KAPADOKYA / CAPPADOCIA 2: Drawing in the Echoes of Faith

Holy Ghost ©2003 Trici Venola

Holy Ghost ©2003 Trici Venola

THE HEART CHURCH  It was chill near-darkness at the bottom of a natural stone formation shaped like a fat rocket ship about to take off. Perfect peace, and the silence sang. I felt veins of power surging around me from a point directly below, down in the bones of the earth, throbbing up to converge again at the point in the sky. I thought of those ‘Sixties pyramid people, claiming that a pyramid shape brings together mystic geological forces. I  believed them for the first time.

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I was down in the bottom chapel, below ground, in a rock formation that has been a church since early Christianity, and likely a Pagan temple before that.  Someone long ago painted the darkness white with little red hearts on it. It was almost too dark to draw at all but I tried. There were  graves cut in the floor, their occupants long gone to dust. I could lie here in the dark, I thought, in this singing silence, feel my bones become one with the earth, content for all eternity. But  –like that line in Gladiator— NOT YET!!

The Heart Church ©2006 Trici Venola

The Heart Church ©2006 Trici Venola

Can’t die yet, there’s too much to draw. Much of it here in Kapadokya, the central steppes region of Turkey, a spiritual refuge. Everyone else in the world spells it Cappadocia and pronounces it with a soft final “c,” but since the original name– Katpatuka in Old Persian– means Land of Beautiful Horses, and Kapadokya sounds like a galloping horse, and that’s what the people who live there call it, we’re using Kapadokya.

Cold Hill Caves ©2006 Trici Venola

Cold Hill Caves ©2006 Trici Venola

Those hearts, by the way, look like a natural abstraction of apricot leaves. There are a lot of apricot trees here.

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First-time readers might enjoy the previous post, which is an overview of Kapadokya’s history and my first trip to the place in 1999. I loved it on first glance and have continued to come back for close-ups, like this one of a kid with a Biblical name become Turkish, in a ruined rock church with a vanishing saint.

Zekeriya and A Saint ©2003 Trici Venola

Zekeriya and A Vanished Saint ©2003 Trici Venola

Spring: High Season is upon us here in Istanbul: hotels filling up, all the monuments jammed, monstrous cruise ships blocking the views, throngs trooping through the bazaars. Some friends, in shops and hotels, don’t sleep again until winter. There are all kinds of projects to finish immediately, and only me to do them. And all I can think about is that just about now, in Kapadokya, beneath the sheer rock walls punctuated with caves, the high grass in the bottoms of the canyons is shooting up green, and the drifts of cottonwood blossoms on the ground can be combed with your eyes. So fooey on all these Istanbul distractions. I’m back to Kapadokya, and I’ve got you with me.

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While Kapadokya is full of former tourists who fall in love with the place and buy up all the caves, the locals mostly want to move into cheesy apartment buildings just out of town. Some families still live in caves.

I climbed up the mountain above Urgup one morning and was struck with an obviously occupied cave complex. A seamed dark woman, shaped like a pillow tied in the middle, came out to hang up her laundry. Awhile later, a young beautiful echo of her stumbled out sleepy into the morning and found me drawing her house and her mother.

Gunik in the Morning ©1999 Trici Venola

Gunik in the Morning ©1999 Trici Venola

Nine AM, and the sun full in my face. The air sharp and glittering, little flies everywhere. Only the drawing kept me from going nuts with them. I squinted into the white under a giant scarf rolled like a turban, and drew and drew.CIMG0126

After the two-hour drawing session they invited me into the house for tea. Inside it was big and clean, with plastered walls, electricity and plumbing, lace curtains at the little square windows cut in the hill. I imagined all the empty caves I’ve seen, filled with lively people. Friends who grew up in caves describe scooting up and down the ladders between, calling between the caves, the cosy enclosed feeling of a cave with a fire pit, the way every little thing has its own alcove. I know I sleep better in a cave than any other place, deep perfect sleep all the night long.

The View from Uchisar ©2007 Trici Venola

The View from Uchisar ©2007 Trici Venola

GREEKS AND TURKS This land is beyond ancient. A thousand armies have trekked through here:. Hittites, Romans, Armenians, Seljuks, Greeks. Arab raiders in the 7th and 8th centuries drove the Christians into underground Hittite cities, converting chapels to pigeon coops and painting designs all round the pigeonholes.

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Christians came up from underground and repainted frescoes in the cave chapels before decamping a few centuries later. Some Greek Christians stuck it out until the population exchange in the 20th century, building square houses of embossed brick like this one in Mustafapasa.

Kid in Mustafa Pasa ©1999 Trici Venola

Kid in Mustafa Pasa ©1999 Trici Venola

The Christian monasteries here were Greek, and the Byzantine Christians were the genesis of what we now know as Greek Orthodox. All across Anatolia the Greeks left their buildings, temples and myths; a few of their descendents are still here as Turks.

CIMG0019The 20th century brought about a great dissolution of the centuries-old relationship of Greeks and Turks in both countries, scars which are still healing. Reading Louis de Bernieres’ Birds Without Wings broke my heart but fed my understanding. Two governments, two faiths, but one people. It’s everywhere: in the music, the food, the way the people look and the way they dance. I hope that this century brings about greater harmony than the last.

Old Couple in Ayvali ©1999 Trici Venola

Old Couple in Ayvali ©1999 Trici Venola

THE BIG CHURCH Are you ready for this place? It was March 2006 and cold enough to numb your hands in gloves, but there wasn’t any question of missing these drawings. Now called  Durmus Kadir after its owner, this great stone basilica is a premier example of Goreme’s legendary 1001 cave churches.

Big Church in Goreme ©2006 Trici Venola

Big Church in Goreme ©2006 Trici Venola

Like all cave chapels Durmush Kadir’s interior is carved out of the rock all of a piece: a sculpture of a church to emulate the diverse columns, alcoves, domes, altars and pulpits in a conventionally constructed church elsewhere.

