The Birth of the Virgin, in the lunette of the second bay, shows Anne reclining
on a bed, attended by servants who prepare a bath for the infant Virgin Mary
. Joachim peers timidly through the doorway. The Nativity of Christ is
very similar in composition and is in the same position in the outer narthex.
The First Seven Steps of the Virgin is on the arch between the second
and third bays . The Virgin surprises her mother by walking at six
months; Anne subsequently vows that her daughter shall be raised in the
The Virgin is Blessed by the Priests is in the vault above, on the western
side . Joachim carries the child, his hands covered, as if bearing
a sacred object. Throughout the cycle, the Virgin is represented as a tiny
adult, always dressed in a blue robe.
The Virgin Caressed by Her Parents is in the same vault on the eastern
side . The architectural backdrops of the two scenes are oddly contorted
to fit the curved surface of the vault.
Within the space of this bay, the story jumps to a later moment in the
Virgin’s adult life in the western lunette, directly opposite the
Birth of the Virgin . The Virgin Entrusted to Joseph, in the west lunette
of the second bay , emphasizes the couple's age difference, as
the high priest, holding the flowering rod, presents the Virgin to Joseph
with the other suitors watching.
This discussion of the Kariye Camii iconography is adapted
from Robert G. Ousterhout, The Architecture of the Kariye Camii in Istanbul,
Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1987. We
would like to thank Professor Ousterhout for generously allowing us to adapt
his text for this Web site.
The outer and inner narthexes are decorated with mosaic cycles of the lives of
the Virgin and Christ. Both begin at the northern end, with thematic and visual
references linking the two cycles.
Three bays of the inner narthex are devoted to the story of the Virgin, from
miraculous birth to miraculous pregnancy. The unfamiliar subject is based on
the Protevangelium, or Apocryphal Gospel of St. James, which was widely accepted
during the Middle Ages. The Genealogy of Christ fills the two dome mosaics of
the inner narthex in the northern and southern bays [7-81]. The mosaic
encrusted domes are known as pumpkin domes with undulating, faceted surfaces.
The result is multiple curves that capture the light from many angles, creating
a shimmering surface and suffusing the interior with a golden glow. The
Bust of the Virgin, surrounded by the royal ancestry, is in the north dome and
the Bust of Christ is in the south dome.