HOT CROSSES: Crusader Graffiti in Hagia Sophia

TWO LEAD CROSSES

Two Lead Crosses ©2012 Trici Venola

They’re only visible from a few inches away. Carved  at eye level into the side of a malachite pillar in Hagia Sophia’s lower North Gallery are two thick little crosses side by side. The lead pressed into them is the same tone as the pillar itself. Leaning there in the dark one day last winter, I saw them between my fingers and thought I was hallucinating.

There are dozens, some say hundreds, of graffiti crosses scattered throughout Ayasofya. Along with the ghost images of bronze or gold crosses wrenched away are these thick little artifacts. I think they’re from the Fourth Crusade.

Hagia Sophia, Constantinople, 1204: Illiterate Christian Soldiers far from home with nothing to do but raise Cain, melt lead, fix chainmail and make arrowheads. Here’s some melted lead among the graffiti up on the balustrade in the Imperial Gallery.

The more I looked, the more crosses I found. Here’s one on a massive malachite column, one of the eight major ones in the nave. Notice how this cross fades out at the top, but still has all that lead pressed into it.

Here it is in situ. Can you see it?

PAGAN COLUMNS  Sources differ as to the origin of these eight giant green columns, each 70 tons of priceless malachite, probably 2400 years old. Tradition claims Justinian brought them from Ephesus, from the Temple of Artemis or the Gymnasium there. Other sources claim that they’re from the Temple of Baalbek in Lebanon. I haven’t been there, but photos show zero malachite. The big purple ones, porphyry, are probably from Rome.  Porphyry must be harder to carve, because I’ve yet to find a cross cut in it. Almost all of the columns here– veined purple-and-white, speckled green, swirled purplish-grey, golden, and the green and purple monoliths– were scavenged from Pagan temples; brought by barge, rolled on logs, hauled by lines of straining oxen, sweating slaves, cushioned in bushels of straw, great wooden wheels groaning over the Roman roadstones.

Clearly, Hagia Sophia’s architects, Isadore of Miletus and Anthemis of Tralles, got the most magnificent columns to be had in matched sets, and the leftovers from this perfect symmetry likely made up the nearby Cistern, also built by Justinian at the same time as Hagia Sophia. The Cistern, never meant to be seen, creates an effect so breathtaking that it takes a few visits to realize that all of its columns are flawed.

Here in the great temple, the columns are all different sizes, and it’s wonderful how the architects worked with these limitations. I’ve always loved Hagia Sophia’s feline, feminine curves. Now I see a practical application: the arches swoop down to meet the shorter columns, up to reach the tall ones. Some columns are mounted on pedestals. Here’s a cross carved in the corner of one.

 See how he had just a little leftover lead to put in it?

Pedestal Cross ©2012 Trici Venola

DRAWING IN THE DARK Next thing I knew, I was sitting for days in the dark behind a pillar with a flashlight stuck in my hair, telling a diverse parade of perfectly fascinating people from all over the world about the Crusader Crosses and the Fourth Crusade. A guide came along and excitedly told us that in 28 years he’s never seen these particular ones, and that I must be lucky. And how! I get to be here and draw this:

Crosses in the Dark ©2012 Trici Venola

I slaved over this drawing and despaired of ever getting it right. There’s so much detail, and it’s all so dim. It took about fifteen hours. The crosses here have no lead and are far down on the wall side of the pillar. I found them by feeling around and using my little flashlight. Notice that there are bits of the dark shiny original surface left on the crosses as decoration, and that the two crosses are linked by a bit of it. Like two names. Are we looking at a Crusader Bromance here? Even a Romance is possible: ancient Romans had the canonized gay soldier couple Ss Sergius and Bacchus as patrons. Why not Crusaders?

We’ll never know.  All that is certain is that someone carved these, and took the time to do it neatly and carefully. Here’s a shot of the entire composition, which I didn’t notice until well into the drawing. There are four: our two linked ones at the bottom, a deeply incised stick cross in the middle, sort of pouring out of a very deep hole, and the top one which is forever just coming into being out of the marble. I find this one magical.

Hot Crosses Four ©2012 Trici Venola

“Politicians, ugly buildings and whores, all become respectable if they last long enough,” said John Huston’s raddled old crook in Chinatown, and so it is with graffiti.

Can worship create an energy? Hagia Sophia, St John’s, the Temple of Artemis, St Savior in Chora, Rumi’s Tomb in Konya, Baalbek in Lebanon– all are palpably holy places, whether ruins, museums or adaptations to another religion. The columns from Pagan temples still reverberate with worship to the ancient gods, although they’ve been holding up Ayasofya for 1500 years. Worship is a powerful force, and although the name of the Deity changes I believe the force remains, singing down through the pillars through the massed energy of millenniums of temples here on this rock sacred from the beginning of time. So what’s the story with Christian crosses carved as graffiti in a Christian church? Why do I think these are from the Fourth Crusade?

Gustave Dore’s engraving: The Crusaders Entering Constantinople

Hagia Sophia was consecrated in 537. Until the rape and sack by Crusaders in 1204, no hostile armies succeeded in getting into the city. It’s unlikely that anyone would have cut crosses during that time. In the late 8th century the Iconoclasts, starting with  Emperor Leo, destroyed much of the pictorial art: mosaics, bas-reliefs, everything. But crosses were allowed to remain. Graffiti ones, though? This one is right out in front of the altar!

Hot Cross Floor ©2012 Trici Venola

You can see in the photo below that another cross was started. Somebody swinging an axe, chopping away…

Carving with a knife into marble is not so easy. One must devise a chisel effect and bash at it with…what? A mallet, a mace? Lean into the edge with all your might, again and again. Noise, fuss, swearing, leaning there on your cutting device and scraping. Not a light undertaking, and nothing furtive about it. Here are three columns in a row, each with a cross in the same place.

From 1453 until 1931, Hagia Sophia was a mosque. Mehmet the Conqueror, in 1453, refused to burn it. Instead, his men built a minaret and amputated the arms of every cross they could find. A Western tourist visiting the Ottoman empire might have succeeded in furtively scratching one cross over in the shadows, but banging away, cutting deep into marble floors and pillars right out in the nave, making all these and more?

Hot Crosses Group Shot ©2012 Trici Venola

Cemented-Over Cross

Could the crosses, similar in size and shape, have been made after the Republic? Hagia Sophia has been a museum since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk declared it one in 1935. It was closed for four years prior to that. It’s barely possible that some Christian fanatic was working there alone at night…but I doubt it. It’s much more likely to have been then that some insect cemented over several crosses, at the front of the nave and on a few of the pillars. These boneheaded attempts have the look of some excised crosses upstairs, in which the axe cuts faithfully echo the cross shape. Someday a method may be found for dissolving cement without dissolving the stone underneath, but until then I can only long for a chisel.

Nope, not likely during the Ottomans, nor after the Republic. Had to be Fourth Crusaders. Here’s why.

THE FOURTH CRUSADE

 

There were two sides to the Christian church: the Catholics in a collection of city-states in Italy, and the Eastern Roman Christians– we call them Byzantines– an empire ruled from Constantinople. Venice, in Italy, looked longingly over at the glorious city of Constantinople, bastion of the Eastern Roman Church and very, very rich.  The two factions did not get along. Eastern Roman Christians favored trade over war, and they bathed, looking down their long narrow Byzantine noses at the unwashed, body-eschewing “Latins,” the Catholics who they considered filthy warmongers, observers of pagan Latin rites.

 

Mural, in Istanbul’s Archeological Museum, of Constantinople before the Fourth Crusade. Huge grey building is Hagia Sophia.

Pope Innocent III tried to muster up a Crusade against the Byzantines but only succeeded in drumming one up to take Egypt from the Muslims.  To get there, the Fourth Crusaders hired Venetians to build ships for them. They couldn’t pay for the ships. Enrico Dandolo, Doge of Venice, old and blind, suggested that they recapture Zara, in Hungary, for the Venetians, and then go sack Constantinople. So the Crusaders, mostly Italian and French out for treasure and glory, became mercenaries for Venice.

Do you know who painted this? Let me know so I can credit them!

