New York.- By Vicki J. Yiannias
One day, the Turkish photographer, architect, and publisher Ahmet Ertuğ happened to catch sight of a beam of light entering through the small windows by the image of Christ in the deesis of Haghia Sophia in Constantinople as he was photographing the interior. “It was a magical moment, as the beam of light came in at what must have been the same angle of light and shadow that the original artist saw,“ he said in an interview with the World Monuments Fund recently. “The light lingered for only ten minutes, giving me just enough time to hurriedly photograph the image. This was one of the most thrilling experiences I ever had as a photographer.”
Ertuğ’s enthusiasm is evident in his enormous images of the overwhelmingly beautiful mosaics and frescoes of Byzantine monuments in Constantinople and Cappadocia, seen for the first time in North America in the World Monuments Fund (WMF)- sponsored exhibition, Vaults of Heaven: Treasures of Byzantine Turkey (although a better title for the show might have been Vaults of Heaven: Byzantium Treasures of in Turkey). The interior expanses in the photographs, their colors, size (most are about six feet by six feet), and proximity to the viewer, in the modest gallery space of the Prince George Hotel on 27th Street in Manhattan, pierce through space and time, going straight to the emotions. Vaults of Heaven is on view through July 28.
Strongly committed to the conservation of historic buildings, Mr. Ertuğ’s aim is to increase public awareness of heritage sites, capturing what is not normally noticed and bringing out hidden qualities of sacred sites through as light conditions change. When he looks at sacred sites behind the ground glass of his camera lens, says Ertuğ, who photographs Byzantine, Ottoman and Buddhist sites, he feels their purity and aura, but he notes that this is “a contemplative connection, rather than a religious emotion.”
Almost all of the 33 works in the exhibition are in Mr. Ertuğ’s spectacular, large format books, with fold-outs, which are listed below..
Entering into the gallery of these vaults of heaven, there is need to make a difficult choice of which stunning image, or which gorgeous colors to look at first — the powerful, celestial bright blue, gold, blood-red, all the jewel-like colors of Byzantium (like the actual mosaic jewels in the garment of Saint Constantine in the Tokali Church) and which of all the other worldly, sacred spaces to enter into first, as well.
One photograph shows the entire East Bay and Apse of the funerary Parekklesion in the Church of Chora (on the 2004 WMF Watch list) adorned with images of the Last Judgement and the Resurrection, a light-footed Christ raises Adam and Eve from their tombs. Interiors of the the Great Church of Hagia Sophia show the poetry of its towering dimensions and the great dome.
In a huge detail from the mid-tenth century New Church of Tokali in Göreme, Cappadocia, the large, eloquent eyes in a very young, round face, soulful and warm, and a small mouth, with tapering fingertips lightly touching the Christ-child, the Panaghia Glykophilousa (Virgin of Tenderness) is one of the earliest-known examples of this iconographic type.
A view of the north tympanum of the Nave of the same church shows images of the Journey to Bethlehem and the Dream of Joseph, with a frieze above the arcade containing scenes from the life of Christ. In the Baptism, a graceful Christ and attending Saints stand against a backdrop of rich blue, with Christ immersed in a suggestion of water against that backdrop enclosed by red walls.
Amplifying the experience of viewing these great works is the excellent text summarizing the subject and provenance of each photograph.
Hagia Sophia was included on the 1996 WMF Watch list — the first ever — of the 100 Most Endangered Sites in the world. With a 1997 grant of $100,000 from American Express, (WMF began a major conservation effort with the Turkish Ministry of Culture and the Conservation Laboratory in Istanbul, focusing on the great central dome. A second grant of $100,000 was awarded by American Express through WMF in 1999 for the conservation of the mosaics and painted decoration inside the dome. WMF awarded additional funding of approximately $250,000 through the Robert W. Wilson Challenge to Conserve Our Heritage, which the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Turkey matched with $500,000. Hagia Sophia still remains to be a Turkish State Museum.)
The Church of Chora (one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions) was included on the 2004 Watch list in hopes of attracting international attention and assistance. Its interior finishes have suffered from fluctuations in humidity and temperature and the threats of its urban environment. The conservation work needed to safeguard the building and its extraordinary interior decoration has yet be done.
WMF has also been involved with other Byzantine sites in Turkey. They are the Church of the Monastery of Christ Pantokrator in Istanbul, beginning conservation in 1997 and including it on the 2000 Watch list in hopes of raising local interest in preserving the building, which suffered from neglect and vandalism; Saint Nicholas Church in Myra, where a WMF grant in 2000 supported documentation and conservation of the Byzantine frescoes; Little Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, which, although some restoration work began in 1996 is now closed to the public due to emergency repairs following a 2001 WMF-sponsored conservation workshop and subsequent placement of the 2002 WMF Watch list. Because environmental changes and water infiltration continue to plague the structure, WMF placed Little Hagia Sophia on the 2004 and 2006 Watch lists to keep the spotlight on this most significant site.WMF has also worked at Greco-Roman sites in Turkey, including Aphrodisias and Patara, and is currently developing a project with the Ministry of Culture at Ephesos.
Currently WMF is very interested in developing a project at Cappadocia.
When the Greek News asked Mr. Ertuğ what is the attitude of the public in Turkey regarding Byzantine monuments he replied, that, “Byzantine monuments are part of the World heritage and we are all responsible to look after them. Istanbul is a unique city which one can experience the different architectural achievements next to each other. It is the differences and similarities of these monuments which makes our environment exciting.”
The world-renowned Ertuğ has collaborated with the eminent Byzantinist Dr. Cyril Mango, who wrote the text, on Haghia Sophia, A Vision for Empires, and Chora: The Scroll of Heaven, the sublime art in the Church of Chora, and a collaboration on Sacred Art of Cappadocia with Dr. Catherine Jolivet-Lèvy, an expert on Cappadocian archaelogy and medieval art. They are among approximately 23 books of Byzantine and Ottoman architecture published by his Istanbul-based firm Ertuğ & Kocabiyik.