CHORA MUSEUM

THE DOME AND PENDENTIVES OF THE WESTERN SECTION OF THE PARECCLESION

Virgin Mary

The Virgin Mary portrait inside the rainbow-bordered medallion at the center of the dome, which covers the western section of the parecclesion and is 4.70 cm in diameter, is dominating the whole room.

According to the Byzantines, Virgin Mary was both the most important mediator between the humans and God, and a kind mother. Inside the rainbow-bordered medallion at the center of the large dome, which covers the whole western section and represents the heaven, are Virgin Mary and child Jesus in his arms depicted. The dome is divided into 12 segments by 12 windows providing light to the Virgin Mary figure. Those segments contain the full-length frescoes of 12 angels. The angels, which are standing and depicted similar to one another, are holding long staffs in their right hands. Four angels (Gabriel, Michael, Uriel and Raphael) are holding a crystal ball bearing the cross and “X” signs, whereas the other angels hold their clothes with their left hands. The angels wear an imperial shawl. Each angel figure bears an inscription that reads, “Angel of the Lord”. 

On the other hand, at the end of a staff held by one of the angels, the word “Hagios” (saint) is inscribed three times. The wide strips dividing the dome into segments and located between the angel figures are richly decorated with plant motifs.

The Four Hymnographers

Four hymn writers (hymnographers) are depicted on the four pendentives of the dome covering the western section. The hymns of these poets are sung especially during death rituals.

On the northeast pendentive, Saint John of Damascus, who wrote hymns for funerals, is depicted. The Arab Christian monk-priest who lived between 676 and 749 died in the monastery in Jerusalem founded by him. Here, the hymnographer saint who is depicted sitting on the armchair next to a table and writing on a scroll of paper on an elevated writing desk upon the table. Although it is not possible to read the full text, it is understood that this part contains a verse of one of his hymns: “What joy of life abideth, without the smart of woe?” The saint is barefoot and he wears a tunic, a coat and a turban. There are architectural units in the background. The inscription above his head reads, “Hagios Ioannes Damaskenos”.

On the southeast pendentive, Saint Cosmas, hymn writer, poet and bishop, is seen. Cosmas is sitting on a bench, the table of which is low, and there is a low stool under his feet. There are a penholder, an inkpot and a penknife on the table. The portrait of the saint is well-preserved. There is an open book in one of his arms, and a pen in his other hand. Architectural units are seen in the background and the inscription above his head reads, “Hagios Cosmas, poet”.

On the southwest pendentive,Joseph, 9th-century hymn writer, is depicted holding the scroll containing the Akathist Hymn, one of the most important Byzantine hymns dedicated to Virgin Mary. There are a pen, a penholder and an inkpot on the table. Again, there is a book on the elevated writing desk upon the table, and there are architectural structures in the background. The inscription above the head of Joseph reads, “Hagios Joseph, poet”, and the one on the paper scroll in his hand reads, “The forgiver of the world, o the spotless Virgin”.

On the northwest pendentive,Saint Theophanes, 9th-century poet and hymn writer who was a monk at the Chora monastery and buried here, is depicted. In the period of iconoclasm in the 9th century, he had an inscription carved on his face, and therefore he received the name of Graptus, meaning written upon.

Here, the saint is sitting at the table on a chair with a deep back and his feet are on a platform. There are writing instruments on his table, and the saint is writing in a book in his lap. The inscription above his head reads, “Hagios Theophanes”, and the one on the open book reads, “after violating the holy commandments of God, we returned to the earth again”. This verse is taken from a hymn of Theophanes sung during funerals. The furnishings seen in these scenes reflect the characteristic 14th-century medieval features.

In the Parecclesion, Old Testament stories are depicted in the frescoes on the walls between the dome and above the cornice level.

Jacob’s ladder and Jacob wrestling with an angel

On the right side of the tympanum on the north wall in the western section, Jacob’s ladder and Jacob’s wrestling with an angel are depicted. Here, while traveling to Haran, Jacob puts a stone under his head to sleep, and he dreams a ladder between the earth and the heaven, on which the angels are descending and ascending. The inscription below left, above the head of Jacob, reads, “Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep”, the one on the right side, between the scenes of the ladder and the wrestling, reads, “and he dreamed there...”, and the one above right reads, “he saw a ladder resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. There above it stood the Lord”. Virgin Mary and Child Christ in her arms are seen at the upper right corner. Under the ladder, Jacob is depicted wrestling with an angel. This event occurred during his return from Haran. Although Jacob’s seeing a ladder in his dream and wrestling with an angel are two different events, they are depicted together in the Byzantine painting.

Moses and the burning bush

On the right side of the north wall of the western section is the scene of Moses and the burning bush. While God was speaking to Moses from within a bush, the bush was on fire, but was not consumed by the flames. An old man with a beard (Moses) is standing on the left side, and a bush is burning in flames opposite to him. There are the portraits of Virgin Mary and Child Christ inside a medallion in the bush. An angel appearing on the upper part of the bush is calling to Moses. There are hills and the Mount Sinai in the background. Below, Moses is sitting on the ground and taking off his sandals.

The inscription at the upper left corner reads, “and he came to Horeb, the mountain of God, and there the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush”, and the ones at the lower left corner read, “take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground” and “Prophet Moses”.

Moses hiding his face

On the north side of the arch between the eastern and western sections is the scene of Moses’ hiding his face. A standing bearded old man (Moses) holding a staff is on the left side, and his face is turned away in order to avoid the light of the burning bush opposite to him. There are the portraits of Virgin Mary and Child Christ inside the medallion in the middle of the bush. Just before the medallion, an outstretched angel is speaking to Moses. The inscription on the upper part of the scene reads, “Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God”.

