Living in America, it is not everyday that you can wander upon 13th century mosaics. In fact, it is not often that you can wander upon anything from the 13th century. Although the mosaics we do happen to glance upon are from much more recent times, the art form is ancient.
Mosaics have been around for over 4,000 years. What once was terracotta pieces arranged in pebble pavements, was turned into art under the Greek influence in the four centuries BC. These early images mostly consisted of geometric patterns and scenes of animals and humans. With time, the pebble materials transitioned to tesserae, or specially manufactured small-sized pieces.
History knows mosaics of all types, they can be found throughout centuries and across the globe. (Don’t forget this church, that is also covered in them). You are just as apt to run into mosaics in ancient Rome as Europe and Russia. But, the Byzantines can be credited with shaping the art. They adopted the use of glass tesserae, which have a rough surface and tiny air bubbles. They backed the glass with reflective silver and gold leaf and painted the walls with tiny pieces of gold. In their structures, the architecture glitters by candlelight.
Before the Byzantines, mosaics were mostly found beneath your feet. The Byzantines raised them to eye level, and even above your head. They would choose to eschew the grout, freeing the small pieces to light from all directions. Their images would glow with an otherworldly splendor. The Byzantines took an art form that had been stagnant for six centuries due to cost and complexity and revived it into a beauty that all important structures envied and many chose to replicate.
When I ventured to Istanbul, I was most excited to see the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. The Chora church was only discovered with some guidebook sleuthing, and I wasn’t expecting too much. But as we wandered the structure, with our eyes glued to architecture that surrounded us, it would have been impossible to miss the beauty.
The Church of the Holy Savior in Chora used to be in the countryside outside of Istanbul. By ‘country’, I mean that the church was placed outside Istanbul’s old walls. What was once in the fields has since become urbanized and the church was converted to mosque and later museum. Luckily for us, the mosque conversion relied mainly on wooden shutters and stucco to cover the beautiful mosaics, instead of removal. When the building was turned into a museum and renovated, they uncovered some of the oldest and most beautiful Byzantine mosaics and frescos, as well as some crazy colored marble.
The history of the site dates back way before the 1280s and the mosaics. The relics of Saint Babylas and his disciples were buried in the area in the early 4th century. An early monastery had developed and was old enough to need rebuilding in 536 AD by Emperor Justinian. Earthquakes necessitated further reconstruction in the 6th century, and by the 740s prominent people were being buried on site. Further construction occurred in the 11th, 12th, and 14th centuries, especially when another massive earthquake in 1296 devastated the structure. All of this back story is just to put into perspective the importance and age of the site.
Although buildings on the site date from the 3oos, most of what is seen today was built from 1077-1081. Fashionable for its time, the structure was built as a cross in square. Typical churches consist of three parts: the narthex or entry, the nave or main body of the church, and the apse (where the altar is frequently located). This church is not different in this respect, it too consists of the same component parts. The difference is in the lack of transept or cross-like expression. Typically we see an intersecting aisle through the nave. This church remains much more compact in its formation.
For a long time, it’s very form confused scholars. The architecture is sometimes asymmetrical and distorted, which is atypical to the traditional religious form and if anything, churches are usually traditional. Instead, the church represents the Middle Byzantine period where symmetry is occasionally lacking and some of the columns seem to illogically support the windows above. These details, with a smorgasbord of others that are odd, are attributed to the patronage of Theodore Metochites.
Theodore Metochites, born into an aristocratic family, was fortunate to become a senator and official overseeing the treasury, under Emperor Andronicus II. In 1316, he was tasked by the emperor in overseeing the restoration of the monastery, mainly because he was the main donor. He was super rich, but also an intellectual and poet. He poured his soul and passion into his work, determined to bring the church back to its former glory and also to start a rather extensive library for the generations to come. Completed in 1321, Theodore had 7 years to enjoy it before the emperor was dethroned and he was forced into exile. Eventually, pity was taken on him and he was permitted to return and live out his life as a monk at the church.
It is due to Theodore that the church has so much originality. The architecture and art inside has subtle and most likely often missed intricacies that are meant to distinguish the true intellectual from the commoner. Besides just providing the funds for the elaborate interior decoration over 1315-1321, he was truly devoted to the structure and the church he had reimagined. He contracted artists and allow them experimentation and chances to develop their work. A trained eye can see their stylistic progression as the artists moved from the nave to the narthex.
The mosaics are illustrations from the holy books. Some images are common, others more obscure. Most detail the life of Mary from the Apocryphal, instead of the typical Canonical books. Even in subject matter, Metochites was non-traditional. Similar to the poems he created, the story of the decoration is like a vast epic poem.
The mosaics are experimental and a new mode of expression. The sometimes unusual spaces used for the backdrops entailed a certain amount of bending and changing of the image to fit the space. In this church, we see Byzantine postmodernism come to life. Metochites was responsible in bring about a new art form for the byzantine empire, just as his contemporary Giotto in Italy was revolutionizing perspective. This is not just Byzantine art and its conventions upon the walls, but something original. The artists preferred abnormal to normal, chaotic to harmonious. They broke the rules established by the Byzantine tradition and did it so beautifully, that most people didn’t care.
I spent a few wonderful hours taking in the beauty that is this church. It felt private and personal, and I just felt lucky to be able to look around me and take in work that was so wonderfully complete even though it dated from 1320. I stood among those walls imagining the artisans that stood there before me. The men that labored for days and months with small tiny pieces of glass to create a beautifully glittering image one little piece at a time, not afraid to embrace something different or unknown.