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.
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.