Transport of the sacred furnishings

On the south side of the arch between the eastern and western sections is the scene of the transport of sacred furnishings. Here, the transport of the sacred pot (stamnos) and the seven-branched candelabrum (menorah) taken from the sacred tent of meeting (tabernacle) of Jews is depicted. One of the two priests is carrying the seven-branched candelabrum with his two raised hands, and the other is carrying a pot resembling an amphora on his shoulders. A paper scroll is seen inside the pot. Assumedly, the candelabrum’s “carrying the light” is the forerunner of Virgin Mary, and the sacred “manna” inside the sacred pot is the forerunner of Jesus Christ. Manna is the food provided by God to the Jews when they were in exile in the desert.

Gathering of Solomon and the assembly of Israel

On the left side of the south wall of the western section, the gathering of Solomon and the assembly of Israel is depicted. Solomon is leading the whole tribe for the ceremonies related to the placing of the sacred furnishings in the sanctuary of the new temple. On the right side, Solomon in imperial clothes is leading the crowd before him with a censer in his hand. The inscription on the scene reads, “and the king and Israelites gathered before the Ark of the Covenant”.

Placing of the Ark of the Covenant in the sanctuary of the temple

On the right side of the south wall of the western section, the placing of the Ark of the Covenant in the sanctuary of the temple is depicted. The covenant is placed in the most holy place of the temple. The two priests on the right side are placing the ark on the covered altar table in the sanctuary.

Two cherubim are standing behind the altar table. Israelite elders are depicted before the structure at upper left, and the heaven is depicted with nested circles in the uppermost part. From here, a beam of light is shining towards the altar and Israelites. The inscription at the upper left reads, “and the priests then brought the ark of the Lord’s covenant to its place in the inner sanctuary of the temple, the Most Holy Place, and put it beneath the wings of the cherubim”.

Prophecy of Isaiah and Archangel Michael Destroying the Assyrian Army Before Jerusalem

On the south side of the western arch, the Prophecy of Isaiah and Archangel Michael’s destroying the Assyrian army before Jerusalem is depicted. Isaiah predicted that the Assyrian army that besieged Jerusalem would fail and the angel of God destroyed the Assyrian army before Jerusalem with his sword. An old man on the left side (Prophet Isaiah) is holding an open paper scroll in his left hand and pointing forward with his right hand. The wings and clothes of Michael, who is pointed to, are flying, he is preparing to use the sword raised by his right hand, and holding the scabbard of the sword in his left hand. Assyrian soldiers are lying on the ground. A city surrounded by walls is seen in the background. There is a portrait of Virgin Mary on the spectacular gate of the city. Some words on the paper scroll held by Isaiah can be read. The complete version of this inscription should read, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Because you have prayed to me concerning Sennacherib king of Assyria, he will not be able to enter into this city”.

Aaron and his sons before the Altar

On the north side of the western arch, the story of Aaron and his sons before the Altar is depicted. Here, the first priests of the tent-temple established by Moses, namely Aaron and his sons are giving their offerings. Both Aaron, who is depicted as the old person in the front, and each of his two sons, who are depicted as young persons behind him, is holding a box containing the offerings. On the right side is a covered altar table inside a marble niche. Sections of buildings are depicted in the background, and the pointed beams originating from the nested circles depicting the heaven extend toward Aaron and his sons. Only two words of the inscription on the upper part of the scene can be read: “Altar” and “burnt offering”.

Virgin Mary is the central figure in the iconography of the western section of the parecclesion. The stories from the Old Testament have been interpreted as an expression, a forerunner of the arrival of Virgin Mary and thus the arrival of Jesus Christ. Those stories are on some Marian feast days. The Akathist Hymn, which has an important place among the hymns, is about death. The content of this hymn is compared with the Old Testament stories in the parecclesion.

Martyrs

On the walls of the parecclesion below cornices are full-length figures of martyrs (saints killed for following Christianity - military saints). Martyrs, military saints are holy persons recognized by Byzantines as mediators to reach God. Especially in the last periods of the Byzantine Empire, the portraits of the military saints were painted on the lower walls of churches and chapels.

From the south to the west, until the northeast, the wall sections below the cornices are decorated with depictions of martyrs. First, on the southeastern wall are Saint George of Cappadocia and Saint Demetrius of Thessaloniki. In the medallions on the two sides of the arcosolium arch between these saints are the portraits of Saint Florus and Saint Laurus. The full-length depictions of saints are in hierarchical order: Saint Theodore of Tyre, Saint Theodore Stratelates, Saint Mercurius and Saint Procopius are depicted in armored clothes. There is an unidentified saint next to Saint Sabbas Stratelates. Saint David of Thessalonika is sitting in a bird’s nest on top of a tree. Saint Eustathius Placidus is in military uniform. Saints Samonas and Gruias of Edessa are in martyr clothes. Saint Artemius or Saint Nicetas, whose full name cannot be read, is in military uniform. The portraits of Saint Bacchus and Saint Sergius are in medallions. On the other hand, the depiction of a saint in military uniform, a portrait of a saint inside a medallion, and the depiction of a saint on a column are unfinished. Saints in military uniform have short tunics under their armors, and some of them carry lances and shields. Some of them are depicted with raised swords, in a raid. The saint depictions on the entrance arches of the two tomb arcosolia and diaconicon in the western section are portraits inside medallions. Saints that are not in military uniform are in martyr clothes.

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