First steps of the Virgin Mary with St. Anne, Kariye Camii
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First steps of the Virgin Mary with St. Anne, Kariye Camii

In this scene, the Virgin surprises her mother St. Anne by walking at six months. Anne subsequently vows that Mary will be raised in the Temple.

Creation Date
1315 - 1321
Style Genre
Work Type
Format Medium

To set the mosaic, the artisan prepared the wall with three coats of plaster. The first coat was thick and was meant to smooth the irregular surface of the wall. The second coat was thinner. The artisan set the tesserae into the third coat. The first two coats were composed of chopped straw mixed with lime. In the third layer, the artisan added marble dust. The second and third coats were added in quick succession, one section at a time so that the plaster would still be moist and tesserae could be set in place. Typically, the artisan painted the third coat of plaster in fresco to match the colors of the tesserae before they were put into the plaster. Tesserae were composed of small cubes of glass, colored stone, and marble. Artisans set them at an angle to reflect the natural light. Mosaics were ideal for curved surfaces such as the arch on which this mosaic was set because various angles of the tesserae could make use of the natural light.

Original Location

Inner narthex,Kariye Camii, Istanbul, Turkey.

Specific Location

Inner narthex, on the arch between the second and third bays.

Historical Context

The original church and monastery on the site of Kariye Camii, also called Church of Christ in Chora, were built beyond the Constantinian Walls and prior to the construction of the Theodosian Walls. This is the reason for the name “in Chora,” which in Greek means “in the country.” The name was later interpreted in a mystical sense to mean Christ is “he chora ton zonton,” or “the dwelling-place of the living.” The first archaeological remains for this site date to the sixth century. The present building dates to the eleventh century. Maria Ducaina founded the church between 1077 and 1081 and Isaac Comnenus remodeled the building in 1120.

In the fourteenth century, Theodore Metochites renovated the building, creating the church which visitors can now see today. An exonarthex and a narthex precede the church. A parekklesion is located to the south and a two-story passageway to the north. A dome with a high drum covers the central area of the church. Two small domes carried on lower drums sit above the first and fourth bays of the narthex and a third dome sits above the westernmost bay of the parekklesion. Smaller cupolas are found above the chapels. The nave of the church is cruciform in plan. The naos opens into a deep bema, which is extended by an extra bay that steps in slightly to a wide apse.

Mosaics, marble, and fresco decorate the church and adjoining structures. Scholars have categorized the mosaics into seven distinct groups:

1. Dedicatory and devotional panels in the inner and outer narthexes.
2. The Ancestry of Christ in the domes of the inner narthex.
3. The cycle of the Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the first three bays of the inner narthex.
4. The cycle of the Infancy of Christ in the lunettes of the outer narthex.
5. The cycle of Christ’s Mission in the fourth bay of the inner narthex and the vaults of the outer narthex.
6. Portraits of Saints.
7. Mosaics in the nave.

The image of the first steps of the Virgin comes from the cycle of the Life of the Blessed Virgin as narrated by the Apocryphal Gospel of St. James (also known as the Protevangelium). The cycle begins at the northern end of the narthex. Images from the cycle include Joachim’s offerings rejected, Joachim in the wilderness, the annunciation to St. Anne, the meeting of Joachim and Anne at the golden gate in Jerusalem, the birth of the Virgin, the first steps of the Virgin, the Virgin blessed by Priests, the Virgin caressed by her parents, the Virgin entrusted to Joseph, Joseph taking the Virgin into his house, the annunciation to the Virgin, Joseph taking his leave of the Virgin, and Joseph reproaching the Virgin. The story continues in the outer narthex with the cycle of the Infancy of Christ.

Although scholarly literature abounds on the cult of St. Anne in the West, scholars have paid little attention to devotion to St. Anne in the East. Professor Sharon E.J. Gerstel suggests that like in the West, in the East devotees associated St. Anne with childbearing and fertility.

Professor Robert Ousterhout notes that the theme of “women’s equality” is present in the decoration at Kariye Camii. The lives of Christ and the Virgin are set parallel in the two narthexes. In the Deesis, an imperial male and an imperial female door kneel at Christ and the Virgin’s feet. The parekklesion apse depicts the Anastasis with Christ raising both Adam and Eve- an unusual choice since typically Christ raises Adam while Eve stands by. Finally, the image over the entrance of the Virgin Blachernitissa (the Virgin bearing the child Christ in her womb) is labeled “he chora tou achoretou,” “the Container (or Dwelling-Place) of the Uncontainable.” This inscription makes reference to the name of the church, Church of Christ in Chora.

Patrons and Others

Maria Ducaina, the mother-in-law of Alexius I Comnenus, commissioned the original structure of the present building. Maria Ducaina’s grandson, the third son of Alexius I Comnenus, Isaac Comnenus remodeled the building. Two centuries later Theodore Metochites (1270-1332) renovated and redecorated the building once again. Metochites was a diplomat and a government official as well as a theologian, philosopher, astronomer, poet, and patron of the arts. He was born and educated in Constantinople. After his family was banished to Nicea, Metochites pursued a scholarly life. His erudite success led him to be included in the imperial retinue, where he eventually was named Great Logothete, the highest court dignity, during the reign of Andronicus II Palaeologus. During his lifetime, Metochites wrote “Commentaries on Aristotle,” “Miscellaneous Essays,” an “Introduction to Astronomy,” “Orations,” hexameter poems, and hagiographic encomia. His surviving work amounts to approximately nineteen hundred folios, although because of his obscure style and distinctive vocabulary most of his works remain unpublished. His career and intellectual activity in Constantinople came to an abrupt end when Andronicus III usurped the throne in 1328. Andronicus III stripped Metochites of his power and possessions and sent him into exile. Metochites returned to Constantinople in 1330 on the condition that he would retire as a monk to the Monastery of the Chora. His image is preserved above the main entrance to the naos. Here, Metochites presents his church to the Enthroned Christ.

Descriptive Notes

In the early 20th century, Feodor Shmit studied the building and mosaics of Kariye Camii. In 1945, the building was secularized and became a museum under the jurisdiction of the Ayasofya Museum. Starting in 1948 and lasting through the 1950s, the Byzantine Institute of America and the Dumbarton Oaks Field Committee undertook limited excavation of the building and cleaned and conserved the mosaics, frescoes, and building structure.

Image of First steps of the Virgin Mary with St. Anne, Kariye Camii.