The Podium ©2006 Trici Venola

The Podium ©2006 Trici Venola

This one gets a lot of action. Months later in Istanbul, a woman looking through my sketchbook suddenly let out a yelp and pulled out a photo of herself getting married on this very podium. Today the area in front of Durmush Kadir is much spiffed-up, presumably to make it attractive for events. Across the valley is this apartment, replete with carvings.

The Guest Room ©2006 Trici Venola

The Guest Room ©2006 Trici Venola

Spacious inside, It looks like a VIP suite to me. During the Middle Ages, Goreme was the seat of enormous ecclesiastical power. Ecumenical councils were held here. Pilgrims journeyed from all over to convene here.

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Thousands of monks tilled these fields, tending the huge flocks of pigeons. Valued for their dung, which still fertilizes all the food grown here, and for their messenger abilities, pigeons are treasured here still. Below Durmush Kadir’s church is a refectory, where hundreds of cowled monks sat for their supper. The drawing below was done through a chain-link fence. That modern wall marks the present property line.

Refectory ©2006 Venola

Refectory ©2006 Trici Venola

IN TOWN Pat Yale, justly famed for her wonderful travel books about Turkey, lives in Goreme with about nine cats, and in 2006 I was lucky enough to house sit. Not only did I get all these swell drawings, but two of the cats kittened while I was there, giving us a grand total of fourteen. The cats midwifed for each other, too.

CIMG0142Something about the details in the monochromatic landscape makes Kapadokya perfect for the kind of work in this series, and I can’t stop drawing. So I sat in the street and drew this:

Two Hats in Goreme ©2006 Trici Venola

Two Hats in Goreme ©2006 Trici Venola

I had company in the street. For two hours she watched me draw those two hats, and then she posed unblinking, glinting up at me, until I had her, including that fabulous shadow of the oya scarf trim on her face. “Gotcha,” I said, and showed her. She nodded violently and vanished. On one of Pat’s walls is an antique pink cotton quilted jacket, very worn. It’s a classic Kapadokya jacket worn by a woman who lived and died here long since. I picture it on someone like this.

Mischief ©2006 Trici Venola

Mischief ©2006 Trici Venola

PAINTING IN THE DARK: THE GENESIS OF MONASTIC LIFE Kapadokya has been protected since the advent of Tourism in the 1980s. Preserved from destruction-by-development, the land here can be observed shedding itself, sloughing off and renewing. Caves last a long time, and then one day they collapse, or erosion finally eats them away. It’s the nature of this rock to shed. Dust is a part of life here. If you move into a cave, stabilizing the walls (with the help of a local expert) is a good idea. Some of these chimney chapels are so old they’re almost gone, with only the keyhole-shaped alcove or window as a clue that here is a witness to so many prayers.

Eroded Monument ©2011 Trici Venola

Eroded Monument ©2011 Trici Venola

The monolith above was once a chapel at the intersection of the main road with the path leading down to the river. Below, Laura Prusoff and her partner Nurettin look across Pigeon Valley from their Palace in Ortahisar. Over the years I’ve drawn their view quite a few times. My reward is that I can close my eyes and see it in all its grandeur. The shadows paint a new shape every few minutes, making a drawing of several hours a very different thing from a photograph.

Lions in the Valley ©2003 Trici Venola

Lions in the Valley ©2003 Trici Venola

I didn’t realize that the whole of Pigeon Valley was a monastery. It took a long time of looking, and then I could see it.

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The Christians were here from the beginning of Christianity. St Paul came through Kayseri– once Caesarea– on his way to Ankyra, now Ankara, carrying Christianity with him. It found fertile ground in Kapadokya, now full of ecclesiastical ruins, abandoned by the Christians around the 15th century in the teeth of Islam. This bas-relief figure is the only one in Kapadokya. “It’s a devil,” said my friend. “But it looks like an angel,” I said. “No, it’s always my whole life been called a devil,” he said.

Now It's Called A Devil ©2011 Trici Venola

Now It’s Called A Devil ©2011 Trici Venola

Goreme sits between two valleys full of natural stone formations, many with Early Christian cave churches, part of a vast monastery complex with influences reaching across oceans and continents. By the 4th century, the Cappadocian Fathers were an ecclesiastical force to be reckoned with, forming much early Christian philosophy.

015 GV Cave copyThe very template for monastic life was cut in these rocks by St Basil, a highly educated 4th century cleric who renounced a promising career in Constantinople and Athens to become a monk. As such he became a hermit in Kapadokya, where he was joined by Future Saint Gregory of Nazianzas. I like to think of these two wearing down the stones under their knees, sallying forth in cold and snow and scorching sun, tending the fields, the flocks and the Word. They were joined by many others.

A FIeld of Sunflowers ©2011 Trici Venola

A FIeld of Sunflowers ©2011 Trici Venola

In 370 Basil became Bishop. A charismatic leader and great organizer, he reformed the Liturgy, established hospitals, and fostered monasticism as a way of life: chastity, dedication, seclusion, submersion of the single in the whole. These ecclesiastical troglodytes made the land their church. Cells, offices, stables, kitchens, cafeterias, dormitories, chapels, churches, wineries, hospitals: all were caves.

The Hospital Monastery 2011 Trici Venola

The Hospital Monastery 2011 Trici Venola

THREE MORE CHURCHES Yusuf Koc is in a cluster of chimneys out in Goreme Valley, just outside the town. A local family lives in them and tends the churches  as they always have.

Goreme Valley Longshot ©2006 Trici Venola

Goreme Valley Longshot ©2006 Trici Venola

Before the advent of Tourism, folks just sumped out their own caves. Now they police them as well, with assistance from the State.

Another Freezing Jesus ©2006 Trici Venola

Another Freezing Jesus ©2006 Trici Venola

Boy, was it cold in there. I wonder if the monks had braziers or if they depended on crowds for warmth. This chapel had columns, but was pressed into service as a pigeon-house in pre-tourism. The columns were broken off, but the frescoes preserved with only a little graffiti. See the pigeonholes built into the window?

