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Masterpieces of the Byzantine: Virgin of Chora Essay (Critical Writing)

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Updated: Dec 19th, 2021


The Chora monetary is one of the oldest and most important monasteries in the city of Istanbul, which was renovated by Theodore Metochites, who was a scholar and a statesman. It has a marble finish and fresco and mosaic interior. Among the surviving pieces are numerous portraits of the Holy Virgin and Christ, such as: ‘Mosaics of the Infancy of the Virgin’, ‘the Infancy of Christ’, and ‘the Ministry and Miracles of Christ’. The architectural design of the monastery is adjusted by each image, giving a three-dimensional element to each image.

Virgin of Chora

There is an image of the Holy Virgin, which faces the central bay of the Exonarthex, on the western side of the church, present in the lunette above the entrance, which is of keen interest. The image faces front, with a bust form, and the palm of her hand raised in the level of the shoulder, facing forward (orans position). The image portrays an image of the Holy Virgin wearing a blue flowing robe which envelopes the top of the arch-shaped like a triangle.

In front of her chest was Christ Emmanuel in an egg, grasping a scroll with his left hand and gesturing peace with the right hand. This image is called the Virgin of Blachernitissa, after the image present in a nearby monastery to Constantinople, Blachernae Monetary. The Virgin of Blachernitissa is surrounded by a choir of angels venerating and worshipping her, instructing the viewer how to properly conduct oneself in front of her.

In Byzantium, like in other countries, images such as the Virgin of Blachernitissa are regarded as an icon primarily because of the person it represents. Significant instances in history make them even more popular and venerable, such as incidents of healing, protection, and other such miracles. The image in itself, according to written archives, is a culmination of many different images present in Blachernae monetary. Several 11th-century images have similar portrayals of the Virgin with a medallion of Christ Emmanuel, if not an image of the Virgin in orans position.

On both sides of the image are the terms Epikepsis and Platytera. Episkepsis means ‘visit’, which may be inspired by the weekly miracles that happened in the late 11th to 12th centuries. The syllable skepe is meant both refuge and protector(the robe), which is a term that credits the Virgin as a protector, which pertains to the many instances in history where the Virgin protected the city. The word Platytera means “One who is wider than the heavens”, referring to the Holy Virgin as a vessel of Incarnation. Altogether, this means that the Virgin is an intermediary of the humans and God, an instrument to God’s mortality as Jesus Christ, an instrument of mercy, protection, and divine grace.

The role of the Virgin as the container of Christ is emphasized by the presence of Christ Emmanuel within the mandorla at the Virgin’s breast. The importance of being a container is stressed in different passages of the bible in both the Old and New Testaments. This holds for the Ark of the Covenant, the containers in the Wedding in Canaan, the Tabernacle, and the temple itself, which all represent significant containers.

Gregory of Nikomedia referred to the Virgin as katapetasma, or as a living veil of the Logos, wherein Christ hides his divinity. The image of the Virgin Blachernitissa is often found positioned on top of monastery and church entrances. The Virgin is considered as the “gate of the word”, because Christ entered the world through the Holy Virgin, and Christ is considered as the Holy Word in different contexts.

Visual Narrative and Political Field of Kariye Camii

The monastery of Chora is also known as Kariye Camii, thanks to the publication of many award-winning volumes a few generations ago. As was previously mentioned, Theodore Metochites was the one who funded the restoration of the monastery’s images, paintings, furnishings, mosaic, and architecture. He’s a known public figure in his time. Theodore Metochites was the Prime Minister of the Byzantine Empire. He was considered the most influential and richest person in the whole empire, next only to the emperor. Thus making him well educated, who is considered as someone who is well educated and a major intellect.

In most of the images, there is evidence that it is surrounded by historical and political meaning such as ‘Enrolment for Taxation’ in Chora. Evidence has it, that most of the historical images present a political function in the Byzantine society. Most of these pieces of art have both social and contextual art histories, presenting images of Good and Bad Government.

There is an image within the western wall facing the first bay of Narthex, which portrays the Holy Family before a governor of Syria, Cyrenius. This is well described in the opening of the 2nd chapter of St. Luke in the bible. And on the other hand, the painting of the nativity is positioned on the southern wall facing the bay. The composition of the image starts from the right, which is the visually dominant part of the image. On that side, there is the portrayal of Cyrenius, who is accompanied by well-armed soldiers, was right beside a golden throne. Upon the throne, was the holy family.

As one of the imperial officials, and prominent donors, Theodore Methochites, was portrayed similarly as the painting mentioned above, kneeling in front of a throne, wearing a white headdress with elaborate golden stripes. In his time, the headdress would connote a person’s ranking(if any), within the court. In one of his hands, he was holding on to a cylinder similar to the Byzantine Emperor’s akakia, which is traditionally carried during important ceremonies. However, the one Theodore held in his hands was not made of purple silk, and this cylinder was interpreted as a badge of authority. This is all present in the image, Enrolment for Taxation.

Enrolment for Taxation may seem to be similar to the actual ritual that takes place in the palace of the Byzantine Emperor.

There is an evident power and elegance in these narratives, which has been obscured by all worldly and political. And for this reason, Theodore spent time, money, and used all his knowledge to preserve all the images.


The medieval and political portrayals varied from the mimetic theory. Unlike in modern society where images and representations are more playful than accurate, the images in the Middle Ages were more political and understood by a few, if not a small secular or religious group. The participants in the images belonged within a common group whose leader was the emperor, who was considered as the vice-regent among the living of Christ, who is the ultimate Lord.

Theodore Metochites loved monarchy as much as he despised democracy. Because he believes that it is the only way a person can have harmony that benefited everyone in a government. This is because the king represents and embodies all he governs. And just like the painting, like Theodore, a figure of authority, was kneeling before Christ and admiring him in the painting, it represents the government’s love for Christ.

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