Built in the 11th century and decorated in the 14th, the Church of St. Savior in Chora (formerly the Kariye Camii and now the Kariye Müzesi) in Istanbul contains one of the best-preserved collections of Byzantine mosaics and frescoes anywhere.
The first church on this site was built in the 4th century as part of a monastery complex outside the city walls of Constantinople. This is the reason for the "in Chora" part of its name – chora zonton means "in the country" in Greek. The present building dates from the 11th century.
The interior was restored and richly decorated with mosaics and frescoes in the early 14th century by Theodore Metokhites, Grand Logothete of the Treasury.
When the church was converted into a mosque in the 16th century, the Byzantine mosaics were covered in plaster. This protected them for several centuries. They were first uncovered in the 19th century, but the government ordered that those in the prayer hall section of the mosque be re-covered.
American archaeologists uncovered the mosaics for good during World War II and the church-turned-mosque became a secular museum in 1947.
What to See
The front (west narthex) of St. Savior in Chora overlooks a small square occupied by a cafe with outdoor tables. Behind the church is a pretty garden with great views of the apses and domes of the church. The bathrooms are back here, too.
The Byzantine Mosaics and Frescoes
Inside, there are about 50 mosaic panels dating from about 1310, most in excellent shape. Virtually all the subjects of the mosaics derive from the New Testament and they are presented in roughly chronological order. Most of the mosaics are in the exonarthex and esonarthex (two lateral west porches). These depict scenes from the life of the Virgin and the early life of Christ.
The later life of Christ was probably depicted in mosaics in the nave (or naos), but now only three mosaic panels survive in this central room: the Dormition of the Virgin over the west door; Christ to the left of the apse; and the Virgin and Child to the right of the apse.
Exonarthex (Outer Narthex)
The exonarthex is just inside the west entrance. It is a lateral hall 4 m wide and 23 m long. The subjects of its mosaics include:
- Joseph and Mary appearing before the Governor of Syria for the census
- Nativity of Christ
- Journey of the Magi
- Inquiry of King Herod
- Flight into Egypt
- Massacre of the Innocents ordered by King Herod
- Mothers mourning for their children
- Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist
- Joseph dreaming
- Return of the holy family from Egypt to Nazareth
- Christ taken to Jerusalem for the Passover
- John the Baptist bearing witness to Christ
- Three more miracles
- Jesus Christ
- Virgin and Angels praying
Esonarthex (Inner Narthex)
The esonarthex runs parallel to the exonarthex between it and the nave. It is also 4m wide but slightly shorter at 18 m long. Its eastern door leads into the nave while a southern door leads into the antechamber of the parecclesion and a northern door leads into a north aisle outside the nave.
The mosaics in the first three bays of the inner narthex depict the Life of the Virgin and her parents Anne and Joachim. The esonarthex has two domes: the smaller above the entrance to the northern corridor; the larger midway between the entrances into the naos and the pareclession.
Mosaic subjects in the esonarthex include the following:
- Theodore Metochites dedicates the church to Christ
- Saint Peter
- Saint Paul
- Deesis: Christ and the Virgin Mary (without John the Baptist) with two donors below. One is Maria Palaiologina, illegitimate daughter of the Byzantine Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos (ruled 1258-1282), wife of the Mongol ruler Abaqa Khan, and an influential Christian leader among the Mongols.
- Genealogy of Christ
- Rejection of Joachim's offerings
- Annunciation of Saint Anne, the angel of the Lord announcing to Anne that her prayer for a child has been heard
- Meeting of Joachim and Anne
- Birth of the Virgin Mary
- First seven steps of the Virgin
- The Virgin given affection by her parents
- The Virgin blessed by the priests
- Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple
- The Virgin receiving bread from an Angel
- The Virgin receiving purple wool to weave the curtain for the Temple
- the High Priest Zechariah praying
- Zechariah calling widowers together to place their staffs on the altar, praying for a sign showing who the Virgin should marry
- The Virgin entrusted to Joseph
- Joseph taking the Virgin to his house
- Annunciation of the Virgin
- Joseph leaving the Virgin on a business trip; when he returns, she is pregnant
Frescoes of the Paracclesion
Running along the south side of the central church is a Paracclesion – a burial chamber or mortuary chapel used by the patron and his family. It is decorated with frescoes, which were painted shortly after the mosaics and probably by the same artist. Appropriate to their context in the burial chamber, the frescoes depict themes relating to the afterlife:
- Cupola: Virgin and Child in the central medallion, surrounded by ancestors
- Anastasis or Harrowing of Hell. Christ takes Adam by the hand to lead him out of Hades. Behind Adam are John the Baptist, King David, King Solomon and other righteous kings
- Last Judgment, centered on Christ Enthroned, with a huge scroll above him in the sky, the Redeemed on the lower left and the Lake of Fire on the right
- Virgin and Child
- Heavenly Court of Angels
- Two panels of Moses
- full-length portraits of saintly Orthodox bishops