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This was painted after the 9th century. The monochromatic and geometric painting in many caves is Iconoclastic art. The Iconoclasts, like the Muslims, proscribed pictorial art. They were around for about 100 years, in the latter 8th and early 9th centuries. But this is pictorial and multicolored. and the state of preservation tells us it’s post-Iconoclast. Here are two archangels on horseback. See the wings?

Painting in the Dark ©2006 Trici Venola

Painting in the Dark ©2006 Trici Venola

I love this Naive Byzantine painting. Anatomically it’s more symbolic than realistic. Artistic anatomy peaked with the late Roman period, when the body was a still a temple. Medieval Christians were suspicious of the body, seeing it as a fount of temptation. The monastic life was about eschewing physical pleasures in favor of devotion to the divine. This is reflected in the art of the time: bodies lost under cloth or armor, an insouciant attitude towards proportion and gravity. Then again, considering that these caves are pretty darn dim inside, I wonder they could see to paint at all.

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Up top in Pigeon Valley is a Black Church: fire has blackened the inside. Notice the bas-relief cross on the sooted ceiling to the right, revealed by the erosion at the window.

The Black Church ©2006 Trici Venola

The Black Church ©2006 Trici Venola

I crawled up through this opening and crouched on a big old earth spill up under the domes to get this next drawing. We know that this chapel was carved after the 6th century because of these domes. Hagia Sophia’s great dome, so big it was considered proof of the existence of God, was completed in 537 and influenced the entire Christian world. Henceforth we see domes everywhere in Christianity, including here.

Inside the Black Church ©2006 Trici Venola

Inside the Black Church ©2006 Trici Venola

This next one isn’t the last church in the valley, it’s just the last one I could get to before dark.

The Last Church ©2006 Trici Venola

The Last Church ©2006 Trici Venola

There are hundreds of hidden chapels in the rocks. Locals know and don’t tell, and this makes me happy. I like to think there’s some mystery left in the world. Here’s the inside. I had twenty minutes until dusk, did what I could, took a photo and finished from that.

Inside the Last Church ©2006 Trici Venola

Inside the Last Church ©2006 Trici Venola

This geometric Iconoclastic painting was done in cochineal –insect– blood. It’s still red, And is that an Egyptian-type Eye of God there above the doorway?

Sweeper in Goreme © 1999 Trici Venola

Sweeper in Goreme © 1999 Trici Venola

FAITH IN HUMANITY It was Nurettin who got me to put my sketchbooks in Koran covers, clear back on my first visit in 1999. “You should do something,” he said through Laura, “to let people know how important, how precious, this work is.” This was after the wife of a local politico grabbed my sketchbook and left it open and forgotten in her lap while she drank tea and chattered and I sat angry and anxious and afraid of offending her until mercifully they left and I took back the sketchbook. “Why didn’t you say something? People are ignorant,” said Nurettin, “They don’t understand original art.” 

15Sketchbook 8 On returning to Istanbul I took his advice. In the Grand Bazaar I found a pile of Koran covers in all sizes and colors, each pieced together by some shepherd or caravan housewife to keep a Koran covered, as all precious things are in Islam. I still buy as many of the right size as I can find, and they hold the original sketchbooks to this day.

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Faith is a powerful force. If enough people believe in a certain way, it can change things. St Basil saw this, encouraging young men to subvert their individuality and become monks: cells in a great working mechanism of faith. The land he chose was already hallowed. It’s been holy land since the beginning of time, and I swear you can feel it. It likes us. The air is good. The water keeps you healthy. The caves offer comfortable shelter, staying around 72 degrees Fahrenheit winter and summer. The rock is easy to carve. The land yields, providing soil, fertilizer, minerals, and an absence of earthquakes. Something about the place focuses faith, whatever that faith may be.

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There’s a sense of humor. The ancient gods are still here, laughing at us.  In this region that was filled for centuries with young men trying mightily to ignore the blandishments of the physical, the land looks like nothing so much as the bared and hairy hillocks, planes, rolling curves and startling appendages of a great body, a constant reminder that we are humans on earth, our home. Kapadokya seems to conspire to strengthen this sense of belonging and inclusion, for this is the one thing we all have in common regardless of belief: our humanity.

Balloon Over the Valley ©2007 Trici Venola

Balloon Over the Valley ©2007 Trici Venola

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All drawings Plein air. All art from the Drawing On Istanbul™  Project by Trici Venola. All photos © Trici Venola. All art sketchbook format, mostly 7″ X 20″ / 18 cm X 52 cm, done with drafting pens on rag paper. The Drawing On Istanbul Project is independent of any institution.  Regular readers of this blog will feel vindicated on learning that InterNations is including us in their recommended expat blog section in Istanbul. What an honor! Thanks for reading. We love your comments.

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ST JOHN’S: Drawing in the Wake of the Gospels

Great Artemis ©2012 Trici Venola

Great Artemis ©2012 Trici Venola

Clicking on the pictures will make them bigger.

ST JOHN’S BASILICA

it looks like it has been picked up and dropped.

The vast rambling ruin of St John’s Basilica was demolished by earthquake, ravaged by marauders, scavanged by later builders. Huge jagged chunks of sixth-century masonry rear at improbable angles. Columns  march in all directions, supporting nothing, reassembled and re-erected by the Turkish Government. Hordes of Christian pilgrims stagger in the heat, a babble of guides in all languages, and I crouch in the weeds to draw this:

My Favorite Capital © 2012 Trici Venola.

It’s my favorite capital. Rows of them are set out in a field. Nearby, storks nest in season– this time of year, they’re off to Africa. The tombstone at left is likely a gladiator who converted. Here’s a drawing from years ago showing the same capital, this time with storks.

Weedy St John’s with Storks ©2007 by Trici Venola

SELÇUK

Selçuk is near the Biblical city of Ephesus, about ten minutes by car from the Aegean Sea.  Ephesus was rediscovered in the 19th century and somewhat reconstructed. It’s big tourist business. It seems like every travel agency pushes Ephesus tourists to stay in nearby Kusadasi, which is great if you like rampant development, traffic, clubs and stores, but I’ll put my money on Selçuk–in English: Selchuk. It’s got the Selchuk Museum, full of Ephesus, with its statues and gladiator tombstones. It’s got storks nesting on a Byzantine aqueduct. It’s got great tribal art stores and hotels. It’s  got St John’s Basilica, and above it the Citadel.

