Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 30, 1999
Cecil L. Striker and Y. Dogan Kuban, eds. Kalenderhane in Istanbul: The Buildings Munich: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 1997. 150 pp.; 35 color ills.; 144 b/w ills. Cloth $69.95 (3805320264)

When the International Congress of Byzantine Studies convened in Istanbul in 1955, none of its delegates was able to enter the Byzantine church now known as the Kalenderhane Camii, even though it lay barely five minutes from Istanbul University. Locked and abandoned, the building was not penetrated until a decade later, when Striker received permission to cut the lock, the key having long since disappeared. The state of decrepitude he found could not disguise the Kalenderhane’s historical significance. Happily, dereliction made it possible for Striker, in collaboration with Kuban, to undertake the detailed analysis, excavation, and restoration of the building and its site.

Striker and Kuban launched the Kalenderhane Archaeological Project in 1966 with the joint sponsorship of Dumbarton Oaks and Istanbul Technical University. The fifteen-year effort yielded impressive results, producing a secure chronology and identity for the Byzantine building, while returning the mosque to an attractive and functioning state. The project also produced a wealth of new evidence for the history of Byzantine art and architecture. Sadly, the project represents the last major excavation of a Byzantine site in Istanbul, and the last major investment by Dumbarton Oaks in Byzantine fieldwork.

This handsome, oversized, and remarkably inexpensive volume is the first of two planned; the second will contain the archaeological materials. Divided into six chapters, the volume begins with an Introduction by Striker that chronicles the history of scholarship on the building, from its earliest mention in 1559 to the directors’ preliminary reports in Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 1966-75. Modern scholars had identified the Kalenderhane as either the Church of the Virgin Diaconissa or Christ Akataleptos and had dated it between the seventh and tenth centuries. Both the identity and chronology are overturned in the chapters that follow.

Chapter II, concerning the historical topography, is by Albrecht Berger (Roman, Byzantine, and Latin periods) and Necat Göyünç (Ottoman period). Most important here is Berger’s analysis of topographical texts to secure the identity of the building as the Monastery ta Kyrou or Kyriotissa. The epithet Kyriotissa is repeated in several images of the Virgin found at the Kalenderhane, including one above the main entrance, and Berger is able associate it with a revered icon once housed in the monastery. Berger wades through a quagmire of contradictory texts to demonstrate that in the early centuries, the names ta Kyrou and Kyriotissa may have been associated with other Constantinopolitan locations, but after the tenth century, they refer specifically to the Kalenderhane. Nuancing a Late Byzantine tale of the icon’s miraculous fifth-century discovery in a cypress tree, Berger wisely suggests that this event—or the validating legend—occurred only after the end of Iconoclasm in 843.

The lengthy third chapter by Striker and Kuban is devoted to the architecture of the Kalenderhane. They identify six major phases at the site following the construction of the Aqueduct of Valens, which forms its northern boundary. As the authors rightly emphasize, each succeeding stage in the historical development can only properly be understood as a response to preexisting site conditions, as older building components were incorporated into new structures. Construction began with a small Roman bath of the late fourth century, set on an irregular plot between the aqueduct and a street that ran at an angle to it. Fragmentary remains of two buildings were found to the south. The two axes of aqueduct and street underly all later site development.

The North Church was constructed in the late sixth century, set directly against the aqueduct, so that its open arcades formed the northern aisle. To the south, the basilica joined rooms of the bath and adjacent buildings. Although much of the basilica’s form remains conjectural, its apse is substantially preserved.

The so-called Bema Church, built shortly after 687, adjoined the North Church, sitting at an angle to it and overlapping its south aisle. The authors suggest an ambulatory plan for its nave, with irregularities and asymmetry dictated by the site. In the tenth to twelfth centuries, two chapels were added to the south of the apse. It is unclear when the North Church fell out of use, although the authors speculate that it stood well into the Middle Byzantine period.

The last significant building campaign at the site comprises the Main Church, which is substantially preserved and can be securely dated to 1195-1204. Rapidly built and lavishly decorated, the monumental cross-domed church replaced the Bema Church, and although it was a major and costly enterprise, it incorporated numerous older, vaulted apses and chapels, and the irregular narthex. The new building was framed by aisles to the north and south, with a porch and possibly a tower to the west. Although its patron remains undetermined, the authors characterize the construction as “an ambitious project undertaken with amble, ready cash.”

Only minor modifications were effected during the Latin Occupation and the Palaiologan period. A rectangular room, lined with benches, was added to the southeast, which may have been the refectory. If this suggestion is correct, these would be the only surviving remains of a refectory to survive from Constantinople. With the conversion of the church to a mosque, the lateral aisles were truncated and the apses suppressed.

In a brief summation of the architectural history, the authors emphasize the adaptive reuse of earlier buildings—that preexisting conditions resulted in ad hoc solutions to design problems: “The picture of Byzantine architecture in any given period was probably much more motley than we have been led to believe.” Moreover, they raise important questions concerning the ideas of evolutionary development, progress, and obsolescence as applied to Byzantine architecture. Prior to the excavation, the design of the Main Church has been almost unanimously dated at least three centuries too early. A chronology based on typological analysis clearly does not work with Byzantine architecture. These are important observations, about which much more could and should be said.

The fourth chapter, written by Urs Peschlow, addresses the architectural sculpture, with a short excursus on the Byzantine inscriptions by Giusto Traina. The complete inventory of excavated architectural sculpture will appear in Volume II. The majority of sculpture used the building is spolia, primarily from the sixth century. Peschlow’s careful analysis demonstrates that the two templon icon frames were, however, carved specifically for the Main Church. This had been questioned by earlier writers, and, indeed, these are the only primary sculptural decorations to survive. Their date will have important implications for the history of the Byzantine templon.

The brief fifth chapter by Striker analyzes the marble revetments and paving. Fragments of marble floors survive from the North Church and the Bema Church, and the latter will be important for tracking the technical transformations of opus sectile after Late Antiquity. The wall revetments are among the best preseved in Istanbul and the only two-storied arrangement from the Post-Iconoclastic period.

The mosaics and frescoes are the subject of the final chapter, prepared by Striker in collaboration with the late Ernest Hawkins. The numerous important discoveries presented here expand significantly our understanding of artistic production in the Byzantine capital and fill numerous lacunae. The mosaic of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, for example, may now be dated to the sixth century. It was apparently immured with the construction of the Bema Church—that is, before the beginning of Iconoclasm. It represents the oldest mosaic with Christian subject matter from Constantinople and the first appearance of the Presentation in Byzantine art.

Most significant among the surviving frescoes is the cycle of the Life of St. Francis from the apse of one of the south chapels. Although fragmentary, the frescoes provide unprecedented information for artistic patronage during the Latin Occupation. Dating from ca. 1250 and stylistically associated with the Crusader scriptorium that produced the Arsenal Bible, it is one of the earliest Franciscan cycles and bears significant programmatic and iconographic differences from contemporary Italian cycles.

All told, Striker and Kuban’s publication is a monumental achievement, a model of clear and methodical documentation. The authors deliver the goods, in spare words and abundant images, while devoting few sentences to the broader implications of their important findings. The significance of the discoveries for the history of Constantinople cannot be underestimated. The documentation presented here requires nothing short of a complete reexamination of the art and architectural history of the Byzantine capital. We eagerly anticipate the continued analysis of these discoveries in the next volume.

Robert Ousterhout
School of Architecture, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign