TWO LEAD CROSSES
They’re only visible from a few inches away. Carved at eye level into the side of a malachite pillar in Hagia Sophia’s lower North Gallery are two thick little crosses side by side. The lead pressed into them is the same tone as the pillar itself. Leaning there in the dark one day last winter, I saw them between my fingers and thought I was hallucinating.
There are dozens, some say hundreds, of graffiti crosses scattered throughout Ayasofya. Along with the ghost images of bronze or gold crosses wrenched away are these thick little artifacts. I think they’re from the Fourth Crusade.
Hagia Sophia, Constantinople, 1204: Illiterate Christian Soldiers far from home with nothing to do but raise Cain, melt lead, fix chainmail and make arrowheads. Here’s some melted lead among the graffiti up on the balustrade in the Imperial Gallery.
The more I looked, the more crosses I found. Here’s one on a massive malachite column, one of the eight major ones in the nave. Notice how this cross fades out at the top, but still has all that lead pressed into it.
PAGAN COLUMNS Sources differ as to the origin of these eight giant green columns, each 70 tons of priceless malachite, probably 2400 years old. Tradition claims Justinian brought them from Ephesus, from the Temple of Artemis or the Gymnasium there. Other sources claim that they’re from the Temple of Baalbek in Lebanon. I haven’t been there, but photos show zero malachite. The big purple ones, porphyry, are probably from Rome. Porphyry must be harder to carve, because I’ve yet to find a cross cut in it. Almost all of the columns here– veined purple-and-white, speckled green, swirled purplish-grey, golden, and the green and purple monoliths– were scavenged from Pagan temples; brought by barge, rolled on logs, hauled by lines of straining oxen, sweating slaves, cushioned in bushels of straw, great wooden wheels groaning over the Roman roadstones.
Clearly, Hagia Sophia’s architects, Isadore of Miletus and Anthemis of Tralles, got the most magnificent columns to be had in matched sets, and the leftovers from this perfect symmetry likely made up the nearby Cistern, also built by Justinian at the same time as Hagia Sophia. The Cistern, never meant to be seen, creates an effect so breathtaking that it takes a few visits to realize that all of its columns are flawed.
Here in the great temple, the columns are all different sizes, and it’s wonderful how the architects worked with these limitations. I’ve always loved Hagia Sophia’s feline, feminine curves. Now I see a practical application: the arches swoop down to meet the shorter columns, up to reach the tall ones. Some columns are mounted on pedestals. Here’s a cross carved in the corner of one.
DRAWING IN THE DARK Next thing I knew, I was sitting for days in the dark behind a pillar with a flashlight stuck in my hair, telling a diverse parade of perfectly fascinating people from all over the world about the Crusader Crosses and the Fourth Crusade. A guide came along and excitedly told us that in 28 years he’s never seen these particular ones, and that I must be lucky. And how! I get to be here and draw this:
I slaved over this drawing and despaired of ever getting it right. There’s so much detail, and it’s all so dim. It took about fifteen hours. The crosses here have no lead and are far down on the wall side of the pillar. I found them by feeling around and using my little flashlight. Notice that there are bits of the dark shiny original surface left on the crosses as decoration, and that the two crosses are linked by a bit of it. Like two names. Are we looking at a Crusader Bromance here? Even a Romance is possible: ancient Romans had the canonized gay soldier couple Ss Sergius and Bacchus as patrons. Why not Crusaders?
We’ll never know. All that is certain is that someone carved these, and took the time to do it neatly and carefully. Here’s a shot of the entire composition, which I didn’t notice until well into the drawing. There are four: our two linked ones at the bottom, a deeply incised stick cross in the middle, sort of pouring out of a very deep hole, and the top one which is forever just coming into being out of the marble. I find this one magical.
“Politicians, ugly buildings and whores, all become respectable if they last long enough,” said John Huston’s raddled old crook in Chinatown, and so it is with graffiti.
