A vision of the world to come
The year was 1321. The place, Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine empire. A middle-aged man stood in the Church of St. Saviour in Chora and looked with satisfaction at the decorations he had commissioned.
The man’s name was Theodore Metochites, a Byzantine civil servant who had conscientiously worked his way up the bureaucratic ladder and had become Grand Vizier (Prime Minister) of the Empire and Grand Logothete of the Treasury. He used the wealth that he managed to accumulate through his office to restore the Monastery of the Chora.
Not that Metochites was merely a patron of the arts. He enjoyed attending the evening services at the Monastery, and toward the end of his life became a monk. Metochites wrote that in the decoration of his church, he wanted “to relate in mosaics and paintings how the Lord Himself … became a mortal man on our behalf.”
For example, at the apex of the south dome of the inner narthex, an image of Christ Pantocrator appeared to hover in the air, reminding worshippers that no matter what was going on in the outside world, Christ was in control of all things.
On the eastern wall of the inner narthex, an enormous mosaic showed the Virgin Mary asking Christ to have mercy on the world, reminding worshippers that intercessory prayer shaped the course of history and precipitated the outpouring of God’s grace on humankind.
In the parekklesion or side chapel located to the south of the main church, a sprawling image of the Last Judgment appeared to be suspended like a cloud, reminding worshippers that they must stand before the tribunal of Christ and give an account of their life on earth.
In the apse of the side chapel, a fresco painting of Christ standing on the broken gates of Hades and raising Adam and Eve from their tombs appeared to leap from the ceiling, reminding worshippers that through the Cross Jesus conquered the power of death and restored the hope of eternal life.
Yet for all this, the Palaeologue period in which Theodore Metochites lived was, to quote Dickens, “the best of times and the worst of times” in the annals of Byzantine history. Constantinople was still trying to recover from the treacherous attack of the Crusaders in 1204 and the ensuing decades of Latin rule that had ravaged its economy and degraded its strategic capabilities.
At the same time, a new and deadly threat loomed on the horizon with the emergence of the Ottoman army. Galvanized by the fervour of jihad (holy war), these ghazi warriors had conquered Byzantine territory throughout Anatolia, culminating in the siege of Nicaea in 1301 (ironically, the site of the first ecumenical council of the Christian Church and the birthplace of the Nicene creed), and the defeat of the Byzantine army in the battle of Bapheus in 1302.
And yet, in the shadow of a certain death, in the twilight of courage, a remarkable renaissance was taking place. In what has been called “the Byzantines’ Indian summer,” the last flowering of their spiritual genius produced an abundance of superlative works of art and architecture. Sadly, the Monastery of the Chora or Kariye Djami as it is known in Turkish, is one of the few surviving examples of the extraordinary creativity of this period — and only because its frescoes and mosaics were covered by a layer of plaster and whitewashed so as not to offend Muslim sensibilities.
When life on earth is uncertain, fix your gaze on heaven
If there is one lesson to be learned from the Monastery of the Chora, it is this: when life on earth is uncertain, fix your gaze on heaven. The images of Christ Pantocrator, the Interceding Virgin, the Last Judgment, and Anastasis (the resurrection of the dead), were all designed to help worshippers look beyond the things that are seen, and to contemplate the things that are not seen (2 Cor 4.18).
Jesus warned his followers that the day would come when Jerusalem would be surrounded by foreign armies and laid desolate, and that the people of Israel would be dispersed among the nations. Moreover, he declared that there would be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars; and on the earth distress of nations, with perplexity. And then he added, “When these things begin to happen, look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near” (Luke 21.28).
The phrase, “look up and lift up your head” is a Hebraism for prayer and worship. For example, David said, “Give ear to my words, O Lord, consider my meditation. Give heed to the voice of my cry, my King and my God, for to You I will pray. My voice you shall hear in the morning, O Lord; in the morning I will direct it to You, and I will look up” (Psalm 5.1-3).
