Amid Expectancy and Marvel – The Chora Church

Crossing the threshold of the Chora Church means entering into a world of dazzling beauty. Your gaze will spontaneously rise up to contemplate the walls covered in mosaics and frescos. The history of Christian salvation flows in extremely colorful images, solemn and hieratic, rich in humanity and authentic tenderness.

Enveloped in a swirl of arches, cupolas, lunettes, enthralled by the abundance of the golden tesserae of the mosaics, fascinated by the succession of episodes, of figures, of colors, the visitor feels transported into another space.

The iconographic program is comprised of more cycles which enchant but at the same time remain incomprehensible to those who do not know the stories narrated in the apocryphal Gospels and the texts of the liturgical celebrations. This refers to pieces of a theological and artistic design attentively developed, among the most exceptional masterpieces of Byzantine art and architecture…in our opinion the masterpiece of Byzantium as far as concerns mosaic cycles, a marvel in which we have the pleasure of interpreting many scenes.

Whom should we thank for such beauty? Undoubtedly the mosaicists and the iconographers who meticulously gave form to this marvel
Byzantine Christianity has not recorded their names, a staunch supporter of an ecclesiastical position rather than the individual of the artist, in the service of the encounter with the divine. Instead, the names of the commissioners are often preserved, thanks to mural inscriptions and/or documents. Chora is the gift of Teodoro Metochita, an intellectual among the most erudite and prolific of the Byzantine Empire, an expert in finance, a man of state who became vice-emperor. Thanks to his endeavors, the monastery boasted the most well-endowed library in the empire and the most spectacular church. A series of clues cause us to suppose that he may have discussed with the monks his books be collected and also with the iconographers about the scenes they illustrate; we can imagine him while, between 1313 and 1321, he surveys the construction site of the renovation projects and decoration (he lived across from the monastery); we may seem to glimpse him during the long liturgical, monastic prayers he regularly participated in, especially the candlelight vigils in the years of his political career and at the end of his life when he himself became a monk. Among the many episodes able to transmit power and emotion, I’m struck every time I observe the scene of the infancy of Mary, told in the Apocryphon Protevangelium of James, which belongs to the cycle that Chora dedicates to the Virgin. Joachim holds in his arms his little daughter and presents her to the priests, seated around an elegant table, according to a method used for centuries to portray the three angels who were received by Abraham in a visit at the Oak of Mamre. The priests turn, amazed to see the man who, just months prior, had been reprimanded in the Temple itself by one of their own for the absence of the blessing of children. Joachim, a just man, had endured the wait and now was carrying in his arms the miracle. His strong faith and decency in contrast to those who had judged him not for his holy actions but for his lack of offspring are an admirable example. And his hands covered in a sign of respect are an indication that God permitted him to foresee the exceptional destiny of the girl whom he offers for blessing, as the inscription reads: ‘Ē eulógēsis tōn ieréōn. Here Mary is the Theotokos in miniature. Covered with the traditional blue maphorion, with a halo around her head, she is serenely resting in the arms of her father and gazes at the priests who bless her. They in turn will admit her into the interior of the Temple, a place traditionally reserved for the clergy, and will discover that her destiny is exceptional: to become “Chōra tou Achōrētou,” the Ark and dwelling of the Irrepressible. 
Emanuela Fogladini