SAINTS AND ANGELS 3: Chiaroscuro in Hagia Sophia


Shadow Arch Detail: the Line Forms on the Left ©2011 Trici Venola

Pitch black, every single detail lost in inky shadows up here in the Imperial Gallery, Hagia Sophia. A dark, rainy day two days before Christmas, and the place is jammed. Every tourist here paid 25 lira to get in, and you can’t see anything that isn’t next to a window or a weak spotlight. All because the experts in charge haven’t turned on the lights in the chandeliers. I’m told they are experts, my buddies the guards say so.

Shadow Arch Gallery, Dark Day

Nevertheless I had to draw. Michael Constantinou is coming to Istanbul in a couple of weeks and he wants to pick up his art. Great news;  I hate shipping originals. But they have to be ready, I’ve paid the whopping tariff to get into Hagia Sophia, and here I sit, stymied in Stygian blackness. True, the piece is titled “Shadow Arch,” but this is ridiculous. The best I could do was to indicate in tiny light strokes where the big masses are, and bitch to the guards. Plein Air drawing, fooey!

Shadow Arch Gallery, Sunshine

Yesterday was much better. Dazzling sun, crystalline air. This is what it’s supposed to look like! Plein Air, the only way to draw! Crouched on a tiny folding stool about as big as an upended brick,  I draw with Dervish concentration, and nail most of the detail. Again, the place is mobbed. Many people jostle, loom and gesture, so I pause, since there’s nothing like having your work embellished by a big pen swipe from some oaf hitting your drawing arm. But this Japanese lady, she was with a big chattering group, and someone indicated that I was down in the corner there, drawing. She reared back, mouth and eyes wide, and swept everyone back with both arms as though I were a lit fuse or a pot of gold. My Art Ego swelled like a watered plant. Oh, she got it. And the Japanese have been responsible for most of the work in Hagia Sophia in the past decades: dome restoration, cleaning, discoveries of lost art. So I thanked the whole group, we had an impromptu art show with general effusion, and I felt like a pot of gold and a lit fuse. Here’s what they saw:

Shadow Arch WIP 2 ©2011 by Trici Venola.

What’s needed now is a whole lot of dark to offset the detail. Too much detail and everything flattens out. So I pay a lot of attention to chiaroscuro: that fine Italian term for the contrast of light and dark. Figures pulling themselves out of darkness into light. Think Caravaggio, DaVinci, Raphael.

Caravaggio’s Christ At the Column, 1593-1610

See how the figures look molded here? Chiaroscuro! The mosaic I’m drawing has the texture of shimmering brocade. Actually the pieces were set at angles to catch torchlight. Sun is a bonus. High up in the arch, a few silver mosaic medallions catch the light. Some are original; some were painted in by Ottoman restorers; it’s easy to see which. They’re mostly in shadow, some of them barely showing. The best way to render something shiny is to put a hard black right next to a pure white. Later, I’ll go back in and embellish them a bit more. In this early stage, I just leave them white, and lightly shade all the others. I have to go very carefully because in pen and ink there is no going back from shadows. Once you’ve put that black ink on there, that’s it.

Too dark to draw is one thing, shadows are quite another. In art as in life, shadows give dimension and depth. Their presence makes the light brighter. Light and dark is not to be confused with black and white. In color work, it’s equally important. There’s a lot of beautifully-rendered work out there that looks flat and lifeless, because the artist depended entirely on shape and color to give it form. Guess what, not only are many computers and print devices color-restricted, but most people are slightly color-blind. In other words, your work is not going to be seen exactly as you see it, so if you’ve ignored chiaroscuro, you’re sunk. Here’s a vintage vector graphics piece created with eight colors in various patterns, easily as busy as all that tiny pen and ink scratching in the piece above. But notice the use of chiaroscuro, and thank you, Old Masters.

African Queens ©1988 by Trici Venola with BBDO, Apple Claris.

If you’re wondering if your digital painting works, try looking at it in black and white. If it’s not digital, try looking at it in a mirror. If you can’t tell what’s going on, go back and check your lights and darks!

Suddenly the light is gone and I’m cold to the bone. My knees are so stiff, my heels are so high,  my coat is so long, and this  damn stool is so low, I cannot get up. I flail about trying to hold onto the giant column base, but it’s too slippery. Luckily, some smiling person, usually a Turk, is always there to help.

Working in this echoing vault, full of many languages, I imagine it clouded with incense from swinging censers, the mosaics and marble glittering and gleaming in the torchlight, the floor swept with heavy velvet vestments, clattering Crusader hooves, curve-toed Ottoman sandals, the air full of song and chanting and screams. This place has seen so much life. The tops of all the balustrades are covered with centuries of names. The giant columns show richer color toward the bottom from centuries of hands. The place is full of ghosts, sacred and profane. One day I may be one of them, but just now I’m happy to be able to draw here, in peace and safety, into the dark of the day.

West End, Outer Transept, Hagia Sophia ©2011 Trici Venola


All art Plein Air by Trici Venola. All art © 2011 by Trici Venola. Thanks for reading. We love your comments.


