Teaching the Multi-Sensory Experience of Byzantine Art

Teaching the Multi-Sensory Experience of Byzantine Art:

Images at Chora Church, Istanbul, and What They Mean

Julie Pace

Westminster Schools

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In today’s “smart” classrooms, images have become indispensable sources in teaching history. In many classes, images are used to supplement the day’s learning objectives, but I want to examine the idea that introducing students to more obscure visual sources in a way that is both engaging and rooted in scholarly discipline is a way for them to grapple with context in a deeper way. In challenging students to confront more obscure images, I also want to introduce the idea of “sensory turn” in art history which is an approach that encourages the viewer to perceive art through more than one sense, challenging the primacy of sight, or at least challenging the idea that sight has always been the primary sense in the same way across time periods and culture.[1] There are certainly some curious elements to this idea, first and foremost why wouldn’t sight be the primary sense in a visual art? But the concept of sensory turn provides teachers with a way of introducing students to more unusual images that skirts the problem of student disengagement. In other words, “A significant reason for student disinterest is that the familiar lecture format of teaching medieval art – in isolation on slides, removed from original context and function – focuses only on the visual qualities of artwork that was never intended to be considered apart from its physical environment.”[2] The ideas below thus provide context for the teacher who may be unfamiliar with these images, followed by exercises that allow students to engage in analysis of something unfamiliar and foreign while simultaneously presenting to them to a very current movement in art history.  

Since graduate school, I have been drawn to the early Byzantine Empire, and for many years, I used the church of Hagia Sophia as a symbol of the early days of the empire that was, for most students, a symbol of the unfamiliar, the unusual, and the alien. In recent years, I find students to be a little more versed now, and they at least recognize Hagia Sophia and understand some of its original intent and current significance. Rather than continue with an examination of Hagia Sophia, I decided to shift our focus only a few miles away in order to challenge students in their traditional understanding of visual art.[3]

For this lesson, I focus on the Chora Church (Kariye Camii in Turkish). Although it dates to Justinian’s reign (the term Chora means it was outside the city walls) much of it is from the medieval period, late eleventh century. It was a Cappadocian monastery and what is particularly interesting for teaching is that it is rare in its incorporation of both frescoes and mosaics, most of them dating from an extensive renovation project in the fourteenth century. When the Muslims conquered Constantinople in 1453, they built ingenious wooden slats that could slide over the Chora mosaics, hiding them from view in order for the church to be used as a mosque, but also protecting and preserving the art, something that did not happen at Hagia Sophia or other Christian churches, where many mosaics were covered over with whitewash or destroyed altogether. Problems of scale may have prevented building such a protective layer at Hagia Sophia, but I would argue that the Muslim view of Chora says something about the startling uniqueness of the art within this church, and the clear desire to preserve it. What is also distinctive about these mosaics is that they are unlike Roman examples that students may have seen before. These mosaic depictions are more realistic: figures keep their feet on the ground, there are basic rules of perspective, there are occasional descriptions, and there is background, such as houses, trees, architecture and other figural representations. There is also a sense of movement and place that does not exist in Western mosaics.

For the sake of this lesson, I am providing the images below with observations and background information, then I will include a series of questions at the end of the paper that can be used for all of the mosaics and frescoes or for just one or two, or any combination the teacher wishes. Before I show the students the images, I prepare them for the fact that the mosaics and frescoes are unusual because they cover all areas and surfaces of the church, meaning that a few can be approached directly on a wall at eye level, but many more are high up out of a direct sight-line, tucked away in curves and niches, stuck in corners, on the ceiling, difficult to see from most vantage points. The lighting is often less than ideal for photography, but that in itself helps to later introduce the idea of sensory turn because once the students see some of the images in their physical context, I can pose such questions as: how were these images meant to be seen? Were they meant to be viewed in a particular order? Were they even meant to be seen at all given the lack of light and their placement? How were they meant to be experienced if they were so difficult to see? Were they meant to be sensed or experienced with a sense other than just sight?

