the cycle is the Dormition of the Theotokos, one of the very few mosaics left in the nave of the church:

The Church of the Holy Saviour in the Chora – part 1

The Church of the Holy Saviour in the Chora (“the countryside”) is one of the most remarkable Byzantine churches I have ever visited. It’s about a 20 minute bus ride from the old centre of Istanbul and not far from the Theodosian city walls. From the outside it looks rather dull, but inside it has some beautiful, well preserved mosaics and frescoes of the late Byzantine period.

After the fall of Byzantium the Church was turned into a mosque and is now known as the Kariye Museum.

A church has stood on this site since before the sixth century and may have been built in a cemetery where Babylas, a Christian saint, and his followers had been buried. Under Justinian I a monastery was built on the site and destroyed in an earthquake in 557. It was re-built and gradually fell into obscurity until re-discovered in the twelfth century by the Imperial Court which had relocated to the nearby Blachernae Palace. However, it was pillaged following the Latin occupation in 1204 and lays in ruins until its restoration was taken up as a project by Theodoros Metochites in the early 13th century.

Metochites, born in Nicaea in 1270, was brought to Constantinople by the Emperor Andonikos II as one of the bright people he recruited to his court. Eventually he rose in the imperial service to become Grand Logothete, Chief Treasurer of the Empire, and used some of the wealth he accumulated from his position on restoring and decorating the Chora church between 1315-21. However, when Andronikos II was overthrown by his grandson, Andronikos III in 1328, Metochites fell too, losing all his property and wealth. He was sent into exile, but in 1330 he was allowed to return to Constantinople and become a monk at the Chora where he died in 1332.

He was a man of some education and refinement with an interest in mathematics, philosophy, astronomy and literature and was himself a poet.

Metochites described the purpose of the restoration and decoration of the Chora as retelling how ‘the Lord himself became a mortal on our behalf”. The main themes of the mosaics are: the genealogy of Christ, his Infancy and Ministry, and the life of the Theotokos.

The north dome of the inner narthex depicts Christ and beneath him in the flutes, his ancestors from Adam to Jacob and below that the 12 sons of Jacob.

The north dome of the inner narthex features the Theotokos with the infant Christ, with the kings of the House of David in the first row and other ancestors of Christ in the second row.

As you can see, the colours on the frescoes are stunning and very well-preserved. I find it curious that the faces of the figures in the row beneath the Theotokos are pretty much identical. I can’t work out whether this was intended to demonstrate family likeness or is just lack of effort by the artist. The other thing that strikes me is the variety and complexity of the floral decoration on the ribs between the figures – and indeed this richness of floral ornamentation is evident in other parts of the Chora too.

“Work is wirtue”

When we were in Greece last month we passed this house every day on our way into the local town. But it was only on about the second occasion that I did a double-take when I saw the sign on the gate.

I know nothing about the owners of the house to throw any light on their motives for putting this sign up. Perhaps it’s the name of their house, although it’s not very pithy for a house name. It’s a bit different from “Beware of the dog”, “No hawkers or circulars” (not sure I’ve ever seen a hawker) or “No junk mail’.

More likely it reflects a personal philosophy and one which the owner feels strong enough about to put it up in three languages. The slight mangling of the English version makes me think that the owner is German. The third version in German feels uncomfortably close to “Arbeit macht frei”.

I haven’t been able to track this saying down. The sentiment sounds like an encapsulation of the Protestant work ethic and could come from Germany or indeed from America.

But I’m left wondering why someone would want to put this up outside their own house. Is it advertising the “virtuous work” that the owner has done which has allowed him/her to be able to afford such a large house in a beautiful location? Is it a rebuke to other people (ie the Greeks who have been stigmatised by sections of the German media as work-shy spongers on the rest of Europe; possibly also the Brits – why else include an English version?) for not sharing the belief in the value of hard work? Or is it just a favourite saying that the owner wants to share with the rest of the world?

Greece has some of the longest working hours in Europe and Britain isn’t far behind. I read a report in the Guardian recently about expat Brits working in the financial services industry in Frankfurt. One characterised the difference in cultural attitudes between the two countries along these lines. In Britain, people are frightened to be seen to be leaving the office first. They put in ‘face-time’, build ‘profile’ with their managers, practise ‘presenteeism’, being seen to be there putting in the hours.

In Germany on the other hand, the attitude is more likely to be ‘We noticed that you worked 50 hours last week. Is there a problem? Can’t you cope?’ That sounds much saner and healthier to me than the madness of office life in this country which I can vouch for from my own experience.

When the Working Time Directive came into force in the UK some years ago, a friend of mine was called into his boss’s office after making several returns showing the reality of the length of his working week. He was very experienced, but he was regularly putting in over 60 hours a week just to keep on top of the job. His boss’s reaction was to offer either to give him some coaching or send him on a remedial training course, both of which meant that he would end up with a poor end of year performance management assessment. He decided on a third option, to take back his WTD returns to review – in effect to doctor them to hide an inconvenient (to the employer) truth.

‘Wirtue’ in this instance has nothing to do with it. I am reminded of the story told by the abbot of a Buddhist monastery. God and the devil were taking a walk together and God suddenly said to the devil: “I’ve got a great idea!” “OK”, said the devil, ‘let me organise it.”