SAINTS AND ANGELS 2: Drawing Jesus In Hagia Sophia


I finished drawing the mosaic of Jesus on the Winter Solstice, four days from Christmas, when Christians celebrate his birth. Solstice rites go back to pagan times, the celebration of the returning of the Sun, a religion-transcending human impulse to mark the happy turn of the year from darkness to light. Here’s a different Son being celebrated, and am I glad my homage is ready in time. Merry Christmas!

Jesus Rocks ©2011 by Trici Venola

  Why is it so beautiful?  The larger-than-life-size original is in glorious color, yet there’s something compelling about this little black and white study, only 12 X 20 inches. Maybe it’s because the absence of color forces one to pay attention to depth, arrangement, structure.  A strong composition works with or without color.

Starting to Draw Jesus ©2011 by Trici Venola

Everybody says “How do you start?” As seen above: slow, light, careful! I took it as far as I could in front of the original, then moved to the giant blowup photo across the way. As to the finish, I confess I did it here at home in about eight hours, looking at various closeup hi-def photos I took. I wanted to get the details right, I can’t get close enough to the original, and that blowup is only okay. As usual, I planned to only draw 10 X 17 inches and leave a nice white border, as I promised patron Michael Constantinou, but ran it to the edge of the page. I just couldn’t stop myself, Michael. You cover that with frame if you must!

Jesus Rocks.Eye Detail ©2011 by Trici Venola.

 In the two days I sat in front of Jesus drawing him, dozens of people came up to the mosaic, gasped, stared, and took a picture, the guards’ chorus of “NO FIL LASH! NO FIL LASH!” echoing in counterpoint to the grinding click of the cameras. The thing is, everyone takes pictures. And most of them are sensational. It’s a glut on the eye, all that color and detail. So, a little black and white drawing, a human doing it, and slowly at that. Slow Life, you heard it here, and if I’d been blogging a few years ago, you’d’ve heard it here first. A portrait of a mosaic at this point in time, taking into account flaws, missing tiles, patterns. All the things that are specific to this image at this moment in its history, and may that history be much longer.

Jesus Rocks.Mouth Detail ©2011 by Trici Venola.

Originally I proposed to the Constantinou Family that I do a big drawing of the Dome Angel, but they’re out of wall space. So we hit on the idea of  small studies from the basilica. At first  I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of a straight shot at Jesus, someone else’s art with no interpretation or odd angles, but I was wrong. Sometimes it works and you just don’t know why. While I’m drawing, I keep asking, “How can I make this drawing more interesting?” Here’s a section of the robe that had me stumped. Shades of blue and many little pale blotches on the surface. But just look at how many ways there are to render little square mosaic tiles! No formula: this is about giving permission, on a very deep level, to draw it as interestingly as you see it. If you’re bored, chances are it’ll look boring.

Jesus Rocks.Robe Detail ©2011 by Trici Venola.

Caroling with Canon Ian Sherwood at St. Helen’s Chapel, I met Tara, a Byzantine scholar doing postgraduate work here. She’s a mine of information. For starters, what I suspected is true: the geometric patterns on Hagia Sophia’s walls and ceilings, worked in gold and silver mosaic, are original Sixth Century. Along with Jesus, I’m drawing various architectural details. This one is from just next to the balustrade directly across the gallery from The Last Judgement.

Shadow Arch WIP 1 ©2011 by Trici Venola.

Here’s a photo of the same place:

I’ve always loved the silver mosaic there, and wanted to capture the mystery of the place and the aspect of old brickwork under old mosaic.

Shadow Arch WIP 1.Detail ©2011 by Trici Venola.

I started drawing the geometry almost by rote and was dumbstruck to see this pattern emerge. As you can see up in the photo, it looks like tapestry. You really have to look hard to detect the filigree wheels worked into the diamond. The general impression is simply one of lush, exquisite brocade. One of the assets of documentation in black and white is the necessary simplification, which reveals hidden treasures like these.

And at the top of the capital, check out the pattern! Flowers, yes, but notice how the negative spaces between the petals form small Catherine Wheels, going in opposite directions. St. Catherine was a particular favorite of Justinian’s; he founded St Catherine’s Monastery on Mt. Sinai in Egypt. The Catherine Wheel represents the instrument of her torture said to have vanished by magic, leaving the Saint to be beheaded instead. This is considered romantic twaddle by some hagiographers. ls it romantic coincidence that Catherine Wheels often appear in the church motifs? Whether you believe in St Catherine or not, you can believe this: nobody carving this stuff in stone could coincidentally carve flowers that form Catherine Wheels.

Angel Panorama ©2011 Trici Venola

To draw this little side alcove, I’ve moved camp across the great sag in the marble floor to the balustrade. Every glance is a potential drawing taking many hours. I could spend the rest of my life inside Hagia Sophia and never begin to mine the wealth of drawing in there. What I love the most is the patina of age over the layers of visible history.

In one glance to the left, up top we have the third dome, built after the first two collapsed. Repainted by the Ottomans after 1453, it’s been restored by the Japanese over the past several years.