Crusade videos abound on YouTube,  In one, the unctuous narrator actually says that the Crusaders didn’t mean to destroy the Christian city of Constantinople. He says they had no choice but to sack it to pay the Venetians. “Um…I maxed out my credit card, so I’m going to kill you and your family and take everything you own to pay it…”

Eugene Delacroix, The Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople.

 

It’s true that the Crusaders scrupulously honored their debts to Venice. Picture a household gutted of its glory and beauty, the husband and wife disemboweled among the bodies of their raped children, screams from the convent nearby, flames belching out of church windows, coffers smashed open, blood and stench everywhere, sky black with oily smoke, silks and satins billowing through splintered shutters– and a bunch of bean counters making piles for the Venetians. “One for you, and one for me…”

This accounts for the glories of San Marco Square in Venice, plundered from Constantinople, among them the four bronze horses taken from the Constantinople Hippodrome.

 

Istanbul Through the Ages, the top floor exhibit of Istanbul’s Archeological Museum, houses broken marble from site after site destroyed by “the Latins,” punctuated by photographs of art treasures now in Venice.

Jacopo Tintoretto, The Second Conquest. A Venetian, the artist painted heroism.

Upstairs in Hagia Sophia, just behind the Deesus Mosaic, is a grave in the floor. It’s Dandolo’s. He died in 1205 and was buried by his request in Hagia Sophia. But he’s not there. 57 years later, when the Byzantine Christians of Constantinople succeeded in vomiting out the Catholics, they dug up Dandolo and threw him out the window.

Alexius Angelos

There were other factors in this mess. Alexius Angelos, deposed Byzantine Emperor, promised the moon to the Crusaders if they helped him get back his throne. He got it, and died soon after, proving a miserable ruler who bankrupted the Imperial treasury.

Pope Innocent III

 

During the convoluted and bloody track of this Crusade, Pope Innocent III, horrified at the mayhem, excommunicated all the Crusaders. After being presented with the spoils from Constantinople, he accepted them back into the Church.

The Imperial Tombs were all over at Holy Apostles, on the site of what is now Fatih Mosque. Everyone of consequence was entombed there, and there were celebrated relics of the saints. Over the protests of one Latin priest, the Crusaders ripped open the sarcophagi, took all the gold, and threw the bones to the dogs in the street. And that’s what happened to St Luke, to Constantine, St Helen, Justinian and Theodora, the relics of Ss Timothy, Andrew, John Chrysostom, Gregory the Theologian… What remains of their glittering reliquaries can now be seen in the Treasury of St Mark’s Basilica in Venice. If St Mark had been buried at Holy Apostles, he would have been chewed by the dogs as well.

Opened Sarcophagus in front of Hagia Sophia

 

There are many sources for all of his, but let’s hear a contemporary account:

How shall I begin to tell of the deeds wrought by these nefarious men! Alas, the images, which ought to have been adored, were trodden under foot! Alas, the relics of the holy martyrs were thrown into unclean places! Then was seen what one shudders to hear, namely, the divine body and blood of Christ was spilled upon the ground or thrown about.

Domenico Tintoretto, Conquest of Constantinople

They snatched the precious reliquaries, thrust into their bosoms the ornaments which these contained, and used the broken remnants for pans and drinking cups… just as… Christ was robbed and insulted and His garments… divided by lot; only one thing was lacking, that His side, pierced by a spear, should pour rivers of divine blood on the ground. Nor can the violation of the Great Church [Hagia Sophia] be listened to with equanimity. For the sacred altar, formed of all kinds of precious materials and admired by the whole world, was broken into bits and distributed among the soldiers, as was all the other sacred wealth of so great and infinite splendor.  —The Historian Nicetas Choniates, 1155-1215/16

 

There is no excuse for the Fourth Crusade, but there are these crosses.

Hole-In-One Cross ©2012 Trici Venola

 

After a couple of weeks hunting and drawing crosses, I can see these guys, these Crusaders. They’d been camped out in Venice, fighting and looting Zara in Hungary, excommunicated, nothing more to lose.

