CHORA MUSEUM

PARECCLESION

The apse determining the eastern ends of churches are the most important places of religious buildings in terms of liturgy and church symbolism. The rectangular parecclesion of Chora has been a structure the longitudinal effect of which is dominant visually as well, thanks to the rhythmic sequence of its dome, domical vault and the semi-dome of the apse from west to the east reinforced by the sequence of martyrs on the lower walls.

Except those in the tomb arcosolia, all frescoes of the chapel were got made immediately after the completion of the mosaics in the nave and in the narthexes by Theodore Metochites in 1320 and 1321.

On the other hand, the frescoes and portraits decorating the walls of tomb arcosolia were made when their owners had been buried in these tombs. 

Bishop figures on the apse wall

The bishop figures are of human size and they are ordered according to their importance. The names of those saints in bishop dresses are inscribed next to their heads and they are holding closed books in their hands. Two bishop-saints who are the founders of the Byzantine liturgy are in the middle. Saint Basil is in the middle-right and on the right side of him are Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Athanasios and probably Saint Nicholas, whose name disappeared, respectively. On the left side of Saint Basil is Saint Gregory the Theologian, and Saint Cyril of Alexandria next to him.

The scene of Anastasis

It is painted on the semi-dome of the apse, which is the most important and the most remarkable place of the building. The Greek word “anastasis” means “resurrection”.

In the Byzantine art, during the ‘Anastasis’, Jesus Christ goes to the underworld (Hades) after his death, he liberates the prophets of the Old Testament who lived before him and who were held captive by the Devil, he ends the kingdom of Devil here, and pulls the people to the heaven after resurrecting them. This event is not mentioned in the gospels.

In the parecclesion of the Chora, this scene is depicted in such a manner that it covers the whole semi-dome of the apse. Jesus Christ is standing at the center of the triangular composition, inside a mandorla radiating white light and bearing yellow stars.    Inside the dark section under the feet of Jesus Christ, broken door wings and chain and lock pieces are seen. Additionally, a dark-skinned figure whose hands and feet are chained is lying. There is a sarcophagus in both sides of the dark section. Jesus Christ is pulling Adam from the sarcophagus on the right side of him and Eva from the sarcophagus on the left side of him out of their tombs by holding their hands. There is a group including the prophets of the Old Testament, namely John, David and Solomon, behind Adam, and Abel and seven persons in clergy tunics behind Eva.  Here, Adam and Eva are representing the whole humanity. The inscription on the upper part of this scene reads “Anastasis”.

Michael

The scene of anastasis on the semi-dome of the apse in the parecclesion unites with the scene of last judgment covering the upper walls of the domical vault. Exactly at the center of the wide bema arch forming the border of these two scenes is a portrait of Archangel Michael inside a medallion. This medallion, 1.21 m in diameter, is the largest portrait medallion in the parecclesion. The sphere in Michael’s left hand is inscribed with the initial letters of the words Christos Dikaios Krites, that is Christ the Equitable Judge, XΔK. He is holding a staff in his right hand. The portrait here is connected with the scene of last judgment, since one of the duties of Archangel Michael is to convey the judged souls to the heaven.

Scenes of raising

On the northern side of the bema arch is the scene where Jesus Christ raises the dead son of a widow from Nain. Together with his apostles, Jesus went to Nain and as he approached the city, he saw a dead person who was carried. The coffin belonged to the son of a widow from Nain and the woman was crying for her son. Jesus said, do not cry, before touching the coffin and saying “young man, I say to you, get up”. The young man sat up and began to talk. (Luke 7:11-15.)

In this scene, there are apostles behind Jesus Christ, who is standing and extending his arm towards the son of the widow. On the other hand, the son of the widow is in sitting position inside the coffin carried by four men. The inscription on the upper part of this composition reads, “Jesus is raising the son of the widow”.

On the southern side of the bema arch is the scene where Jesus is raising the daughter of Jairus. Jesus Christ held the wrist of the girl who was lying dead in her bed in the house of Jairus, and revived her. Thanks to this miracle, the girl sat up in her bed. The people around are watching this miracle in astonishment. (Mark 5:22-24, 35-43.)

There are six apostles behind Jesus and three women behind the bed. The old man standing at the center is Jairus. 

The Last Judgment

The judgment scene on the domical vault in the east side of the parecclesion is forming the center of the Last Judgment composition that is covering the whole upper walls and the vault covering. There are literary sources stating that all human beings will be judged on the day of Last Judgment for their actions during their lives, and that they will either have an eternal and happy life in the heaven or writhe in the hell, according to the outcome of this judgment. The main literary source of scenes related to the day of Last Judgment is the Book of Revelation. Here, the rolling up of the skies, the throne set up for judgment and the judging of the souls before it, the delivery of the the dead by the seas and the lands, the lake of fire and the second life without death are described.

