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