 

Then to  Constantinople, telling each other it was meet and just to behave like beasts in the fabled streets. Now in the dusky church the massive  pillars rising up into glory, mayhem below, fires here and there reflected on the marble floor, glittering off the gold ceiling mosaics high above. Whores singing, one lolling in the Patriarch’s Seat, drunken carousing, the altar hacked to pieces, puddles of sacrificial wine. Bedding and loot spilling out of sacks, chainmail in stinking heaps, exhaustion, hilarity. Illiterate treasure-hunters, murderers and thieves by our standards, but with the same desire to make a mark that Justinian had, and only a knife, an axe, a sword to make it with. All of them played by Ray Stevenson of Rome. Hack, crunch. “You call that a cross? Hang on, let me at it.” They might wrench away every gold crucifix, but still carve one as well. “I was here,” it says, “I lived.”  Just guys. We can almost forgive them for St Luke.

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All drawings Plein Air, done with drafting pens on rag sketchbook paper 18X52cm / 7X20 “. All drawings and most photos ©2012 by Trici Venola. All drawings from the series Drawing On Istanbul by Trici Venola. I know you’re out there, so feel free to comment. We love comments, and Followers get a special place in Art Heaven.

EVERY STORY HAS A FACE: Plein Air Portraiture

 THE TAILOR SHOP

The Tailor Shop ©2012 Trici Venola. Minerci, Yorganciler Caddesi, Aga Han #20, Kapalicarsi.

Suleyman the Magnificent

Sahin Gurvardar and his son Taner work up top in the Grand Bazaar in a shop the size of a teakettle. That’s Sahin as a young blade over his own shoulder, and that’s his father in the photo below. The Gurvardars have been in this shop since the Republic, laboring under towering piles of fabric, making thousands of cushion covers and bedspreads, and when you buy a pair of jeans in the Grand Bazaar, these are the guys that shorten them.   They work constantly. They have a nice summer house in a town a few hours away, and Taner just got married. Sahin is a direct descendant from Suleyman the Magnificent, the great Sultan of the Renaissance, although not from the infamous Roxalana. You can learn a lot about this place, drawing the people.

I sat in the shop for about three hours, mostly getting the background.  I’m increasingly grateful that I can do this because it makes people very happy. These folks are not on the tourist track; nobody makes a fuss over them. They were so excited! Sahin and I had a celebratory tea while Taner rushed off to the photcopiers with the drawing. It was an event.

A 16th-century Ottoman painting of Suleyman the Magnificent

A portrait isn’t a figure study or a lesson in facial anatomy, although it may be used as such. A portrait is a celebration of that particular individual at that moment. These are all Plein Air portraits: done on the fly, from life, and cleaned up later. Yes, I was sitting there with the person at the time. It all has to come alive from lines on paper, so I ask myself, “How can I make this more interesting?” One way is  to put it in context. Lighting, background, placement on the page: all contribute to our information about the personality.

TEA IN A CAVE

Tea in a Cave ©1999 by Trici Venola. The Open Air Museum, Goreme, Kapadokya.

Here are guards at the Open Air Museum in Goreme, Kapadokya, descended from The Conqueror, the Conquered, or both. They gave me tea after I spent four frigid, gritty hours drawing St Barbara’s Chapel, and pointed out a stone gorilla in the rocks opposite.

THE BROTHERS AKBAYRAK

The Brothers Akbayrak ©1999 by Trici Venola.

Mike, Alpaslan and Hasan Akbayrak of the Kybele Hotel. Nobody posed, I was just noodling around. Always carry your sketchbook!

AIN’T SHE SWEET

Ain’t She Sweet ©2004 by Trici Venola.

New Year’s Eve 2004-2005. For years I was afraid to ask people to hold still so I could draw them. What if they didn’t like it? Would they hate me? I prettified people. Not anymore! There’s pretty, and there’s beautiful. So now I just let ‘er rip, and if they don’t like it, sorry. I believe this lady was a journalist, but I’ll never know because she hated her portrait and left before I could get her name. Everyone else thinks she’s adorable.

MISCHIEF

Mischief ©2006 Trici Venola.

