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The Chora monastery

he katholikon of the Chora monastery (Kariye Camii) was built between 1077 and 1081 over a previous structure by Maria Doukaina, the mother-in-law of the emperor Alexios I Komnenos. In 1120, Alexios' son, the sebastokrator Isaac Komnenos, had it radically repaired. Much later, between 1316 and 1321, Theodore Metochites, who held the office of logothetes tou genikou during the reign of Andronikos II Palaiologos and was a scholar and the author of a number of important works, restored the building, adding the exonarthex and the south chapel, which he had decorated with superb mosaics and frescoes.

The monastery of the Chora owes its name to the attribute "the land of the living" (he chora ton zonton), inspired by Psalm 116:9, which accompanies Christ in his representations inside the church. The portrayals of the Virgin, on the other hand, are accompanied by the attribute "he chora tou achoretou" ("container of the uncontainable") taken from the Akathistos Hymn. The characterisations correspond to the qualities attributed to each: to Christ as the Incarnation of life and to the Virgin as the bearer of the Incarnation.

Very interesting are the portraits of the founders depicted inside the church. Above the imperial door is shown the richly-attired Theodore Metochites kneeling and offering a model of the church to the enthroned Christ. On the eastern wall of the esonarthex, on either side of the figures of Christ and the Virgin, on a smaller scale, are depicted Isaac Komnenos, who is connected to the second reconstruction of the church and the nun Melane, the "lady of Mougoulia" according to the inscription. This mysterious woman, of whom nothing else is known, has been identified by scholars as one of the princesses of the dynasty of the Palaiologoi who married Mongol sovereigns. Scenes of the childhood and miracles of Christ are depicted in the exonarthex , while a detailed Mariological cycle, inspired by the Apocryphal Gospels, adorn the esonarthex. Particularly delightful are the descriptive details and the small intimate touches, such as those of the women attending St.Anne in the scene of the Birth of Virgin, which give to the religious paintings a feeling of reality and familiarity. The south chapel was annexed and decorated in 1315-20, also at the expense of Theodore Metochites, to house the founder's tomb. The iconographic programme is in keeping with its nature as a funerary chapel. An imposing composition of the Descent into Hell (representing the Resurrection in Eastern Orthodox iconography) decorates the apse, while a monumental representation of the Last Judgement covers the upper parts of the eastern section. The two representations from the miracles of Christ - the Raising of Jairus' Daughter and the The Raising of the Widow's Son - complete the programme of the eastern section of the chapel, the general theme of which is the Triumph of Christ over Death. The western section is decorated with Old Testament scenes that constitute prefigurations of the Virgin, creating, by artistic means, a hymn to the Mother of God.

The programme as a whole reflects profound theological thought. The subtle connotations of the representations and symbolisms at many levels presuppose superior theological and scholarly learning, which make quite obvious Metochites' decisive role in the composition and elaboration of the iconographic programme. The frescoes and mosaics constitute the most important example of the second Palaiologan style, and are characterised by their flawless technique, reflecting the refined taste of the aristocratic circles of the Capital, to which the inspirer of this monumental ensemble belonged.

See also: Metochites