Saturday, November 2, 2013

Chora Church, The best example of the Late Byzantine Architecture and Palaiologos Renaissance

When Chora Church was opened to public after the grand renovation carried out in the beginning of the 14th Century, people of Constantinople must have been astonished when they saw for the first time three-dimensional mosaics and wall paintings which are realistic and most importantly created with a deep sense of perspective instead of abundantly godlike icons they got used to for centuries.  Otto Demus, art historian, describes Chora Church as the place where all customary art rules of the Byzantine and Medieval Era were broken. Italian painter Giotto in Scrovegni Chapel, Italy and unknown byzantine artists in Chora Church, Constantinople started to paint scenes and faces of the Old and New Testament in a different way independent of each other and almost at the same time in contrary to flat and toneless illustrations of centuries. If they ever knew what they did was initiating the Renaissance of painting, they would have been surprised as much as people who saw their extraordinary mosaics and wall paintings.

Chora Church is located nearby Theodosius Walls in Edirnekapi in Historical Peninsula. It was given the name Chora which means “rural area, outside the city” in Ancient Greek as it was out of Constantinople Walls, previous borders of the city.  Once upon a time, Chora was a large monastery with various structures, however today only the Church remained.  The date it was built is questionable, but it is believed to be the 3rd Century; the building built outside the city of the time gained importance as a religious centre when the burial chamber of the Saint Babylas who was killed by Romans in Nicaea during the Early Christianity period was moved here in the 4th Century.

Giotto / A wall painting in Scrovegni  Chapel
Experiencing the first structural expansion during the reign of Emperor Justinian in the 6th century, the monastery was rebuilt, repaired and added new structures many times. The monastery gained increasing importance as many patriarchs and renowned saints were buried in its cemetery. Official religious ceremonies shifted from Hagia Sophia to Church of Chora since Blakhernai Palace next to the monastery was started to be used instead of the Grand Palace in Sarayburnu which fell out of favour in the 11th century.
Monastery complex and the Church lied in ruin as a result of Latin pillage during Latin invasion in 1204-1261 and earthquake  of 1296.

Methochites, the man with the biggest hat in history,
presents the Church to Jesus Christ.
Chora lying in ruins was rebuilt by Theodore Methochites - a great personality of the period. Methochites, who was born  in 1260 as son of George Metochites - one of the important figures of the palace of Emperor Michael VII. Palaiologos - received a good education in Constantinople and he ended up as an advisor in the palace of Emperor Andronikos II which later paved the way of prime ministry (Mega Logothetes) in time. As his father George Metochites, he was a bold defender of the idea that Orthodox and Catholic Churches should be united.  As an author, philosopher and even scientist in addition to his status as a statesman, Metochites left poems, assays on philosophy of Aristotle and Plato and astronomy books when he died. As wealthiest and the most powerful person after the emperor of his time, Methochites was a very interesting man in every respect; having managerial skills and determination allowing him to become a prime minister, Methochites was a man with unique characteristics who wrote assays on philosophy and developed calculation tables for astronomy; according to what is told about him, he worked as a statesman during the day and as a scientist at night. As it was a common practice during that period, rich aristocrats of Byzantium were also using a part of their wealth for supporting arts and science just like Italian Medicis and most of the time they had a church built with wall paintings painted by famous painters of the time. This was a sort of shriving and compensation of the power and wealth to the public. Regardless of whether the sponsor is Mediccis or the Prime Minister Methochites, whether a mosque or a church is built, it is clear that a huge wealth is never free of sin… Anyway, let`s get back to our subject, in 1328 the wind changed direction for Methochites, the new emperor seized all possessions of Methochites and exiled him since he saw him as a threat, but later he allowed him to return as a monk to Chora -the monastery he had renovated in the past. Methochites spent last years of his life in grief and melancholy and died in 1332 as a monk in the monastery that he had built with his power and wealth and had its walls decorated with mosaics progressive enough to put an end to an era and start a new one in the art of painting and beautiful enough to strike viewers by surprise. His grave is in the Church, in Paracclesion part- funeral chapel.

Although there are more than twenty mosaics illustrating important scenes from the Old and New Testament, I will try to describe three of them which I like the most and I find important with respect to arts:

Registration for population census for tax  before Cyrenius, the Governor of Syria.

This mosaic is on the left hand side of the Church`s narthex. It is one of the most beautiful mosaics of the building. The sense of depth and perspective created by the artist with buildings and trees in the background and vivid expression on faces are surprisingly good. Roman Emperor Augustos ordered population census in all Roman cities with the purpose of tax calculations, John and Mary left Nazareth to go to Bethlehem since everybody has to be present in the city they were born during population census. Mosaic illustrated Mary and John right behind her while registering for tax before Cyrenius, the Governor of Syria at that time. On the left side of the mosaic, Cyrenius sits on a golden throne and there is a Roman soldier behind him, two birth registry and tax officers taking registries in the middle and  Mary and John answer questions on the right side.
Wall painting in funeral chapel-Paracclesion illustrating Anastesis (judgement day)

It is the half dome on one end of the Paracclesion and it illustrates a scene when Jesus Christ wearing white breaks the gates of hell on judgement day and resurrects Adam and Eve out of their graves. The most interesting detail is  Abel standing in front of the crowd on the left side of the painting. Cain, son of Adam and Eve, was the first human born and  his brother Abel he killed because of jealousy was the first human to die.  Abel is illustrated holding a shepherd sceptre and saints standing right behind him, he looks to the back side,  young and sad expression on the face of Able who was killed by his own brother is very touchy.  When this wall painting was created in the 14th century, there were centuries to come until Caravaggio and Rembrandt enchanted us by holding a light on objects of the painting in front of a dark background, however Jesus Christ in white placed on a background of night and stars emphasizes his presence at first glance.
Mother and father of Mary, Hannah and Joachim are happy with the good news that Mary will be born.

This mosaic is in narthex part since it illustrates the story of Mary. Angels give good news to Hannah and Joachim that Mary will be born. What amazes me in this mosaic is the natural and beautiful embrace of Hannah and Joachim; this is the wall painting called the conception of theotokos which was frequently illustrated in both Orthodox and Catholic churches and such realistic, close faces as if they were about to kiss cannot be seen in previous examples in the Medieval Era.

Click here for Turkish

No comments:

Post a Comment