Drawing women of a certain age…my nightmare. I am one, and I know the horror of realizing that the elder person in the photo is you. But some folks don’t care. This lady came out to investigate and watched for two hours as I drew cave houses across the way from her home in Goreme, Kapadokya. She held absolutely still in the chill winter sun for about twenty minutes. I was able to get the scarf shadow on her face and the pattern on her shalvar. Placement on the page is important. I tend to put people where they are in relation to me while I’m drawing them. Filling the page above or below is not always a good idea.

OLD POET

Old Poet ©2006 Trici Venola.

He loved his drawing. A translator and poet: seated in a rattan chair in the 16t-century Writer’s Union Han in Sultanahmet, he looked right out of a Somerset Maugham story. Shrunk in his white suit, he carried an old leather briefcase stuffed with clippings about himself and made great conversation in elegant English. Sadly his name has been lost to me, but I’ll have him always.

NURETTIN AND HIS WALL

Nurettin and His Wall ©2011 Trici Venola.

Master craftsman Nurettin Mantar is fond of this wall he built from local stone in his hometown of Ortahisar, Kapadokya. I tried to show that Nuri and the wall are somehow of the same material. As I drew him, I asked if the derelict cave, next to the beautiful one he restored, was part of the original complex. “Hibe dede,” he said, “grandpa grant. 800 years ago, seven brothers came from Uzbekistan and settled here. They married, had children, and they lived in all of these caves. They were my ancestors.” Now how many people can tell you who their ancestors were eight centuries back, let alone make a palace from their caves?

STREET DRAMA

Sogukcesme Street ©2004 Trici Venola.

To draw this little street next to Gulhane Park in Sultanahmet, I sat on the porch of an ornate building on the tramline when  I noticed a line of village women sitting across the street. I drew them and left out their faces, since I didn’t want to offend them. One of them noticed and brought over her little girl for a portrait. Here she is in the center.

Outside the Juvenile Court ©2004 Trici Venola.

I thought these women were waiting for the bus, but I was sitting on the portch of the Juvenile Courts Building. The woman on the left was very angr when the others, all delighted, showed her the drawing. She made smearing motions over the page and dressed me down in Turkish. When I found someone who spoke English, I realized that all these women were waiting for their sons to be tried, and the woman’s anger was about a stranger witnessing that. When the soldiers came out with her son between them like a criminal, she fainted in the street, and all the others revived her, henna-stained hands patting her limp ones.

JEANNIE AND LEYLA JANE

Baby Face ©2010 Trici Venola

Baby Face ©2010 Trici Venola

What is it that creates that need to catch a face? I see people, and like it or not I just have to have them.  I want to dress them in line and share them forever. I hung out between drawings at the hotel Jeannie managed with her friend Rhonda in Sultanahmet, watching the sun and the moon on her growing belly as the three of us solved all the world’s problems. How we found time for this I’ll never know, because nobody ever worked harder. It paid off: the hotel thrived and so did Leyla, who was born with the brightest red hair anyone had ever seen. For Jeannie and her famous blonde hair in the sunlight of Leyla’s happy childhood, I used very little shadow. And I wish it to the both of them, in life.

MOMO

Big Momo ©2010 Trici Venola.

Genghis Khan

Muhammed Rahimoglu looks like a modern version of Genghiz Khan. I had never seen a face like this and have drawn him many times.  He’s Turkman from Afghanistan, from the area of the giant Buddhas. It’s not farfetched to claim Genghis Khan as an ancestor if you are from Central Asia: DNA testing proves many, if not most, people are direct descendants. Modern depictions portray the great warrior as craggy and fierce, but contemporary portraits show a wide face with a long straight nose and Asian eyes.

Genghis Khan

Muhammed remembers walking out of Kabul through the Khyber Pass with his family when he was three, remembers his brother getting lost among the forty other families, remembers hungrily drinking milk from a red spice bowl like the ones in his Istanbul tribal arts shop now. The familly grew up in Pakistan. Muhammed pioneered tribal felt in Istanbul: items made by the women of Kyrgystan, cottage industries started by Unesco seed money to give them economic parity. Starting from a few pieces of silver and a lot of guts, Muhammed did his own buying, touring the ‘Stans with his many languages, and became an institution in Tribal Arts. His shop, Ak Gumus, is still in the Grand Bazaar, but we’ve lost him to Kyrgystan, where he’s now cornering the market in Green Tea.

