THE GORDION KNOT OF HISTORY: Drawing in Museums

I love drawing in museums. The stuff in those cases is laughing at you.

In honor of the recently desecrated Guardians of Nimrud, we repost this classic piece on the importance, not to mention the fun, of museums. Thanks to them, the Guardians are still with us. Read on, and keep reading, to go with them through the Gates and down the garden path, in unexpected company.

ALEXANDER RIDES TO MIDAS

Alexander Rides to Midas

Alexander Rides to Midas (Archeological Museum, Istanbul) ©2012 Trici Venola.

Alexander the Great died in 323 BC. He was 33.  Alexander died of a bone infection from an old arrow wound.  It’s possible that his immune system was compromised by his grief, bordering on dementia, over the death of Hephaestion, his closest friend, greatest general, second in command and, some say, the love of his life.

Hephaestion Straight Up

Hephaestion

Like the god he believed himself to be, the Golden Conqueror would never age. He won the respect and admiration of his own time and successive generations. In awe and affection they continue to laud him, creating imagery in all media from marble to film.

His actual body was mummified in Alexandria, Egypt, by Egyptian necromancers, and was still in a good state of preservation three centuries after his death, when Caesar Augustus leaned into its glass sarcophagus to kiss the Conqueror and, slipping, broke off the mummy’s nose. But Alexander’s tomb and body disappeared. The Alexander Sarcophagus in Istanbul’s Archeological Museum is the nearest thing we have.

Alexander Sarcophagus Detail

Alexander is still fighting and hunting lions on this museum centerpiece  from the great Necropolis at Sidon.  The stunning bas-relief was created by unknown talent during Alexander’s lifetime. It’s possible that the artist actually set eyes on him.

Alexander SarcophagusThe art commemorates victory over the Persians at the Battle of Issus in what is now Turkey, and Hephaestion is there fighting as well. Scholars argue over who was buried in the tomb, but he may have commissioned the work before his death with an eye toward Alexandrian help in future battles. The Alexander Sarcophagus was discovered, in what is now Lebanon, in 1887 and brought to Istanbul by Osman Hamdi Bey, the great Ottoman statesman, archeologist and artist who built Istanbul’s Archeological Museum.

Alex In Better Shape

Alexander Is In Better Shape (Archeological Museum. Istanbul) ©1999 Trici Venola.

Alexander in MuseumAnd here is the rock star himself, Alexander. This still has traces of yellow paint in the marble hair, rose on the lips. It’s one of several done in the second century BC, when the artist might have had Alexander’s mummy to work from. I find this plausible because the forehead wrinkles are realistic for Alexander but idealized out of many statues.

THE GORDION KNOT

 In the drawing up top, Alexander rubs shoulders with an ancient Cypriot statue of Bes, the God of Plenty, a Hittite lion 5500 years old, and King Midas. A skeletal cohort of Midas– nobody knows who- rests upstairs among swanky grave goods built of boxwood from 740 BC. Midas was  King of the Phrygians, whose capitol of Gordion is near Turkey’s capitol, Ankara. The Phrygians invented a smelting technique that made bronze shine like gold, so yes, everything Midas touched turned to gold. And I thought it was just a fairy tale. Here’s some Midas Gold in the Archeological Museum in Antalya. It actually looks like titanium. There’s also a Madonna whose breasts weep blood, three jolly bronze creatures and a festive phallic bronze pin. I love drawing in museums. The stuff in those cases is laughing at you.

Midas Gold

Midas Gold (Archeological Museum, Antalya) ©2000 Trici Venola.

Gordion is the Home of the Gordion Knot. More fairy tales: Nobody could untie the Gordion Knot. Alexander famously solved this dilemma. He pulled out his sword and cut it.

Alexander Cuts the Gordion Knot

Alexander Cuts the Gordion Knot by Jean-Simon Barthelemy (1743-1811)

The Gordion Knot

A rendition of the Gordion Knot.

Turkey is a veritable Gordion Knot of history. The threads keep weaving in and out, disappearing and reappearing, and I will never ever live long enough to unravel it. In a beloved tale, King MIdas judged Pan the winner in a music contest with Apollo, and a furiously un-godlike Apollo gave him donkey’s ears. The little figures below are Midas Gold and smaller than my hand. I haven’t yet been to the museum in Ankara, now in restoration, but look forward to its re-opening, when I can see Midas’s magnificent wooden furniture preserved and reassembled over years by dedicated archeologists.

