THE PILLAR OF LIGHT
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,
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.
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:
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:
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.