Chora Architecture

March 27, 2009 by  
Filed under History

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The early fourteenth century rebuilding of the Chora included the reconstruction of the naos dome and the pastophoria, as well as the addition of a twostory annex to the north side, inner and outer narthices to the west, and the parekklesion to the south. The additions have proved to be the result of a single building campaign, but the irregularities of the plan are distinctive and have long confused scholars. Albert Lenoir, for example, who drew the building in the midnineteenth century, simply refused to admit that it was irregular (pl. 29, cat. III6). Indeed, the Kariye seems to lack an overall logic and appears as an incongruous juxtaposition of components. Both the complex design and scholarly confusion resulted from a number of factors. The utilization of the Middle Byzantine core of the building, the sloping site, and the varying functions of the ancillary chambers dictated special planning considerations and resulted in numerous compromises in the final construction. Moreover, repairs of the Ottoman period have altered many important aspects of the building, and an attempt at restoration is necessary to visualize the fourteenthcentury building.

The most conspicuous changes are fairly recent. In the restoration of 1875-76, the undulating Byzantine roofline was leveled. The visual effect of this “improvement” was to make stagnant and lifeless what was once a dynamic silhouette and to accentuate the irregularities of the plan. Illustrations from the nineteenth century, however, including drawings by Alexandros Paspates (pl. 3 1, cat. III8) and Domenico Pulgher (pl. 16, cat. III9) and a unique photograph, show that the scalloped roofline was edged by a dogtooth cornice with bricks laid on a diagonal, which were partially or totally removed when the roofline was raised. The minor domes were similarly topped by scalloped dogtooth cornices, but when recovered, their cornices were leveled, giving the domes a “helmeted” appearance. The main dome, similar in form, had been replaced at an earlier date, perhaps following the earthquake of 1766.

The church also had a bell tower, constructed in the southwest corner of the building but replaced by the present minaret. Most Byzantine belfries disappeared with the Turkish restrictions on the use of bells and the conversion of churches into mosques. Although there is no documentation of the belfry, it was probably of considerable size, covering the entire corner bay of the building. The original arches of this bay were given a double thickness in construction, but this evidently proved ineffective under the weight of the structure; probably within a few decades of the initial construction, the arches required reinforcement of columns supporting masonry arches.

The extra thickness in the south wall, decorated on the exterior by ogival arches containing the monograms of Metochites, housed the spiral staircase leading to the upper levels of the belfry. Like the surviving belfries at Mistra or in Macedonia, the tower was probably three stories tall and domed, with stairs leading only to the second level. The external features of the belfry surely complemented the lively detailing of the building.

The form of the west façade has also been radically changed. Beginning in the middle of the fourteenth century, the arches were blocked, and three were transformed into arcosolia for tombs. The excavations of the 1950s demonstrated that the lower portion of each arched opening was filled by a closure slab topped by a balustrade. Above the balustrade, the arcades were left open so that the outer narthex formed a portico. The main portal of the central opening is composed of reused, poorly fitted marble pieces that must have been added when the other bays were closed.

Because of these alterations, the fourteenth-century building must have appeared significantly different than it does today. The presence of a belfry, for example, would dramatically alter the visual composition. It would appear that symmetry was not a major concern in the overall design. The irregularities of the building vanish amid the wealth of detail, the dynamic silhouette, and the exuberant outward appearance. Refinements are localized and small scale; parts are related to each other but not to the whole; variety is more important than symmetry. The north narthex dome, for example, is adjusted to its position in relation to the north annex, hiding its irregular roofline. But no attempt has been made to relate it to the south half of the facade; the two narthex domes are of different sizes and asymmetrically positioned. As if to emphasize the love of variety, the external articulation of the parekklesion dome differs from both of these.

The articulation of the wall displays the coloristic effects of light and shade. There were strong contrasts in the west façade between the dark recesses and the pastel tones of the piers, the latter broken by the alternating bands of brick and stone and by the consistent use of twostepped responds and engaged columns. All this was topped by the subtle contrasts and undulating rhythm of the dogtooth cornices. The wall was never left as a plain surface. To be sure, the love of decoration led to some illogical solutions. For example, on the south facade, the system of half columns and responds does not fit with the structural system of the building or with the interior articulation, and we find half columns illogically supporting windows.

Special functional requirements may have also played a role in the unusual design. For example, in addition to an annexed funeral chapel for privileged burials, many aristocratic churches were provided with a private room for the founder on the gallery level, usually positioned above the narthex. While other considerations did not allow a narthex gallery at the Chora, the twostory annex on the north side of the building included a room on the upper level that may have served as the library of Theodore Metochites. It includes a window overlooking the naos, from which the founder could “hear the sweet singing of the monks” as he devoted himself to his scholarship. In a like manner, the south bay of the inner narthex – out of scale and asymmetrically positioned – seems to have had a special function in the monastery. Dominated by the huge Deesis mosaic on its east wall, the space may have functioned as a sort of founder’s chapel, honoring the memories of the previous imperial benefactors, two of whom are represented in the dedicatory mosaic.

If we take into consideration such special functional requirements as these, as well as a decorative aesthetic oriented toward lavish surface ornamentation and principles of planning that broke the building into individually articulated components, we arrive at an approach toward architecture that not only allowed but perhaps encouraged irregularities. The guiding principles of Palaiologan architecture must be recognized as quite different from the rational, structural principles of the Middle Byzantine period. The treatment of architectural forms in evidence at the Kariye has much in common with the contemporary, socalled mannerist phase in the twodimensional arts.

Like the mosaics and frescoes, the architecture of the Kariye is similarly artfully distorted, chaotic, asymmetrical, and decorative. If we isolate a single figure, for example, Joseph, from Joseph Taking the Virgin to His House, compositional attitudes similar to those seen in the architecture are evident. Students of life drawing would cringe at this figure – we are not sure if he is coming or going. Yet, if each specific feature is analyzed independently, it is more than satisfactory in itself. The artist is composing on a small scale, of individual bits and pieces, without attempting to relate the pieces to the whole.

References
* Van Millingen, Alexander (1912). Byzantine Churches of Constantinople. London: MacMillan & Co.
* Ousterhout, Robert (2002). The Art of the Kariye Camii. London-Istanbul: Scala. ISBN 975-6899-76-x.

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Thomas Whittemore

March 31, 2009 by  
Filed under History

thomaswhittemoreIn 1948, Thomas Whittemore (1871 – 1950) and Paul A. Underwood, from the Byzantine Institute of America and the Dumbarton Oaks Center for Byzantine Studies, sponsored a programme for restoration of the Chora Church in Istanbul.

Thomas Whittemore was a scholar, archaeologist and the founder of the Byzantine Institute of America. He was born in Cambridge,Massachusetts in 1871. His good personal relationship with Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder and the first president of the Turkish Republic, enabled him to gain permission from the Turkish government to start the preservation of the Hagia Sophia mosaics in 1931.

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