Antalya Museum Intro

Antalya Museum Intro (Archeological Museum, Antalya) ©2000 Trici Venola.

LIONS CAN LIVE THOUSANDS OF YEARS That Hittite lion back in Istanbul has fellows all over what is now Turkey. Aslantepe (Lion Hill) Huge dig near Malatya features a jocular fountain lion and many real pussycats.

Aslantepe Huge Intro

Aslantepe Huge Intro (Aslantepe Huge Excavation, Malatya) ©2004 Trici Venola.

The museum at the University in Elazig was full of artifacts from Paleolithic to Ottoman. It’s the only place I’ve ever been offered a chair, not to mention tea and conversation.

Reyhan in Elazig Muse ©2004 by Trici Venola.

Reyhan in Elazig Muse ©2004 by Trici Venola.

I love the combination of tribal art and ancient artifacts found all over rural Turkey. Here’s a collection from Aslantepe Huge:

Malatya Artifacts

Malatya Artifacts (Aslantepe Huge Excavation, Malatya) ©2004 Trici Venola.

Here’s a Hittite courtroom, drawn in situ in Turkey in 2004. The culprit sat in the hot seat, surrounded by devils– those paintings on the walls– and was judged by a group. Not much has changed in 5500 years, if you consider the paparazzi.

Hittite Hot Seat

Hittite Hot Seat (Aslantepe Huge Excavation, Malatya) ©2004 Trici Venola.

NIMRUD IN HOLLYWOOD The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is one of the more civilized museums in the world, allowing artists to carry in sketchbooks and work at any time. But they go farther still. I drew this Assyrian Guardian and mapped his beard curls to render when I wasn’t standing up– on feet that felt like two hot anvils pounding upward. But I neglected to render one curl to go by. I went back next day, but the exhibit was closed. At the guard station I explained the problem while flipping pages in the sketchbook. “All I need is five minutes,” I said, and those enlightened people called the actual curator who personally came downstairs, escorted me up to the exhibit, unlocked it and stood there while I drew the beard curl. Now THAT’s a museum!!

Assyrian King at the Met

Assyrian Guardian at the Met (New York Metropolitan Museum of Art) ©2002 Trici Venola.

Nimrud Bird Djinn

Nimrud, Bird Djinn

To the right of the bearded Guardian is a piece from a personal puzzle: that male figure with a bird head, wings and a sideways Egyptian stance, symbol of exotica and ancient mystery. This image strides through my earliest memories, associated with Echo Park, with klieg lights across the sky and the smell of eucalyptus, an enduring symbol of Old Hollywood, of Los Angeles, of home. What a shock to discover this dear and familiar figure to be a djinn– a genie, relic of Nimrud, in Mesopotamia, oceans and continents and millennia away from my childhood in California. I was totally immersed in the Middle East, obsessed with moving to Turkey, drawing to learn more. Echo Park had been the furthest thing from my mind. I stood there in the Met with my mouth open while images strobed through my memory. DW Griffith’s silent epic Intolerance, shot in Hollywood in 1916, stunned viewers with its exotic representation of Babylon. See the figures on the gate?

Griffith Intolerance Set

Set of Babylon, DW Griffith’s Intolerance, Hollywood 1916.

Antiquities in the Middle East were being discovered at the same time as the medium of film. DW Griffith’s Babylon featured this same djinn, still parading in Hollywood shopping malls to this day.

Hollywood Highland Center

Hollywood Highland Center, 2004.

One Ramadan, drawing from memory Eastern Turkish women I’d seen on the tram, I was compelled by a certain strength in their features to intersperse them with Mesopotamian deities. After all, these faces are all from the same region.

Ramadan Women

Ramadan Women ©2011 Trici Venola.

Nimrud is on the Tigris, just southeast of the eastern Turkish border. It was originally excavated in the 1850s. One example of our bird-djinn was surely found between then and Intolerance. DW Griffith employed artists from all over the world. One of them knew the image, which was used precisely because of that sense of ancient mystery it conveys. Many more were found at Nimrud in 1931 by archeologist Max Mallowan. The one above, which I used as reference for my djinn drawing, was photographed by his wife, Agatha Christie.

Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie at Nimrud, c1937.

AGATHA CHRISTIE? That Gordion Knot again! The most prolific and well-known mystery writer of all time was no stranger to Hollywood, since so many movies have been made of her novels, including Murder on the Orient Express which begins in Istanbul, where she often stayed on her way to and from her husband’s digs in Mesopotamia. I had always associated Agatha Christie with floral dresses, trains, lorgnettes, a detective with patent-leather hair. But here she is in the dusty winds of the Middle East. She funded many digs, used up her face-cream cleaning ancient sculpture, and was an inveterate shutter-bug. She photographed many of the considerable Mallowan finds and wound up on many a museum plaque, along with all those best-seller lists.

Big Faces Agape

Big Faces Agape (Archeological Museum, Istanbul) ©2012 Trici Venola.

Turkey is a mystery I will never solve, but it sure is fun trying. One way is to travel, and another way is to go into the museums and draw. When I get fascinated by a piece of art and draw it, I learn more and more about this place. Everyone was here, many at the same time. Check out these strange bedfellows from the 2nd century AD, at the Archeological Museum in Antalya.

Unholy Trio

Strange Bedfellows.detail (Archeological Museum, Antalya) ©2000 Trici Venola.

Priapus, God of Sexual Enthusiasm, was as popular with the ancients as he is with us. The one on all those postcards is in Selchuk, along with many other aspects of love.

Eros & Priapus

Aspects of Love (Selchuk Museum) ©2012 Trici Venola.

There’s Priapus actual size– fist-sized–  at right center. He’s in a glass case with a light you press for two minutes of illumination. I kept pushing the button so I could see to draw, and when I looked up a large crowd was standing behind me, staring into the case and giggling.

THE BYZANTINE FANTASY ZOO

Dragon Lamp at the Met

Dragon Lamp at the Met (New York Metropolitan Museum of Art) ©2002 Trici Venola.

It turns out that a dragon was a symbol of Christianity. So was a foot, which represented pilgrimage. Drawing in the Met, I realized that Christianity had spread all over the Middle East long before Islam. It incorporated all the fantastic animals of the Shamanistic religions that preceded it.

Peter Paul and Mary at the Met

Peter, Paul and Mary at the Met (New York Metropolitan Museum of Art) ©2002 Trici Venola.

Thanks to the movies, the co-mingled Egyptian animal-human gods are old friends. But who ever heard of a Senmurv, a rocking-horse-like winged creature with a peacock tail?

Byzantine Trappings

Byzantine Trappings (Archeological Museum, Istanbul) ©1999 Trici Venola.

Bosch Delights.Detail

Hieronymus Bosch, Hell.detail, 16th century.

All the early Christian exhibits are full of these strange co-mingled creatures: bird-headed lions, griffins, dragons,  hippogriffs, pigs with wings. By the Middle Ages, artists were using them to populate Hell, most famously Hieronymus Bosch. The ancients combined lions and eagles and bulls. Bosch used animals he saw in Holland: frogs, birds, cats, mice, rabbits. Gradually these disappeared from Christian art, and all that is left of them now are those gargoyles on Notre Dame.

Notre Dame Gargoyles

Gargoyles, Notre Dame, Paris 2000.

Heaven got the winged deities. The visual depictions of angels evolved from those Shamanistic figures, from fiery six-winged Seraphim to Cupid-inspired cherubs. And this powerful winged male figure: our dear and familiar djinn with a human head: the Archangel.

The Archangel Michael, by Guido Reni, 16th Century.

The Archangel Michael, by Guido Reni, 16th Century.

A PRIDE OF LIONS

On the Steps of the Met

On the Steps of the Met (New York Metropolitan Museum of Art) ©2002 Trici Venola.

Not every fabulous museum denizen is in a glass case. Derek here posed on the steps of the Met with all the insouciance of one of the stone lions within, while I was able to delight nine-year-old Faisal by drawing his incipient mustache.

Assyrian Lions

Assyrian Lions (The British Museum, London) ©2006 Trici Venola.

