Pantokrator Monastery (Molla Zeyrek Camii)

1. Introduction

The 12th-century religious architecture in Constantinople has some recognisable characteristics, which can also be seen in the regions under the direct artistic influence of the capital, that is in southern Serbia and northern Greece. The prevalent architectural type is that of a complex cross-in-square church, although the cross-domed basilica type with many archaic elements have also survived in many late examples in Constantinople. The churches have lighter proportions, and their façades are articulated with taller openings, niches and covings. Brick masonry prevails, either plain or using the recessed brick technique, but masonry with alternate bands of stones and bricks is also employed.

A characteristic example of late-12th century religious architecture in Constantinople is the complex of the Pantokrator monastery, built between the third and fourth hill of Constantinople, between the Golden Horn and the aqueduct of Valens. It is a complex of three churches, and it also included a hospice, a hospital, a nursing home and a library. The surviving typikon of the monastery of 11361 reflects its role in the social and religious life of the capital, but also the importance of the monument in the context of the Komnenian dynastic ideology. The members of Komnenian dynasty made generous donations to the monastery and other monasteries as well, such as in Thrace, Macedonia, the Peloponnese, Asia Minor and the islands of the Aegean. Today only the katholikon of the monastery survives (fig. 2, fig. 3).

2. History of the building

The complex of Christ Pantokrator was built between 1118-1136, by John II Komnenos (1118-1143) and his first wife Eirene, and the works had been assigned to architect Nikephoros.2 From the three buildings of the complex, the south church was erectet first, to serve as katholikon, before the death of Eirene in 1124. The north church was added later; it was dedicated to the Virgin Eleousa (of compassion), and the Liturgy offered there was open to laymen. The burial chapel, dedicated to the Archangel Michael, connected the two churches (fig. 1). In this chapel many emperors and members of Komnenian dynasty, as well as emperors of the Palaiologan dynasty, were buried; such as, for example, the founder of the monastery John II Komnenos (1143), Manuel I Komnenos (1180) and Manuel II Palaiologos (1448).3

Under Latin rule of the city (1204-1261), the region in which the monastery stood belonged to the Venetians, who transported many of the holy utensils, relics and icons of the monastery to Venice. Niketas Choniates states that the monastic complex was used as the residence of the Latin emperor, but this information appears to be inaccurate. In any case, even though it is uncertain if the monastery remained in the hands of Orthodox monks, it did never ceased to concentrate precious relics and objects of worship, and it seems that it was during the period of the Latin rule that the icon of Virgin Mary Hodegetria was transported there; a miraculus icon traditionally attributed to Luke the Evangelist that had been removed from Hagia Sophia in 1206. In the monastery was also kept a porphyrite slab, on which, according to the tradition, the body of Christ had been laid and rubbed with myrrh before his burial. This relic had been translated from Ephesos by Manuel I himself.4

After the conquest of 1453, sultan Mehmed II converted the monastery of Pantokrator to a medrese. The group was renamed Zeyrek Camii (Molla Zeyrek Camii, Zeyrek Kilise Camii, Zeyrek Camii), after Zeyrek Molla Mehmet Efendi, the first müderris (head) of the school.5 The complex of the three churches was repeatedly repaired, and an extensive restoration took place after a devastating fire in the mid-18th century. The library of the monastery was destroyed again by fire in 1934.

Research by the Byzantine Institute of America in the mid-1950’s, revealed during restoration a brilliant piece of Byzantine opus sectile in the floor of the South church. During that period only the central chapel operated as a mosque. After the restoration of the South church, the floor was covered and the structure once again operated as a mosque. The most recent restoration began in 1997 by professors Robert Ousterhout, Zeynep Ahunbay and Metin Ahunbay.6 Zeyrek mosque was included in 2002 in the list of the 100 most endangered monuments, which is issued every year (Annual list of the World Monuments Watch 100 Most Endangered Sites).7

3. Architectural description of churches

3.1. The South church

The South church of the group was the first to have been built, as the katholikon (main church) of the monastery of Christ Pantokrator, by the empress Eirene before her death in 1124.8 It is the largest cross-ni-square church in Constantinople.9 The columns of the central, domed square were replaced with piers by the Ottomans. The dome is supported by a sixteen-sided drum, each side was pierced by a window (fig. 2). The side aisles had galleries, from which only the southern survived. The narthex, which projects to either side, also had a gallery. It was covered with five groin-vaults, the middle one of which was later altered to a dome. At the same time the exonarthex was added. The prothesis and the diakonikon are simple square rooms, each with a projecting apse.

