Kariye Müzesi, also known as The Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora, is one of the oldest and most important religious landmarks of Byzantine Constantinople. What makes it so special is its mosaics and frescos which not only represent 14th century Byzantine art at it’s finest but also at its most experimental. Between 1315 and 1316 Kariye underwent major restoration and renovation work thanks to Theodore Metochites who was not only a statesman and a scholar but also a patron of the arts. He had Kariye decorated with brilliant mosaics and frescos that were part of a new type of artistic expression known as Paleologan Mannerism. There was a new appreciation for the purely decorative qualities of painting and meticulous attention was given to details. Byzantine artists were encouraged to include their own observations of the world in their artistic work and figures that we were once austere and stiff became more dynamic, depicting various types of movement. There was also a shift in the conventional use of perspective.
What distinguishes Kariye from other churches of this period is the depiction of the scenes from the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary in chronological order according to the Apocryphal Gospels – accounts of Christ’s life not included in the New Testament.
Scenes include the Holy Family on their way to Jerusalem for the Passover feast, the Magi going to Jerusalem on horseback and various stages of the life of Mary before and after her marriage to Joseph. In the funeral chapel, you will find scenes corresponding to The Last Judgment, The Hymnographers, Anastasis and Jacob’s Ladder.
These scenes don’t have any religious significance to me but as art, the quality of the mosaics and frescos kept me captivated. I felt as if I had travelled back in time. The only other time I had felt this way was in the Hagia Sofia but this experience, because of the size of the dimly lit space, felt much more intimate.
Sometime between the 1495 and 1511, Kariye was converted into a mosque by Atık Ali Paşa, the Grand Vizier of Sultan Bayezid II. A mihrab was added in the main apse, and the belfry was removed and replaced with a minaret.
It was given the new name ‘Kariye’ which is the Arabic translation of the name Chora, meaning “village” or “countryside”. The religious mosaics and decoration inside the building were covered with plaster but never entirely concealed.
In 1945, Kariye was secularised and it became a museum. In 1947 the Byzantine Institute of America undertook the cleaning of the mosaics and frescos as well as restoration of the building.
Kariye Müzesi is located in the Edirnekapı neighbourhood of İstanbul.
When I last visited I took the bus from Eminonu and got off at the Edirnekapi stop. It was about a 20 to 30 min bus ride. It’s then about a 5 minute walk from the bus stop. From the bus stop there are signs pointing the way. Any of the bus No.’s 31E, 37E, 38E or 36KE from Eminonu will do.
You will find more information here.