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Kariye Camii is the best sample we have of late Byzantine art

Byzantine Renaissance

Byzantine Renaissance
The Moslem followers of Mohammed the Conqueror who triumphantly stormed Constantinople in 1453 were so successful in covering up all traces of Christianity that for almost five centuries Byzantine art—once the glory of Eastern Christendom—could be judged only through the examples that survived outside the Moslem world. Then, in 1935, Turkey’s Kemal Ataturk declared Istanbul’s Church of St. Sophia a historical monument, and cleared the way for Western experts to remove the plaster and paint that pious, iconoclastic Moslems had daubed over the great Christian mosaics. Since then each fragmentary restoration has added new proof of the power and achievement of Byzantine religious art between the 4th and 15th centuries A.D.

Five years ago a task force financed by Boston’s Byzantine Institute carefully eyed the walls in another Istanbul church, Kariye Camii, rebuilt on an older structure in the early 14th century and later converted into a mosque. With official blessing, the restorers went to work, soon realized that they had found a new jewel case of Byzantine art. With the job only three-fourths completed, their most significant find has been a set of 18 mosaic panels depicting the life of the Virgin Mary. Says Professor Paul A. Underwood, field director of the Istanbul project, who this week reports on the restoration work to the World Byzantine Congress in Istanbul: “Kariye Camii is the best sample we have of late Byzantine art.”

Kariye Camii was rebuilt in the early 1300s as a monastery church within Constantinople’s mighty walls, at the order of a wealthy courtier, Theodore Metochites. All evidence indicates that the church was decorated by mosaic masters who were buoyed up by the same fresh new breeze of discovery that in the West heralded the first stirrings of the Renaissance. Into the rigid Byzantine forms that had governed Eastern religious art for almost a thousand years, Byzantine artists poured a new warmth drawn from revived classic models.

For subject matter they turned to the Apocryphal New Testament for scenes from the life of Mary. One of the best preserved panels (see color page) shows the child Mary installed as a handmaiden in the temple as a thanksgiving offering by her parents. According to the Apocryphal Book of James: “And Mary was in the temple of the Lord as a dove that is nurtured; and she received food from the hand of an angel.” To portray Mary the artist used gentle modulations of beige, blue and gold, which achieve the soft tones of tempera painting. Little effort was made to indicate perspective, but the turning movement of the figures, the flowing robes of Mary and her handmaiden and the swirling movement of the angel break away from the stiff formalism of earlier Byzantine art.

In Italy this refreshed, humanized vision was carried one step further by Giotto, who incorporated into Western art the nobility of classic models. But in the East, with the growing threat of invasion looming over Constantinople, Byzantine art recoiled into familiar formalism. The murals of Kariye Camii stand revealed as the high point of Byzantine humanism, possibly the last great testimony of Byzantine art in its final flowering.

Monday, Sep 12, 1955 – Time

Times readers’ underrated destinations of the world – Kariye Museum, Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul is long known as a city endowed with layer upon layer of cultural riches dating from ancient times. But beyond the obvious sites in the Old City, there is a jewel that’s rarely seen: the Kariye Museum. It’s not easy to do but it is well worth the effort. The interior walls are covered with exquisite Byzantine religious art that has no equal anywhere in the world. Despite earthquake damage in 1894, many spectacular mosaics remain, awesome in their fine detail, displaying subtle shadings and rich colors that are lacking in earlier Byzantine mosaics.     

By Elizabeth Mitchell Munisoglu, Los Angeles (Matt Perreault)

Thomas Whittemore

Thomas Whittemore

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.

Thomas Whitemore and Byzantium

On June 12, 1929, Thomas Whittemore hosted a dinner for several of his friends at a hotel in Istanbul, Turkey. It is thought that the framework for the Byzantine Institute was established at this gathering.motion picture film that would prove quite useful in generating publicity and funds to further the Institute’s mission. Meanwhile, Whittemore was also in the midst of negotiations with the Turkish government concerning the restoration and conservation of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Permission was finally obtained in December 1931.

Visions of Byzantium

Chora Corner of Dome

The exhibition, Vaults of Heaven Visions of Byzantium, presents a series of extraordinary ultra-large-scale photographs, many over six-feet tall, by the renowned Turkish photographer Ahmet Ertug. The exhibit is at the Kelsey Museum of Archeology at the University of Michigan through Jan. 23. Focusing on paintings, mosaics, and architecture of the Byzantine world (6th–14th centuries AD), the photos provide a journey through such venerated sites as Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia and Church of Christ in Chora, as well as churches in the Cappadocia region of central Turkey, an area known for hidden Christian retreats hewn out of the region’s unusual volcanic rock formations. Trained as an architect, Ahmet Ertug combines a deep understanding of Byzantine history and culture with an artist’s eye. His remarkable photographs capture the mystery and power of these ancient sites, offering viewers intimate views of the great domes, expansive structural details, and exquisite mosaics and paintings of these sacred spaces. Accompanying the photographs are objects from the Kelsey Museum’s collections of Byzantine and Islamic material, including gold coins, manuscripts pages, small carvings, pottery, and wooden architectural fragments. Vaults of Heaven Visions of Byzantium will be displayed in two parts. Part I, on display from Oct. 1– Jan. 23, 2011, includes visions from two famous metropolitan churches in Istanbul: Hagia Sophia and the early 14th-century Church of Christ in Chora. Part II, on display from Feb.4 – May 29, 2011, focuses on Karanlik, a monastic compound built in the 11th century; Tokali, the largest church in Cappadocia, with paintings from the 10-11th centuries and the church of Meryemana (“Mother Mary”), which is currently closed to the public. Ahmet Ertug has been hailed as one of the world’s few living photographers who is “predestined to become a part of history.” His extraordinary images have been featured in major exhibitions from Japan and Turkey to Paris and London. A selection of his work is permanently displayed in the upper gallery of Istanbul’s famous Hagia Sophia.

Roald Dahl’s daughter finds peace as a nun A 1974 graduate of the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London, Ertug began his photographic career in 1972, taking pictures of Caribbean festivals and street life in London. Although he continued to work as an architect, his interest in photography grew throughout the 1970s. While working in Iran, he began photographing indigenous settlements and ancient Persian monuments, and in 1979, with the help of a research grant, he traveled throughout Japan, capturing images of ancient Japanese temples, Zen gardens, and festivals. After his year in the Far East, Ertug returned to Istanbul, having been hired as an architect for the conservation planning of the city. His increasingly intimate knowledge of the city’s historic quarters inspired him to begin photographing Istanbul’s impressive Byzantine, Ottoman, and Roman remains, using a large-format camera that enabled him to capture their full splendor. In the 1980s, Ertug established his own publishing house, producing specially designed books of his photographs that are now recognized for their innovation in the printing industry. Both his books and photographs have been internationally praised for their beauty and “deep meditative energy,” which draw the viewer into his subject.

The Kelsey Museum of Archeology is located at 434 S. State Street, Ann Arbor. (734)-764-9304; www.lsa.umich.edu/kelsey Todd Gerring is community outreach coordinator at the Kelsey Museum of Archeology