I first show students a basic floor plan to orient them to the areas of the church where I want them to look. I generally add large arrows on the screen to direct them to section I in the inner Narthex and section O in the Parekklesion (also spelled Paracclesion and Parakklesion). Although part of this exercise relies on not telling them too much about the structure in advance, I do like to ask students to speculate briefly about the intent behind this floor plan. I share with students that the Parekklesion is a kind of side-chapel that was built over a base structure, likely a cemetery or crypt or possibly a cistern, and that the upper chapel – where tombs from the fourteenth century are contained – likely helped to disguise the fact that the base was built on uneven ground.

Image 1:Floor Plan of Chora[4]

What I then want students to look at is a series – what the Byzantines would have likely referred to as a cycle – in section I on the life of the Virgin because these images are quite different from what students are used to seeing in art. One of the distinctive qualities of these images is that they emerge from a culture that emphasized tradition as well as scripture. In Greek Orthodox theology, tradition is a part of the divine truth that is also revealed in the scriptures, but after the Protestant Reformation in the West, biblical stories took on an unheard of precedence that became the very fabric of Renaissance art. As a result of the Western biblical emphasis, these “non-canonical” images from Chora were lost to the West, and thus unfamiliar to many students. Which is not to say that these images are non-textual as many of them are based on apocryphal sources. There is a mosaic of the Annunciation at Chora, for example, and of course it is set at a well, the traditional setting, which already distinguishes it from Giotto or Fra Angelico or other late medieval/early Renaissance images where Mary is startled in the middle of reading or enclosed in a room or garden, not out doing some menial task. If class time permits, I will have students compare the image below to renderings they are more familiar with in order to have them start to identify key differences.

Image Two: The Annunciation, Chora Church[5]

This Annunciation is just a preliminary step, and the first image I show students where we really tangle with analysis is the Seven Steps of Mary. The scene is from the Protoevangelium of James, who claimed that Mary walked at six months and at that point, her mother Anne decided to dedicate her to the Temple. These seven steps of Mary then were critical because they led to the Presentation of Mary in the Temple which not only became an Orthodox Feast Day but set the path of Mary’s future life. These seven steps are the beginning of her participation in the salvation story. It is worth noting here that this particular image is useful for demonstrating to students how tricky both placement and light are in Chora. Although images within Chora are notoriously hard to come by on the internet, this one does crop up fairly easily with a simple search, and it is worthwhile to let students look online for themselves as the variations in color from different views and lighting create different experiences, much as it must have been for the original audience of worshippers. I often ask the class, what is meant to be seen here? What are you meant to experience as you pass by this mosaic? Is it more important than others? Would you have noticed it? What is meant to tell you? To teach you?

Image Three: The Seven Steps of Mary, Chora Church[6]

Another image in this life cycle that students find intriguing is the story of Joseph being chosen as Mary’s suitor. Mary was dedicated to the temple, so she was not supposed to have suitors, but according to tradition, Zachariah had a revelation from an angel, and told all of her suitors to place their staffs on the altar in the temple. Zachariah said that Mary would be entrusted to the one whose staff turned green overnight. Here we see Joseph’s staff not just green but actually sprouting leaves – references to fertility, fate, and even to Aaron’s rod in the Torah.

Image Four: Mary’s Engagement with Joseph[7]

Another mosaic in this Life Cycle of Mary that I think is significant because it fell out of the Western tradition is the Birth of the Virgin. Here is quite a complex scene: we see the infant Mary in the right hand corner about to be bathed; we see St. Anne in the center, with about as much indication as possible that she has given birth while still remaining fully covered; and we see Joachim peeking out from a doorway, almost wondering if he is allowed in yet to this mystery.

Image Five: Birth of the Virgin, Chora Church[8]

I deliberately bookend this image of the Birth of Mary with the Death of Mary, another scene that, outside of Caravaggio’s very dramatic rendering is something that fell out of the Western tradition again, because it is both non-biblical and theologically sticky.

