Christ Mosaic from the PammacaristosClick here for a large version of this picture.

The former Byzantine Church of the Theotokos Pammakaristos - or "All Blessed Mother of God" - has been called Fethiye Djami since its conversion into a mosque.  It is located in the northwest corner of the city of Istanbul.  The original church was built during the Comnenian dynasty, probably during the reign of Alexios I.  There was an inscription (now lost) in the main church mentioning a John Comnenus and his wife Anna (not Anna Dassalena), so the church has been dated to 1065.  The church was always an Imperial monastery and many members of the Palaiologan dynasty were buried in it.

Exterior of the Pammacaristos ChurchA parekklesion was added to the church by the Palaiologian Princess Maria Glabaina to the right side of the church in honor of her husband in the early fourteenth century.  The uncovering of the mosaics was completed in 1962 and comprise 41 scenes.

Chapel Frieze in the Pammacaristos ChurchSome parts of the marble revetment of the chapel have survived and they are topped by a delightful marble frieze oramented in the champleve technique, which circles the building.  The frieze is inlaid with black pitch (which has faded to a dull blue-gray in most places) and a red substance.  It shows vines, round medallions and heart-shapoed shields containing rampant red lions and other fanciful animals including paired birds.  It is thought the lions are a family crest associated with the Glabas family.

The chapel had an inlaid Cosmatesque pavement, a fragment of which is preserved in the northeast corner.  Fragments of a carved fourteenth century marble templon were found in the church, which are now in the Hagia Sophia Museum.

Carved and gilded dome cornice of the PammakaristosThe marble cornice of the dome is carved with crosses and rosettes.  It was painted blue and the raised carving was covered with red bole and gilded.  The crosses were left white.

Interior of the Pammacaristos ChapelFor a larger, different view of the nave looking northeast, click here. For a view to the southeast, click here.

Christ appears alone in the conch because the chapel was dedicated to Him.

Renants of an inscription were uncovered in gold letters on a blue backround which had been painted on the cornice which encircles the chapel. This incription was difficult to conserve because it was painted upon a single layer of thin gesso applied to the marble cornice; the ancient paint layer tended to flake off during restoration. It is in iambic trimeters.  The verses, by Manuel Philes, are an invocation to God addressed to Christ the Word, for the repose of the soul of Maria's husband, the Protostrator Michael Glabas Tarchaniotes.  The poem continues on an exterior cornice of the north side of the facade of the chapel. Glabas died around 1304 and was buried in the parekklesion.

Angels in the Vault of the Pammacaristos

For a different, larger view of this vault click here.

After her husband's death Maria Glabaina took the veil and became a nun, taking the name of Martha.  She did enter religious life at the Pammakaristos, which was a men's monastery, but at the Convent of the Virgin of the Sure Hope where her sister also took holy orders later.

After the fall of the City of Constantionople to the Ottoman Turks in the 1453 the great cathedral church of Constantinople and seat of the Orthodoxy, Hagia Sophia was seized and converted into a mosque. The Conqueror Mehmed II found the anti-Unionist monk Gennadios in his cell at the Pantokrator Monastery and, much to his surprize and shock, elevated him to the Patriarchal throne, presenting him personally with his pastoral staff.  After a short residence in Justinian's church of the Holy Apostles, in 1455 the Patriarch Gennadios was forced to surrender this cathedral and moved to the Pammakaristos.  The Sultan Mehmed II visited the church and sat in this chapel to converse with the Patriarch Gennadios, who must have lived in great fear and awe of him.

In the insuing years relics, works of art, liturgical vessels and even the remains of former Emperors and Empresses of Byzantium were gathered together at the Pammakaristos as churches were closing or being demolished throughout the city.

In 1488 the Chief Treasurer of the Sultan, Iskander bey, who lived near the church, seized the portable treasures of the Pammakaristos and all the money left by the recently deceased Patriarch Symeon I to the church - a great fortune totalling 180,000 aspers.

In 1518 the church was restored.  Structural problems with the dome required urgent repairs and money - 100,000 aspers - was raised from the Orthodox Hospodar of Wallachia for this purpose.

From the time of the conquest the Christians who remained in Constantinople were under constant threat.  They remained a significant minority in the city - as high as 40% of the population - that was an important source of taxation and extortion by powerful officials of the Sultan's court.  At the same time the churches that remained in Christian hands were under constant threat by Muslim religious zelots and they fell, one by one, converted into mosques.

In 1538 Turkish scholars decided that, since Constantinople had taken by assault, according to Islamic law no Christian churches should be allowed to remain in the city.  A firman was issued to that effect and the Patriarch Jeremias I got wind of the Sultan's degree through a secret source.  The Patriarch prayed to the icon of the Virgin Pammakaristos (this mosaic icon still exists in the Phanar today) in the church to deliver the Christians and their few remaining churches in the city from this looming disaster.  He then went to the Grand Vizier Tulfi Pasa for help.  The Grand Vizier told the Patriarch to make the case to the Sultan than Constantine XI had actually capitulated to Mehmet II.  He was able to produce two elderly witnesses - 84 years after the fall - who had been in the siege of the city and were willing to testify under oath that they had seen the surrender with their own eyes.  The Sultan Suleyman accepted this testimony (one can imagine the bribes that must have been paid), cancelled the firman he had issued and created a new one guranteeing the inviolability of the Greek churches at Constantinople, and this firman was stored in the Savior chapel of the Pammakaristos.

