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Mosaic in the Chora Church, Turkey

Article 2 in a series about the nativity in Western art.Welcome to day 2.  If you wish to read other post in this series you can find the links here.  As the posts go live you can access them there.

Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David,  in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child.  Luke 2:4-5

Today we move to Istanbul, Turkey. The Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora was a medieval Byzantine Greek Orthodox church. Over it’s long history it has been converted into a mosque, and is now a museum.

Chora is translated ‘country’ or ‘field’.

In the early 4th century the church, which was part of a monastery, was built outside of the walls of Constantinople, hence the designation of a church in the fields or country. In the late 5th century the walls were rebuilt and the church was included within the walls, however, the name remained. Undergoing several building programs, the building as it exist today was largely done in the 11th century, with the interior decorations completed between 1315 and 1321.

The interior of the church is decorated with frescoes and mosaics that were endowed, or paid for by the powerful statesman, Theodore Metochites. While we do not know the names of any of the artist who were employed, we can appreciate the devotional nature of their work. I am always awed by the beauty of these old churches. The prospect of painting frescoes or building mosaics on the domed ceilings without any of the modern conveniences we have at our disposal is impressive.

Much of the interior of the church is covered in frescoes, or paintings that are done directly onto wet plaster. Then as the plaster dries, the paint literally becomes a part of the wall. The mosaics are also formed in wet plaster. We are extremely fortunate that such permanent methods were used to decorate the interior of this church.

Following the fall of the city to the Ottoman Empire in 1453, the Church was converted into a Mosque. As Islam prohibits iconic images the mosaics and frescoes were covered, either with wooden shutters, or commonly, a layer of plaster. That and frequent earthquakes has damaged the artwork, but due to the nature of the works a great deal of it could be restored.

In 1948 the building was the object of a restoration program. Americans Thomas Whittemore and Paul Underwood from two institutes of Byzantine studies oversaw the restoration, and in 1958 the Chora church became a museum, and one of the finest surviving examples of Byzantine art.

From a series of articles on nativity art.
Mosaic of Joseph and Mary traveling to Bethlehem, in the Chora church in Turkey.

The mosaic we are examining is located in the outer narthex of the church. On the right side we see Joseph walking through a mountainous area. There is a city in the background and an inscription in the upper portion that reads, “and Joseph went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David.”  The lower portion of writing reads, “And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in his dream, and said, Joseph, you the son of David, do not be afraid of accepting Mary as a spouse, for the one who has been born by her is the Holy Spirit.”

In the center of the mosaic we have Mary on a donkey, and in front of her is Joseph’s son. It was commonly held that Joseph had been widowed, and that there were children from his first marriage. This makes Jesus’s comments about brothers make sense.

Mary is traditionally robed in blue, as we see here. There are multiple reasons for this.

The color blue is mentioned multiple times in the book of Numbers in relation to the people of Israel.

Within the Catholic tradition the blue is related to Mary being the new Ark of the Covenant. When the people of Israel followed Moses out of Egypt and then into the wilderness, and after they were given the 10 Commandments, they were instructed to build the Ark, and place the tablets within. No man was allowed to touch the Ark and it was carried on poles. The presence of God was believed to dwell in the ark. The directions regarding the Ark are in Numbers 4, and in verse 7 we learn that the Ark is to be covered with a blue cloth.

Mary, being impregnated by the Holy Spirit now carries the divine within her, and so, for that time, God dwelled in Mary just as He did in the ark. This is why she is portrayed in blue.

The color blue has a different meaning in the Byzantine/Orthodox church. In that church blue is the color associated with mystery, divinity, and the sky. Blue is a heavenly color.

The color red, by contrast is the color of blood. Red is associated with humanity, the earth.

Jesus is often wearing a red inner garment with a blue outer garment. This is because his divinity envelops his humanity.

Mary on the other hand wears a blue garment, sometimes with a red cloak. God (blue) dwells within her, and her humanity wraps around him.

So the iconography associated with the color blue in nativity artwork carries a significance that extends far beyond color choice.  We will see that on occasion artists have chosen another color for Mary, but when you are viewing a work with multiple women figures, and you are trying to determine which of them is Mary, you can generally pick her out based on her blue robes.

Continue the Advent in Art Journy – Day 3 Giotto


E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art. (New York, Phaidon Press, 2016)

Professor Sharon Latchaw Hirsh, How to Look at and Understand Great Art, Lecture series, Great Courses

Professor William Koss, History of European Art  Lecture series, Great Courses

Sister Wendy Beckett, The Story of Painting (London, Dorsey Kindersley, 2000)

Marilyn Stokstad, Art History. (New Jersey, Pearson Education, 2005)

National Gallery of Art website

Metropolitan Museum of Art website

The Getty Center

The Chora Museum

And thanks to the Met and Wiki commons quality images for public domain art is now much more easily accessible.

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