Formerly the church of St Saviour in Chora, the Kariye Museum (Kariye Müzesi) is decorated with a superbly preserved series of frescoes and mosaics portraying the life and miracles of Christ. Arguably the most evocative of all the city’s Byzantine treasures, it’s thought to have been built in the early twelfth century on the site of a much older church far from the centre: hence “in Chora”, meaning “in the country”. Between 1316 and 1321, the statesman and scholar Theodore Metochites rebuilt the central dome and added the narthexes and mortuary chapel.
Inside the church, the most prominent of the mosaics is that of Christ Pantocrator, bearing the inscription “Jesus Christ, the Land of the Living”. Opposite is a depiction of the Virgin and angels, with the inscription “Mother of God, the Dwelling Place of the Uncontainable”. The third in the series, located in the inner narthex, shows Metochites offering a model of the building to a seated Christ. Saints Peter and Paul are portrayed on either side of the door leading to the nave, and to the right of the door are Christ with his Mother and two benefactors, Isaac (who built the original church), and the figure of a nun.
The two domes of the inner narthex hold medallions of Christ Pantocrator and the Virgin and Child, while in the fluting of the domes there’s a series of notable figures – starting with Adam – from the Genealogy of Christ. The Cycle of the Blessed Virgin is located in the first three bays of the inner narthex. Episodes depicted here include the first seven steps of the Virgin; the Virgin caressed by her parents, with two beautiful peacocks in the background; the Virgin presented as an attendant at the temple, the Virgin receiving a skein of purple wool, as proof of her royal blood; Joseph taking the Virgin to his house, in which is also depicted one of Joseph’s sons by his first wife; and Joseph returning from a trip to find his wife pregnant.
The next cycle, found in the arched apertures of the outer narthex, depicts the Infancy of Christ. The mosaics can be followed clockwise, starting with Joseph dreaming, the Virgin and two companions, and the journey to Bethlehem. Apart from well-known scenes such as the Journey of the Magi and the Nativity, there are depictions in the seventh bay of the Flight into Egypt. In the sixth bay is the Slaughter of the Innocents, complete with babies impaled on spikes.
The Cycle of Christ’s Ministry fills the vaults of the outer narthex and parts of the south bay of the inner narthex. It includes wonderful scenes of the Temptation of Christ, with dramatic dialogue (Matthew 4: 3–10) that could almost be in speech bubbles, beginning “Devil: If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread. Christ: It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.”
The main frescoes in the nave of St Saviour echo the mosaics, featuring the death of the Virgin over the door and, to the right, a depiction of Christ. The best known of all the works in the church, however, are the frescoes in the funerary chapel to the south of the nave.
The most spectacular of these is the Resurrection, also known as the Harrowing of Hell. It depicts Christ trampling the gates of Hell underfoot, and forcibly dragging Adam and Eve from their tombs. A black Satan lies among the broken fetters at his feet, bound at the ankles, wrists and neck. To the left, animated onlookers include John the Baptist, David and Solomon, while to the right Abel is standing in his mother’s tomb; behind him is another group of the righteous.
Other frescoes in the chapel, in the vault of the east bay, depict the Second Coming, while in the east half of the domical vault Christ sits in judgement.