SAINTS AND ANGELS 4: Ghost Frescoes and Seraphim in Hagia Sophia


Angel Face One ©2011 by Trici Venola

At last, an angel with a face. The Angel. A Seraphim, actually, a six-winged celestial being created in mosaic in the 13th century, after the Byzantines reclaimed the city from the Latin invaders. The Byzantines’ church segued into Greek Orthodoxy. The Latin church became Catholicsm. The city, Costantinople, became Istanbul. Hagia Sophia became Ayasofya Mosque, and later, Hagia Sophia Museum. All these things the Angel has endured.

Its face was likely covered  by Mehmet the Conqueror when the basilica was converted to a mosque in 1453. Our angel face discovered by the Fossati Brothers during Sultan Abdulmedcid’s restoration in 1841, documented, and re-covered with a metal medallion. A face that survives that much deserves the best, so when I originally drew this picture back before Christmas and blew the face, I had to start again from scratch. On the left is the misfire, and on the right, the genesis of the drawing above.

First try and second start on Angel Face One ©2012 Trici Venola

This face is about a yard wide, incidentally, and I still had to refer to close-ups on the Internet, because look at what we can see from this vantage point:

Angel with Ghost Fresco ©2012 by Trici Venola

This angel is right up under the dome, in one of four curved triangular sections known as pendentives. Its fellow angels are all still faceless. The Internet shots are all full frontal, and this is oblique, so I had to play with it.

angel w minister

Here it is with the Minister of Tourism, at its unveiling in 2009.  This face isn’t human. It’s remote and emotionless. And it has zero relation to the face I drew, so I had to draw the whole thing again. Mea Culpa, I was cold and tired. That’s the price of working in ink, sometimes you can’t fix it.

angel Mosaic c u

Here’s what the mosaic artists saw. Those lucky stiffs up in the scaffolding can see the actual mosaic tiles. The green ones, with distance, give it that ethereal color, a moon face sailing in starlight. Down below, the only clue to its being mosaic rather than paint is the intensity of color and a certain deliberateness to the image.

Since my rendering of it is so small, I had to reduce the complexity to as little as possible. Like Twitter. And you have to ask yourself, just which lines make the expression? Here’s a haiku version of the face at an oblique angle.



GHOST FRESCOS As mentioned, in 1841, Sultan Abdulmedcid redecorated Hagia Sophia, known by then as Ayasofya. At the time it was a mosque. It had been the premier church of Christiandom for nearly a thousand years, and much had been done to convert it to a mosque. Sultan Abdulmedcid outdid four centuries of predecessors. It was this Sultan who put up those huge wooden medallions, the ones covered with calligraphy. It spells out his name, his grandchildrens’ names, and the name of Allah. He hired two Swiss restorers, the Fossati Brothers, to do the job on the whole basilica. Originally there were four huge mosaic angels holding up the dome: Seraphim with a face surrounded by huge brown and blue wings. At some point since the Conquest of 1453, all four faces had been covered. The two angels to the west, probably much decomposed from water damage, were replaced with painted attempts to match the mosaic ones in the east. These two were carefully cleaned. At this point our angel face was discovered under its metal medallion, documented, and covered back up again. The other face, whatever it is, is still covered by a medallion, and there are medallions to match it on the western angels, the painted ones.

TV Aya 2012 3

Photo by Ramazan Tanhan of TV in the Imperial Gallery drawing the Angel.

I am no fan of the Fossati Brothers. Their Trompe-l’oeil marble does not fool me, not even in the dim winter light with the upstairs lamps unlit, and their Trompe-l’oeil windows have lousy perspective. A lot of their work involved plastering over the massive, convoluted surface of the upper ceiling vaults. This was painted a golden yellow with medallions and chains of floral patterns, probably in an attempt to match the gorgeous original sixth-century mosaic of the lower floor vaults, which are actual gold-dipped tiles embellished with mosaic medallions in geometric patterns. This paint and plaster job is now peeling horribly, and here and there it appears that the Turkish Government of the present has been peeking under the plaster to see what is there. Now look to the right of the Angel, to the pale area in the leprous yellow paint job. That’s scraped-off plaster over frescos… on the big arch, which is in front of the altar / mihrab. See the ghost image there? A big blob of yellow paint, and behind it a seated figure. There’s another one mirroring it on the close side of the arch. The whole half-dome here was frescoed with a host of saints.