GHOST OF ISTANBUL PAST

Then there’s Nizam. Huge presence and a fascinating face: dozens of drawings over the years. Here he is in 1999:

Nizam Odalisque ©1999 Trici Venola.

and again in 2003.

Still A Porsche ©2003 Trici Venola.

Here’s our friend Bayram in his salad days:

Bayram in a Leather Jacket ©2004 Trici Venola.

I used the hands and jacket from this portrait, re-drew Bayram in profile, and dropped him–using Photoshop– into this drawing from 1999.

The Everlasting Carpet Shop ©1999, 2006 Trici Venola

Here are the same guys in 2010.

Ghost of Istanbul Past ©2010 Trici Venola.

Some people are better as art, God bless ’em.

PETER HRISTOFF PASHA

Professor of Art Peter Hristoff flung this priceless tribal blanket around himself and sat for 45 minutes in front of his rapt class from the School of Visual Arts in New York: our lesson in portraiture in the Grand Bazaar. I spent the time drawing Peter and got the exact pattern of the blanket later from a photo. It was important. Peter’s gift for teaching and his enthusiasm and expertise in tribal arts are major elements of his personality as I see it, so I’ve couched him in these terms.

ISMET AND HIS SAZ

The donor kebab is fabulous at Hayat, Ismet’s corner stand on Akbiyik Street just down from the Arasta Bazaar, but his saz music is even better.

If I were a better artist I might be able to catch that instant when the still, posed face breaks up into curves as the subject cracks up in self-conscious delight. Still I try. If time allows, I sit there a bit and let them talk, and then I ask them to Hold It…. It’s only five minutes, I lie, and the more you hold still, the better it will look.

CLASSIC MARIO

Mario here loved having his picture drawn and held his patented ladykiller grin rock-steady for twenty minutes. Not many people can do that, but he’s had a lot of practice. I usually start with the eye on my left, proceed to the nose, and go from there. I often cut off the top of the head. It’s not intentional. At least I’ve progressed from the bad old days when the neck looked like a stick and the ears were too close to the eyes.

ANNE

All these guys are well turned out by their mothers. Anne is Mother in Turkish, and this magnificent matriarch posed for me in 2004 in her village near Kayseri. These hard-working women have palms textured like the soles of the feet of city women. And what a beauty she was! Below, her daughter busied herself in the kitchen, making us welcome.

COOKING CHICKEN

Cooking Chicken ©2004 Trici Venola.

The kitchen, plaster over cinder-block, was painted deep turquoise, inspiring the color for every bedroom I’ve had since. Tribal art decorated the walls, all of it with a purpose: curtains, tools… She squatted down and in about fifteen minutes cooked the best chicken I ever ate, while I stood there and drew her. Drawing someone is intense: Immersion in that personality. This is why I don’t draw on demand or do street caricatures. I take commissions, and sometimes I work from photos, but I’m a real prima donna about who I draw.

THE BACKGAMMON PLAYERS

Oh, I love portraits. I started before I can remember. All the architectural stuff and landscape, that’s more recently-acquired skill, very hard to learn. As I labored, the principle of portraiture spilled over into the surroundings, making the backgrounds as personal as the people in them.

The Backgammon Players ©2004 Trici Venola.

Eventually I was able to make a drawing interesting to me without people. Now I draw a portrait of a place or object at a particular point in its existence, and I make it as personal as possible. I include all the little details. I love old buildings for this reason. A building that’s been sandblasted and made to look new is no fun at all. What makes something drawable is that individual personality, the patina of having lived.  There’s another word for it in English: charm.

Topkapi Wall at Gulhane Park ©2004 Trici Venola.

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All drawings Plein Air. All line art © Trici Venola. All drawings are from sketchbooks: a two-page drawing measures 18 X 26 cm / 7 X 20 inches, done with drafting pens on rag paper. All art is from The Drawing On Istanbul Project™ by Trici Venola. Thanks for reading. We love your comments. The Drawing On Istanbul Project has many friends but is not affiliated with any government, university or corporation. If you are interested in sponsorship, or purchase of a particular piece of art,  please  contact us here.