Kariye Camii / Preservation

Ecology and Economy: Charles Tauss and the Challenges of Preserving Byzantium

Written by Jessica Cebra, ICFA Departmental Assistant 

In the past, we’ve featured the work of art conservators Carroll Wales and Constantine Tsaousis, who dedicated years of their life to conserving Byzantine painting. Another paintings conservator, Charles Tauss, has surfaced in ICFA’s collections, who worked with Wales and the Byzantine Institute at Kariye Camii, in Istanbul, in the 1950s. Tauss worked for a couple of fieldwork seasons in 1954-1955, out of the nine-year-long campaign to remove the white paint and plaster that had covered the Byzantine wall paintings in Kariye Camii, when the building functioned as a mosque during the Ottoman period and the early years of the Turkish Republic. Below are examples of the work done by the Byzantine Institute in the 1950s.

Kariye Camii parekklesion before and after

Parekklesion of Kariye Camii viewed from the exonarthex of the church towards the east. Left: Before the plaster was removed, photographed by Nicholas Artamonoff, March 1936 (PH.BZ.010-ICFA.NA.0071); Right: After removing the plaster, work done by the Byzantine Institute in 1959 (MS.BZ.004-ICFA.KC.BIA.1638).

Attendant Angel_before and after

Cleaned wall painting of the seventh angel attending the Virgin in the dome of the western bay in the parekklesion of the Kariye Camii. Left: Before inpainting by the Byzantine Institute , 1953 (MS.BZ.004-ICFA.KC.BIA.1104); Right: After inpainting, 1954 (MS.BZ.004-ICFA.KC.BIA.1116).


The Virgin Eleousa and St. George wall paintings in the parekklesion of Kariye Camii, 1985, photo by Charles Tauss (MS.BZ.011).

Thirty years later, in 1984, Tauss returned to Kariye Camii to undertake another conservation campaign to, yet again, clean the wall paintings. But this time, instead of the plaster, there was an ethereal, crystallizing layer of lime salt coating the walls due to moisture and poor circulation in the building. Tauss’s colleague Şinasi Başeğmez was the curator of Hagia Sophia and oversaw the Kariye Camii, as it was under the jurisdiction of the Hagia Sophia Museum. In 1984, Başeğmez presented the conservation problem to Tauss and asked him to do a trial cleaning of one section of the wall paintings. Tauss was just visiting Istanbul at the time, but agreed to clean the lime deposits off the depiction of the Virgin Eleousa to prove to the administration that the task was feasible and further preventative steps needed to be taken. In the image to the right from 1985, you can compare the state of the side-by-side depictions of the cleaned Virgin Eleousa and the St. George panel, which had not yet been cleaned. You can also see that the efflorescence had already returned just one year later on the Virgin Eleousa side. The Directorate of the Hagia Sophia partnered with the Touring and Automobile Association of Turkey to fund the conservation of the rest of the affected wall paintings. Tauss and his assistant Betty Spitz raised additional private funds to support themselves as the work was executed on a voluntary basis. Together, they successfully restored most of the affected parekklesion paintings.

The Charles Tauss Papers and the “Kariye Museum Project” collection in ICFA primarily documents the conservation project that took place in 1985 and 1989. However, during processing, I learned that the collection is not only about the act of conserving paintings. Tauss was adamant about getting to the root of the environmental problem that was causing the “efflorescence” to grow and spread, and how to prevent it from happening continuously. In addition to salvaging the wall paintings, I found that among Tauss’s and Spitz’s photographs, technical notes, and letters, one captures meaningful glimpses of the tensions between protecting cultural heritage and promoting tourism, the art of fundraising, the ecosystem of a Byzantine building, and those moments in Istanbul that inevitably blur the distinctions between sightseeing, research, and fieldwork. And not to mention, the rediscovery of long unseen mosaics in Hagia Sophia.