There’s the Angel under the dome, discovered in 1841 by the Fosatti Brothers under Sultan Abdulmedjid’s restoration and carefully covered up again until 2009, when it was unveiled to great fanfare. According to Tara, it was created around 1261, after the expulsion of the Western Romans.

The clerestory windows high up catch the light and make the massive dome appear to float, as early chroniclers tell us.

We’re looking north here; the altar is to our right. At the base of the group of windows are some icons that were painted over and have been restored.

Below those is the opposite gallery, with malachite columns scavenged from the ancient Gymnasium at Ephesus. To the right is one of Sultan Abdulmedjid’s four enormous calligraphy medallions, which proclaim his name, the names of his grandchildren, and the name of the Prophet.

Below this is the side gallery to the nave, with more malachite columns and Ottoman additions. The wooden railing is of a pattern I last saw on storm drain lids in the LA River. We called them Cat’s Faces. What a surprise to see them here!

Then there’s antique graffiti carved into the marble balustrade, and below that a very common thing in Hagia Sophia, an excised marble cross. And finally the cracked marble floor, bowed with the stress of centuries.

The Real Deal: Deesis Mosaic: The Last Judgement

The Jesus I’ve been drawing turns out to be not as old as we thought. Tara tells me that, despite the sign in front stating that the Deesis Mosaic The Last Judgement is 12-century, it was actually created in 1261. The great master artist is unknown, but his work is as close to immortal as art can be. Having it created was the first thing that the Christians of Constantinople did once they succeeded in expelling the Western Romans, when Dandolo who let them in had been exhumed and tossed out to the dogs, when the horror of the Fourth Crusaders had dimmed to a grim memory, when Hagia Sophia became again an Eastern Roman Christian temple. Islam’s proscription against imagery in art caused the pictures to disappear with the Fall of Constantinople to Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453.

The Last Judgement and other mosaics were discovered under plaster in the 1940s, in their present devastated condition. All this time I thought it was Crusaders had scraped the gold off, since they trashed so much else, but these desecrators were Ottoman. At least they spared the faces, which is more than the Iconoclasts did. With all these art-destroying factions hacking away it’s a wonder that the Jesus survived at all. It’s enough to make you believe in miracles.

Jesus Rocks.Hand Detail ©2011 by Trici Venola.

SAINTS AND ANGELS 1: Drawing Mosaics in Hagia Sophia

I feel across the centuries kinship with these patient mosaic artists, and all who maintain the passion to create vital images in a tedious medium.

Ayasofya Rising ©2004 by Trici Venola

Ayasofya Rising ©2004 by Trici Venola

AN AMBER SKY 537 AD, the sky was amber. That’s the thing to remember when you’re standing in line looking up at the sprawling mass of towers, arches, brickwork and minarets, waiting to get into Hagia Sophia. The greatest church in Christianity for a thousand years, sacked by Crusaders in 1204, but still a building so sublime that Mehmet the Conqueror refused to burn it in 1453. He converted it into a mosque until Kemal Ataturk made it a museum in the white-sky 20th Century. But in 537 when it was consecrated, the sky was amber. In 535, something happened that darkened all Europe. Tree rings in Ireland show zero growth for ten years after 535. The people whose business it is to look into such things think it was Krakatoa erupting that caused the cataclysmic darkness. Krakatoa is a volcano in the Java Straits near Indonesia, and the last time it went off, in 1883, it killed thousands, changed the geography of the area and altered weather conditions for years. Years of darkness due to a globe-encircling belt of ash would have been nothing to such a force. So the Dark Age really was dark, gradually lightening into the yellow sunlight of Medieval references, those paintings we thought were because of yellowed varnish. Suchl darkness would have meant no photo-synthesis and no rain: Drought, famine, horror. Accounts of such have been found from Germany to Syria. The people must have thought it was the end of the world, and for many of them, it was. The sun would have been a red disk in a sable sky when it began to show up. In Constantinople, still recovering from the Nika Riots of 532, there was hunger and plague. Yet the great basilica continued to rise. By 537, the light may have lightened to Byzantine gold.

Deesus Mosaic “The Last Judgement”, Hagia Sophia.

REAL LIFE SEEM SLOW I’m standing in line a lot these days, staring at the marauder-scarred marble in the courtyard waiting to get in, because I’m drawing from a mosaic in one of those upper galleries from 9 AM until it closes at 4:45. It’s that real famous Jesus, in The Last Judgement, a Deesus Mosaic– Jesus flanked by Mary and John the Baptist. The Jesus is a masterpiece. From a few feet away you can’t tell that the face is mosaic at all.

Ace photographer Ken Brown sent me this photo of some graffiti in New York. It says:




So what do these moldy old Real Life Byzantines have to do with anything, anyway? Computer graphics, for one, you little Fast Life graffiti refugee. The first time I saw these mosaics, back in ’99 after fifteen years in computer graphics, I thought, My God, they can bend the pixels. 