Can worship create an energy? Hagia Sophia, St John’s, the Temple of Artemis, St Savior in Chora, Rumi’s Tomb in Konya, Baalbek in Lebanon– all are palpably holy places, whether ruins, museums or adaptations to another religion. The columns from Pagan temples still reverberate with worship to the ancient gods, although they’ve been holding up Ayasofya for 1500 years. Worship is a powerful force, and although the name of the Deity changes I believe the force remains, singing down through the pillars through the massed energy of millenniums of temples here on this rock sacred from the beginning of time. So what’s the story with Christian crosses carved as graffiti in a Christian church? Why do I think these are from the Fourth Crusade?
Hagia Sophia was consecrated in 537. Until the rape and sack by Crusaders in 1204, no hostile armies succeeded in getting into the city. It’s unlikely that anyone would have cut crosses during that time. In the late 8th century the Iconoclasts, starting with Emperor Leo, destroyed much of the pictorial art: mosaics, bas-reliefs, everything. But crosses were allowed to remain. Graffiti ones, though? This one is right out in front of the altar!
You can see in the photo below that another cross was started. Somebody swinging an axe, chopping away…
Carving with a knife into marble is not so easy. One must devise a chisel effect and bash at it with…what? A mallet, a mace? Lean into the edge with all your might, again and again. Noise, fuss, swearing, leaning there on your cutting device and scraping. Not a light undertaking, and nothing furtive about it. Here are three columns in a row, each with a cross in the same place.
From 1453 until 1931, Hagia Sophia was a mosque. Mehmet the Conqueror, in 1453, refused to burn it. Instead, his men built a minaret and amputated the arms of every cross they could find. A Western tourist visiting the Ottoman empire might have succeeded in furtively scratching one cross over in the shadows, but banging away, cutting deep into marble floors and pillars right out in the nave, making all these and more?
Could the crosses, similar in size and shape, have been made after the Republic? Hagia Sophia has been a museum since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk declared it one in 1935. It was closed for four years prior to that. It’s barely possible that some Christian fanatic was working there alone at night…but I doubt it. It’s much more likely to have been then that some insect cemented over several crosses, at the front of the nave and on a few of the pillars. These boneheaded attempts have the look of some excised crosses upstairs, in which the axe cuts faithfully echo the cross shape. Someday a method may be found for dissolving cement without dissolving the stone underneath, but until then I can only long for a chisel.
Nope, not likely during the Ottomans, nor after the Republic. Had to be Fourth Crusaders. Here’s why.
THE FOURTH CRUSADE
There were two sides to the Christian church: the Catholics in a collection of city-states in Italy, and the Eastern Roman Christians– we call them Byzantines– an empire ruled from Constantinople. Venice, in Italy, looked longingly over at the glorious city of Constantinople, bastion of the Eastern Roman Church and very, very rich. The two factions did not get along. Eastern Roman Christians favored trade over war, and they bathed, looking down their long narrow Byzantine noses at the unwashed, body-eschewing “Latins,” the Catholics who they considered filthy warmongers, observers of pagan Latin rites.
Pope Innocent III tried to muster up a Crusade against the Byzantines but only succeeded in drumming one up to take Egypt from the Muslims. To get there, the Fourth Crusaders hired Venetians to build ships for them. They couldn’t pay for the ships. Enrico Dandolo, Doge of Venice, old and blind, suggested that they recapture Zara, in Hungary, for the Venetians, and then go sack Constantinople. So the Crusaders, mostly Italian and French out for treasure and glory, became mercenaries for Venice.
Crusade videos abound on YouTube, In one, the unctuous narrator actually says that the Crusaders didn’t mean to destroy the Christian city of Constantinople. He says they had no choice but to sack it to pay the Venetians. “Um…I maxed out my credit card, so I’m going to kill you and your family and take everything you own to pay it…”
It’s true that the Crusaders scrupulously honored their debts to Venice. Picture a household gutted of its glory and beauty, the husband and wife disemboweled among the bodies of their raped children, screams from the convent nearby, flames belching out of church windows, coffers smashed open, blood and stench everywhere, sky black with oily smoke, silks and satins billowing through splintered shutters– and a bunch of bean counters making piles for the Venetians. “One for you, and one for me…”
This accounts for the glories of San Marco Square in Venice, plundered from Constantinople, among them the four bronze horses taken from the Constantinople Hippodrome.