Left: Donor portrait mosaic of Theodore Metochites in the esonarthex of Kariye Camii, after Byzantine Institute restoration, 1953 (MS.BZ.004-ICFA.KC.BIA.0016); Right: Detail of the cover page for Tauss’s Master’s Thesis at Yale University, 1955 (MS.BZ.011).

Between 1953-1955, Tauss was working towards his master’s degree at the Yale University School of Art, working for the Byzantine Institute during fieldwork seasons, and was also a fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the painting and conservation departments. Included in this collection is Tauss’s master’s thesis (pictured above) which covers the history of the Kariye Camii, the wall paintings’ iconography, and also technical aspects of both the original painting technique as well as the Byzantine Institute’s restoration efforts. Tauss considered himself an artist, art collector, and art conservator, but his love for Byzantine history and material culture is apparent in his notes and correspondence. He would become the studio assistant for renowned painter and color theorist Josef Albers, and later, the painting conservator for the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation. After thirty years of working and traveling to study Byzantine art, he was fortunate to be able to return to work in a monument he treasured as a student.


Left: Anonymous photograph of Kariye Camii, view from northwest, ca.1860, depicting the undulating roof line before it was changed in 1875-76, published in Çelik Gülersoy’s book Chora (MS.BZ.011); Right: Tauss’s notes about the lime salt problem in relation to the lead roof and moisture in the walls of Kariye Camii, 1984 (MS.BZ.011).

The 1985 fieldwork was partially funded by the Touring and Automobile Association of Turkey, whose director, Çelik Gülersoy, took initiative to revitalize the neighborhood around Kariye Camii and undertake maintenance of the building itself. The Association was responsible for the renovation of historical buildings and recreational areas including the tallest hill in Istanbul, Çamlıca Hill, a popular vista point and park. Gülersoy published a book simply titled Kariye (Chora) in 1983 that featured the newly alluring environs of the Kariye Camii neighborhood, as well as a never before published photograph of Kariye Camii taken before the structural changes that were made under Sultan Abdülaziz in 1875-1876. Previously there had only been drawings of the pre-1875 architecture that illustrated the original undulating roofline, which was straightened by filling it in with rubble and covering it with a lead roof. Tauss informed Başeğmez that the roof, now filled with earth, was holding moisture and the lead was imposing detrimental weight onto the building. He suggested removing the lead and replacing it with shaped slate tiles, more akin to the original design. However, the plan never came into fruition.

MSBZ011_Kariye garden

The garden bordering the south and east sides of Kariye Camii, 1985, photos by Charles Tauss (MS.BZ.011).

Another environmental problem that Tauss was quick to notice was the newly beautified garden. Although the garden makeover had good intentions to make the grounds more attractive, its “tropical” selection of plants hugging the building and the irrigation system that regularly splashed onto the building walls, was an obvious problem. Moisture would seep into the exterior walls and migrate to the interior surfaces. Tauss suggested replacing the existing plants with others more acclimated to a desert setting to reduce the need for watering, and also to build a kind of dry bed by digging a trench around the building and filling it with gravel so that water could drain away from the building and not soak it.

Tauss also urged Başeğmez to inspect the large cistern below the building. While it was believed to be empty, Tauss supected that water may have found a way in and could be contributing to the moisture problem.

Cleaning the interior wall paintings over and over again would only cause more damage and was not a preventative solution. Tauss urged the administration to install environmental control systems including fans, ventilation, and a thermo-humidigraph to track the building’s temperature and humidity levels. There would also be a need for trained staff to properly brush and dust the walls over time, take accurate readings from the thermo-humidigraph, and adjust the environment according to changing circumstances.

Tauss was an avid note maker and visual thinker. Included in the collection are lists of needed tools, chemicals and equipment, phrases and words in Turkish, and quick sketches in the margins or on hotel stationery. Tauss provided the Directorate of the Hagia Sophia with a shopping list and diagrams for the scaffold he would need upon his arrival to conduct the conservation work. Portable lights, photo developing, and reference books all added to the expenses.

MSBZ011_scaffold diagram

Tauss’s diagrams for the scaffold required for the conservation project, 1985 (MS.BZ.011).

