I’m drawing bas-relief marble chariots so old they look melted. I’ve been walking past this obelisk for years and never drawn it. The faces seemed too rounded by time and weather to be interesting. What a fool I was! I didn’t look hard enough. My only excuse is that there is so much else.
Here’s my first take, last summer, on the Egyptian Obelisk Pedestal, which I did as a break from drawing The Big Arch. We’re up on the top of the hill in Sultanahmet, in the center of the Hippodrome. That’s the 10th-Century Column of Constantine in the background. Very different from working down at the Boukoleon; there I saw mostly Turkish people and a few tourists, here I was listening to tour guides address cruise crowds all day. Made a big mistake in the first drawing listening to one blather on utter nonsense about Empress Theodora, who I think of with affection and awe. She was hell on wheels as a performer here in the Hippodrome, and powerfully pious in her afterlife as the Empress who with her consort Justinian built the great monuments we now call High Byzantine.
The carving on the Pedestal of the Egyptian Obelisk is from 390, which means that Theodora herself saw it when the faces were still clear, in 510 or so when she was performing in the Hippodrome. She had an act which became the stuff of legend. She cavorted nearly nude, allowing trained geese to peck corn from various parts of her anatomy. This drove the crowds wild, probably from trying to see, as this Hippodrome is just about the biggest ancient arena in the world, second only to Rome’s Circus Maximus which was built by the same Emperor, Septimus Severus. It probably held 100,000 people.
The Egyptian Obelisk was brought to Istanbul from the temple at Luxor by the Byzantine Emperor Constantius in 357. It was raised by Emperor Theodosius in 390, and he made sure we knew it. He had this marble pedestal created, covered with portraits carved in bas-relief. A mystery for me is how these faces survived the Iconoclasts, who spent from around 711 to 843 destroying all pictures in Christian art. So how did the faces withstand this? They couldn’t have been buried or covered, they’re too worn for that. Notice the rain trough in the top illustration, where the water has forced its way through the pipe cut in the marble. That’s 1600 years of wear right there. Maybe they survived because the carving was commemorative and not religious. Anyone out there who knows, please tell me, it’s driving me crazy.
Theodosius and his ministers and family appear on all four sides of the Pedestal. Below them are chariots and dancers, and at the bottom of one side is an instructional illustration of how they stood up the 65-foot, multi-ton, red granite Obelisk, in case you should ever want to try it yourself.
They attached ropes and winched it up, and the figures are so adorable that I’m putting them here in close-up.
The couple to the left of this first vignette look for all the world to me like a bear fondling a woman, but I am told it’s a man in a hat and they are pulling ropes. A likely story. Think I’m kidding? Look at this photo of the same figures!
It’s fascinating, how time has worn these figures down to the essentials. A real lesson in anatomical art: everything will be nearly shapeless, but you can still see the set of a haunch, a rounded calf muscle, the swell of a straining back, and that one detail throws the whole thing into focus.
The Egyptian carving up on the granite Obelisk is still crisp, but Theodosius and his ministers were made of softer stuff. They show as so many globes. Nobody’s got a nose, and lower faces are rounded and pitted into blurs. But the more I look the more I see, and it’s possible to make out lips, hollowed cheeks, curly hair, and on one particularly magisterial figure, Christopher Walken eyes. My mistake with the first take was in outlining too harshly and in trying to ask ink to do what paint does. In other words, I strained the medium. But now I thought I should try many little lines instead of one thick one, so I had to go out there and do it again, on a portrait I did for the Constantinou family of their son Nicholas. I spent forty-five minutes drawing him, with a drafting pen, on a big 35 X 70 sheet of paper. While we worked, I asked him what he was into, for the background. “Sports.” What could I do? Draw Fenerbache and Galatasary? But then I remembered Istanbul’s fine Byzantine heritage of sports riots: the Blues and the Greens. They were chariot teams. Blues were aristocrats, Greens raced for the plebs. In 532 the Blues and the Greens fought so savagely that they destroyed the city. They burned the Palace, the one where the Blue Mosque is now. They burned the old basilica of Hagia Sophia. They rioted for days and planned to burn the Emperor Justinian as well. He had one foot on the boat. He told Theodora to hurry up, or some such. After she’d lost the geese, gotten religion and become Empress, she wore purple robes. She was wearing them then. “Purple makes a fine shroud,” she said, “I will die here with dignity.”
Justinian was so moved that he quelled the riot, executing, um, 20,000 people on this very Hippodrome, out on the end where the high school is now. And in 532, he and Theodora started building that great lady of High Byzantine art, the present Hagia Sophia. So for Nick Constantinou’s portrait, I chose the Obelisk Pedestal in the Hippodrome of Constantinople, with chariots and dancers, as a background for this fine young face. But I wanted to show the other Obelisk as well, to establish that this was indeed the Hippodrome. The Pedestal side I wanted has Standing the Obelisk on it, so at the bottom I switched it for the other, which shows the Chariot Parade with its dancing girls. I spent about a week drawing the background, in the searing summer center of Istanbul’s Hippodrome Ramadan Festival:
This got me fascinated with the Chariot Parade, so now I’m drawing again from scratch, just for me and my sketchbook. Here’s the first take, from last week, but as you can see I got distracted by a little girl who has just moved to Arizona.
Here’s the second take.
The weather is freezing now. I’m working bundled up in layers of wool and leather, but I’m still cold to the bone. I can hold out for about two hours max. Drawing these little guys is tricky. They’re so small, and the changing light of the day can reveal details you didn’t see before, so it’s wise to hold out awhile if a figure doesn’t read. Here’s the next session:
Yesterday I got out there at around 3 PM. A glove on the non-working hand, bare frozen fingers on the right, crouched on my little borrowed stool swathed in a heavy jacket and a huge cashmere scarf, drawing. The air was pink and blue, and everything sharp as if seen under water. I was meeting a protege there at 4:30. I could hardly stand the cold, but I drew all these figures anyway. I’d be just about to call her to say we’d meet elsewhere, and then the drawing would get good and I’d forget myself.
So exotic beasts, chariots, dancing girls, acrobats and strong men, jugglers and clowns, all doing tricks for the Empress, who had done them herself. Procopius tells us that, in her days as a performer, she publicly bemoaned the fact that God had so made her that she could only have intercourse with three men at a time, rather than five like she wanted. At nineteen she became devoutly religious and attracted Justinian, who moved heaven and earth and his uncle to change the law so he could marry her. When she became Empress. Theodora abolished forced prostitution and child prostitution and instituted a death penalty for rape. She quelled that sports riot, which has gone down in history as the Nika Rebellion. She invented the tiara and pointed shoes. She laughed at pompous courtiers. She spoke her mind. She was loathed by contemporary historians, branded a harlot opportunist. Yet not one of them, nor any in all the long years after them, has found a shred of evidence that she ever cheated on Justinian. This has led to wild speculation about their private life.
Oh, these historians, they will never understand. There’s no mystery. What could be more natural? A girl has a few wild years, gets religion, marries a nice guy and settles down.