The roofing of the corner bays is on a lower level than that of the arms of the cross, and so the cross beomes clearly visible in the upper level of the exterior of the church. On the east side, the central apse is larger than the two side ones, which project only slightly. Two zones of tall and oblong niches emphasize the light proportions of the central apse.10 The monument is one of the most important examples of 12th-c. religious architecture aesthetic trends in Constantinople: the attempt to decrease the volume and produce lighter proportions led to the use of plain niches instead of double- and triple-recessed ones, in order to articulate the outer walls with more plasticity rather than sharp oppositions.11 (fig. 5).

3.2. The North church (Virgin Mary Eleousa) and the chapel Archangel Michael

The North church was built after the death of Eirene, between 1124-1136, by John II Komnenos. The services offered there could be attended by laymen. It is smaller and copied the older structure to a great extent (fig. 6). The dome and the west arm of the cross have been subjected to later alterations.

The chapel between the two churches is roofed with two elliptical domes. Its dedication to Archangel Michael must be associated with its use as imperial mausoleum.12 The two domes of the monument have been interpreted as an effort to imitate the roughly contemporary, crusader martyrium of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem that also had two domes. This assumption is also supported by the decoration of chapel, and by the arrangement of the burials in the interior, that was similar to the arrangement of the graves of the Crusader kings in the martyrium of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.13

The complex of the three churches was completed with the addition of an outer narthex and and the South enclodure in the last phase of construction.

3.3. Masonry and building materials

In the three churches of the Pantokrator Monastery the recessed brick technique has been used, but its execution appears rather sloppy (fig. 4). The monument incorporates bricks of different sizes and and a large quantity of materials in second use. Although we know that sculpture from the -collapsing in the 12th century- church of St. Polyeuktos was used to adorn the monument, bricks in second use do not appear to have come from the same source. It is more likely that such building material came from the house of Ilara, that had been given by Emperor Maurice to his daughter; the Monastery of Pantokrator was built presumably in its vicinity.

The complex of the three churches bears traces of repeated repairs, from both the Palaiologan and the Ottoman era. However, many imperfections on the external face of the original structure would have been hidden under the two layers of plaster that were applied over large surfaces. The masonry of the three churches suggests that they had all been built by the same builders, which was not impossible given the small intervals between the construction of each one of them.14

4. The decoration of monastery of Pantokrator

The South church of the Pantokrator monastery was richly decorated. We already referred to the brilliant floor decoration, which included scenes of hunting, bucolic scenes, mythological creatures, but also a disk with the zodiac cycle and scenes from the story of Samson.15 The iconography of this composition, which apparently imitate an early Christian model, is telling for the Komnenian ideology, as it is expressed in the Pantokrator monastery. Robert Ousterhout sees in this a wider effort to connect the Komnenian dynasty with the imperial past and in particular with the Constantinian dynasty and its imperial mausoleum of the Holy Apostles. This becomes more explicit by the use of ancient term “heroon” for the burial chapel of Archangel Michael in the typikon of 1136.16

The walls of the bema preserve parts of the marble revetment, which must have adorned the biggest part of the interior wall surfaces of the church. The emperors of the Komnenian dynasty and their spouses donated important amounts of money for the decoration of the monastery. There have been accounts of the wide use of gold in the mosaics of monastery, as well as of liturgical books binded with precious metals and embellished with semi-precious stones. The floor of the North church also appears to have been adorned with opus sectile pavement, imitating the older church: fragments of mythological scenes, of hunting scenes and animal representations have been found.

The most important discovery, however, is the great number of pieces of stained glass held together by strips of lead, forming geometric patterns and figures. These testify to the existence of stained-glass windows (vitraux) in the church;17 apparently stained glass must have been also used in the monastery of Chora, and also in the church of Virgin Mary in the monastery of Studenica,18 even though this technique is not particularly attested in Byzantine churches and is usually associated with western monuments, where later it became very popular.

As it was the case with most Byzantine churches that were converted to mosques, the decoration of the bema, the iconostasis and the portable icons have been lost. The wall-painting, however, was covered until the 18th century, when the frescoes and mosaics were removed leaving only a few fragments. In certain areas of the arches of the colonnade in both the South and North church, fragments like these survive until today.