The Great Virgin & St John ©2007 Trici Venola.

And it’s got Female Power. At the edge of town is the Great Temple of Artemis, a swamp the size of a football field, filled with broken marble, the ruined seat of power for the great Goddess of Asia Minor: the place where it all began. The Great Temple, a wonder of the ancient world, was burned so long ago that Alexander the Great had it restored. Centuries later it fell in an earthquake.

The Goddess Artemis, the Great Mother Goddess of the Near East, appears to be a previous incarnation of  the Blessed Virgin Mary, having much in common with her: powerful  purity; attributes in Holy Trinities- three griffins, three bulls, three bees, etc; affinity with nature and birth; affinity with the moon, ancient source of female power;  powerful, self-sufficient, life-creating sexuality. Priests of both dedicate their sexuality to the Goddess. And of course, physical proximity. The Blessed Virgin Mary lived a few miles away. I’ve come to see them as a sort of double Goddess, which in no way detracts from the mystic power of either diety, I just find it fascinating. But the overwhelming presence for me on this trip has been St John the Apostle. His huge ruined basilica dominates the town, topped by the Citadel above.

THE CASTLE ON THE HILL

The Citadel and St John’s Longshot ©2012 by Trici Venola.

At the right of the drawing above is Ayasuluk, a  6000-year-old Paleolithic hilltop settlement. 

Subsequent civilizations have left artifacts still being excavated: chapels, baths, tombs. The sixth-century Byzantine castle is built on Hitttite bones. The castle walls and fifteen towers were built from stones taken from buildings in Rome. The Citadel is closed to the public, but there are these aerial photos and old drawings. Here’s a photo of that little central chapel from a sign at St John’s:

There must have been a wooden settlement inside the castle walls since all that’s left is what looks to be a 5th-century Byzantine chapel with an Ottoman minaret next to it, and nearby a mounded ruined hamam. On this hilltop, St John is said to have written his Gospel. Here’s how it looks today, from a stairway at the back of the basilica. A staircase entire, all by itself, with one turn in the stairs, roofless and leading up to nowhere. I spent a few hours in this wedge of deep shadow set in the dead white heat of late summer, sitting on marble steps scalloped by centuries of feet.

The Citadel from St John’s ©2012 Trici Venola.

A guard came upon me, and I showed him my sketchbook. It’s wonderful the way people’s faces crease into smiles, seeing the drawings. Later, he and a colleague invited me to tea. I may dedicate my next book on Turkey to the men and women who guard the ruins here, as they have allowed me perspectives I never would have found on my own. They’ve provided chairs, shade, secret views, restroom privileges, heat, tea, and enthusiasm, while protecting these world treasures so that I can experience them. Here on the right is my nice guard, Arif, and his colleague Ismet posing in front of a passage in St John’s. I did this all from life. Don’t they look fine?

The Guards at St John’s Basilica ©2012 by Trici Venola.

I snapped some shots of them, and as they were cracking up in one, I did another take from the photos, wanting to catch those grins. That’s the Citadel again, this time from their guard station at the back of the Basilica ruin.

Ismet & Arif at St John’s ©2012 by Trici Venola.

THE MAN ON THE MOUNTAIN

The Gospel According to St John seems to some scholars to be the memories of an old man, with the perspective of long life. John outlived all the other Apostles, dying in 98 AD. He must have been about 100 years old.

Christian Bits in Selchuk ©2007 Trici Venola.

He and his brother, future Apostle James, started life as fishermen on the Sea of Galilee. They may have been cousins of Jesus. They came to this part of the world after the Crucifixion, when John was entrusted by Jesus with the care of his mother, Mary.

St John Bull 1 © 2102 Trici Venola.

So John took Mary into his household. And sometime between 37 and 48 AD he and Peter took her with them to Ephesus. She is believed to have settled here, in a hilltop community high in the mountains above the city.

This is Meryemana, generally accepted as Mary’s home and last resting place.

In Mary’s House ©2007 Trici Venola.

Meryemana is a huge attraction, especially now since Sister Mary Emmerlach, the stigmatized German nun who dreamed that Mary lived here, is being canonized this year. Excavations based on her 19th-century dreams revealed the foundation of this house, which corroborated various records including a 4th-century  Ecumenical Council, enough to convince the Pope. Whether you believe Sister Emmerlach or not, the collective faith left by millions of pilgrims of all religions is impressive, as attested by these wishes left by the faithful. In dozens of languages, they fill a whole wall. The wishes are left up until they biodegrade, leaving a palpable energy.

Back in the 1st century, John and Peter set about converting the pagans of Ephesus, with such good results that they were kicked out of the city by the Guild of the Silversmiths, which was taking a loss in the sales of little silver Artemis charms. Mary had not yet been recognized as a goddess by sufficient numbers to warrant charms of her own, although now they abound. Here are mine, in local stone.

Domitian in Ephesus. About ten times life-size.

Emperor Domitian exiled John to the Isle of Patmos, where he wrote Revelation, also known as The Apocalypse. There are pieces of a giant statue of Domitian in the Selchuk Museum, a monstrous baby face remniscent of the horrifying giant Pillsbury Doughboy in Ghostbusters.

After Domitian’s demise John was pardoned and returned to Ephesus, where he lived out the rest of his days. Now the town of Selchuck is modern, built since the late nineteenth century around the aqueduct at the Ephesus railway stop. Its main attractions in old days were the Temple of Artemis and the Citadel. John must have lived there, in house or hut, writing his Gospel up there, howling out the Word in the wind and rain, the searing sun.

He wanted to be buried near the Citadel, and he was. Every other Apostle was martyred, but John was said to have “gone into the cave of his church”  and vanished. Of all the saints, John is the one with no relics anywhere. When Constantine, in the 4th century, opened his Tomb, there was nothing but air.