Angel w Ghost closeup

Angel with Ghost Fresco.closeup

Here it is in the drawing, s trio of saints. It looks the figure to the left is wearing a crown.

Angel Face One.Ghost Detail

At one point, working on the Angel, I sat on the edge of a column pedestal. Dead ahead was another one, buried in the very building:

Took a break and found this swell gift item at the shop outside the basilica.


The perfect souvenir of Istanbul: three cats. And here’s a Lamb of God with a different sort of tail.
Cat of God385

EXQUISITE DETAIL It took awhile, but I finished the Shadow Arch. The challenge here was to document the stupefying wealth of detail without flattening the drawing with too much busywork.  See the previous blog about how: chiaroscuro. Did I succeed? I hope so! A tiny little 9 X 12 “drawing, and I’ll bet it took 10 hours. Emperor Justinian wanted people to be floored by the grandeur. He is said to have exclaimed, on his first sight of the glory he had brought about, “Solomon, I have surpassed thee.” I’ll say. Consider, the Shadow Arch is to Hagia Sophia what an eyelid fold is to a person. Just a little feather in the Angel’s wing.

Shadow Arch ©2012 by Trici Venola

PAGANS OLD AND NEO Over the holiday I took a really interesting guy around the Old City. An  aeronautical engineer and photographer turned CGI artist, he also knows a lot about pagan goddesses, and Hagia Sophia knocked him out. It was a lot of fun to see an actual Pagan priest get their first look at the old girl. Those monster malachite columns holding her up from the ancient gymnasium at Ephesus, the giant porphyry ones from Rome, all resonated with this visitor. You stand next to those, you spread out your arms as far as you can, palms flat, you lean your face against the cold marble, and you want to howl. Oil brings out the color of marble. All the columns are intensely colored toward the bottom from the oil of people’s hands.

Hand-Oiled Pillar ©2012 Trici Venola

So there we were, hugging adjacent pillars. From his, he described feeling the power surging up from under the column, and said it felt much older than the basilica. Indeed it is, older than Christianity itself. Before this Hagia Sophia were two others, and before them Roman and Greek temples, on into the ancient shamanistic worship of civilizations long forgotten. This has always been a holy spot, of course it has. The ancients knew this, that’s why they built their temples here. Perhaps that’s why they still stand.

After such an experience, there was nothing for it but nargile smoking at a fine old tea garden in an antique Ottoman hamam. That’s where we wound up on New Year’s Eve , with Baaddin, Nasan and Celal, guys who make the actual water pipes. Smoking nargile with strangers is I’m sure a fine old Pagan custom, or it is now.

New Year’s Nargile ©2012 by Trici Venola

In the New Year, I returned to the Angel. This time I put it in context, with alternating Byzantine and Ottoman details. I drew it all from the ground floor looking up through the chandelier, sitting between the Pagan columns we’d hugged that day, the ones from the Gymnasium at Ephesus, 2400 years old.

TVStefanJoksik Aya12

Photo by Stefan Joksik of TV in the South Gallery drawing the Angel.

Here’s what I drew. At the top are original 6th-century clerestory windows around the dome, embellished by Ottoman patterns on the ribs. There’s a Byzantine railing around the dome, and under it Ottoman painting. The Angel and its surrounding gold mosaic are 13th-century Byzantine, the paint and curlicues around it 19th-century Ottoman. The chandelier is Ottoman of unknown vintage, the electricity present-day Turkish. The wooden balustrade railing is very old Byzantine, complete with torch holders, and the marble below it original 6th-century Byzantine, all the way down to Sultan Abdulmedcid’s 19th-century wooden medallion. With all the hard lessons learned, it’s always better the second time around.

+Angel Face DOI 2 72

Angel Face ©2012 Trici Venola.


All drawings Plein Air by Trici Venola. All art ©2012 by Trici Venola. Angel Face appears in Drawing On Istanbul 2. Original drawings are 20″ X 7″, drafting pens on rag sketchbook paper. We love your comments.


SAINTS AND ANGELS 3: Chiaroscuro in Hagia Sophia


Shadow Arch Detail: the Line Forms on the Left ©2011 Trici Venola

Pitch black, every single detail lost in inky shadows up here in the Imperial Gallery, Hagia Sophia. A dark, rainy day two days before Christmas, and the place is jammed. Every tourist here paid 25 lira to get in, and you can’t see anything that isn’t next to a window or a weak spotlight. All because the experts in charge haven’t turned on the lights in the chandeliers. I’m told they are experts, my buddies the guards say so.

