Chora Monastery

Date: Eleventh and twelfth centuries, with major restoration in 1316–21
Location or Findspot (Modern-Day Country): Turkey
Description: The early history of the Chora Monastery in Constantinople is unclear, but it was likely founded in the seventh century. It was restored around 1077–81 by Maria Doukaina (mother-in-law of Alexios I, r. 1081–1118) and again in the twelfth century by her grandson Isaac Komnenos (1093–after 1152). After the church fell into into disrepair during the thirteenth-century Latin occupation of Constantinople, the statesman and scholar Theodore Metochites (1270–1332) undertook its restoration in ca. 1315–21 at the suggestion of Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos (r. 1282–1328). In doing so, Metochites became the first non-imperial ktetor (founder) of an imperial monastery.

Metochites maintained much of the twelfth-century plan. He reconstructed the inner narthex and also added an outer narthex with a tower, a parekklesion (side chapel), two small ancillary chambers, and a large, two-story northern annex. He rebuilt the collapsed dome in the naos and, in response to the instability of the site, attempted to provide additional support for the bema by adding a flying buttress. This buttress was an unusual addition in a Byzantine context, and it was also unsuccessful, eventually providing only the illusion of support as the ground below it continued to shift.

Notable mosaics in the outer narthex include the Pantokrator, identified as "he chora ton zonton" (the dwelling place of the living), and an infancy sequence. The unusual scene of the holy family's enrollment for taxation may have been chosen to elevate Metochites's position as chief tax collector; the depicted tax official and the patron wear similar tall headdresses. The mosaics in the inner narthex include a Deesis (with Christ and the Virgin flanked by Isaac Komnenos and "Melania the Nun," who is believed to have been Maria, a daughter of Michael VIII Palaiologos) and a portrait of Metochites presenting a small model of the Chora to Christ (in the lunette over the central door into the naos). In the parekklesion, frescoes reflect the funerary function of the space, among them a Last Judgment and Anastasis. In this space, Metochites and others were buried in arcosolia tombs, some of which preserve images of the deceased dressed as aristocrats and again as monastics.

In addition to mosaics and frescoes, Metochites added new pavements and marble revetments. As was common after the seventh century, the luxury stones used for the decoration were all spolia, many of the longer slabs in the revetments having been assembled from sliced columns. Many of the marble slabs have been book-matched—a technique by which the marble is sliced and the resulting slabs opened like the pages of a book and placed adjacently. In doing so, the stonecutters created symmetrical and often undulating designs with marbles selected specifically for their interesting and pronounced venations.

Even though the church of the Chora Monastery was dedicated to Christ, the naos was clearly a place in which Mary had special import. She appears in two of the three naos images: a proskynetaria (meaning "oratory" or "place of worship") icon of the Virgin appears to the right of the templon (no longer present), and a koimesis appears on the west wall.
Relevant Textbook Chapter(s): 7, 8, 9
Image Credits: Elias Sarantopoulos, Brad Hostetler, Wikimedia Commons, Images&Stories/Alamy Stock Photo, Depositphotos, Navid Jamali

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