1. Gautier, R. “Le typikon du Christ Sauveur Pantokrator”, Revue des Études Byzantines 32 (1974), pp. 1-154, esp. 27-131. Engl. transl. Jordan, R., “28. Pantokrator: Typikon of Emperor John II Komnenos for the Monastery of Christ Pantokrator in Constantinople”, in Thomas, J.-Constantinides-Hero, A., Byzantine Monastic Foundation Documents: A Complete Translation of the Surviving Founders’ Typika and Testaments (Dumbarton Oaks Studies 35, Washington D.C. 2000), pp. 725-781.

2. For the history of the monastery of Pantokrator, see Muller-Wienner, W. Bildlexikon zur Topographie Istanbuls (Tubingen 1978), pp. 209-215 (with rich bibliography); Janin, R., Le géographie ecclésiastique de l’ Empire byzantin, vol. 1 Le siège de Constantinople et le patriarcat oecuménique, pt. 3, Les églises et les monastères (Paris 21969), pp. 515-523; Ousterhout, R., Ahunbay, Z., Ahunbay, M., “Study and restoration of the Zeyrek Camii in Istanbul: First report 1997-1998”, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 54 (2000), pp. 265-270· Ousterhout, R. “Contextualizing the Later Churches of Constantinople: Suggested Methodologies and a Few Examples”, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 54 (2000), pp. 241-250.

3. For an account of the burials in the chapels, see Janin, R.,  Le géographie ecclésiastique de l’ Empire byzantin, vol. 1 Le siège de Constantinople et le patriarcat oecuménique, pt. 3, Les églises et les monastères (Paris 21969), pp. 516-518· A. van Millingen, Byzantine Churches in Constantinople: Their History and Architecture (London 1912), pp. 219-240.

4. Janin, R.,  Le géographie ecclésiastique de l’ Empire byzantin, vol. 1 Le siège de Constantinople et le patriarcat oecuménique, pt. 3, Les églises et les monastères (Paris 21969), p. 516.

5. Öz, T. Zwei Stiftungsurkunden des Sultans Mehmed II Fatih (Istanbul 1935), p. 11.

6. I would like to express my gratitude and thanks to Prof. R.Ousterhout, for the help, articles and remarks that he offered to me while I was writing this article.

7. Ousterhout, R., Ahunbay, Z., Ahunbay, M., “Study and restoration of the Zeyrek Camii in Istanbul: First report 1997-1998”, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 54 (2000), pp. 265-266.

8. She was first buried in the monastery but her sarcophagus was transferred in 1960 to the archaeological museum of Istanbul and later it decorated the outer narthex of Hagia Sophia.

9. Γκιολές, Ν. Βυζαντινή ναοδομία (600-1204) (Αθήνα 21992), p. 98.

10. Γκιολές, Ν. Βυζαντινή ναοδομία (600-1204) (Αθήνα 21992), p. 98.

11. Krautheimer, R., Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture (4th ed, revised by R. Krautheimer and S. Ćurčić) (New Haven 1986), pp. 366-7; Γκιολές, Ν. Βυζαντινή ναοδομία (600‑1204) (Αθήνα 21992), p. 98.

12. Γκιολές, Ν. Βυζαντινή ναοδομία (600-1204) (Αθήνα 21992), p. 98.

13. Ousterhout, R., “Architecture, Art and Komnenian Ideology at the Pantokrator Monaster”, in Necipoğlu N. (ed.), Byzantine Constantinople. Monuments, Topography and Everyday Life (Leiden - Boston - Köln 2001), pp. 148-150.

14. Ousterhout, R., Ahunbay, Z., Ahunbay, M., “Study and restoration of the Zeyrek Camii in Istanbul: First report 1997-1998”, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 54 (2000), pp. 268-9.

15. Megaw, A.H.S., “Notes on recent work of the Byzantine Institute in Istanbul”, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 17 (1963), pp. 335-40.

16. Ousterhout, R., “Architecture, Art and Komnenian Ideology at the Pantokrator Monaster”, in Necipoğlu N. (ed.), Byzantine Constantinople. Monuments, Topography and Everyday Life (Leiden - Boston - Köln 2001), pp. 142-144.

17. Francois, V., Spieser, J.-M., “Pottery and Glass in Byzantium”, in Laiou, A. (ed.) The Economic History of Byzantium: From the Seventh through the Fifteenth Century (Dumbarton Oaks Studies 39, Washington D.C. 2002), p. 595.

18. Дероко, А. Монументална и декоративна архитектура у средновековной Србии (Београд 1962), pp. 64-65, fig. 79, 80, 82.