St John’s Tomb, from behind the site of the altar. The small stone is a sixth-century tombstone. ©2012 Trici Venola.

THE MONUMENT

The original church fell to pieces, and in 536 our old friend Byzantine Emperor Justinian started this new one. He built a magnificent six-domed cruciform church echoing the Church of Holy Apostles, now lost, in Constantinople-now-Istanbul.

The love story of Justinian and his Empress Theodora is legendary. The basilica has Theodora’s name all over it, in monograms of capitals on the columns, in the very walls. I find this poignant, as Theodora died in 548 and was buried in Holy Apostles long before St John’s was finished: in 565, the year Justinian died. It was built by Ephesians under Justinian’s edict. Emperor of the greatest High Byzantine monuments, he was a bloody, tax-levying, hubris-ridden autocrat, but it is not farfetched to imagine him lost in contemplation of a reunion with the most compelling of Empresses.

THE MIRACULOUS SHIFTING SANDS

John was said to be sleeping beneath his tomb, and his breath caused the dust on it to stir. This dust was said to perform miracles, especially every year on May 8, the all-night Feast of St John. The church called the dust Manna, and sold it to the faithful. For a thousand years, pilgrims came, even St Augustine, leaving with flasks of Manna. It is surely dusty there now, dust blowing into the cracks of the few surviving mosaics and around the shiny modern marble of the monument now over the supposed Tomb.

My own personal non-scholarly feeling on this is that St John was actually buried up on the ancient Ayasuluk mound, but who am I to argue with St Augustine?

EARTHQUAKE

St John is credited with an earthquake while imprisoned on Patmos which got him sprung, but the one that demolished St John’s happened in the 1300s. It must have been a lulu. Just look at this!

The earthquake-wrecked temple was further ravaged by Tamerlane’s  Mongol army in 1402. In one of the poetic ironies that keep me living in Turkey, the marble of the ruined Temple of Artemis had been pillaged by Justinian’s builders to create St John’s Basilica in the first place, which was in turn pillaged to create Isa Bey Mosque. This is what’s left.

The only one of these not yet to fall to an earthquake is the mosque, which stands squarely among palm trees on a hillside below the two ruined temples.

MANY FACES OF LOVE

The Sweethearts’ Tomb © 2012 Trici Venola.

Battered but miraculously whole amid the wreckage, this is supposed to be a tomb that was turned into a fountain. I sat on a rock in dwindling black shadow and drew it for about two hours. Had to finish the wall behind it from a photo, as the sun was killing me. This has all the earmarks of a lovers’ landmark for generations of Selchuk teen-agers. The graffiti is all about love, and from the number of postings, I’d say Deniz and Ozon must have had one hell of a romance.

Eros & Priapus in Selchuk Museum © 2012 Trici Venola.

The Selchuk Museum has all kinds of imagery: lions, dolphins, emperors, warriors and saints, and love in all its forms. Right in the middle of the drawing above is this juxtapositon: Augustus with a cross in his forehead and an Early Christian-like Roman, flanked by Dionysius and a headless angel. Now where else are you going to see that?

Eros & Priapus in the Selchuk Museum © 2012 Trici Venola.

It’s all here: Storks, aqueduct, ruined temples, ancient and modern Goddesses, the Tomb with its shifting dust, the memories of vanished romances. The people of Selchuk keep it all alive. In this place of sainthood and miracles amid reverberating female power I drew this lady, Karim Hanim, who lives just around the corner from that longshot of the CItadel and St John’s. I met her through my lovely friend Frances, who has lived here for years and speaks fluent Turkish. Karim Hanim worked her whole life. She posed for me in her home, surrounded by children and grandchildren, on the Bayram, the holy day following Ramazan. Of course I drew the patterns later from photos, to save our precious time for her hands and feet and presence, her face. For some reason, drawing her made me cry.

She Was A Pretty Girl ©2012 by Trici Venola.

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All drawings Plein Air. All drawings from the series Drawing On Istanbul by Trici Venola. All art © Trici Venola except for the two drawings from Google Maps. All drawings created in sketchbook format, using drafting pens on 18 X 52 cm rag paper.

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LYCIAN TOMBS and BURNING CITIES: Kas 2000

LYCIAN TOMBS & BURNING CITIES

A Slant on Perge ©2000 Trici Venola.

Have you ever seen Perge?  A plain, under an endless sky, littered with the broken remnants of a city old when Alexander came.  There’s a big square stone gate, and through it the remains of a huge fountain: chunks of carved stone balanced on either side; and beyond that an expanse of broken columns, some fallen, some standing, marching off in a colonnade into an infinity of arches and turrets and giant stones lying on the cracked streets polished with centuries of feet. In the center two fragmented towers go up into the sky. Oh, yes, a Roman amphitheater too.  This one is all busted up and weedy, next to a stadium with an oval chariot track.

Perge Longshot ©2000 Trici Venola

I saw it with Pierre, a French chef turned wandering watercolorist. “They told me of you,” he introduced himself in the Kas square one morning over breakfast. We’d been drawing together ever since. Most of these drawings are from that summer, exactly 12 years ago, when I made so many of the decisions I live with today. They were done on the run, so to speak, and worked on later during a convalescence from an illness. I love them.

Night Bus ©2000 Trici Venola.

In 2000, I ripped up my marriage and my comfortable life in Los Angeles and moved to Turkey. Numb with the pain of divorce and the loss of much of my family, I was also in a tortuous affair with a Kurdish man. There was a deal of passion, but we could not be easy together. We fought in Side, we fought in Istanbul. During a truce we took a night bus to Kas, (in English Kosh), a little town on the southernmost tip of Turkey. We fought again and he left for Side. Exhausted, I stayed in Kas, where my friend Rayan was managing a hotel.

Tiny Rayan ©2000 Trici Venola.

I rented rooms in an old Turkish stone house covered with Bougainvillea.  My place had a big balcony with  a view of the little boats in the harbor and beyond them the sea. This was Kas before they built the present huge marina.

Kas from Afar ©2000 Trici Venola.

