Restoring Byzantium Miriam & Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery
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Virtual Reality: Inner Narthex, Bay 2

Turkey, Istanbul, Kariye Camii, Interior View: Inner Narthex, Bay 2 © Columbia University in the City of New York 2004


The Life of the Virgin

The Birth of the Virgin, in the lunette of the second bay, shows Anne reclining on a bed, attended by servants who prepare a bath for the infant Virgin Mary [87]. Joachim peers timidly through the doorway. The Nativity of Christ is very similar in composition and is in the same position in the outer narthex.

The First Seven Steps of the Virgin is on the arch between the second and third bays [88]. The Virgin surprises her mother by walking at six months; Anne subsequently vows that her daughter shall be raised in the Temple.

The Virgin is Blessed by the Priests is in the vault above, on the western side [89]. Joachim carries the child, his hands covered, as if bearing a sacred object. Throughout the cycle, the Virgin is represented as a tiny adult, always dressed in a blue robe.

The Virgin Caressed by Her Parents is in the same vault on the eastern side [90]. The architectural backdrops of the two scenes are oddly contorted to fit the curved surface of the vault.

Within the space of this bay, the story jumps to a later moment in the Virgin’s adult life in the western lunette, directly opposite the Birth of the Virgin [87]. The Virgin Entrusted to Joseph, in the west lunette of the second bay [96],  emphasizes the couple's age difference, as the high priest, holding the flowering rod, presents the Virgin to Joseph with the other suitors watching.

This discussion of the Kariye Camii iconography is adapted from Robert G. Ousterhout, The Architecture of the Kariye Camii in Istanbul, Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1987.  We would like to thank Professor Ousterhout for generously allowing us to adapt his text for this Web site.

The outer and inner narthexes are decorated with mosaic cycles of the lives of the Virgin and Christ. Both begin at the northern end, with thematic and visual references linking the two cycles.

Three bays of the inner narthex are devoted to the story of the Virgin, from miraculous birth to miraculous pregnancy. The unfamiliar subject is based on the Protevangelium, or Apocryphal Gospel of St. James, which was widely accepted during the Middle Ages. The Genealogy of Christ fills the two dome mosaics of the inner narthex in the northern and southern bays [7-81].  The mosaic encrusted domes are known as pumpkin domes with undulating, faceted surfaces. The result is multiple curves that capture the light from many angles, creating a shimmering surface and suffusing the interior with a golden glow.  The Bust of the Virgin, surrounded by the royal ancestry, is in the north dome and the Bust of Christ is in the south dome.

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© 2004 Columbia University in the City of New York | Miram & Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery | Visual Media Center