What was gained with so much effort was soon lost.

In 1584, less than 50 years later, a new Sultan decided once more that all the Christian churches left in the city should be converted to mosques, but this step was - this time - prevented by the invention of the Aga of the Janissaries.  The illegitimate Patriarch Pachomios II removed from under the church dome of the Pammakaristos four columns of precious marble and a part of the marble revetment of the church and sent them as a present to his protector at court, a certain Mehmed aga who was attached to the service of the Sultan's mother. In desperation he tried to sell the silver vessels and all the relics remaining in the church to the Venetians - all to no avail.

The church was seized by Sultan Murad III in 1587 and converted into a mosque to celebrate his conquest of Azerbaijan.  It was taken away from the Christians on the pretext that the Pammakaristos had been given by Mehmed II on a personal basis, without any assuarnce that it would be passed on to his heirs on the Patriarchal throne, hence the property belonged to the Sultan to do as he pleased. Thereupon the Turks entered the premises and recited their prayers there.  It followed that the Pammakaristos was confiscated in August 1587.  It should be noted that this period was one of religious intolerance for minorities in the West as well as in the Ottoman Empire.

The central sanctuary was structurally altered by the Turks. Thomas Matthews, in his book Byzantine Churches of Istanbul, writes about this: "The triple arcades which originally separated the square nave from the ambulatories on three sides were removed and broad pointed arches were substituted; the three apses were destroyed and in their place a domed square room was placed obliquely against the eastern end of the building; fenestration was revised and the walls and piers were hewn back or remade to provide maximum openness of space in the building. The end result makes the original design difficult to recognize or appreciate."

Southeast column of the Nave of the PammakaristosFor a larger image of the southeast capital click here.

The Turks removed the two marble columns on the north side of the parakklesion and inserted a wide arch there.  During the restoration of 1963 the arch was removed, the original struction here was restored in brick and columns cast in concrete that matched the appearance the original richly veined columns of Proconnesian marble that remained on the south side.  The capitals of these columns were carved in the fourteenth century and were gilded on red bole with a blue ground (the columns of Hagia Sophia were also gilded in this same way in the eleventh) and much of this decoration still survives.

Two mosaics icons from the church, one of the Hodegetria and the other of John the Baptist, were removed from the church and survive. There was a great fire in June 1784 - in the resulting repairs the mosaics of the main church were scrapped down and those of the chapel were plastered over.  However, the dome of the chapel was never concealed and was visable in the nineteeth century.Pantokrator in Dome of the Pammacaristos

For a different, larger view of the dome click here.

The decoration of the dome consists of a medaillon of the Pantokrator at the summit and of twelve prophets in the calotte around Him.  This constitutes the most impressive iconographical unit in the nave.  The drum of the dome, pierced by twelve fairly large windows, provides no suitable surfaces for decoration; it was thus left with only a layer of plain gold ground which has largely disappeared.  The pendentives have been stripped of their original decoration which probably consisted of the four Evangelists.  There is a close iconographical affinity with the corresponding figure in the south dome of the inner narthex of the Chora Church, now called the Kariye Djami,  The expression of the face here is rather more severe when compared with the more humanized Christs of the Palaeologan period.

The composition of the Deesis in the apse consists of Christ - here called the "Most Benevolent" with the Theotokos on the left side of the bema and John the Baptist on the right.  To the general theme of the Deesis has been added four busts of archangels in the vault above them.  They represent Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and Uriel. The image of Christ shows him extending His hand out in blessing.  This iconographic type occured quite suddenly in the late eleventh century under the Emperor Michael IV and has been associated with his decoration of the Church of SS. Cosmas and Damian.  The epithet "Most Benevolent" has not been found on any other image of Christ and is not recorded in the Hermeneia of Dionysios of Fourna, a sixteenth century authority on icon painting.  This Deesis image of Christ and its inscription appears to be unique and therefore was a specific choice by Maria.Virgin in the Apse of the Pammacaristos ChapelNote that the Virgin is standing on a jewelled footstool, setting her above John the Baptist who stands across the bema from her.Mosaic of John the Baptist in the Pammacaristos

This image of John the Baptist is noted for the fact the feet remained in the underpaint with only the highlights set in white mosaic.

The colors of the robes of the Pantokrator are a stunning, rich blue and are expertly modelled.  The face is realistically portrayed and there is damage to one of the eyes.  The parekklesion was dedicated to Our Savior.  The mosaics cannot be firmed dated through historical sources, but must date from around 1310, so they are contemporary with those of the Chora Church.

The Mosaics and Frescoes of St. Mary Pammakaristos by Hans Belting, Cyril Mango and Doula Mouri was the source for most of the information in this article.

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Bob Atchison


Column from the Chapel

Column from the Pammakaristos Church in Constantinople IstanbulChrist in the Dome of the ChapelChrist in the dome of the PammakaristosChrist in the ApseWindow Column from the ExteriorApse window column from the PammakaristosA Saint from the Chapel