Lord Elgin was the British ambassador to Ottoman Istanbul. Distressed at the rural peoples’ indifference to antiquities, he bought as many as he could afford, bullying an old friend into building an entire wing at The British Museum to house them, and bankrupting himself in the process. This is now a cause of discord between Turkey and England, but in the end the glories are preserved.

The Lion from Xanthos

The Lion from Xanthos (The British Museum, London) ©2006 Trici Venola.

In The British Museum, while drawing these lions from Xanthos, I was surrounded by schoolchildren. In uniforms, with sketchbooks, little Harry Potters all, saying in those lovely accents, “Are you actually drawing those lions? Truly?”  Yes, I said, these lions are from Xanthos, a city in Turkey. They were astonished, they were entranced. They had not known that Turkey is the Asia Minor referred to in the museum. My sketchbook at that time had pictures of the British Ambassador to Turkey, our Anglican Canon, the chandeliers in the British Consulate, and Cappadocia.

Big Church in Goreme

Big Church in Goreme (Goreme, Cappadocia) ©2006 Trici Venola.

What these kids loved was the open air museum in Cappadocia. They would not let me turn the pages. They wanted to know the story of every single pigeon cave in the cliffs, every window, every cave church. “These are pigeonholes? Real ones?”

Cave Church Door

Cave Church Door (Ortahisar, Cappadocia) ©2006 Trici Venola.

“Look at this, it’s old Father Theodosias’s church, look here, where he prayed, the stone is worn there, that’s Arab painting up top, you can see-” When I looked up, there were a hundred kids there, parents, teachers, docents… now THAT’s a museum!

Turkish Flashback

Turkish Flashback ©2000 Trici Venola.

THE GORDION KNOT There are plenty of Hittite lions in Cappadocia, too. All of Turkey is one breathing, palpating, interwoven fist of historical threads, pulling in the whole world. We live at the center, then and now. And what’s all this history for? Well, for starters history gives me hope. In these perilous times it’s reassuring to realize that the ancients, too, often thought– with good reason!–that the world was ending. It’s relaxing, when distressed by the antics of some fruitcake potentate or crackpot group of terrorist thugs, to read of the same a thousand years ago and know that these lethal fools too shall pass. History is humbling: no matter how unique I feel, I learn of legions of others. Wandering through the museums, looking at familiar expressions in ancient bronze and marble and clay, I feel at one with the great tide of humanity: following that Gordion thread, seeing it disappear into the knot, wondering if I will ever see it re-emerge, or if I must wait for another incarnation. One day I may have all the answers, but by then the questions probably won’t matter anymore.

Syrian Bronze Sphinx

Bronze Sphinx from Syria (New York Metropolitan Museum of Art)©2002 Trici Venola.

All drawings Plein Air. All drawings © Trici Venola, created with drafting pens on rag paper in sketchbook format, standard size 18 X 52 cm / 7 X 20 inches. All drawings part of The Drawing On Istanbul Project. Original drawings are for sale. If you see one here and love it, contact  Trici Venola. We love your comments.

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THE PALACE UNDER THE CARPET SHOP: Drawing In the Corridors of Lord

Ivory Angel NY Met ©2002 Trici Venola.Bas-relief4 X 4″ 500-700 CE

The bridal processional walks singing along Akbiyik Street, trailing clouds of incense. Between rows of arches and marble columns, through hotels and hostels, bars and cafes and shops, the grand company spirals up through the bad bald renovation of the Stairway of Lord, chanting with every step, and continues on toward the Four Seasons Hotel. Heavy silks and pearled brocades sweep through groups of backpackers drinking beer and smoking nargile, tourists haggling over carpets and ceramics, hotel check-ins and waiters juggling trays, as the Empress and her attendants and priests walk from her marriage, in the Church of Lord, to its consummation in the Imperial Bedchamber of the Magnaura Palace.  Sometimes I spend so much time drawing these antique ruins that the past becomes superimposed on the present.

Just Under Your Feet ©2003 by Trici Venola. The main entrance below the carpet shop, looking down into the Dome Chamber. That’s the Four Seasons at the top.