Byzantine Griffin ©2006 by Trici Venola

Here’s a 6th-century Byzantine Griffin I drew in the Mosaic Museum back in 2006. Here’s a closeup of the head. Mosaics are 3D crosshatch. They ran the lines to match the contour of the shape they were creating. You can see those lines. But in setting in the tiny mosaic squares, they created lines going crossways:

Byzantine Griffin.Detail ©2006 by Trici Venola

DIGITAL MOSAIC Would computer graphics have developed as they did without the collective consciousness of mosaic? The most durable art form in existence: tiny bits of colored stone, pottery, glass and metal making up the shape of the world as we know it. Now computers do it with light. In the early days of the Macintosh, we had very few colors of light to work with. Here’s a vintage piece, built in Studio 8 in 1989. The center figures are vector graphics I created in 1988, using MacDraw II.

A Chorus Line in 8 ©1989 by Trici Venola

Look closer!

A Chorus Line.Detail @ 400% ©1988 by Trici Venola

Like all computer graphics, this is made of light. And it appears on a grid. At that time we had only 8 colors to work with, since there weren’t any color paint programs. We used ’em in various combinations, like black and red checkerboard to make dark red. Here’s Krishna’s mouth on the grid.

A Chorus Line ©1988 by Trici Venola. Krishna’s Mouth @ 800%

Seurat woud’ve loved it, but I would have killed for a blur. A blur makes up for a limited palette. It’s also a way to help the pixels appear to tilt and bend. The colors in the very earliest version of this, above and at left below, were WHITE, YELLOW, RED, MAGENTA, BLUE, TURQUOISE, GREEN and BLACK. By 1989 we had Studio 8 from Electronic Arts, with 256 colors and all the paint tools. I dropped this image into Studio 8 and blurred  it. See the difference?

Chorus Line CloseUps: Left: 8, Right 256.

Studio 8 was divine. You could actually paint with it, if you knew how to build a 256-color palette. Here’s my 2-month “learning” image. Since it says Studio 8, EA used it as a demo poster. And for what it’s worth, the fire used to actually cycle.

Dancing Fool ©1989 by Trici Venola

Close up, you can see the hard edges of limited palette, but like all mosaic  it reads from a distance. See the blur on the left of his neck? It’s actually gradating shades of several colors.

Dancing Fool.Detail @ 400% ©1989 by Trici Venola

In 1990 came the dawn, with millions of colors and Adobe Photoshop, casting long Jesus rays over the world of Art Creation. Photoshop, the Universal Solvent of computer graphics, elegantly and consistently programmed, intuitive, kind to artists. Came Wacom Tablets, no more mouse! Sections of this piece were built in 8 colors, then in 256, dropped into ‘Shop with Millions of colors and tweaked there, more created directly in ‘Shop. It’s my last mouse piece. No more painstaking placement of pixels with a mouse.

Earth Angel ©1990 by Trici Venola.

But close up, it’s still a mosaic made of light on a grid. As is everything, on every computer, everywhere.

Earth Angel.Detail @400% ©1990 by Trici Venola.

And that brings us to today.

Main Entrance Ayasofya

STARTING JESUS Hagia Sophia’s basilica is 6th-century but the pictorial mosaics are all after the 9th. The reason is that the Iconoclasts, discussed in the From Pillar to Post blogs, destroyed all the icons and pictures in the 8th and 9th centuries. The transept was undoubtedly lined with fabulous mosaics but now it’s bare brick save for one over the mighty main door. So our Jesus was created in the 13th century. He’s on the cover of all the guidebooks. He’s studied in Art History courses worldwide.

Looks pretty simple, huh? Deceptive, this face. It’s wider than it seems. The eye on the right is much larger, and the pupil is toward the right, wihich makes him appear to see everywhere. The mouth is a rosebud, but not prissy at all. The features are delicate but very masculine and strong. Look at that neck! The hand is graceful but the general impression is one of power.

The first drawing started out okay, but I don’t like his nose and he looks too soft.

JC 1 WIP ©2006 by Trici Venola

So the next day, I did another. This Jesus I can live with.

Mosaic is pottery or stone dipped in gold and then used, or dipped in gold and then dipped in enamel. The colors never fade. It’s the most durable art form on earth. The Crusaders in 1204 thought the gold mosaic tile was solid, and they stole a lot before someone thought to melt it down. The gold of theJesus Mosaic, called the Deesus Mosaic, was  not pilfered by Crusaders but by Muslims bent on obliterating all trace of Christianity. Before plastering over the images, they spared the faces. It must have been Mehmet’s Muslims, for the Deesus mosaic was created after the expulsion of the Western Romans from Constantinople in 1261, almost six decades after their entry in the hideous Fourth Crusade of 1204. Just behind me as I work is the former tomb of Dandolo, the fellow who let them into the city. After they left 60 years later, the residents exhumed Dandolo and threw him out the window.