In other words, Jesus is saying, “When all hell breaks loose on earth, when everything that you thought was permanent starts disintegrating, fix your gaze on the only thing that is unshakable: the eternal kingdom of God” (Heb 12.26-28).
In a similar fashion, the apostle Peter encouraged Jewish believers who were being persecuted for their faith to “rest their hope fully” upon the grace that would be given to them at the return of Christ, and to be mindful of the imperishable inheritance that awaited them in heaven (1 Pet 1.4,13). Or to put it another way, to be “eternity-minded,” looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God (2 Pet 3.12).
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord
In a letter to Jean-Baptiste Le Roy in 1789, Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States and a drafter and signer of the Declaration of Independence, stated somewhat prophetically, “Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”
Franklin was right, insofar as the Constitution of the United States (or of any country, for that matter) has “an appearance that promises permanency,” but not the essence of permanency itself. However, there is one thing more certain than death and taxes, and that is the ultimacy of God’s kingdom.
When the angel Gabriel announced the coming of the Messiah to a young peasant girl in the village of Nazareth, he said, “You will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David. And he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1.31-33.
A devout Jewess like Mary would have recognised that this was a quotation from the prophecy of Daniel: “In the days of these kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed; and the kingdom shall not be left to other people; it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand forever” (Dan 2.44).
Indeed, Daniel presaged four successive empires spanning approximately 1,000 years of human history: the Babylonian empire, the Medes and Persians, the Greek empire of Alexander the Great, and the Roman empire. The common denominator in each of these empires is their finiteness. They rise and fall. They have a beginning and an end. In contrast, the kingdom of God “shall never be destroyed” and “shall stand forever.”
In this respect, the Babylonian, Persian, and Roman empires are no different to any other empire in history. Even the great British empire, on which the sun purportedly never set, is now consigned to the pages of antiquity. During a recent visit to Tel Aviv, U.S. President Joe Biden promised Israel, “As long as the United States stands — and we will stand forever — we will not let you ever be alone.” Whilst Biden should be commended for standing with Israel, he is mistaken in thinking that America will stand forever. If it does, it will be the first empire in history to do so.
As nations rise and fall, as existing leaders are removed and new leaders emerge, we need to keep our eyes on the one leader who never changes — the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. This is what Isaiah meant when he said, “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up …” (Isa 6.1). A vision of the heavenly throne will sustain us in times of political upheaval and economic uncertainty.
The epilogue to a glorious era
The city of Constantinople finally fell to the Ottoman army on May 29th, 1453. After breaching the walls, the Turkish soldiers fanned out along the main thoroughfare of the city, and eventually converged on the square in front of the Hagia Sophia where thousands of people were taking refuge and praying for divine intervention. The soldiers broke down the great bronze doors with axes and rushed into the sanctuary.
Pandemonium ensued. The priests were still chanting the morning service of matins as they were cut down by Turkish swords. Women were raped, men were murdered, children were violated. Survivors were bound into groups and led back to the Turkish encampment. Gold and silver vessels used for sacred service were plundered. The crucifix was ripped from the wall and paraded triumphantly through the streets.
However, the carnage did not stop there. Throughout the city, houses, shops, churches, monasteries, and convents were vandalised and looted. The sheer scale of the pillage and slaughter was appalling. Some historians estimate that as many as 30,000 people, including women and children, were forced into slavery.
The Sultan, Mehmed II, entered the city in the evening. He rode to the Hagia Sophia and reportedly marvelled at the sight of the great basilica. The Sultan himself knocked over and trampled on the sacred altar. He then ordered an imam to chant the adhan (Muslim call to prayer) from the pulpit, thereby transforming the holiest and most famous church in Eastern Christendom into a mosque.
A thousand years of Christian civilization had come to an end. The reign of antichrist, about which there was an old Byzantine legend, had begun.
It is somehow fitting that 700 years after their commissioning the frescoes and mosaics of the Kariye Djarmi continue to proclaim the timeless truth of Christ’s victory over sin and death. It is a reminder that one day the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord and His Messiah, and He shall reign forever and ever! (Rev 11.15).