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  • Writer's pictureHarry Prance, MA

A Brief History of Kariye Mosque in Istanbul

What is Kariye Mosque?

Kariye Mosque is a mosque, once known as the Church of Christ Chora, that’s home to the most extensive Late Byzantine Mosaic Programme in the world.

Kariye Mosque

Kariye Mosque History

The Chora Church was originally built in the 4th century by Roman Emperor Constantine the Great and almost entirely rebuilt in the 11th century by Maria Doukaina, the mother-in-law of Emperor Alexios I. However, it’s remembered today less for its architecture than for its unique mosaics and frescoes, which were sponsored by the extraordinary 14th-century politician and statesman Theodore Metochites.

Metochites came from a background of mild disrepute: his father was a priest who had been exiled for supporting a union between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. He grew up in a monastery in Bithynia and was set for a life of contemplation and scholarly study, when he caught the eye of the visiting Emperor Andronicus II. Metochites’s rise was meteoric; he was immediately called to court and given a position in the administration, and within a year he was made a Senator. He accrued office after office and in so doing became fantastically wealthy, and indisputably the second most powerful man in the empire. However, his fall from grace was if anything even more abrupt than his rise. When, in 1328, Andronicus II was overthrown by his own grandson, Metochites was stripped of his possessions and thrown into exile. He was allowed to return to the city, two years later, to take holy orders and become a monk in the Chora, the monastery which had once stood as a monument to his success.

The donor portrait, above the door leading into the main body of the church, is one of the most famous images in Byzantine art. It depicts Metochites himself wearing all the trappings of Byzantine courtly regalia, handing a model of the Chora Church to Christ. It’s hard not to see in it a summary of the man himself and the conflicts of his character: his combination of piety and worldly sophistication.

The mosaic programme depicting the life of Christ is extensive and very fine, although it’s worth remembering that the most important mosaics from the inner sanctuary are now lost. Particularly astonishing are the two domes in the inner narthex (or entrance room) which depict the ancestors of Christ and make incredible use of natural lighting effects.

Metochites redecorated the Chora in part so that the side chapel could serve as a mortuary for himself and his family. The decoration of this chapel is certainly appropriate to its purpose. You’ll find a gigantic image of the Anastasis, or Harrowing of Hell, commemorated at Easter on Holy Saturday, when the resurrected Christ descended into Hell and freed the souls imprisoned there. In this famous image Christ is shown in triumph pulling Adam and Eve out of their tombs. Most of the rest of the chapel is given over to an overwhelming depiction of the Last Judgement, spread across the walls and the dome. Looking up you’ll see Christ in judgement and above him angels unfurling the scroll of heaven, while to your right and to Christ’s left, the damned are cast into hellfire. It’s an image which demands your participation, not allowing you to be a mere bystander. Looking to the wall on your left, you’ll see the crowds of the righteous approaching the gates of Heaven and as you approach the apse, you join the same procession. The frescoes ask a simple question: when the moment of judgement comes, will you be found wanting?

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