JC 2 WIP 1 ©2011 by Trici Venola

Notice that I’m not drawing individual mosaic tiles on the face yet. That’s because this needs to read first as Jesus and then as a mosaic. What I’m doing is following the contours of the face and folds and hair, keeping it light, and paying a lot of attention to the proportions. Also, I can’t really see, from this distance, where the lines of mosaic divide one color from another. That’s how good it is. Now across the way from the actual mosaic is a huge color photo blowup of Jesus. MOSAIC TILES The next day, I camped out there where I could see closely, to draw the mosaic construction of the face. If I drew exactly what’s on the wall, I’d get a person in a mosaic suit. Drawing, I met Maria and Ioanna. They’re Cypriot Greeks, like Michael Constantinou who commissioned this piece. Gorgeous, aren’t they? Thrilled that someone knows the Greek part of Hagia Sophia’s history, and now we are all Facebook Friends. I’d jumped up to show them something. One thing I had noticed from the original location is how the artist took into account the light coming in from  the left. Here’s the Jesus as I left him on the last session.

JC 2 WIP 2 ©2011 by Trici Venola

Notice the shadow to the left under his chin? That was built in mosaic and gives a damned good impression that he is three-dimensional. Now that’s a Master. Imagine, the sun pouring in the window, and Jesus standing right there next to it surrounded by gold, so real he casts shadows in the yellow light, high up on the wall at the Last Judgement, his eyes filled with something beyond compassion: the complete and painful understanding of just what there is in each person, in the whole world, how much power, how much evil and confusion, how much joy.

All drawings Plein Air by Trici Venola. All art ©2012 by Trici Venola. Thanks for reading. We love your comments.



There’s nothing really old in Los Angeles.

Venice Beach #5. Photo ©2008 by Charles Lester.

Maybe that’s why there’s a Youth Cult. Hah! They don’t know what old is. Awhile back, a friend from my squandered flaming youth sent me an iPod stuffed with 566 live performances of Classic Rock he’s been personally recording since 1966. He’s standing right there in all of them, and now, so am I. I feel like the Ghost in the Machine. I always wanted a guy who would take me to concerts.

So I’m listening to The Beach Boys, circa 1973. Talk about old!! Songs of youth in safety and privilege, so simple and lovely. A song about being safe in your room. A song about a girl who rode a surfboard. A song about how all the girls in the country are so beautiful. A song about making money and being popular. A love song to a car. A song simply about feeling good. Once I thought them vacuous but now in the turgid Middle East present they sound soooooo beautiful, sugary harmonies going up into the stars over the unhurried nonchalant Surf Beat . And I’m remembering a Russian kid I met at a college here in Istanbul telling me how his father got sore at him, said he was the Russian equivalent of clueless, that he, the father, had risked his life to listen to Beatle records back in the ‘sixties, because there was a death penalty for possession of Beatle songs, symbols of capitalist extravagance, and his son didn’t appreciate his freedoms. We took the Beatles pretty seriously, but a death penalty? From this perspective The Beach Boys are singing the dream of the world. A youth in freedom, safety and privilege, and I’m grateful that I had it.

But … there is nothing old in Southern California. This is one reason for my passion for visible antiquity. You can always tell Californians in Istanbul. We’re the ones staring in disbelief at the walls that are really as old as they look and not the product of a set designer. Astonishing, that there are really such things in the world. So when Dan DiPaola sent me this camera I set about taking pictures of the old Boukoleon Palace walls to send him in LA, where there’s one fireplace down in Olvera Street supposed to be from the late 1500s, wow man. Above is the drawing I got last session. Check out the section at the bottom right:

I drew all the way to the lower right corner of the paper, which is the corner of a window. Not being able to include the whole thing would have made me crazy, except that I spent 13 hours drawing this very window back in Februray of 2008. Here, take a look:

A Room With a View ©2008 by Trici Venola

Notice how there are things buried among the rocks of the outermost layer of the wall. You can see one pillar showing through at top left, and toward top right is a bit of carved marble. At left, just above the lintel arch, is a section of the marble balcony clearly showing through in our present drawing. The window itself is bare to the elements. Once high over the sea, it clearly had something attached to its marble sill, look at the three holes.  I’ve taken lots of Americans to see this window, and we just stare at it and darn near cry, it’s so old and so beautiful and so…authentic. Back in 2008, 13 hours was the most time I’d ever spent on a single sketchbook drawing. It was important to draw every brick and stone exactly as I saw them, and am I glad I did, because there’s a fence there now and you can’t see as clearly, but I can still see that the rocks are different now. I never feel comfortable showing this drawing without its companion, Eager Student, a portrait of Ahmet Dal, a guy living in the ruins who made store runs for me and kept the creeps away. He’s reading my copy of Tayfun Oner’s book Walking Through Byzantium, with mighty enjoyment of the CGI of his home the Boukoleon.