Image Six: The Death of Mary, Chora[9]

There is a lot that students find intriguing here. You have Mary on an ornate Catafalque. But the eye is drawn to Jesus in the center, holding the soul of Mary, personified here as an infant. At the top is the six-winged seraph, intriguing because it is an Old Testament figure, described very clearly in Isaiah, in the middle of a scene that is not biblical, so it is a conflation of biblical imagery and what I call in Byzantine art the meditative hypothetical. What makes these mosaics unique is the combination of biblical figures with a scene that may have no textual support and could only come from an artists’ imagination. Was it placed there in order for the worshipper to meditate on the Divine? I also note to students that the seraph is strikingly similar to the four decorating the pendentives of the dome of Hagia Sophia, and as seraphim hold up the throne of God, it makes architectural sense in Hagia Sophia. Here at Chora, the seraph is a key to show the presence of the kingdom of God, the closeness of Mary to the divine throne of God.

Often in Byzantine art, and particularly at Chora, Christ – if he is portrayed after his earthly resurrection – is presented in this aureola, this mandorla. Students often call it a portal, and the term seems to accurately describe an entryway between this world and the next. What the artist has done in this mosaic is thinned the portal by greying it out and letting us actually see into the other side. We see figures moving behind the veil, indicating that heaven is as populated as it is on earth, inherently good news for the worshipper.

This mandorla that surrounds the figure of Christ, more formally known as a Vesica Pisces in the West, can be seen all over the medieval world – it is a doorway to the divine for us and a divide between the earthly and heavenly realms – but here in Chora, it is a way for Christ to access us as well as a way for us to access Him. With that portal in mind, let us look at one fresco in the Parekklesion, “one of the most crowded scenes in Byzantine art.”[10]

Image Seven: The Last Judgment, Chora Church[11]

It can be useful to compare this scene to other versions of the Last Judgment, but where I usually direct student attention is the figure above, which I have zoomed in and flipped around here below.

Image Eight: The Last Judgment (detail)[12]

This one figure shows a clear difference between Eastern and Western conceptions of this event. Students enjoy trying to figure out this figure, and if I do not give them the name of the fresco, they will often guess that it is a snail (and more than one book will confirm this erroneous view). But in actually it is an angel rolling up the universe at the end of time. This painting is another example of this meditative hypothetical that is prevalent at Chora where artists are offering imaginary scenes and conjectural ideas of how the promised future will appear, rather than the more rigid and linear depictions we see in the West.

Below this image, or moving towards the end of the corridor, is probably the most well-known image in Chora, the Anastasis fresco, the scene of Jesus’ descent into Hell.

Image Nine: Anastasis Fresco, Chora Church[13]

Again, Jesus is portrayed in the mandorla, and he resurrects two people here. I nearly always make students guess at this point, and they do not immediately identify the figure with her hair covered as a female, despite having seen the mosaic images of Mary dressed almost identically. Often they will guess New Testament figures first, then finally Old Testament, and when I finally say that one is a woman, they will say Mary and Joseph, and eventually Adam and Eve, the correct answer. Their shock is enough to prove to them that these are forgotten figures in the West, for when do we see them in medieval and Renaissance art? Typically, representations of Adam and Eve are shown only at the moment of temptation or being driven from the garden. Sometimes in Western medieval manuscripts, we see Eve and Mary represented together as two sides – cause and effect – of the salvation story. But mainly, they are not seen at all once their original sin has been committed. Here at Chora, they are not only remembered, but their fate is considered and represented on the walls, tying the distant past into the salvation narrative.

A full lesson on the Chora Church might include all of these images over the course of one or two (or more) class periods. But the teacher could also be more selective. The full life cycle of Mary is quite complex in context, something I would not expect students to understand from visuals alone. Medieval Marian devotion was intense, especially in the Cappadocian order. In fact, one of the three Cappadocian fathers, Gregory of Nazianzus, is portrayed in the parekklesion immediately below the famous image of the Anastasis. Pulcheria, sister of Emperor Theodosius II had a “crusade” to have Mary officially recognized as Theotokos in the fifth century, although the term dates at least to the third century. This Marian zeal was complicated of course by the heresy of Nestorianism which was then addressed by the Council of Ephesus. In the seventh century, biographies of Mary proliferated, some of which greatly expand her biblical role. Much of this long history was still relevant to the Cappadocian monks in the fourteenth century when renovations on Chora began and these mosaics and frescoes were created, so for the secondary student, this depth of knowledge would be overwhelming. For the teacher, however, opportunities are rife for supplementing these images with texts if the time and student interest permit.