Kas is in the ancient kingdom of Lycia. Here and there in the sunstruck green and gold of the hillsides are the square carved faces of plundered Lycian tombs.  The land has the most amazing color: peach-colored, salmon, saffron, shading down into rose and maroon; the dirt is the color of dried blood.  In places where a landslide  has broken open a hill, the bright rock contrasts with the grayed stone and growth on the surface  like a geode.  Pine and cypress trees march along ridges and cluster in gulleys, and olive trees are everywhere. Below the rocks the sea is sapphire-black, turquoise, jade.  There are black goats and red rock houses and boats and friends.

Olive Tree ©2000 Trici Venola.

I needed all of it.  I had realized I couldn’t have Kazim. I craved that crazy love, you know, that wild nutso glorious reckless stuff, and he’d gotten too dark. Still I burned, and the beauty of the land was painful. I drew incessantly.

Married for Life ©2000 Trici Venola.

Hanife & Her Son ©2000 Trici Venola.

  At sunset these days the people of Kas are waiting to break their Ramazan fast, but back in 2000 they would gather at the ruined Roman amphitheater on the edge of town.

Sisters in the Ruins ©2000 Trici Venola.

In the middle of Kas is a big tomb that has never been moved since it was placed there 2500 years ago. It looked easy to draw, but when I started it took five hours.  At the time it was the longest I’d ever spent on one drawing, and in one sitting, too. The guys in the street brought me sandwiches.

Big Tomb in Kas ©2000 Trici Venola.

I spent a couple hours the next day drawing down the hill in the other direction. The view is still pretty much the same.

View from the Tomb ©2000 Trici Venola.

My drawing buddy Pierre and I rode all over Lycia with a cabdriver with an immaculate taxi, stone face and no English, actually named Ali Baba.  He’d driven me on a sortie to Side when I’d gone to see Kazim. It was a four-hour drive, and for the last two I sang. Ali Baba kept exclaiming, “No Turkish  music!  Chok guzel!”–which means Very Good or Fat City or You’re Pretty—  Anyway he liked my singing.  Since he didn’t speak English I just sang anything regardless of how appropriate it was, from Big Mama Thornton to Rogers and Hart.  What really got Ali Baba off was Gilbert & Sullivan.  So I wailed away on Pirates of Penzance and The Sorcerer, and we went to Phaselis, where Alexander the Great once wintered:

Busted Old Arch in Phaselis ©2000 Trici Venola.

a high pine forest with stone ruins in the pine needles between two sweet shady beaches, and on to Aspandos, where the theater is as big as the ruined one in Side and completely intact; it still has its looming square proscenium wall, startling after so many open theater craters.

Simena ©2007 Trici Venola.

All this history is strung like a pearl necklace along the spectacular Mediterranean coast of Southern Turkey, between Bodrum to the west and Side to the east. We had already been to Myra, where the square-cut Lycian tombs, carved in golden rock, ornament the hill over the ruined Roman arches of the theater built centuries later. The basic drawing below was done in 45 minutes standing bolt-upright in the singing heat, and darkened later.

Roman Stone Mask & Gargoyle ©2000 Trici Venola.

In Myra a chalky Byzantine church rises out of the sunken ground in perpetual restoration, a church built in honor of and once housing the bones of… Santa Claus. There’s a bashed-in stone sarcophagus, vaguely sleigh-shaped, but alas, no reindeer, only a brass plate saying in several languages: Here lay the remains of St. Nicholas. Italians stole his body in AD1007.

Noel Baba One ©2000 Trici Venola.

The Church of St. Nicholas is powdery pale with mosaics in the floor, treble arched windows and very old brickwork like embroidery among the ancient stones.  It was built by Justinian and Theodora in the 6th Century to honor St Nicholas, Bishop of Myra two centuries earlier. A wealthy man who gave all his money to the poor, his original gifts were dowries for two destitute sisters, dropped down the chimney to save their pride —or, on a hot night, put in the open window in their shoes, depending on which story you read. That’s supposed to be what started the tradition of Christmas stockings.

Cliffs at Big Pebble Beach ©2006 Trici Venola.

Ali Baba took me out to the beach the next day and made a serious pass, but he backed right off and I just went on singing at the top of my lungs.  And him a family man. He took me to Letoon, where Leto, one of Zeus’ many conquests, took her infants Artemis and Apollo to bathe in the river. The townspeople threw stones at her, so she turned them into frogs.  Nevertheless they built her a temple. There’s this one to Leto, one to Apollo and one to Artemis, all Hellenic. The Letoon temple, being built by frogs, regularly floods. It looks beautiful in the guidebook but in the dog days of August, when I was drawing it with sweat stinging my eyes, it was sun-baked, crusted mud. My self-appointed guide Mehmet, a lithe 12-year-old, scampered nimbly across the old scored stones, while I stepped carefully between the clumps of brittle dead reeds and broke through right down into sucking sticky swamp. My foot felt like it was being digested. I pulled up hard, swearing at Mehmet, and nothing happened for the longest time.  I was wearing a pair of flip-flop platform sandals from LA.  I was fond of them; I would not let my foot slip out, and finally with a great sucking sound the sandal came free loaded with about five pounds of mud. I limped out of the temple swamp and it took a helpful attendant with a hose and a brush ten minutes to get the mud off, but I got a hell of a drawing.

Letoon ©2000 Trici Venola.

Then Ali Baba took me to Xanthos.  The cab turned down a hill and I saw the toothed ridge of old wall.  We came around a bend and there was the ridged theater crater and some high capstone sarcophagi; then we came all the way around and I saw it, a city entire all ruined on the hill, excavations for fifty years, ringed with walls in disrepair, chunked rock and old rooms and carvings and columns overgrown with bushes and trees.  Much of Xanthos has been spirited away to various museums worldwide but there is plenty of fabulous pitted glory left there in situ: Lycian and Roman with Byzantine overtones.  It was so hot in all the ruins that I’d taken to putting my whole head under the restroom tap just before we left each one.  It was always sweaty-dried by the next stop.

A Lion from Xanthos, British Museum, ©2006 Trici Venola.

