Sacred aesthetics: restoring Istanbul’s Christian art
“Restoration is like the work of a doctor, but for art,” said Venizelos Gavrilakis, who relocated to Istanbul from Greece for the mission of preserving the cultural treasury.

By  Joshua Bruce Allen

Founded in the former capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople is considered the “mother church” of all Orthodox churches. But population exchanges and discrimination have pushed out most of Turkey’s once-large Christian population. Istanbul alone has more than 200 churches of all denominations, but non-Muslims make up only 0.2 percent of Turkey’s population, according to Index Mundi. This raises an obvious question: who is attending and caring for the churches?

The local community has its own vakıflar (foundations) that are responsible for maintaining individual churches and religious schools. But in the case of Orthodox churches, the ornate icons, domes, thrones, murals, and chandeliers require a great deal of attention from professional restorers. Due to the sensitive nature of the work, it is sometimes necessary to seek outside help – which is why the husband-and-wife-team of Venizelos Gavrilakis and Vana Karagianni relocated to Istanbul from Greece. Their restoration service, called Ieri Parakatathiki, has been chosen by the patriarchate to restore some of its most precious objects.

The Guide Istanbul met the team at Aya Paraskevi Greek Orthodox Church in Tarabya, where Venizelos and Vana are restoring a nineteenth-century bishop’s throne and a large eighteenth-century icon with a wooden stand. This work was ordered by Metropolitan Elder Derkon Apostolos, who oversees this region of the Orthodox Church. Explaining his philosophy of restoration, Venizelos says, “restoration is like the work of a doctor, but for art.” Some of Venizelos’s previous work was on Mount Athos, a World Heritage Site that has been occupied by Orthodox monks since 800 AD, and his dedication to preserving a shared cultural treasury is clear.

Meanwhile at the church in Tarabya, the restorers have faced some practical challenges. The bishop’s throne is made of carved chestnut, with a raised base and pointed roof. A cross adorning the top of the roof had been lost, forcing the Ieri Parakatathiki team to carve a new one from the same wood. Venizelos and Vana also repainted the throne, first with two layers of primer before a layer of gold leaf. At the same church, the pair has restored an eighteenth-century movable icon known as a proskinitare. Depicting Jesus and Mary bestowing the title of bishop on St Nicholas, this icon is unusual in having a black frame. Venizelos notes, “They probably chose St Nicholas because he is the patron saint of sailors, and the church is next to the sea.”

But just as the Greek community of Istanbul has suffered in recent history, so its religious art has also been damaged. On September 6, 1955, falsified news of a bomb planted at Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s house in Thessaloniki provoked a Turkish mob to attack the property of Greeks and other non-Muslims in Istanbul. Contemporary reports state that 4,214 houses, 1,004 businesses, 73 churches, one synagogue, two monasteries, and 26 schools were harmed on the night of September 6-7. In their capacity as artistic doctors, Venizelos and Vana have worked at Ayın Biri Church in Vefa to restore three niche paintings that were damaged during the pogrom. The Ieri Parakatathiki team has restored the triptych with the traditional tempera used in the original. 

Turkish commentators had predicted that Greeks would return to Istanbul due to the recent economic crisis in Europe, but most Greeks have preferred to travel West rather than East. The outcome is that Istanbul’s churches are still awaiting a full congregation. In the meantime, Ieri Parakatathiki will keep this heritage alive until the Greeks of Istanbul decide to come back to their roots. 

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