In the Khora (Chora) Monastery at Istanbul in Turkey, there is a mosaic representing — as its title inscription says — Jesus as Ἡ ΧΩΡΑ ΤΩΝ ΖΩΝΤΩΝ —He Khora ton Zonton — “The Land of the Living.”
The word ΧΩΡΑ/χωρα/khora is rather vague in meaning. It is often transliterated as chora, but I do not use that system because English speakers think it begins with the sound of ch as in “Charlie,” while instead, it is the sound found at the end of the German name “Bach.” Students of the Greek New Testament will recognize it is as the word commonly used for “land,” “region.” We find it in Mark 1:5:
καὶ ἐξεπορεύετο πρὸς αὐτὸν πᾶσα ἡ Ἰουδαία χώρα καὶ οἱ Ἱεροσολυμῖται πάντες, καὶ ἐβαπτίζοντο ὑπ’ αὐτοῦ ἐν τῷ Ἰορδάνῃ ποταμῷ ἐξομολογούμενοι τὰς ἁμαρτίας αὐτῶν.
Kai exeporeueto pros auton pasa he Ioudaia Khora kai hoi Ierosolymitai pantes, kai ebaptizonto hup’ autou en to Iordane potamo exomologoumenoi tas hamartias auton
“And there went out to him all the Judean land, and all the Jerusalemites, and were baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins.”
So khora can mean land, or the rural region or countryside as opposed to the city. Khora, however, can also mean a “space” — in the sense of a space that something occupies or could occupy, the room something takes up — or a “place,” a “position.”
The name of the Khora/Chora Monastery, which, when built in the 12th century, was outside the walls of the city of Constantinople, means essentially that it was the “countryside” monastery, beyond the city walls rather than a city monastery.
More appropriate in the context of this mosaic icon, however, is Matthew 4:16:
ὁ λαὸς ὁ καθήμενος ἐν σκοτίᾳ φῶς εἶδεν μέγα, καὶ τοῖς καθημένοις ἐν χώρᾳ καὶ σκιᾷ θανάτου φῶς ἀνέτειλεν αὐτοῖς.
Ho laos ho kathemenos en skotia phos eiden mega, kai tois kathemenois en khora kai skia thanatou phos aneteilen autois.
“The people sitting in darkness saw a great light, and to those sitting in the land and shadow of death, a light is risen.”
So Jesus in the Khora mosaic is called the Khora ton Zonton — “The Land of the Living” as opposed to the “land of death.”
In the same monastery is an example of the other icon with khora in its title — in this case Mary as ΧΩΡΑ ΤΟΥ ΑΧΩΡΗΤΟΥ/Khora tou Akhoritou. It is a paradoxical title, and Christian theologians like paradox, even when it makes no rational sense.
Romanos the Melodist wrote of Jesus in a kontakion,
Ο Άχτιστος γεννάται, ο Αχώρητος χωρείται.
Ho Akhtistos gennatai, ho Akhoretos khoreitai.
“The Uncreated is created, the Limitless is limited.”
Similarly, Gregory the Theologian wrote:
Ω της καινής μίξεως! Ω της παραδόξου κράσεως! Ὁ Ων γίνεται και ὁ άκτιστος κτίζεται και ὁ αχώρητος χωρείται.
O tes kaines mixeos! O tes paradoxou kraseos! Ho On ginetai kai ho aktistos ktizetai kai ho akhoretos khoreitai.
“O new mixture! O paradox of blending! The One Who Is has come to be, and the Unmade is made, and the Limitless is limited.”
All of this paradoxical talk about the “Uncreated” being created, the “One Who Is” coming to be, the “Unmade” made, and the “Limitless” being limited is referring to the incarnation of Jesus, who in Eastern Orthodoxy is believed to be the uncreated, unmade, unlimited God whose name is “The One Who Is.” And of course in Christian belief, that incarnation took place in Mary — which leads us to the second of the mosaic icons with khora in its title, found also at the Khora Monastery (Church):
In his Homily 11, Cyril of Alexandria referred to Mary as
το χωριον του αχωρητου
to khorion tou akhoretou
“The Place of the Placeless”
…or we could translate it as:
“The Space of the Spaceless.”
Mary’s title is often rendered interpretively as “The Container of the Uncontained.” That, however, always makes me think of the amusing German-language book (and film) for children, Konrad oder Das Kind aus der Konservenbüchse — Konrad, or the Child out of the Can, by Austrian writer Christine Nöstlinger. In it, a metal container is delivered to Frau Berti Bartolotti, and when it is opened, much to her surprise, out pops a fresh, seven-year-old boy who announces that he is her son.
But back to the icons.
It is easy to tell that the use of khora in the title of the Marian icon is not at all the same as that in the image of Jesus. In the former, it has the “place” or “space” meaning, and in the latter the “country” or “land” meaning.
Now to confuse matters, there is another image of Mary at the Khora Monastery with the same title, but in form it is basically much the same as in the Znamenie or “Sign” Mother of God icon — Mary from the waist up, with arms outspread, and Christ Immanuel in an egg-shaped enclosure on her breast. And in the Eastern Orthodox repertory, there is also yet another icon by the same title, but depicting Mary seated on a throne, and holding Christ Immanuel on her lap. What this tells us is that the Khora tou Akhoritou title is not limited to one or even three quite different icon types, but also may be applied to even more. So in this case, one must simply go by title, while being aware that the title is not unique to a particular type of Marian icon.
The Khora/Chora Monastery is also sometimes known as the Kariye Camii (pronounced “Jami”) — The “Country” Mosque — its Turkish name, given that it was converted to a mosque in the 16th century. Now it is a museum.