Xanthos was a glaring furnace with no scrap of shade.  I wandered around the sandy mosaics pouring sweat and wondering how on earth I could stand still to draw them.  I was too black to burn by then but the sun on my arms and legs was painful.  There was a gang of workmen, nice guys I could ask for a chair and some kind of rigged shelter but they were away across the mountain. Before they left, I did some sketches and took a photo. Later I did a drawing from it–my personal favorite from this era– and digitally incorporated it with some Plein Air bits.

Working Stiffs In Situ ©2000 Trici Venola.

That day in Xanthos I had a sarong and a big hat, so I broke off some dead reeds and jammed them into the steps going down to ancient baths overlooking the olive groves and the power lines in the distance.  There were cicadas buzzing in a gasping chorus in the heat.  I draped the sarong over my hat and the sticks and thought of Lawrence of Arabia. It gave just enough shade to endure drawing for about twenty minutes.  Sweat ran down my face and dripped on the page.  I  looked at the drawing.  It was enough to go on.

Xanthos ©2000 Trici Venola.

This is the fabled city where the Xanthians, finding themselves c540 BCE overwhelmed by Persian hordes, slaughtered all their loved ones: wives and concubines, parents, children and slaves– by ringing the walled city with fire and burning everyone alive.  Then the warriors put on their armor, charged fighting into the Persian waves and were killed to the last man.  Yet the city rose again, and again was besieged, this time in 42 BCE by Brutus, as in Et tu Brute.  The Romans would not go away and the Xanthians would not give up and finally the horrified Romans saw a woman with her dead baby slung around her neck torching her roof as she hanged herself.  “Enough!” called Brutus and offered a substantial reward for any Roman to save a live Lycian.

Rock Tombs in Myra ©2000 Trici Venola.

Nevertheless they are all gone now.  Only the cities and tombs remain, square rock faces shining gold and bronze and red in the gray sides of mountains, all tumbled with emerald and jade bushes.  Gray-green leaves mist around the black sticks of olive trees parading down the bright meadows, gold in the afternoon sun.  Gothic-arch-topped barrels of sarcophagi rise up like great stone mushrooms in forests, on mountaintops, on the edges of towns and amphitheaters and in that main street of Kas, each with its looted black hole.  If I were a Lycian I would never ever want to leave, either.  I would tell them to put me on the hill over the sea, and I would arrange an earthquake to hide my tomb to keep them from coming later and stealing my skull and my jewelry.  Squint at any hill here and there’s a tomb.  Surely some must be hidden, and the Lycians sleeping inside, undisturbed bones clothed in the splendor they deserve for keeping this kingdom so long and so well.

A Tomb With A View ©2007 Trici Venola.

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A Slant on Perge, Perge Longshot, and Working Stiffs In Situ were partially drawn from  the author’s photographs. All other drawings Plein Air. All drawings done with drafting pens on rag paper in sketchbooks. All save Tiny Rayan measure 18 cm X 26 cm / 7″ X 20.”

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HAGIA SOPHIA AGAPE: Drawing the Basilica Entire

In response to requests, we are republishing this fine post from the archives. You just can’t get too much of Hagia Sophia. And if you’re in Istanbul now, go to the back corner of the basilica, on SogukCesme Street, and look in on the new antique carpet museum.

HAGIA SOPHIA

Ναός τῆς Ἁγίας τοῦ Θεοῦ Σοφίας, 

Church of the Holy Wisdom of God

Hagia Sophia Agape.detail © 2011 by Trici Venola

STEEPLES AND MINARETS

Sultan Mehmet. Ottoman miniature, 15th century.

When Mehmet the Conqueror took Constantinople in 1453, he was twenty-one years old. He said: Give me your city and I’ll not let my soldiers loot. Gutted by the Fourth Crusade, shrunken to villages inside the walls, Constantinople had nevertheless held him off for a year, and still they fought him. They believed Rome would come to their rescue. A big mistake, and the city fell. The sky black with smoke, ships burning in the harbor, streets running with blood; screams and explosions; devastation and horror everywhere, and Constantine XI the Last Byzantine Emperor died on the walls, sword in hand. Afterwards, many witnesses claimed that a beam of light shot out of the top of Hagia Sophia, and the Archangel Michael soared out of the church and away, abandoning the city to the new Conqueror.

Enraged by unexpected losses, true to his word and the custom of the time, Mehmet let his soldiers run amok for three days. Afterwards, he says in his diary, he rode through the streets weeping at the devastation. Young Mehmet admired Alexander the Great, who burned Persepolis, but he refused to mind his own ministers, who advised him to burn Hagia Sophia. “It’s the most sublime building in the world,” he said, and converted it to a mosque. The Pope visited it in 2006. It was a huge event. The entire area was blocked off to all traffic, and the few trams running were jammed to the ceilings, steam on the windows. As I plodded up the hill from the ferry along with thousands of other displaced commuters, I thought of the Pope. Six hundred years too late, Your Eminence.

The Fall of Constantinople, from an old manuscript. Notice clerics at right in front of Hagia Sophia.

Hagia Sophia Agape.detail © 2011 by Trici Venola

All the surviving Byzantine basilicas in Istanbul are now mosques. It’s why, traditionally, mosques are round. And common sense tells me that the Crusaders, despite wreaking havoc all over the Middle East, had by 1453 noticed the lovely minarets, gone home and invented Gothic Architecture. I’ve not found any scholarly backup on this, but I’d say minarets are why we have steeples on churches.

VANTAGE POINT  June 2011, when Michael Constantinou asked me for the umpteenth time to draw him a picture of Hagia Sophia entire, I saw a two-week project. “Aç Ayi Ornamaz,” means in Turkish “The hungry bear doesn’t dance.” A commission was agreed upon. “The whole structure,” said Michael, “no tricky perspective, no slants, no seagulls!”

Aw shoot, no seagulls?

 

Ayasofya & A Gull ©2007 by Trici Venola

So I had to move closer.  I roamed around Hagia Sophia, checking out various views, and settled on the terrace at Seven Hills Restaurant, site of many fine dinners, drunk on the view. Here’s what they think Hagia Sophia looked like back in the day, when Emperor Justinian was still alive.