In the past, I have used the guidelines for analyzing images published by Facing History and Ourselves.[14] In short, the six-step process is:

  1. Ask students to look
  2. Write without interpretation
  3. Detail questions that need answering
  4. Discuss your questions with other students
  5. Discuss what the artist is trying to say
  6. Discuss your interpretation with the class

Given that students have almost no familiarity with the complicated context or history, I dispense with the last three items, particularly the discussion as I find students can unintentionally reinforce each other’s erroneous beliefs as they try to make parallels to the West or other connections where none exist. My list looks more like this:

  1. Ask students to look for an extended period of time in silence. 5 minutes is not too long
  2. Write without interpretation
  3. Write questions that need answering
  4. In pairs or small group read some scholarship about the image and discuss
  5. a) in what ways does your reading or research inform the image?
  6. b) can you think of a time when a western artist tackled this same subject – how does that inform the image?
  7. What do you think the artist is trying to say?

Item 5 I delay as long as possible, until we have looked at all the images that we are going to look at in a class period. Item 4 is the critical piece here, and the teacher does not need to supply scholarship for every image. With any of the images, students might be required to search online for other versions in order to spark discussion. Other suggestions for source research include reading Isaiah chapter 6, the first few verses in conjunction with the images of Seraph in the Death of Mary or looking at the four seraphim in the pendentives of Hagia Sophia for comparison. The Protoevangelium of James, easily available online, describes the Seven Steps of Mary in chapter 6. Documents from the Council of Ephesus or the Second Council of Nicea could be used with older students as well as eighth-century sermons about Mary.[15] Students need some scholarly context for discussion in order to get a step deeper than just noticing color symbolism or figural orientation. With an additional written or visual source, students can often get a bit further, and it is well worth it when a student observes, for example, that this monastery was an all-male community revering the Virgin – did they not see the social implications of what that would mean or where that was going? Or did they? Were they doing something fundamentally rather subversive in a patriarchal society?

Let me end by returning to the idea of the sensory turn. These images are intricate, for they are embedded in the very fabric of the building, and they aren’t meant to be seen head-on as they are here; they are meant to be experienced above you, behind you, around you. There would have been the smell of incense, the cadence of the familiar Greek liturgy, the music, the sounds of the streets outside, the taste of the Eucharist, and particularly with mosaics, the dimensionality of the tesserae. All of that sensory input provided a very different experience from seeing the pages of a flat book or an image on a flat screen. This sensory experience is beyond what I can address in the scope of this introductory lesson, but I think it is critical that students have some greater sense of what they are looking at, whether that is exterior pictures of Chora, video, floor plans, or zoomed-out photos to show the context of mosaics and paintings squeezed in almost on top of one another. I have seen some teachers have students build a model of the piece of architecture they are currently studying, although in a history class that involves time and expense that many teachers can ill afford. I have used virtual reality apps and Google Cardboard, which is reasonably affordable, but unfortunately lacking in anything Byzantine or even anything very Eastern. Virtual reality also is not readily accessible to everyone yet.

Instead, I recommend showing the following video, which I show on mute with more appropriate fourteenth-century chant: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-_DiCJyM-EQ&t=11s [16]. I show this on as large a screen as possible and surround them with music in order to replicate – in a very faint way – what the experience of going to Chora is like. Near the end, many students will notice that the image of the Anastasis, if we studied it previously, is painted into a dome, which “is unique and provides a compositional unity and thus a heightened significance lacking in all other versions [of the last judgment]. The organization of the scene takes advantage of the potential symbolism of the dome: the celestial elements of the composition are, in effect, set into a “dome of heaven”…[17] The students begin to realize that the images themselves are meant to be experienced in the full context of the setting: “the unity of architecture and painting serves to create a ritual space, in which past, present, and future converge: earthly time – that is biblical past and liturgical present – converges with divine time – the Last Judgment.”[18] Such observations support the argument that it is vital that students see and hear this broader context because it is important to lead students away from the Western assumption that we see and use religious objects as a way to learn about God. I think it may well be that the Eastern emphasis was to experience these images in order to actually encounter God, and that is a very different thing altogether.[19]


