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Virtual Reality: Outer Narthex, Bay 3

Turkey, Istanbul, Kariye Camii, Interior View: Outer Narthex, Bay 3 © Columbia University in the City of New York 2004


Cycle of the Infancy of Christ and of Christ's Ministry

The Miracle at Cana, in the third vault of the outer narthex, is damaged [117]. On the north side are episodes from the wedding at Cana, although the main scene of banqueting has been lost. In the northeast corner is the miracle of the transformation of water into wine. Workers fill large pithoi with water. Christ, accompanied by the Virgin, Peter, and John, gestures toward the pithoi as the host offers him a tumbler, apparently unaware of the miracle that has just occurred.

The Multiplication of Loaves, in the south half of the same vault, is an episode from the Miraculous Feeding of the Five Thousand [118].  In the eastern corner, Christ blesses the five loaves and, breaking them, gives them to two disciples to distribute to the multitude. After the meal, the remaining fragments fill twelve baskets, which appear in the southwest corner.

Set on the main axis of the building, the Miracle at Cana and the Multiplication of Loaves are given special prominence. Here, the theme of Incarnation is expressed in spatial terms, with numerous references to the Virgin as "Container of the Uncontainable." This appears in the scenes of the Miracle at Cana and the Multiplication of the Loaves. In both, containment is expressed by large vessels, pithoi, of wine and baskets of bread that fill the pendentives. Bread and wine, symbolizing the body and blood of Christ, are inside containers, powerfully juxtaposed against the image of the Virgin as Container of the Uncontainable. Bread and wine are also the elements of the Eucharist, representing Christ's sacrifice for the redemption of man's sins. These images begin what we might call the liturgical axis of the building, leading from the main entrance to the altar, where the Eucharist was administered as the culmination of worship.

It is well to recall here that the central bay also includes Christ Pantocrator and the Virgin Blachernitissa opposite each other in the lunettes above the doors.


Christ Pantokrator (or Judge of All) is located above the central door leading into the inner narthex [1].  The inscription reads "Jesus Christ, Dwelling-Place of the Living."

Opposite Christ Pantocrator is the Virgin Blachernitissa, above the main entrance [2]. She is inscribed "Mother of God, Dwelling-Place (or Container) of the Uncontainable." This particular type of the Virgin is sometimes called a Blachernitissa, as it was apparently modeled on a venerated icon housed in the nearby church of the Blachernae.

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.

The cycle of the infancy of Christ
and of Christ's ministry begins in the domical vault of the first bay of the outer narthex and concludes in the south bay of the inner narthex. The story is taken up directly from the previous narrative. As in the inner narthex, the narratives are sometimes contorted to fit the domical vaults. Normally two different episodes appear in each vault.

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