Shadow Arch Gallery, Dark Day

Nevertheless I had to draw. Michael Constantinou is coming to Istanbul in a couple of weeks and he wants to pick up his art. Great news;  I hate shipping originals. But they have to be ready, I’ve paid the whopping tariff to get into Hagia Sophia, and here I sit, stymied in Stygian blackness. True, the piece is titled “Shadow Arch,” but this is ridiculous. The best I could do was to indicate in tiny light strokes where the big masses are, and bitch to the guards. Plein Air drawing, fooey!

Shadow Arch Gallery, Sunshine

Yesterday was much better. Dazzling sun, crystalline air. This is what it’s supposed to look like! Plein Air, the only way to draw! Crouched on a tiny folding stool about as big as an upended brick,  I draw with Dervish concentration, and nail most of the detail. Again, the place is mobbed. Many people jostle, loom and gesture, so I pause, since there’s nothing like having your work embellished by a big pen swipe from some oaf hitting your drawing arm. But this Japanese lady, she was with a big chattering group, and someone indicated that I was down in the corner there, drawing. She reared back, mouth and eyes wide, and swept everyone back with both arms as though I were a lit fuse or a pot of gold. My Art Ego swelled like a watered plant. Oh, she got it. And the Japanese have been responsible for most of the work in Hagia Sophia in the past decades: dome restoration, cleaning, discoveries of lost art. So I thanked the whole group, we had an impromptu art show with general effusion, and I felt like a pot of gold and a lit fuse. Here’s what they saw:

Shadow Arch WIP 2 ©2011 by Trici Venola.

What’s needed now is a whole lot of dark to offset the detail. Too much detail and everything flattens out. So I pay a lot of attention to chiaroscuro: that fine Italian term for the contrast of light and dark. Figures pulling themselves out of darkness into light. Think Caravaggio, DaVinci, Raphael.

Caravaggio’s Christ At the Column, 1593-1610

See how the figures look molded here? Chiaroscuro! The mosaic I’m drawing has the texture of shimmering brocade. Actually the pieces were set at angles to catch torchlight. Sun is a bonus. High up in the arch, a few silver mosaic medallions catch the light. Some are original; some were painted in by Ottoman restorers; it’s easy to see which. They’re mostly in shadow, some of them barely showing. The best way to render something shiny is to put a hard black right next to a pure white. Later, I’ll go back in and embellish them a bit more. In this early stage, I just leave them white, and lightly shade all the others. I have to go very carefully because in pen and ink there is no going back from shadows. Once you’ve put that black ink on there, that’s it.

Too dark to draw is one thing, shadows are quite another. In art as in life, shadows give dimension and depth. Their presence makes the light brighter. Light and dark is not to be confused with black and white. In color work, it’s equally important. There’s a lot of beautifully-rendered work out there that looks flat and lifeless, because the artist depended entirely on shape and color to give it form. Guess what, not only are many computers and print devices color-restricted, but most people are slightly color-blind. In other words, your work is not going to be seen exactly as you see it, so if you’ve ignored chiaroscuro, you’re sunk. Here’s a vintage vector graphics piece created with eight colors in various patterns, easily as busy as all that tiny pen and ink scratching in the piece above. But notice the use of chiaroscuro, and thank you, Old Masters.

African Queens ©1988 by Trici Venola with BBDO, Apple Claris.

If you’re wondering if your digital painting works, try looking at it in black and white. If it’s not digital, try looking at it in a mirror. If you can’t tell what’s going on, go back and check your lights and darks!

Suddenly the light is gone and I’m cold to the bone. My knees are so stiff, my heels are so high,  my coat is so long, and this  damn stool is so low, I cannot get up. I flail about trying to hold onto the giant column base, but it’s too slippery. Luckily, some smiling person, usually a Turk, is always there to help.

Working in this echoing vault, full of many languages, I imagine it clouded with incense from swinging censers, the mosaics and marble glittering and gleaming in the torchlight, the floor swept with heavy velvet vestments, clattering Crusader hooves, curve-toed Ottoman sandals, the air full of song and chanting and screams. This place has seen so much life. The tops of all the balustrades are covered with centuries of names. The giant columns show richer color toward the bottom from centuries of hands. The place is full of ghosts, sacred and profane. One day I may be one of them, but just now I’m happy to be able to draw here, in peace and safety, into the dark of the day.