Scene of Deesis

Instead of reaching their gods directly, Byzantines preferred to reach them via holy persons supposedly closer to gods and able to reach them more easily. Those sacred persons who were considered as intermediaries between the god and human beings could be monks and bishops as well as saints who died for their religious beliefs especially in the first centuries of Christianity (martyrs), prophets of the Old Testament, archangels, angels and Mary (Theotokos), Mother of God. Above all, Virgin Mary, Mother of God, is thought to be the closest person to God. Virgin Mary appears in chapels, movable icons, illuminated manuscripts and special works, for she is seen as the mediator whose prayers are accepted. The parecclesion of Chora was dedicated to Virgin Mary, the superior mediator. For the Byzantines, the second important mediator following Virgin Mary was John the Baptist, who had announced the coming of Jesus, who had baptized him and who had been his friend at the same time. Those two holy persons who had a great influence on Jesus as a mother and as a friend respectively are brought together by the Byzantine art in the scene known as the “Deesis”, and on the Day of Judgment, they pray to Jesus on behalf of all mortals. At the center of the Last Judgment composition, Jesus is sitting on the throne of judgment, and Virgin Mary and John the Baptist are on either sides of Jesus, they are slightly turned towards him, and they are in praying position. Virgin Mary and John the Baptist are interceding on behalf of humanity. In the Last Judgment scene, the two figures behind Mary and John in emperor clothes are the archangels Michael and Gabriel. They are also participating in the scene of Deesis and interceding with Christ on behalf of humanity.

The word “Deesis” has been used since the 19th century. The scenes of Deesis that show the holiest persons interceding on behalf of people with God on the Day of Judgment are very important.

Scene of Last Judgment

The composition of the Last Judgment fresco covering the whole domical vault in the east section is circular. The impressive scene of “rolling up of the heaven” at the center of the circle, i.e. in the middle of the vault, is surrounded by the “choirs of the elect” (the choir of prophets, the choir of apostles, the choir of martyrs, the choir of holy women, the choir of saints, the choir of bishops). The scroll of the rolled up heaven in the middle of the vault is 86 cm in diameter and it is carried by an angel. It is very impressive thanks to the eye catching white color and the gold gilding. The scroll of the heaven indicates that the heaven will be rolled up at the end of the time. The angel is rolling up and carrying the heaven over his head with two hands, and gold gilt stars, the moon and the sun are seen on the heaven that is being rolled up.

In the scene of judgment, Jesus is sitting on the throne at the center, Mary and John are standing on the right and left sides of him respectively, apostles are sitting in on both sides, and a group of angels is seen just behind Jesus. Around these two scenes, there are four clouds containing the choirs of the elect. Below the throne of Jesus, the inscription on the left side reads, “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world”, and the one on the right side reads, “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels”. In the scene just below the Jesus the throne is prepared. Here, there is a closed Bible on a simple throne, and there are Cherubim on both sides. Before the throne are Adam and Eve in kneeling position. The scale just below the throne is weighing the souls. There is a small figure under the scale and two angels who are holding books.

On the other side of the scale, a lake of fire beginning at Christ’s feet is reflecting the hell seen on the pendentive. Small figures (devil) are bringing some souls into the hell.

On the southwest pendendive of the vault, lands are depicted above, and seas are depicted below. The angels at the sides have turned their trumpets towards the ground and the sea. In the land, the dead are coming out of their graves, and in the sea, fishes are expelling human organs from their mouths. This scene is largely deformed.

It is claimed that the fresco of “angel and a soul” on the northwest pendentive is the soul of Metochites presented by the Archangel Michael. An angel, whose wings are open, is standing behind a small and naked figure (soul), and he has placed one of his hands upon the head of the soul.

On the two east pendentives is the fresco of “Lazarus the beggar and the rich man”. After his death, the soul of Lazarus the beggar is placed on the lap of Abraham by an Angel. There is an old man (Prophet Abraham) sitting among depictions of trees, the soul of poor Lazarus is depicted as a little child sitting on his lap, and many souls are standing in the background.

On the southeast pendentive, a naked figure is sitting in flames, and in the lower part, pieces of gold are spilling out of two bags with open mouths. Here, the story of Lazarus the beggar and the rich man who ill-treated him during his life in this world is depicted. Whereas the rich man is writhing in pain in the hell after his death, Lazarus is seen on the lap of Prophet Abraham in a garden full of flowers. In those two scenes on the southeast and northeast pendentives of the domical vault, the good are awarded and the evil punished.

The scene on the left side of the south wall of the eastern section is divided into four parts. Each of them depicts one kind of torture in the hell with a different color. “The gnashing of teeth” is depicted at the upper left, “the outer darkness” at the upper right, “the worm that sleepeth not” at the lower left, and “the unquenchable fire” at the lower right.

Virgin Eleousa

In the depiction on the south column of the bema arch, the full-length Virgin Mary is standing on a rectangular platform, holding the child Christ in her arms, and kindly pressing her cheek to his one. Here, the emotional relationship between mothers and their sons is depicted. The monograms of Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ are next to their heads.

Only very small fragments of the fresco above the entrance on the west wall and on the west arch have survived.

The entry of the elect into paradise

At the center of the composition on the north wall of the eastern section is a gate guarded by a cherub who is holding a sword. On the right side, Saint Peter, who is holding a key, is moving towards the gate with the group of elect behind him. On the right side of the gate, the “good thief”, who is holding a cross inside the paradise decorated with trees and plants, invites them into the interior. And Virgin Mary can be seen on the left side between two angels.

Transport of the Ark of the Covenant

In the scene on the right side of the south wall of the eastern section, the transport of the Ark of the Covenant is depicted. Four priests are carrying the Ark of the Covenant, a triangular prism decorated with yellow, purple and marble-like strips, on their shoulders. The inscription at the upper left reads, “and, when Solomon built the house of the Lord, he summoned the elders of Israel in Zion. He said that the ark of the Lord’s covenant could be brought from Zion, the city of David. And the priests took the ark of the Lord’s covenant and the tent of meeting (tabernacle)”. This ark made of shittim-wood, the interior and exterior of which was plated with gold, contains the two stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed by Moses upon the orders of God. 

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