Cartoon Asia Minor ©2008 by Trici Venola

THE PALACE UNDER THE CARPET SHOP

I found this place back in 1999.  I’d heard about the Byzantine palace they’d found but couldn’t get in anywhere to draw it. I was out on Kutlugun Street in Sultanahmet across from Four Seasons Hotel, crazy, thinking about them building on the ruin before I could draw it. A guy stepped out of a carpet shop. “Do not cry, Madam,” he said, “we have the Magnaura Palace in our basement.”

In the Dome Chamber. ©2005 by Trici Venola

What they have is a section of the Corridor of Lord, part of the Magnaura Palace Complex. Every structure on the street is built over a chunk of the Corridor. But the Basdogan family at Asia Minor Carpets spent half a million dollars digging out theirs.  I started drawing it that day, and I’ve been drawing it ever since. It’s a spectacular ruin. You can see it under Asia Minor Carpet Shop and from the back of Albura Kathisma Restaurant. Don’t walk where the floor is wet! I love it so much I wrote a story about it. Here’s an excerpt. For our post, I’ve included my Plein Air drawings of the place.

JUST UNDER YOUR FEET

(Fall 1999) …As lights came on I began to see dim walls of pitted stone blocks. At the bottom of the wall to my left was a low arch. One of the electrical cords traveled along the wall and into this black hole. It lit up suddenly. The wall was so thick it was almost a tunnel. I stuck the sketchbook under my arm, bent double, and went in.

Double Door in Lord ©2005 by Trici Venola. From the Passageway, looking across the Bath at the first room.

It was a little irregular room with a tall vaulted ceiling. Amid the stones of one wall was a broken terracotta pipe. A bath? Across was the entrance to another archway. I crowded through it into a narrow passage, rough stone walls going up into shadows, iron prongs sticking out from the stones above my head, hammered into them in some forgotten necessity a thousand years ago.  

Lord Passageway ©1999 by Trici Venola. Looking back to the cement wall.

 I walked down the passage on warped wooden planks. The orange electrical cord looped along ahead of me, buzzing, strung here and there with glowing yellow bulbs. At the end of the passage it disappeared through a tall opening in the stone wall. I followed the cord through this opening. I smelled damp earth and age. The yellow lights made aureoles in the dusk.

I was in a big dim space, looking down the wooden catwalk at a brick archway about fifteen feet high, plugged almost to the top with rubble. Between the rubble and the arch was a black hole going back forever. The walls on either side were stone. At the bottom were cement sacks and a shovel. Above was a dome made of small red bricks in a spiral pattern. To the left and right of the arch were more pitted brick archways, at right angles to the one in the center. Each led to another spiral brick dome over another archway, each full of rocks and dirt that went off into the shadows. In the center arch, next to the black hole, was a bright square yellow lamp. The electrical cord swooped along to this and stopped. End of the line. I was in Byzantium.

— From ‘Just Under Your Feet’, Encounters with the Middle East, Solas House, Palo Alto. © 2007 Trici Venola.

The Indiana Jones Arch ©1999 by Trici Venola. Dome Chamber,  the drawing I did that first day.

In this early attempt at drawing old stone. I just outlined every brick. After so many centuries, each one has a separate personality. The cat clearly said, “What are you doing here?”

Open To the Sky ©1999 by Trici Venola. Dome Chamber entrance before the stairs were put in.

The Basdogan Family finished their excavation, three full rooms and the Passage, plus a small cistern behind that broken pipe. They installed two staircases and a plywood floor and topped parts of the ruin with glass, and put in a cafe with a large sign over it: Palatium.  In 2005, obsessed, I drew a schematic of their excavation. Here it is.

Magnaura Chunk Schematic ©2005 by Trici Venola.

In the story above, I went into the first room at the bottom of the drawing, up through the Bath and Passage, and into the Dome Chamber at the top, which is Kutlugun Street. The bottom is Akbiyik. Both run parallel along the Marmara slope of Sultanahmet. The shape of the streets is determined by the shape of the Corridor. See?

Google Maps Istanbul ©2012. My additions.