West End, Outer Transept, Hagia Sophia ©2011 Trici Venola


All art Plein Air by Trici Venola. All art © 2011 by Trici Venola. Thanks for reading. We love your comments.

Drawing the Boukoleon Portals 15

22 October 2011 2-7 PM


I have a compulsion for accuracy. The real, actual world is so astonishing and beautiful that I want to document it. Accuracy is not simply a matter of everything being exactly in place, it’s also a matter of mood. Gestalt is a term for something where the whole equals more than the sum of the parts. You know how some people are not particularly beautiful, yet they are fired with charm, radiance, charisma– so that they seem stunning in person. But a bad photo can make them look empty. So it is with buildings. This rendering of the actual present Boukoleon is as accurate as I could make it, yet something is missing. That’s what we’re working on today. Here’s the drawing as we left it last time.

Boukoleon Portals 14: Work In Progress ©2011 by Trici Venola

I’m making this work better simply by blackening certain areas and strengthening certain lines, while looking at the actual Boukoleon. It really helps to look at the drawing upside-down, in a mirror, and from across the room. You can immediately spot what needs to be done. 

This piece is really busy because of the accuracy. In line art, you’ve got two choices: lines and no lines. There’s a kind of code that develops: dots mean one sort of surface, hatching another. In this piece I used stippling for mortar. For brick, I used hatching.  And now we’re going to talk about foliage.

Oh, the drawings I’ve ruined from drawing the foliage wrong. OK, it’s ephemeral, but it’s there and must be dealt with. It has to do with the way the Boukoleon looks. It’s green, and nothing else is. So we have to find a code for it. The code for this foliage in this drawing is white, sparsely detailed, with a few forays into black.

The detail is sparse because the drawing is not about the foliage. You have to say “What is this drawing about?” And you have to keep saying it as you work. What the drawing is about determines everything you do: the amount of detail, treatment of surfaces, chiaroscuro– the light and dark. This drawing is about endurance. It’s about the contrast between red brick and white marble and old stone. It’s about splendor that survives decay. It’s about grandeur. And on a personal level, it’s about 40 hours of my life in September and October of 2011.

The Boukoleon tells us a lot by its age and decrepit condition. We can see how the rainwater fountained down by the way it carved troughs in the bricks. The big stones at the bottom record the thrash of waves in storms. The blackened areas tell us of past horrors of destruction. The layers of brick and stone are clues to its construction. The lines of stress and weight tell us how a building 1200 years old can survive earthquakes, fires, explosions, partial demolition by dynamite, and the constant vibration from the trains running through its truncated guts.

I’ve been drawing this during a time of upheaval and change. While I was working on this, Muammar Gaddafi died on the hood of a car. You probably saw it too, how he put up his hand to his bloody head and looked at in amazement and dismay. Like many of the ancients, Gaddafi was a horrible sociopath who bled his people like a spider sucking out the guts of flies. His end was foul, as were those of so many of the ancients. As I draw, trying to bring out the massive bulky shapes made up by thousands of bricks, I’m thinking of Nicephoros Phokas.

Phokas Captures Halep: from a contemporary manuscript

He lived in this palace, although he was not born to the purple. Emperor from 963-969, Nicephoros Phokas was a great general. His nickname from a grateful populace was Pale Death of the Saracens.   He killed so many of them that he made Christian Constantinople safe from what it perceived as the ravening hordes of Infidels. Then the Emperor Romanos died, leaving two little boys, a gorgeous 22-year-old widow, Theophano… and a eunuch in charge of the country. Probably to save her sons, Theophano seduced Nicephorus Phokas. This would not have been easy. He was four feet tall, with no neck and thick rubbery lips, and he undoubtedly stank. He refused all comfort, being one of those Christians who believed in rigid asceticism. He slept in a tiger skin and eschewed women, wine, and good food. Nevertheless, Theophano prevailed. “The people love you,” she said, “if you want, they’ll crown you Emperor.” And so it was done, with a grand processional from the Triple Gate all through the city to Hagia Sophia, where he was coronated on the great dais there.

