Cycle of the Infancy of Christ and of Christ's
The Miracle at Cana, in the third vault of the outer narthex, is
damaged . On the north side are episodes from the wedding
at Cana, although the main scene of banqueting has been lost. In
the northeast corner is the miracle of the transformation of water
into wine. Workers fill large pithoi with water. Christ, accompanied
by the Virgin, Peter, and John, gestures toward the pithoi as the
host offers him a tumbler, apparently unaware of the miracle that
has just occurred.
The Multiplication of Loaves, in the south half of the same
vault, is an episode from the Miraculous Feeding of the Five
Thousand . In the eastern corner, Christ blesses the
five loaves and, breaking them, gives them to two disciples to
distribute to the multitude. After the meal, the remaining fragments
fill twelve baskets, which appear in the southwest corner.
Set on the main axis of the building, the Miracle at Cana and
the Multiplication of Loaves are given special prominence. Here,
the theme of Incarnation is expressed in spatial terms, with
numerous references to the Virgin as "Container of the Uncontainable." This
appears in the scenes of the Miracle at Cana and the Multiplication
of the Loaves. In both, containment is expressed by large vessels,
pithoi, of wine and baskets of bread that fill the pendentives.
Bread and wine, symbolizing the body and blood of Christ, are
inside containers, powerfully juxtaposed against the image of
the Virgin as Container of the Uncontainable. Bread and wine
are also the elements of the Eucharist, representing Christ's
sacrifice for the redemption of man's sins. These images begin
what we might call the liturgical axis of the building, leading
from the main entrance to the altar, where the Eucharist was
administered as the culmination of worship.
It is well to recall here that the central bay also includes
Christ Pantocrator and the Virgin Blachernitissa opposite each
other in the lunettes above the doors.
Christ Pantokrator (or Judge of All) is located
above the central door leading into the inner narthex . The
inscription reads "Jesus Christ, Dwelling-Place of the Living."
Opposite Christ Pantocrator is the Virgin Blachernitissa, above
the main entrance . She is inscribed "Mother of God,
Dwelling-Place (or Container) of the Uncontainable." This
particular type of the Virgin is sometimes called a Blachernitissa,
as it was apparently modeled on a venerated icon housed in the
nearby church of the Blachernae.
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
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.
The cycle of the infancy of Christ
and of Christ's ministry begins in the domical vault of the first bay of the
outer narthex and concludes in the south bay of the inner narthex. The story
is taken up directly from the previous narrative. As in the inner narthex, the
narratives are sometimes contorted to fit the domical vaults. Normally two different
episodes appear in each vault.