A MONK, AN ANGEL AND EMPRESS ZOE
Today a South Korean monk showed me an angel on an iPhone. Such times we live in. Her name is Jaywon, and if she had said she was fourteen instead of forty, I’d not have been surprised save for her eyes, which have seen a great deal. She and her friend Joohee were touring Hagia Sophia and ran into me drawing from those giant blow-ups of the mosaics. We exchanged pictures and I told her about Empress Zoe, in front of the photo of the Angel Gabriel. Jaywon said that I was taking in blessings from working among all the angels and art and energy. A nice exchange to have in this very old temple in an ancient sacred place. This is a small, self-contained, joyous woman with a shaved head, wearing loose light clothes and carrying that iPhone. On it was a video of something coming out of the dawn. A circle of pure white light, and a spear of it separated and came toward the bottom of the frame. Divine energy, she said. She was incandescent in the dark cold basilica, and I asked to draw her.
Yesterday was a dream drawing day. Michael Constantinou will be here any minute to pick up his art, and still two pieces to go. I stood in line and forked over 20 lira as usual, and charged upstairs to the end of the Imperial Gallery. Huge crowds eddied around me all day, bags bumping into my head. It’s a popular spot, sporting mosaics of four Imperial Majesties, one prince and two deities. Not only that, the adjacent alcove is the prime spot to get a shot of the Madonna over the altar. Everyone’s bundled in bulky coats, they’re bigger than they usually are, they stomp by like they’re smaller. At times I just clutched my drawing safe to my chest. But what a day!
Zoe here really drew herself. A Byzantine princess, porphyrygenita: born to a reigning emperor and empress –in 978– in the porphyry birth chamber, likely in the Boukoleon Palace. I refer to porphyry a lot, so here’s a chunk of it lying in the rain outside Hagia Sophia, built with pillars from ancient structures. It doesn’t show in the drawing yet, but Zoe’s face is set into a former mosaic, much earlier in style, texture and size of mosaic tiles. What I’m doing in this Plein Air sitting is getting the light right: drawing the surface slightly rippled with age, squinting to see in the gloom. I’m getting the Grand Gesture, and the details will come later.
Here’s Zoe’s Emperor, her third.
The guides all laugh at how old and fat she was when she had this mosaic made, followed by a two-minute hash of her life. He was a lot younger than she was, etc. I got to wondering about this sacrificial lamb, so last night I went online and learned a few things. One was that Zoe was beautiful, and she stayed so, not easy in the 11th Century. Who cares if she improved slightly in the official pix? Who doesn’t? The other is that this husband was a former lover.
Today started with a bang. I set up in front of the giant blowups in the North Gallery, to get the mosaic details right. Schmoozing with the guard, I opened up my bitsy folding stool. A sharp snap, and it collapsed. A broken wire. Disaster. I cannot sit on the floor. Asked for a chair, but no go. We cobbled the thing together. I cautiously lowered myself onto it. Completely immersed in work, a loud pop and I was slap on my back, pocket contents skittering on the icy marble. People rushed over and hauled me to my feet, and Mohammed the hero guard brought me…a chair. With arms and everything. Oh bliss. And this is what we got today.
Empress Zoe was quite a girl. Young and lovely, she was shunted into a convent to get her out of the way by competative relatives. At fifty, she was yanked out, crowned Empress, and married to a man who wouldn’t sleep with her. She drove him crazy trying to get pregnant. He ignored her. She took a lover and flaunted him all over the Court. They found her husband boiled to death in his bath. Zoe married the lover the same day, which made him Emperor Michael IV. Clearly he was from a family of hustlers. He demanded that she turn all her power over to his brother, John the Eunuch, and then shut her out of his life before becoming terminally ill. John the Eunuch commanded her to adopt his nephew MIchael. When Michael IV died, Michael-the-nephew was crowned Emperor Michael V. He dumped Zoe into a convent on the Princes’ Islands. This enraged the populace, because Zoe was a princess, porphyrygenita, born to the purple by God, so Michael V brought her back. It was too late: he was deposed. The ministers decided that Zoe must rule, but jointly with her sister Theodora, whom she loathed. Zoe wanted to forgive Michael V, but Theodora had him blinded and sent to a monastery. The Byzantines were big on blinding, they considered it PC compared to beheading, which they did to quell rebellions.
This coin shows the two Empresses, looking goose-like from much handling. In order to increase her power, Zoe wanted to marry. She was now in her sixties and, thanks to alchemy, unguents and potions, still beautiful. In former lover Constantine Manomachos, she found a husband, the third to be scraped out of the Husband Mosaic and re-grouted in another hopeful image. If longevity was hoped for, he wins the prize, for his image has survived out of thousands, for a thousand years.
Constantine Manomachos agreed to the marriage on the condition that the sisters accept his longtime mistress, Maria Skleraina. This was not a problem. Zoe and Theodora liked Maria Skleraina enough to include her in the family throne, even making up a title, Despoina, which means Mistress but also means Empress. So the chariot of power, now pulled by four horses, galloped on, with frequent public showings of affection among the crowned quartet on the balconies of the palace, reassuring a scandalized and worried populace that all was well.
Oh, worry. Mortality is all around these days. Friends are dealing with horrifying diseases. People tightly woven into the fabric of my existence are gone, missing in the action of my life. Facebook photos of jazzy friends of yore show older versions I barely recognize. And sometimes they’re of me. It seems to come with the territory of having survived this long. In these days I find enormous comfort in the gleam of light on old marble, the carved artifacts of vanished lives. Divine energy, said Jaywon, and I think of that spear of light detaching itself from the dawn, coming toward me on the miracle of video. Standing next to a massive malachite pillar old long before Christ, feeling the power surging under me in this holy spot, looking up at the towering surface gnarled with age and scarred with witnessing, I feel so simple, so innocent in my small breadth of years, so young.
All drawings Plein Air by Trici Venola. All art © 2012 by Trici Venola. Thanks for reading. We love your comments.