Six years later he was killed by Theophano, his head displayed on a pike before an angry mob, his body thrown out of a window, likely from this very palace. He had insisted that the people continue to behave as though they were still at war, practicing rigid economies and prayers, and they wanted to enjoy life. He was Oliver Cromwell. He was soon hated. He forced the people to build a wall from the Great Palace, next to the Hippodrome where the Blue Mosque is now, all the way down to the Boukoleon on the sea, ending at the Lighthouse, cutting the people off. The Wall of Nicephorus Phokas still exists in places. It’s hollow, a great enclosed walkway the size of a roofed street, big enough for an unpopular, grandiose upstart to walk with his army. But it didn’t save him. The people would have killed him–one source says they did– If Theophano hadn’t done the job. From those contemporary physical descriptions I wonder that it took her six years. On his tomb was carved “You conquered all but a woman.”

I always wanted to be right in the center of things. It seems my fate to be drawing the center of things 1042 years after the fact.  As I put the last stroke on my signature, three people walked up. We started talking and I met Trevor, who is studying archeological preservation of Byzantine antiquities here in Istanbul. He told me some hopeful things about the Boukoleon, such as who has an interest in it and who put the fence up. These are people I’ve some acquaintance with. They do things well here in Turkey and have a great appreciation and understanding of antiquities. Trevor has an impressive amount of information about the Boukoleon and much more access than me since he is working from within the Groves of Academy. I explained that I’m doing this entirely on my own hook, with no organization or funding save the commissions from fascinated clients, and he made some suggestions as to people I might look up, people who would be interested in my Drawing On Istanbul project. So I’m going to do just that, and I’ll let you know what happens.

I am drawing for those who will never see this palace in all its rotting glory. I am hoping that it neither falls apart nor is rendered unrecognizable by Restoration, where one must be told how old it is since it looks brand-new. Why is visual antiquity good? It’s interesting. It tells us things we can’t learn from looking at the same thing new, or made to look new. Today I wore my go-to-hell jeans, which have been with me after a laundry mix-up in West Hollywood in 2001. The original owner was a fairly tall man who wore his 501 jeans until the knees split crossways and the hems were ragged, the backs of them torn clean off. The fronts of the thighs are worn white, and the left one is beginning to fray to white crosswise threads. On either side of the knee splits, the torn threads hang down in an interesting manner. What does this tell us? The wear over the knees tells us he was active. The worn left thigh is a clue as to his behavior, like perhaps he wore a tool belt that rubbed that spot. The ragged bottoms tell us that he was in rough country and wore his boots on the inside. Or perhaps he tucked the jeans in so many times that they tore. Now to buy a pair of jeans like this in LA costs an arm and a leg, because it’s impossible to create a pair of jeans worn out like this from scratch. You can stone-wash jeans, you can artificially distress them, you can put cutesy little tears and frays on them and charge up the yingyang for them and the designers do, but all they are is kitsch. Fake and common. But their pricey existence points up the value of the real deal. The high value of actual worn-out jeans is tribute to the years it takes to make them and the stories that they tell. Tribute to the human experience of those actual jeans, made visual. For this reason they are infinitely more valuable than they were when new. And so it is with antiquities. I can’t preserve them so I draw them.

So we come to the end of the Portals Drawing Experience, and here is what we have to show for it:

Boukoleon Portals 2011 ©2011 by Trici Venola

Gestalt? You decide. Thanks to Donna Perkins, in the Back Of Beyond, Canada, for making this Boukoleon Portals project happen, and I sure hope you and Guy love the original.

Samaver Cafe ©2011 by Trici Venola

Thanks to Samaver Cafe, just on the other side of the parking lot from the Boukoleon. Thanks to that bus driver who gave me a pencil, to Gabrielle for getting me, finally, up on a blog. Finally, thanks to all the people in the park, people who will likely never see this blog, but who have either ignored me so I could work, or looked out for me while I was working, made me welcome, and made it possible.

Drawing the Boukoleon ©2011 by Trici Venola

Ahmet and a few nameless guys and that shy fellow, the Ghost, who I tried to draw from memory. All the neckers, a different pair every day, now gone to warm cafes. It’s all sad and strange now, the weather has turned to winter, and today will be short. My best friends are leaving Istanbul, off to new adventures. I don’t know what I will do without them. But working all day today on this I am comforted. Part of the expatriate experience is that people leave, and it tears your heart right out when they go. But the drawing is always there. I don’t know why it makes me happy, but I’m very glad it does.

photo ©2008 Donna Perkins

Donna took this picture of me back in 2008 down in front of the Lighthouse. I’ve drawn the Window there, but there are some pillars up top on the wall, in front of desiccated arches and partially behind the remains of an Ottoman stone covering. Fascinating. I wonder how long the rain will hold off?