The conservation project was coined “Kariye Museum Project” and was supported by a number of philanthropic foundations in the United States. It was even boosted by an article in The New York Times. It was also notable that a Turkish association undertook the basic costs. Based on the collection materials, it is not clear how many of Tauss’s recommendations were implemented, but the garden was eventually changed and the building now has a better controlled environment. Nor is it clear whether the conservation work continued between 1986-1988, but we know that Tauss and Spitz returned to work in Kariye Camii in 1989. Coincidentally, at this time the Hagia Sophia was undergoing repairs, and a discovery within the building stole their attention and sidelined the Kariye Museum Project.

Hagia Sophia Scaffold

Left: Tauss and Spitz gazing up at the scaffolding in the east arch of Hagia Sophia, 1989 (MS.BZ.011); Right: Tauss’s notes for the proposed conservation of the partially uncovered mosaics in the east arch of Hagia Sophia, 1989 (MS.BZ.011).

In 1989, a huge scaffold was erected in the eastern arch of Hagia Sophia to repair loose plaster. The workers had noticed mosaic tesserae in the arch and Tauss was asked to examine them. Upon climbing to the top of the scaffold and examining the exposed mosaics, Tauss verified the identification of the mosaics, which depicted a Hetoimasia, the Virgin, St. John the Baptist, and John V Paleologus, who had funded the restoration of the building after a series of earthquakes in 1345. These mosaics had not been seen or documented since 1847, when Gaspare Fossati quickly sketched them before they were re-covered with plaster during the restoration campaign commissioned by Sultan Abdülmecid I. Tauss consulted with Cyril Mango, who was also in Istanbul at the time, and also with two conservators from the Austrian Academy of Science, Peter Berzobohaty and Claudia Podgorscheck, who were working on the Great Palace mosaics next door. They discussed technicalities and the possibility of funding and support for the conservation of the Paleologian mosaics in Hagia Sophia. Tauss suggested it was necessary to install an elevator to accommodate the work. It would work as a pulley lift and could take people and materials to the work area. The enormous estimated cost for the project was probably what kept it from ever happening. The mosaics in the east arch still haven’t been conserved and are barely visible to visitors because they are so high from the floor. There is no known publication about the 1989 re-discovery; Tauss said he would not publish his photographs of the mosaics without permission from the Directorate of the Hagia Sophia.


Clockwise from upper left: Tauss standing in front of the Istanbul city walls, 1989; Spitz standing in front of an Ottoman era building in Istanbul, 1989; Architecture in the Fener neighborhood of Istanbul, 1975; An urban vegetable garden (bostan) along the Istanbul city walls, 1989 (all MS.BZ.011).

The persistence of Tauss’s conservation efforts and his love for the city of Istanbul is made apparent through this small collection. Tauss not only photographed Byzantine monuments and ruins during his visits to Istanbul (as seen above), but he was also drawn to Ottoman and early 20th century examples of architecture and took a number of photographs of the historic urban vegetable gardens (bostans) along the city walls. These gardens were partially destroyed in 2013 and their fate is still contested in the face of urban development. The accelerating urban and economic growth of Istanbul in the 1980s illustrated the still relevant clash between the needs of transportation networks, modern buildings, industrialization, parks, and historic districts. Such growth and change has continued to this day on an unforeseen scale, so any photographs that document the way the city looked in the past become imbued with evidential value when trying to understand the history of the changing landscape.

In addition to ICFA’s other collections created by Margaret Alexander, Josephine Harris, Paul Underwood, and Carroll Wales, Charles Tauss is another example of someone whose early relationship with Dumbarton Oaks, either through the fellowship program or the Byzantine Institute, spawned a lifelong devotion to studying, documenting, and preserving important aspects of Byzantium and Late Antiquity.


One thought on “Ecology and Economy: Charles Tauss and the Challenges of Preserving Byzantium

  1. Pingback: New Finding Aids from ICFA | icfa

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