Back to the section of the present drawing: Just to the left of the window is a section of original Byzantine brickwork eroded into a roll. This is where the newer layer has fallen away. Can you see the edge of the newer layer? It’s that vertical zigzag at the bottom left. Here’s what this wall tells us: First, early in the ninth century, Theophilus the Iconoclast Emperor built the Boukoleon Palace right into the City Walls rising up on the Marmara Sea. Then in 1204 came the Fourth Crusade, Roman Catholics mostly from Italy, and they  burned the Palace, flames wreathing the crosses carved over its windows. People moved into the burnt-out husk and lived in it for centuries. All this time, this wall was right on the water, which gradually receded as the harbor silted up. In 1871 the Sultan ran the railroad through the Palace, and someone built wooden houses next to it, which filled in the windows with dirt and debris. Water dribbled through from the plumbing. Then in the early sixties the highway and park were built, raising the ground level by about twenty feet. At some point, possibly around the time that 16th-century fireplace was built in LA, the wall was reinforced with an outer layer of stone. That’s why the pillars are partly concealed. The edge of this outer reinforcing layer is that zigzag. In the last blog, I described finding one lone pillar, to the left of this arcade of pillars, with a filigree capital intact. It’s likely that there are other capitals buried in the wall. 


There have got to be other windows as well. Drawing this stuff, I see all sorts of things I never noticed before, and now I can take pictures.

Buried Window Ledge

Here’s some sort of ledge sticking through the newer layer of wall. The gray vertical stains are from water draining out from the wooden houses above.

Ghost Window Closeup

And there’s a Ghost Window. See how the more recent layer of wall sticks out much fartherthan the layer to the right. The innermost layer is original Byzantine brick.

Ghost Window Longshot

In the longshot at the bottom of the page, we can clearly see the window.
See it there, at the bottom of the picture? There’s yet another window that just sticks up from the ground, over in the corner next to the Lighthouse. You can just barely see the desiccated scored window lintel above the ground.

Ground Level Buried Window

Suddenly I’m cold to the bone. It’s time to pack up the drawing board and trek down the highway. Gulls shrieking, distant tankers out on the horizon, a row of battered fishing boats, and the looming grizzled hulk of the Boukoleon and the City Walls. A far cry from the soft white sands of Southern California where 30 seems old, lavender sunset light lying in little pools in the tromped-in sand, one great continuous Pacific wave, and those soaring falsettos. Thank you Randy Harris for sending them to me, and for being in touch all these years later. The Beach Boys would have sounded like angels to the Byzantines. Shoot, they sounded like angels to us.


 There it was just behind the tree, up on that part of the wall that’s covered with vines most of the year. One perfect filigree capital perched on one perfect pillar, one tiny part of the Boukoleon Palace intact, one of two in the whole splintered stone pile to reach us direct from the ninth century. (The other one is some carving at the Sea Gate a block away.) Everything else visible above ground is dragon-spine architectural bones once clothed in multicolored marble. Mosaics, polished marble Rorschach-patterned panels, statues, bas-reliefs– all gone, or mercifully buried, safe for a more enlightened age.

We have very little to go on as to how this place looked. The aforementioned and much-appreciated Tayfun Oner has given us structure based on facts,

Boukoleon Palace.detail ©

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Carecalla.detail

but we must imagine, assisted by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema and other painters of antiquity, just what this place looked like. So to find this exquisite pillar complete with capital was a happy shock, I’ve never seen it before! The vines that obscured it are all dead now. It’s full-on winter down here on the Shore Road, traffic whooshing by in the frigid wind blowing in from the Marmara Sea across the parkway. Only a masochist would be out drawing in this weather, and this is my payoff. I found the pillar on the second day of a two-day drawing marathon. Last week was sublime, if chilly. Long golden rays lancing through the cold, blue skies over the highway, the Obelisk drawing unfinished, a commission beckoning from inside Hagia Sophia, and I stole two days and went down and worked on the Pillars at the Boukoleon.

A big "Attagirl" from these cool passersby.

I found the Lone Pillar Capital while poking around getting close-ups of the wall, looking for traces of windows buried in successive layers of wall, because Art Angeleno Dan DiPaola in LA sent me a camera. A real camera. A real good camera, and I’ve been just going crazy with it, thank you, Dan! My old one died, I’ve been putting off getting a new one, partly from superstition, afraid I’d snap photos instead of drawing. But not so! Drawing even more!  Came down here to work on this Boukoleon Palace series and just wailed on it. Here’s where we left it last time:

Boukoleon Pillars 3 WIP ©2011 by Trici Venola

Notice the pronounced curve at the bottom. That’s actually what I am seeing although of course the marble slab is perfectly straight. It’s the curve of natural perspective. This time, no sweeping preliminary “perspective” lines in pencil. We learned our lesson drawing the Boukoleon Portals, remember? I drew straight lines and rendered the drawing onto them and then, goose egg, it turns out they actually look curved. This time I’m simply Invoking the Cross. Very apt for a Christian monument. One reader commented that painters of old used to simply grid off their paper. Why didn’t I think of that? I’ve been doing it in my head all this time. All this discipline, simply to avoid the inelegance of marking up the paper with anything but pen. But the Cross really works. To recap on this: Using my pen, or a pencil if it’s longer, I line things up on the actual site that I am drawing. I hold the pen out in a straight horizontal or vertical and see where things are in the site, like this:

See? I line up from points I’ve already drawn, and find where to position what I’m drawing next. I measure by the width of something I’ve already drawn, like the width of one pillar. This time I was able to hunker down and do this only after a lot of dither and fuss. Getting down there to the Boukoleon was like pulling myself by the ear, because I wanted to be drawing those melted marble bas-reliefs in the Hippodrome or mosaics in Hagia Sophia, but I don’t know how long this weather will last. Then I got down there. After so long it felt odd. I smoked a nargile with Osman at the cafe, looked at the sea, walked over to the ruins, drew awhile and finally woke up, drawing. Like so much else, sometimes it feels like just going through the motions, but if I do it right I sort of come to and get excited again. Here’s what we got:

Boukoleon Pillars 4 WIP ©2011 by Trici Venola

Those people of antiquity, even the rich and powerful who built this palace, were surrounded by sudden death. Death by nature: disease, childbirth, the ravages of early old age; death by whim: the whims of a monarch who took it into his head to stage a mass execution or declare  war, death by political upheaval, whether by being killed by one’s relatives for a throne or by one’s neighbors in a riot. Death by plague, starvation, infection, from being caught in the cold. They matured early, lived hard, and for the most part died young. Were they conscious of their fragility? Were they aware of the few seconds of eternity granted them, how precious it was? I think so, for look how they built. Their monuments are still with us. Like the movement in the carved marble figures up on the Hippodrome, still lively although the stone is wasting away, the life-sense of the ancients ran strong. Domes and arches and pillars, still with us. How do they last so long? These people built because they were compelled to and because they knew how. And they built for the glory of God.

Here’s Theophilus, the emperor who built the Boukoleon. He was the last of the Iconoclasts, the Christians who destroyed religious icons and ultimately much pictorial art in the name of piety. His Boukoleon would have been colorful but free of figurative art, which would have been added by his successors, all Iconophiles. Here’s a remnant of how seriously the Christians took idol worship:  Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image or any likeness of any thing that is in the heavens above, or the earth beneath, or the waters under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them nor serve them, for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquities of the fathers upon the children unto the third generation of them that hate me, and showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me and keep my commandments.  –Second Commandment, King James Bible. When I was a kid, I memorized this but wondered what it meant, since Christian art is full of pictures. Was it wrong to make pictures? There was a scene in a movie, showing people worshipping a golden calf, and I was told that the stern wording was about that. As a child I was encouraged to make as much art as possible and I do so to this day. It’s my way of adding to the stream of life, and I know in my bones that it’s an aspect of divine energy. What would it have been like to be brought up to despise pictures? Here in the midst of Islam I think about this often. According to many sources the earliest Iconoclast emperor was born in the 8th century, far to the east, and he was influenced by the Muslim proscription against images. The Iconoclasts were only in power for about a century, from 726-87 and 815-43. The proscription against idols was already there in the Old Testament (although the exact wording quoted above is from the 17th-Century King James version of the Bible) and this lent credence to the case for Iconoclasm. The Iconophiles were equally serious about their beliefs. Here’s a Medieval painting of the story of the Theotokos, a holy icon of the Virgin, that bled when stabbed by a soldier during Emperor Theophilus’s icon purge. It was thrown into the sea by a pious widow and sailed away upright through the waves. Sailing under a pillar of light, it attracted the attention of the monks on Mt. Athos. It was carried from the sea by the holiest monk to the Iveron monastery where it continues to perform miracles. What I see is from a figurative artist’s point of view: a grim castle built on rocks above stormy grey seas, the golden picture sailing serenely, the white pillar of light above it like a Hollywood searchlight, another lone exquisite pillar in the unholy dark.


Of course it’s a giraffe. It couldn’t be anything else. Look at those feet, and if those aren’t spots I don’t know what they are.  The head once stuck up above the edge of the marble step. After staring at the remains of this bas-relief for hours on end drawing it, I can see that there was a whole frieze attached to the step as well. It was a glorious parade, beautifully carved and probably painted and embellished with metal as well, showing strong men and dancing girls, exotic beasts and acrobats hanging off the newly-erected Egyptian Obelisk. 1600 years ago in the Hippodrome, the crowds must have gone wild, seeing this unveiled, possibly in the midst of a celebratory parade just like it. We celebrate art like this now because it’s original and we’ve seen photos of it, because it’s actually old and looks it rather than being a fake antique or something rendered unrecognizable by restoration, because of the things it has witnessed. It’s something to realize, that before mass production and the mechanized age, a work of art was celebrated because it was the only thing in the world that looked like itself.

Here’s a close-up shot of the Giraffe in context. The reason I think there was another frieze attached is because of that cheese-like texture in the marble above.

See? We’re looking at a marble step, as it were, with the bas-relief carved onto the face of it. The top of that step is all dented and polished with 1600 years of rain. Above that are many tiny erosion holes in patterns that look combed. This is because the marble-cutters left this part unpolished, another clue that it was intended to be covered. This  very coarse marble surface segues up into some arches at the top. Let’s see if I can find a photo:

Yep, there had to have been a whole lot more to this parade. The Byzantines ornamented every surface. They would never have left the bottom of those arches bare like that. Something was in front of it. I’m tempted to say that those little water-filled round holes on the flat of the step are artifacts of this, but they’re not symmetrical so I’m not sure. At any rate, we can see that the Giraffe must have had a head, and that it must have stuck up above the rest of him, in front of the flat surface above.