[1] A more complete description of this idea is presented in Jenny Lauwrens, “Welcome to the Revolution: The Sensory Turn and Art History,” in Journal of Art Historiography No.7 (December 2012). https://arthistoriography.files.wordpress.com/2012/12/lauwrens.pdf

[2] Marice Rose and Tera Lee Hedrick, “Multisensory and Active Learning Approaches to Teaching Medieval Art,” Art History Pedagogy & Practice, vol 3 (2018), 2. https://academicworks.cuny.edu/ahpp/vol3/iss1/4/

[3] Although Byzantine Art is still obscure to the Western eye, Harvard art historian Bissera Pentcheva has pointed out that in our teaching and writing about connecting imagery to spirituality, we rely too heavily on the writings of Western monastics like Abbot Suger and not the Eastern writers for whom this idea may have been more deeply ingrained. This exercise is designed, in part, to open students to the idea that this “Western” idea that the senses can lead you to salvation may well have been better expressed physically in the East.

[4] Akşit Ilhan, The Museum of Chora Mosaics and Frescoes, (Akşit Kültür Ve Turizm Yayincilik, 2008), 11. An alternative (and possibly more ready accessible) numbered floor plan may be accessed here: https://www.thebyzantinelegacy.com/chora

[5] Gorgon Dergisi, “Meryem’e Müjde Ve İsa’nın Doğumu,” Kültür, Tarih Ve Araştırma Dergisi’nin Internet Sitesi, (25 Dec. 2018),  http://gorgondergisi.org/meryeme-mujde-ve-isanin-dogumu/

[6] Mitchell R.K. Shelton and Harvey Goldbert Center, “First Steps of the Virgin Mary with St. Anne, Kariye Camii: Monastic Matrix,”  https://monasticmatrix.osu.edu/figurae/first-steps-virgin-mary-st-anne-kariye-camii

[7] Akşit Ilhan, The Museum of Chora Mosaics and Frescoes, 103.

[8] “Inner Narthex Mosaics of Chora,” Hagia Sophia, 13 Sept. 2018, https://hagiasophiaturkey.com/inner-narthex-mosaics-chora/

[9] “Church of Chora,” Church of Chora, Istanbul’s Byzantine Marvel, http://www.churchofchora.com/chora-naos-mosaics.html  For a zoomed out version with more architectural context see: https://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/byzantine-mosaic-death-of-the-virgin-mary-chora-church-news-photo/918985670

[10] Akşit Ilhan, The Museum of Chora Mosaics and Frescoes, NEED PAGE NUMBER.

[11] Julie Harper Pace, “The Last Judgment,” 2010, JPEG file.

[12] Julie Harper Pace, “The Last Judgment,” detail, 2010, JPEG file.

[13] Julie Harper Pace, “Anastasis Fresco,” 2010, JPEG file.

[14] For the complete list and more, see “Analyzing Images,” Facing History and Ourselves, https://www.facinghistory.org/resource-library/teaching-strategies/analyzing-images

[15] Council documents (or council histories for younger students) are easily available online. See also Mary B. Cunningham’s excellent translation of Marian topics in Wider Than Heaven: Eight-Century Homilies on the Mother of God (NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2008). For your own resource (or for advanced students), see Robert Ousterhout, “Temporal Structuring in the Chora Parekklesion,” Gesta, vol. 34, no. 1, 1995, pp. 63–76.

[16] Istanbul, Best of, “The Best Byzantine Mosaics in Istanbul “Chora Museum – Kariye Muzesi,” YouTube, 4 Oct 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-_DiCJyM-EQ&t=11s

[17] Robert Ousterhout, “Temporal Structuring in the Chora Parekklesion.” Gesta, vol. 34, no. 1, 1995, pp. 63–76. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/767125, 72. Ousterhout’s article makes an excellent secondary source to share with students, and excerpts about the parekklesion are perfect to share in step 4 of the activity outlined above.

[18] Ousterhout., 75.

