Kelsey Museum showcasing spectacular 'Visions of Byzantium'
courtesy of the University of Michigan Kelsey Museum of Archaeology
A spectacular Byzantine drama is taking place in the University of Michigan Kelsey Museum of Archaeology.
The Kelsey is already one of Ann Arbor’s most intriguing arts venues. And this has been especially so since the museum’s late 2009 reopening with new wings for its permanent holdings as well as the striking Edwin E. Meador and Mary U. Meador Special Exhibition Gallery.
The expansive Meador gallery is dramatically lit with 13 six-foot-plus color architectural photographs taken by famed Turkish photographer Ahmet Ertug. And the subject of Ertug’s work — “Vaults of Heaven: Visions of Byzantium, Part I — the Constantinople Churches: Hagia Sophia and Church of Christ of Chora” — is breathtaking.
Ertug’s talent is well matched to his wondrous topic. As Todd Gerring, Kelsey community outreach supervisor, says in his exhibition statement, “Ertug’s photographs highlight some of the most important sacred narratives that persisted throughout the centuries in Byzantine art: the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Crucifixion, Christ’s ‘Anastasis’ (‘the Harrowing of Hell,’ or Christ’s release of figures from the gates of Hell), and the ‘DeÃ«sis’ (the figure of Christ flanked by the entreating figures of the Virgin and John the Baptist).
“Often executed on a monumental scale in both fresco and mosaics on the walls of churches,” he concludes, “these images (dating from the sixth though the 14th centuries) served to instruct and inspire the faithful.”
Well, instruction and inspiration are most certainly the case based on the evidence at hand. The Kelsey display is one of those rare instances where an artist’s oversized ambition pays appropriate homage to original artisan reverence spread over the span of thousands of years.
The Hagia Sophia stands on the first hill of Constantinople at the tip of that peninsula, surrounded by the waters of the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus. Built by Justinian I in 532-537 over the site of three previous churches going back to 360; the Hagia Sophia replaced a smaller basilica built by Theodosius II in 415. As the Cathedral of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople for more than a millennium, the church was the chief site of Eastern Christianity from 360 to the collapse of the Byzantine Empire in 1453.
The subsequent Ottoman era initiated Islamic worship in the structure. Known as the Ayasofya Mosque, the Hagia Sophia remained the Great Mosque of the Ottoman capital until its secularization under the Turkish Republic. In 1926, the new Republic of Turkey appointed a commission to investigate the building’s structural state. Following President Kemal Ataturk’s orders, Hagia Sophia was converted into a museum in 1935 and is now open to the public.
Five of Ertug’s photographs focus on the Hagia Sophia’s internal structure. Among these images are a general view of the nave; side isles flanking the nave; a shot of the church’s central dome; a detail from a “DeÃ«sis” mosaic; and an impressive overview looking east from the west gallery.
It’s no accident that the Kelsey has chosen to separate this latter overview at a slight remove from the other photographs in the Meador gallery. The Hagia Sophia’s eight signature 25-foot medallions (inscribed by famed Muslim calligrapher Kazasker Mustafa Izzet Efendi in 1847-49) are inscribed with the names of Allah; the Prophet, Muhammad; the first four caliphs: Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali; and Muhammad’s two famed grandchildren: Hassan and Hussain.
Supplementing mosaics uncovered during 19th century restoration cleaning—and following the Muslim prohibition of figurative art—Ertug uses these massive medallions hanging from a second-story height to give us a sense of Hagia Sophia’s monumental scale.
By contrast, the eight Ertug photos taken from Church of Christ of Chora give the exhibit a heightened intimacy as his photography allows for views physically impossible to take in person.
The Church of Christ in Chora (Kariye Camii, in Turkish) is considered one of the most outstanding examples of Byzantine architecture. Originally built outside of Constantinople, the church became incorporated within the city’s walls in 413-414.
The majority of the current building dates from 1077-81, when the rebuilt Chora Church was crafted as a popular architectural style of the time, an inscribed cross or quincunx. Two centuries after this, the church (as it stands today) was completed. Byzantine statesman Theodore Metochites endowed the church with its fine mosaics and frescos between 1315 and 1321.
Fifty years after the fall of the city to the Ottomans in 1453, the Chora Church was converted into a mosque — Kariye Camii. Due to the Islamic ban of iconic images, the Christian mosaics and frescoes were covered behind a layer of plaster until the Byzantine Institute of America and the Dumbarton Oaks Center for Byzantine Studies sponsored a restoration program. In 1958, the Church of Christ in Chora was opened to the public as a museum.
Ertug’s photographs — including a depiction of the Last Judgment (in the church’s Parakklesion, or mortuary chapel); “Anastasis” in the Parakklesion’s apse; “Virgin Mary grasping the infant Christ to her cheek,” (from the Parakklesion’s east bay, south wall); and Saints Procopius and Sabas the General (from the Parakklesion’s west bay, south wall) — are outstanding in their uniform excellence.
Using his large format camera to meticulously capture surface features that cannot readily be seen by the human eye, Ertug provides us with a vicarious sense of the wonder that profoundly affected pilgrims who traveled under difficult circumstances over the course of western civilization to see these revered works of art.
Each of these Church of Christ in Chora photographs is dazzling in its scrupulous attention to detail. Ertug’s sense of placement and palette gives each photograph an integrity that clearly illustrates why this church has been famed through history for its magnificent mosaics and frescos.
To additionally amplify on this theme, the Kelsey has also added four cases of artifacts drawn from their collection (and other U-M collections) to supplement “Vaults of Heavens.” Included in these cases are liturgical items; objects connected with saints and pilgrims; coins; and Islamic artifacts.
Additionally, a second display of Ertug photographs will be mounted in the Kelsey from Feb. 4 through May 29. This exhibit—“Vaults of Heaven: Visions of Byzantium, Part 2—the Cappadocian Churches: Tokali, Karanlik, and Meryemana” will continue the Ertug theme with photos drawn the Cappadocian region of central Anatolia.
“Vaults of Heaven: Visions of Byzantium, Part I—the Constantinople Churches: Hagia Sophia and Church of Christ of Chora” will continue through Jan. 23 at the University of Michigan Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, 434 S. State St. Gallery hours are 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; and 1-4 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. For information, call 734-764-9304.