Here on Google, that big dome conglomerate at the top is Hagia Sophia. That Four Seasons, now gorgeous, was the actual Midnight Express prison, built on the ruins of the Magnaura Palace. You can still see graffiti from prisoners there. The Magnaura was the Imperial Palace from the 4th to the 8th centuries. The galleries were still around in 1200, as this CGI take from Byzantium 1200 shows:

Corridor of Lord CGI © 2007, Walking Through Byzantium. ©byzantium1200.com. Used by permission.

In places along Akbiyik street you can still glimpse tall pointed arches and old stone. Here’s what Byzantium 1200 thinks the inside upper gallery looked like.

Corridor of Lord CGI ©2007, Walking Through Byzantium. ©byzantium1200.com. Used by permission.

According to various sources, including one that quotes an 8th-century Book of Ceremonies, the Empress’s procession walked to her marriage, her ceremonial bath, her bedchamber and back again. I wonder if the actual consummation was witnessed as well.

The Passageway Door ©2006 by Trici Venola. From the Dome Chamber, looking into the Passage.

Drawing down under the street I wonder about a lot of things. There’s the dripping of water, great silence and a sense of waiting. Ghost stories seem sensible here. I heard of something in tall boots that told the carpet shop tea lady to move along, and one night watchman tells lurid tales of spooks running up and down the stairs. I myself saw only a black cat-sized shadow detach itself from a black doorway down there, skitter across the floor and evaporate before my very eyes.

In the Corridors of Lord ©2008 by Trici Venola. A double window next to the Indiana Jones Arch. By now I had learned to draw old stone. You do it slowly.

The best story was from an old lady in the neighborhood. In Kathisma Restaurant, next to the entrance to this excavation, there’s a tunnel tricked out to look like a wishing well. The old lady said that when she was a kid, they used to go in there and come out on the Marmara Sea. An adult tried this in the 1960s, but he got stuck and died, so be warned.

Bronze Foot Lamp NY Met ©2002 Trici Venola.400-500 CE

Copper Alloy Dragon Lamp NY Met ©2002 Trici Venola. c300 CE

Tiny Ivory Madonna NY Met ©2002 Trici Venola c550 CE Constantinople.

Rock Crystal & Silver Cross NY Met ©2002 Trici Venola c500-700 CE

I remember that Bishop of Constantinople in 1453, coming in full pomp with all his attendants to meet Mehmet the Conqueror. He handed over the keys to the city, and, according to witnesses, walked into the wall of Hagia Sophia and disappeared forever. There are these small doors in Hagia Sophia, and many, many tunnels. That must have been quite a processional, all those priests quick-stepping down through secret passages to the sea. They would have worn their best to meet the Conqueror, and carried all their jewels and all their prayers to avoid meeting their Maker. Red and blue and gold, furs and plumes, torches, little lamps. The Pilgrim Foot was a common Christian theme.  Fantastical creatures pre-date and permeate Christianity throughout the Middle East, a tradition now echoed only by those gargoyles on Notre Dame.  Perhaps the hurrying processional carried small ivories like this Madonna or the angel above. Or reliquaries with bas-reliefs similar to these silver ones of Apostles Peter and Paul. After all they were running for their lives.

Peter & Paul NY Met ©2002 Trici Venola.Silver bas-reliefs c 7″ high 500-600 CE

I drew these little images in museums, most of them in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, a magnificent evolved place that allows me to wander with my sketchbook and my mind, in the wake of the grand processional of history. It continues to wend its way along these streets, sun lancing in the arched windows, reflected flames gleaming in the surfaces of old marble bowed with the collective weight of panoply and prayers. Just under your feet, steps recede into the earth, domes push up weeds, arches bear up under traffic. Forty fathoms below that the goddesses are pagan, the angels’ wings come out of their hips, the lions have nearly human faces. Down and down and down go the passages, the great processionals in a honeycomb of antiquity. Workmen with iPhones jackhammer away, following the pipedream of progress, but they have never found the bottom of Sultanahmet.

All of Them Angels ©2005 by Trici Venola. Stone angels from the Archeological Museum, Istanbul 400-1400 CE, Ataturk, Van Cat and the Marmara Sea.

— All drawings Plein Air by Trici Venola, from the Drawing On Istanbul Series. All full drawings done in sketchbook format: 18 cm X 52 cm, drafting pens on rag paper. We appreciate your comments!