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:

SCREEN HISS SCREEN GLOW

REAL LIFE SEEM SLOW

Hm.

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.

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2 thoughts on “SAINTS AND ANGELS 1: Drawing Mosaics in Hagia Sophia

  1. Wow, Trici, what a great perspective. You’re as much a master with words as you are with digital and classical art forms, I think. I love the historical details, and can’t help but wonder what the effect on a people is of their sky changing color for years without anyone knowing why! And the multiple stages of your studies of Jesus in the mosaic are fascinating. Readers should click on the last image of Jesus in the article and zoom in on it fully to really appreciate the amazing detail!

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