In response to requests, we are republishing this fine post from the archives. You just can’t get too much of Hagia Sophia. And if you’re in Istanbul now, go to the back corner of the basilica, on SogukCesme Street, and look in on the new antique carpet museum.
Ναός τῆς Ἁγίας τοῦ Θεοῦ Σοφίας,
Church of the Holy Wisdom of God
STEEPLES AND MINARETS
When Mehmet the Conqueror took Constantinople in 1453, he was twenty-one years old. He said: Give me your city and I’ll not let my soldiers loot. Gutted by the Fourth Crusade, shrunken to villages inside the walls, Constantinople had nevertheless held him off for a year, and still they fought him. They believed Rome would come to their rescue. A big mistake, and the city fell. The sky black with smoke, ships burning in the harbor, streets running with blood; screams and explosions; devastation and horror everywhere, and Constantine XI the Last Byzantine Emperor died on the walls, sword in hand. Afterwards, many witnesses claimed that a beam of light shot out of the top of Hagia Sophia, and the Archangel Michael soared out of the church and away, abandoning the city to the new Conqueror.
Enraged by unexpected losses, true to his word and the custom of the time, Mehmet let his soldiers run amok for three days. Afterwards, he says in his diary, he rode through the streets weeping at the devastation. Young Mehmet admired Alexander the Great, who burned Persepolis, but he refused to mind his own ministers, who advised him to burn Hagia Sophia. “It’s the most sublime building in the world,” he said, and converted it to a mosque. The Pope visited it in 2006. It was a huge event. The entire area was blocked off to all traffic, and the few trams running were jammed to the ceilings, steam on the windows. As I plodded up the hill from the ferry along with thousands of other displaced commuters, I thought of the Pope. Six hundred years too late, Your Eminence.
All the surviving Byzantine basilicas in Istanbul are now mosques. It’s why, traditionally, mosques are round. And common sense tells me that the Crusaders, despite wreaking havoc all over the Middle East, had by 1453 noticed the lovely minarets, gone home and invented Gothic Architecture. I’ve not found any scholarly backup on this, but I’d say minarets are why we have steeples on churches.
VANTAGE POINT June 2011, when Michael Constantinou asked me for the umpteenth time to draw him a picture of Hagia Sophia entire, I saw a two-week project. “Aç Ayi Ornamaz,” means in Turkish “The hungry bear doesn’t dance.” A commission was agreed upon. “The whole structure,” said Michael, “no tricky perspective, no slants, no seagulls!”
Aw shoot, no seagulls?
So I had to move closer. I roamed around Hagia Sophia, checking out various views, and settled on the terrace at Seven Hills Restaurant, site of many fine dinners, drunk on the view. Here’s what they think Hagia Sophia looked like back in the day, when Emperor Justinian was still alive.
The scene is so spectacular, the 21st-century June light so white and intense, the sea right there, no way to even begin to get it all down, but trying is what makes art. The waiters were so nice to me that I drew them in gratitude. I sat at the same table every day for ten days, drawing for five hours, in that intense sun. They brought me coffee and water and made a big fuss, but never more than when I came back the last day and did this drawing.
These guys are from all over Turkey: Istanbul, Ardahan, Siirt, Diyarbakir and Nemrut Dag. All posed in the same spot for five minutes each, and everybody got a copy.
THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAILS I blew the first two tries. The second one, I had gotten all the way across the east face at the right before I noticed that the proportions were off.
Started again right here, with the frontal projection to the right. I do not know the proper architectural term for these. Have you ever seen them anywhere else? I sure haven’t. That plaster floral medallion on each one covers a Greek cross.
This is drawn with drafting pens on 35 X 70 cm rag paper with no preliminary pencil, so it had to start right. Then I measured everything off of this one, as explained back in the summer of 2011 with the Drawing the Boukoleon posts.
June 9: Trying to get my mind around the implacable testament of this building’s age, and not as a ruin, either, but a continously-occupied temple of worship coming up on 1480 years. Thinking about the 10,000 workmen in two teams: 50 foremen with100 men to each, and they raced, and they met at the dome. Five years.
June 12: Today got badly sunburned on left side but didn’t stop. I’m noticing on the east face, which is toward the Marmara, what 15 centuries of storms have done to the shape– the wear, rain tracks and moss and such are very interesting. The sea is deep turquoise.
RIght in the middle of this section, see how the rain has sluiced diagonally across the brickwork, carving a trough? And you can see how it has hit that point of connection of the roof below, bounded over and fountained up, leaving a rounded mark on the wall above before flowing down into the shadow to the left. That shadow is very dark green: moss.
Here’s an angular spot I like, although the original brickwork has been obscured by new plaster. Hagia Sophia has been standing, despite earthquake and catastrophe and supported only by columns, for almost 1500 years. Much credit for this goes to Mimar Sinan, the great architect of the Renaissance. In the natural course of things, the walls under the huge central dome move apart, causing collapse. In a masterful and politic stroke, Sinan buttressed them and anchored the buttresses with minarets, pleasing the gods of structure and his Sultan, Selim II, as well. You can see the buttresses right here: those massive piers to the right, one of them under a minaret base. How massive are they? Look at those tiny people on the ground!
To design Hagia Sophia, the Emperor Justininan hired a mathemetician and a physicist: Anthemius of Thrales, and Isidoros of Miletus. Religion, Mathematics, Science and Art: they say that at the peak of understanding, all of these converge. Justinian’s rule, and his life, reached a crescendo with his partnership with his Empress, Theodora.
Ah, Theodora. There’s a lot on her in a previous blog, Standing the Obelisk: the notorious nude Hippodrome performer who got religion, became Empress, quashed child prostitution, invented tiaras and pointed shoes, and quelled riots with equal aplomb. Justinian had the laws changed so he could marry her. By every report they were passionately devoted to each other, to their faith, and to their Empire. Here’s Theodora painted into life from an ancient bronze statue now in Milan, using information from the Ravenna mosaic and contemporary descriptions.
Look at that eyebrow: now she could quell a rebellion. Justinian and Theodora: where art, religion, science and mathematics converge, add great love and get High Byzantine. Eros: the love of another, and Agape: the love of God. Here is the final drawing of Hagia Sophia Agape: the convergence of all the great mysteries: an answer so great that the questions don’t matter anymore.
“Even had its Empire never existed, Byzantium would surely have impressed itself upon our minds and memories by the music of its name alone, conjuring up those same visions that it evokes today: visions of gold and malachite and porphyry, of stately and solemn ceremonial, or brocades heavy with rubies and emeralds, or sumptuous mosaics dimly glowing through halls cloudy with incense. — John Julius Norwich
Alll drawings Plein Air, ©1999-2011 by Trici Venola. All drawings created with drafting pens on paper. Hagia Sophia Agape and Waiters at Seven Hills measure 50 X 70 CM. Other drawings measure 18 X 52 CM. Theodora Comes Alive was created onscreen with digital tools. Thank you for reading. We love your comments.