If you’ve just joined us, you should know that this is the Egyptian Obelisk Pedestal we’ve got here. It’s on the Hippodrome in the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul. The Byzantine Emperor Theodosius erected the Obelisk in 390, and he had this Pedestal carved to commemorate the occasion. Despite marble being softer than its granite burden, it’s been holding up for 1600 years. There’s some pertinent history in the previous blog: Standing the Obelisk. In the photo to the right, you can see some carved marble at the bottom. Our Chariot Parade is below it. Theodosius’s engineers reinforced the marble Pedestal with four square granite blocks. The Obelisk was broken almost in half and was lying unused at the Temple at Luxor before the Byzantines brought if from Egypt. These blocks may have been cut from the unused portion. They look exactly the same as the Obelisk itself, but they’re much more worn than it is, so again I’m guessing. The rough surface is between the very bottoms of them. They would have nicely framed the figures on the vanished frieze.

Still, we can see  enough to get an idea of the fabulous spectacle chiseled here in stone. Here’s the Strong Man. Look at that chest, those biceps, that bulging thigh muscle. Dancing girls, you say, where are they? They prance at intervals throughout. Here’s the one on the far left, with only a series of dots to mark where her scarf was. Perhaps it was made of gold or bronze, attached with tiny pins. Dancing ahead of the Giraffe are, possibly, two more. These are so desiccated that it’s hard to tell if there’s one or two. She, or They, look to have been leading the Giraffe, for

once again we see two parallel lines of tiny dots. There was probably another dancer at the far right, but only some scratches and lumps remain. The next dancer is back on the far left, in the second row down. She prances along with her hands high over her head, holding something up there, possibly a tambourine. Here’s the fourth, and isn’t she pretty, strolling along with her hand on her hip.

And the next dancer, leading the parade, just look at her strut!

And here’s the Acrobat, hanging off the Obelisk. This sort of art is symbolic in that one figure stands for many, and size is relative to importance, not reality. So there were likely many acrobats cavorting about the Obelisk. They may have somersaulted up there from each others’ shoulders through spinning rings of fire, they may have catapulted up there from elephants to cling triumphant to the pointed top, with chariots racketing all around the racetrack, blue and green, plumed horses glittering in painted harness, There may have been, on that missing frieze, an entire zoo of fabulous flaming acrobatics. Ancient theater was performed in the brilliant light of noon, but fire was popular, mirrors of polished metal made spotlights of the sun.

At either end of the Chariot Parade are two big round shapes topped with three long cones, all lumpy and combed with time. I don’t know what they were, but there’s something very similar shown in the Great Palace mosaics nearby in the Mosaic Museum. See the grey thing in the middle, next to the fellow running wheels? Here’s a close-up of one section of our Chariot Parade, showing the same object, near the Obelisk with Acrobat. This establishes that we’re looking at the Hippodrome, for there’s the Spina– see it running along under the figures?The mosaics were created for Justinian when he rebuilt the Palace after the Nika Rebellion in 532, a little over a century after the Chariot Parade was carved, and you can see them when the Mosaic Museum reopens in May. That section celebrates sports and games, certainly still being played in the Hippodrome of Justinian and Theodora. The Hippodrome was up and running by the third century. Down its center ran a narrow raised section, the Spina. The statues and monuments were there to heighten the suspense and excitement of the races and spectacles by making it harder to see what was going on. Here’s our Obelisk in CGI in the very center of the Hippodrome, up on top of the Spina.

Hippodrome Spina © Used by permission                                              

The present surface of the Hippodrome is about twelve feet above the top of the Spina which is still there, under layers of rock and cement and pavement, while hordes of tourists eddy above it, the Sultanahmet hustlers like barracuda around them. And me perched cold to the bone on my little stool in the golden freezing afternoon, unable to stop drawing the Parade although my hands are stiff, thinking of the thousands of skies that have looked down on the Obelisk, the rain sluicing down, the axes chopping, the campfires smoking, all those thousands of turbans milling around it in Ottoman times, when the Hippodrome was the Horse Market. Governments have toppled but never the Obelisk. These tiny figures, hardly a foot high, have withstood earthquakes, fires, plagues, the Iconoclasts and the Crusades. Theodora and Justinian executed twenty thousand people here after the Nika Rebellion, but the tiny dancers continue to cavort, unabashed by their diminished and roughened surfaces. It’s as if the pulse of life was in the marble itself, and the wearing-down of the surface only shows where it is strongest.

Perhaps one day I’ll go into the computer and paint this Parade the way I think it looked, from the research I’ve been able to do merely by looking. Meanwhile I’m glad that I’ve been able to spend so many hours with it, the drawing freezing it at this moment in its slow descent back into the mother stone.

Chariot Parade ©2011 by Trici Venola