Istanbul Through the Ages, the top floor exhibit of Istanbul’s Archeological Museum, houses broken marble from site after site destroyed by “the Latins,” punctuated by photographs of art treasures now in Venice.
Upstairs in Hagia Sophia, just behind the Deesus Mosaic, is a grave in the floor. It’s Dandolo’s. He died in 1205 and was buried by his request in Hagia Sophia. But he’s not there. 57 years later, when the Byzantine Christians of Constantinople succeeded in vomiting out the Catholics, they dug up Dandolo and threw him out the window.
There were other factors in this mess. Alexius Angelos, deposed Byzantine Emperor, promised the moon to the Crusaders if they helped him get back his throne. He got it, and died soon after, proving a miserable ruler who bankrupted the Imperial treasury.
During the convoluted and bloody track of this Crusade, Pope Innocent III, horrified at the mayhem, excommunicated all the Crusaders. After being presented with the spoils from Constantinople, he accepted them back into the Church.
The Imperial Tombs were all over at Holy Apostles, on the site of what is now Fatih Mosque. Everyone of consequence was entombed there, and there were celebrated relics of the saints. Over the protests of one Latin priest, the Crusaders ripped open the sarcophagi, took all the gold, and threw the bones to the dogs in the street. And that’s what happened to St Luke, to Constantine, St Helen, Justinian and Theodora, the relics of Ss Timothy, Andrew, John Chrysostom, Gregory the Theologian… What remains of their glittering reliquaries can now be seen in the Treasury of St Mark’s Basilica in Venice. If St Mark had been buried at Holy Apostles, he would have been chewed by the dogs as well.
There are many sources for all of his, but let’s hear a contemporary account:
How shall I begin to tell of the deeds wrought by these nefarious men! Alas, the images, which ought to have been adored, were trodden under foot! Alas, the relics of the holy martyrs were thrown into unclean places! Then was seen what one shudders to hear, namely, the divine body and blood of Christ was spilled upon the ground or thrown about.
They snatched the precious reliquaries, thrust into their bosoms the ornaments which these contained, and used the broken remnants for pans and drinking cups… just as… Christ was robbed and insulted and His garments… divided by lot; only one thing was lacking, that His side, pierced by a spear, should pour rivers of divine blood on the ground. Nor can the violation of the Great Church [Hagia Sophia] be listened to with equanimity. For the sacred altar, formed of all kinds of precious materials and admired by the whole world, was broken into bits and distributed among the soldiers, as was all the other sacred wealth of so great and infinite splendor. —The Historian Nicetas Choniates, 1155-1215/16
There is no excuse for the Fourth Crusade, but there are these crosses.
After a couple of weeks hunting and drawing crosses, I can see these guys, these Crusaders. They’d been camped out in Venice, fighting and looting Zara in Hungary, excommunicated, nothing more to lose.
Then to Constantinople, telling each other it was meet and just to behave like beasts in the fabled streets. Now in the dusky church the massive pillars rising up into glory, mayhem below, fires here and there reflected on the marble floor, glittering off the gold ceiling mosaics high above. Whores singing, one lolling in the Patriarch’s Seat, drunken carousing, the altar hacked to pieces, puddles of sacrificial wine. Bedding and loot spilling out of sacks, chainmail in stinking heaps, exhaustion, hilarity. Illiterate treasure-hunters, murderers and thieves by our standards, but with the same desire to make a mark that Justinian had, and only a knife, an axe, a sword to make it with. All of them played by Ray Stevenson of Rome. Hack, crunch. “You call that a cross? Hang on, let me at it.” They might wrench away every gold crucifix, but still carve one as well. “I was here,” it says, “I lived.” Just guys. We can almost forgive them for St Luke.
All drawings Plein Air, done with drafting pens on rag sketchbook paper 18X52cm / 7X20 “. All drawings and most photos ©2012 by Trici Venola. All drawings from the series Drawing On Istanbul by Trici Venola. I know you’re out there, so feel free to comment. We love comments, and Followers get a special place in Art Heaven.