[19] Heather Hunter Crawley, “Embodying the Divine: Experience of the Sixth-Century Eucharist,” in Making Senses of the Past: Towards a Sensory Archaeology, ed. Jo Day (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 3013), 160-176.


“Analyzing Images,” Facing History and Ourselves, https://www.facinghistory.org/resource-library/teaching-strategies/analyzing-images Accessed 27 December, 2020.

“The Best Byzantine Mosaics in Istanbul”: “Chora Museum – Kariye Muzesi,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-_DiCJyM-EQ&t=11s  Accessed January 20, 2020.

“Church of Chora.” Church of Chora. Istanbul’s Byzantine Marvel. http://www.churchofchora.com/chora-naos-mosaics.html  Accessed January 15, 2020.

“Icon with the Koimesis.” Ivory. Byzantine. Metropolitan Museum in New York: “Icon with the Koimesis,” https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/17.190.132/ Accessed January 27, 2020.

“Icons of Sound – Total Sacred Immersion: Cappella Romana and CCRMA Time Travel to Hagia Sophia,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rsLgLNgA-_Q.

“Inner Narthex Mosaics of Chora.” Hagia Sophia. 13 Sept. 2018. https://hagiasophiaturkey.com/inner-narthex-mosaics-chora/ Accessed January 3, 2020.

The Protoevangelium of James, trans. Alexander Walker, from Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol 8. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886). http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0847.htm  Accessed December 3, 2019.

“The Voice of Hagia Sophia,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PYaWTcNN8tg Accessed January 27, 2020.

Barash, Moshe. “The Departing Soul. The Long Life of a Medieval Creation.” Artibus et Historiae, Vol 26, no 52. (2005), 13-28.

Cunningham, Mary B. Wider Than Heaven: Eight-Century Homilies on the Mother of God. New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2008.

Crawley, Heather Hunter. “Embodying the Divine: Experience of the Sixth-Century Eucharist.” Making Senses of the Past: Towards a Sensory Archaeology. Ed. Jo Day. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 3013. 160-176.

Dergisi, Gorgon. “Meryem’e Müjde Ve İsa’nın Doğumu.” Kültür, Tarih Ve Araştırma Dergisi’nin Internet Sitesi. http://gorgondergisi.org/meryeme-mujde-ve-isanin-dogumu/  Accessed 25 January, 2020.

Hock, Ronald F. The Life of Mary and Birth of Jesus: The Ancient Infancy Gospel of James. Berkeley: Ulysses Press, 1997.

Lauwrens, Jenny. “Welcome to the Revolution: The Sensory Turn and Art History.” Journal of Art Historiography No.7. December  2012.  https://arthistoriography.files.wordpress.com/2012/12/lauwrens.pdf, Accessed January 3, 2020.

Ilhan, Akşit. The Museum of Chora Mosaics and Frescoes. Akşit Kültür Ve Turizm Yayincilik, 2008.

Ousterhout, Robert. “Temporal Structuring in the Chora Parekklesion.” Gesta. vol. 34, no. 1. 1995. pp. 63–76.

Pace, Julie Harper. “Anastis Fresco.” Chora Church. March 2010. JPEG file.

—-, Julie Harper. “The Last Judgement.” Chora Church. March 2019 JPEG file.

Pentcheva, Bissera. Hagia Sophia: Sound, Space and Spirit in Byzantium. Pennsylvania State University Press, 2017.

—-, “The Performative Icon. The Art Bulletin 88/4 (2006): 631-55.

—-, The Sensual Icon: Space Ritual and The Senses in Byzantium. Pennsylvania State University Press, 2017.

Rose, Marice and Tera Lee Hedrick. “Multisensory and Active Learning Approaches to Teaching Medieval Art.” Art History Pedagogy & Practice. vol. 3. 2018. https://academicworks.cuny.edu/ahpp/vol3/iss1/4/ Accessed January 27, 2020.

Shelton, Mitchell R.K. and Harvey Goldbert Center, “First Steps of the Virgin Mary with St. Anne, Kariye Camii: Monastic Matrix.” https://monasticmatrix.osu.edu/figurae/first-steps-virgin-mary-st-anne-kariye-camii  Accessed January 20, 2020.