Justinian’s Constantinople. A print of this painting is in the outer transept at Hagia Sophia. If you know who painted it and where I can find a copy, please let me know in the comments section.

This vantage point is similar to the one I used. Here’s what it looks like today:

The scene is so spectacular, the 21st-century June light so white and intense, the sea right there, no way to even begin to get it all down, but trying is what makes art. The waiters were so nice to me that I drew them in gratitude. I sat at the same table every day for ten days, drawing for five hours, in that intense sun. They brought me coffee and water and made a big fuss, but never more than when I came back the last day and did this drawing.

Swell Fellows All: The Waiters at Seven Hills ©2011 by Trici Venola

These guys are from all over Turkey: Istanbul, Ardahan, Siirt, Diyarbakir and Nemrut Dag. All posed in the same spot for five minutes each, and everybody got a copy.

Me up top. Hagia Sophia is to the immediate left of this photo. Think what the mosaic artists saw, working up in the dome!

THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAILS  I blew the first two tries. The second one, I had gotten all the way across the east face at the right before I noticed that the proportions were off.

Hagia Sophia Agape.detail ©2011 by Trici Venola

Started again right here, with the frontal projection to the right. I do not know the proper architectural term for these. Have you ever seen them anywhere else? I sure haven’t.  That plaster floral medallion on each one covers a Greek cross.

This is drawn with drafting pens on 35 X 70 cm rag paper with no preliminary pencil, so it had to start right. Then I measured everything off of this one, as explained back in the summer of 2011 with the Drawing the Boukoleon posts.

Hagia Sophia Agape.detail ©2011 by Trici Venola

June 9: Trying to get my mind around the implacable testament of this building’s age, and not as a ruin, either, but a continously-occupied temple of worship coming up on 1480 years. Thinking about the 10,000 workmen in two teams: 50 foremen with100 men to each, and they raced, and they met at the dome. Five years.

Ayasofya Beautiful ©1999 by Trici Venola.

June 12: Today got badly sunburned on left side but didn’t stop. I’m noticing on the east face, which is toward the Marmara, what 15 centuries of storms have done to the shape– the wear, rain tracks and moss and such are very interesting. The sea is deep turquoise.

Hagia Sophia Agape.detail ©2011 by Trici Venola.

RIght in the middle of this section, see how the rain has sluiced diagonally across the brickwork, carving a trough? And you can see how it has hit that point of connection of the roof below, bounded over and fountained up, leaving a rounded mark on the wall above before flowing down into the shadow to the left. That shadow is very dark green: moss.

Hagia Sophia Agape.detail ©2011 by Trici Venola

Here’s an angular spot I like, although the original brickwork has been obscured by new plaster. Hagia Sophia has been standing, despite earthquake and catastrophe and supported only by columns, for almost 1500 years. Much credit for this goes to Mimar Sinan, the great architect of the Renaissance. In the natural course of things, the walls under the huge central dome move apart, causing collapse. In a masterful and politic stroke, Sinan buttressed them and anchored the buttresses with minarets, pleasing the gods of structure and his Sultan, Selim II, as well. You can see the buttresses right here: those massive piers to the right, one of them under a minaret base. How massive are they? Look at those tiny people on the ground!

Hagia Sophia Agape.detail ©2011 by Trici Venola.

Emperor Justinian gold coin. Big wide-set eyes, full face, wide mouth. Justinian!

To design Hagia Sophia, the Emperor Justininan hired a mathemetician and a physicist: Anthemius of Thrales, and Isidoros of Miletus. Religion, Mathematics, Science and Art: they say that at the peak of understanding, all of these converge. Justinian’s rule, and his life, reached a crescendo with his partnership with his Empress, Theodora.

Justinian and Theodora, from their respective mosaics in Ravenna.

Ah, Theodora. There’s a lot on her in a previous blog, Standing the Obelisk: the notorious nude Hippodrome performer who got religion, became Empress, quashed child prostitution, invented tiaras and pointed shoes, and quelled riots with equal aplomb. Justinian had the laws changed so he could marry her. By every report they were passionately devoted to each other, to their faith, and to their Empire. Here’s Theodora painted into life from an ancient bronze statue now in Milan, using information from the Ravenna mosaic and contemporary descriptions.

Theodora Comes Alive ©2012 by Trici Venola.

Look at that eyebrow: now she could quell a rebellion. Justinian and Theodora: where art, religion, science and mathematics converge, add great love and get High Byzantine. Eros: the love of another, and Agape: the love of God. Here is the final drawing of Hagia Sophia Agape: the convergence of all the great mysteries: an answer so great that the questions don’t matter anymore.

Hagia Sophia Agape ©2011 by Trici Venola.

Hagia Sophia Agape ©2011 by Trici Venola.

“Even had its Empire never existed, Byzantium would surely have impressed itself upon our minds and memories by the music of its name alone, conjuring up those same visions that it evokes today: visions of gold and malachite and porphyry, of stately and solemn ceremonial, or brocades heavy with rubies and emeralds, or sumptuous mosaics dimly glowing through halls cloudy with incense. — John Julius Norwich

Mosaic Detail Imperial Gallery

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Alll drawings Plein Air, ©1999-2011 by Trici Venola. All drawings created with drafting pens on paper. Hagia Sophia Agape and Waiters at Seven Hills measure 50 X 70 CM. Other drawings measure 18 X 52 CM. Theodora Comes Alive was created onscreen with digital tools. Thank you for reading. We love your comments.


SAINTS AND ANGELS 5: Divine Energy In Hagia Sophia

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!

Empress Zoe WIP 1 ©2012 by Trici Venola

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.

Zoe’s Constantine WIP ©2012 by Trici Venola

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 ©2012 by Trici Venola

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.

Zoe’s Constantine ©2012 by Trici Venola

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.

Jaywon with Gabriel ©2012 by Trici Venola

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All drawings Plein Air by Trici Venola. All art © 2012 by Trici Venola. Thanks for reading. We love your comments.