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.


Drawing the Boukoleon Portals 2

Friday 16 September 2011• 2:00-5:00 


Today we had no dogs at the Boukoleon and the bums’ tent was empty. It’s made of a blanket hung over a cord tied to the ancient wall and a little tree, with a teapot set up next to it, trash everywhere and wadded up against the fence. Away over in the corner near the big arch a guy sat scowling and reading. A pair of teenagers showed up, spread a newspaper on the brick pavement amid the blowing trash, and started necking. They were there for three hours. I felt like a duenna. Re-drew the left portal, and am I glad I did. Now it works, it’ll carry the whole thing.

Had a time as I couldn’t find my pencil. Knew I’d put it in with the pens. The page I prepared at home, up against the window, tracing the layout with pencil from what I”d done before, turned out to be cut too short. I had to prepare another. And. No. Pencil. Trying to hold two huge flapping papers up to the light and keep them from sliding out of place while I made pen dots on the perspective lines.  Then I packed up, went down to the bus stop and asked one of the drivers. He gave me a fine art pencil and I almost kissed him. Oh bliss, to safely delineate the basic block-in of that blasted portal. Here’s the hash I made of it yesterday. Notice the point on the dark negative space at the top of the inner arch. It doesn’t look like that, it’s rounder. The whole proportion is off:

Far Left Portal Misfire ©2011 by Trici Venola

The problem yesterday came when I drew the entire rectangle of the portal in ink and then tried to put all the arches inside, and they came out squeezed. This time I penciled only the left post and the top, the main horizontal perspective lines and some of the inside. Then I started drawing in ink, the inside of the portal, all the arches and twisted burned brick. This worked.

Far Left Portal For Real ©2011 by Trici Venola

It may not matter to you, but it sure matters to me. Sometimes you just don’t have time to start over, but this time I do. Also, a proportional problem this early on will only lead to grief, since as I draw I measure against everything that has already been drawn. Here they are side by side. See?

Far Left Misfire

Far Left for Real

Started sneezing but didn’t care, it was going so well at last. High above my small shady cypress tree is an enormous Sycamore, and something up there is crapping on the page from time to time. I have to be quick  with a tissue or it soaks into the page. Those neckers hung in there and I got a surreptitious drawing of them melted into each other.

They felt it, her suspicious little face glancing over at me past the sheaf of black hair. A kid with braces from Iran asked me the history of the palace, said he was stuck with his mother and grandmother who only wanted to shop. I gave him a card for the website.  A guy crawled out of the tent, scratched himself, waved.  An affable face. Said he knows me, I’m the artist, I could draw there as long as I liked and he would keep off the riffraff. He works long hours at the gas station across the highway, was catching some sleep.

End of the day an ebullient Turkish guy came up and said he could feel the presence of the ancient Byzantines. I said I could too, they blow in with the leaves and watch me draw. He said he could also feel the spirit of Jesus Christ. I let that one go. The Boukoleon was built in 817, lived in for four centuries,  sacked and burned in 1204. Byzantines built it and lived and prayed in it and Crusaders destroyed it, and all of them in the name of Jesus Christ. While I was drawing the portal I saw dark and blood and flames,  Crusaders in armor stalking through the arcade of arches, one standing there with drawn and dripping sword, the red cross on his chest visible through the smoke, over him the same cross carved in the blackening marble lintel, the flames fluttering like Crusaders’ flags.

Dog In the Ruins ©2008 by Trici Venola.