SERGIUS AND BACCHUS 1: Drawing with the Dervishes


7th Century icon of Saints Sergius and Bacchus.

Sergius and Bacchus were Roman soldiers, closet Christians martyred in Syria in 303. One was beheaded and the other died from torture. Their close friendship is the stuff of legend, so that not only are they patron saints of soldiers, but are icons of gay marriage as well. There are many churches to them, and one was built here, by the Emperor Justinian.

Medieval map of Constantinople. Note Hippodrome left and above our little church.

He felt he owed them. Prior to becoming Emperor himself, Justinian was accused of plotting against the reigning emperor Anastasius. Sentenced to die, he was freed after Anastasius dreamed that Sergius and Bacchus intervened. Justinian started their church in 527, the first year of his reign.

With the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, Justinian’s Byzantine basilica  became a mosque called Kucuk Ayasofya, in Turkish: Small Hagia Sophia. Its Turkish name refers to the stunning innovation of its being constructed around a central dome on an octagonal base, like its larger, later namesake.

Designed by Anthemios of Tralles, one of Hagia Sophia’s architects, it was started five years before the Nika Rebellion cleared the way for the huge project of Hagia Sophia, and proved that such a structure could work.

Kucuk Ayasofya today

Sergius and Bacchus was built just inside the city walls on the Marmara Sea, in the neighborhood now known as Kadirga. Various sources cite an earlier monastery. In 519, Justinian had built a church to Saints Peter and Paul. Sergius and Bacchus was supposedly built on that. No trace remains, or so they say. Hmph. If any of those people had lived in the neighborhood, they might have found this in the city walls:

Sergius & Bacchus WC ©2008 Trici Venola.

Sticking up at the edge of a picnic area of grass and trees, it looks like a giant fireplace and is stuffed with trash and homeless, who have spray-painted “WC” on the lintel. But neglect also means integrity: the carving is untouched. This was a magnificent portal rearing out of the very sea. Above the lintel is cement, but the posts are of white marble. We are across the railroad from basilica at the edge of the original enclosure, fifteen feet above where the water was. There are three cavernous entrances, but this one still has its Greek inscriptions on both sides, fire-blackened but still legible. The fires are from homeless guys cooking mussels in winter. I find it ironic that this church is still sheltering the needy.

This remnant of grandeur ends at the cement wall of the train tracks. In 1871, Sultan Abdulaziz decreed that the Orient Express could run its railroad smack through the spectacular Byzantine monuments all along the City Walls on the Marmara Sea side of Sultanahmet. An ariel view shows the railroad slicing through palaces and temples alike. The constant vibration of 142 years of trains has shaken the foundations of Byzantium. The railroad is going to be a park now, but we don’t know when. When I lived there I loved the trains roaring by, but had I been blogging in the time of Abdulaziz I would have had to zip my lip to keep it from being lopped.

It’s Going To Be All Right ©2004 by Trici Venola


In 2004 I moved into the street next to Kucuk Ayasofya. The writing on the drawing above says This view is much better than the old one of glittering windows and misery, and Train racketing by after the Call to Prayer, full moon soon; I think it’s gonna be all right. It had been a rocky road to Istanbul. After a ghastly series of events, I’d lost all my capital to a feral thief of a landlord over across the Golden Horn. Police and consulate could do nothing but advised me to leave the building. Then he got violent. Legendary Sultanamet artist Kubilay showed up with friends and we carried everything we could down seven flights of stairs and loaded it into taxis. Kubilay piled it in his kitchen and on his roof, and took my kitten Ygor. My friend Rayan flew in from Kuala Lumpur and we found this little duplex next to the mosque. She rented it and flew away. I was so happy to be safe in Sultanahmet with a door that closed, and me on the inside, that even the guys fixing the street had a magical glow. I wish I could feel like that always.

Guys Fixing the Street ©2004 by Trici Venola.

I was crazy to learn Turkish. My friend Zeynal offered lessons. Meeting in my home would make talk, so we met in the medrese at Kucuk Ayasofya.

They were restoring the mosque, and it was all boarded off. The restoration was controversial, as it involved the cementing-over of Byzantine mosaics discovered under centuries of plaster. Unesco had pulled out. I remember sacks of cement stacked hundreds high and a workman telling Zeynal in Kurdish that “everyone’s angry, people hate us.” Fortunately some of the exquisite 6th-century detail work is still with us, like this capital and calligraphic border at left.

The workmen were imported from Eastern Turkey, unpopular with the neighborhood which believed them terrorists. There was a big fight there once; someone hung a Turkish flag on one of the minarets and after a terrific brouhaha and a couple of shots, an ambulance came and they carried out something covered on a stretcher. Nobody was allowed in ever, no architects or journalists, and the buildings across the street blocked the view of the mosque. So like everyone else in the area, I put my money on the Medrese. I still do.

A medrese is a religious school attached to a mosque. The ones around here were built in the 15th and 16th centuries, and when the mosque was a Byzantine basilica, the medrese was often built on the foundations of the seminary or monastery. I think this one was. Here it is on Google Maps. See the railroad?

This particular one, Huseyin Aga Medrese that we call The Garden, is a grassy, flower-studded courtyard with a central fountain, full of broken bits of Byzantine and Ottoman marble bordered on three sides by workshops fronted by a tea garden. Low square doorways alternate with grilled windows in stone walls under  leaded domes.

Cold Day Medrese.detail ©2005 Trici Venola.


In 2004 there was a group of bearded men, a very conservative Sufi Dervish sect, who met in the Garden to drink tea and argue philosophy. I recognized one of them. He’d consoled me years before when I was devastated over the loss of a sketchbook.

Edip in 1999 ©1999 Trici Venola.

He taught me to say La Iliha Illalla which means Allah is All. In 2004, he took me to Sunday lunch at the home of Dervish Master Yakup Baba. We had a lively discussion about belief systems and fell out over having gay friends. This sect felt it wrong. I don’t, but we have stayed friends anyway, and I was honored to pray with them. Lost in grief over my sketchbook back in ’99, I didn’t notice Edip’s blessing, but the book I drew him in became a breakthrough work, one of my best.

Sufi Dervishes at Home ©2004 Trici Venola. Edip in center.

Then there was a group of young Turkish people who seemed to have a very good time. At the center was CC, an out-of-the-closet gay guy and his girl pal, one of those close friendships that can form between straight women and gay men.

Emine at the Black Sea ©3006 Trici Venola.

Emine is  a powerhouse of a woman, a fantastic chef with boundless enthusiasm. She introduced me to the poet Taroub and her husband Ammar, the first Iraqis I’d ever met. It was 2005, and their friends Aida and Nazar were raising four kids in the middle of Bagdad. They succeeded.

Cool Iraqis ©2005 Trici Venola.

An American film crew came to Istanbul to make a documentary about being gay in Turkey.

Two Brave Girls in Konya ©2006 Trici Venola.

CC claimed to be a direct descendent of the great mystic and poet Rumi Mevlana, 13th-century founder of the Mevlevi (Whirling) Dervishes in Konya. CC had left Konya 15 years before, after a family fight which erupted when he announced he was gay. He moved to Istanbul and bought a puppy to console him for the loss of his family. In all that time he had not been home. He’d talked to his mother, but not seen her. The film crew wanted to film a reunion and use it as a centerpiece for their documentary.

Dervishes Near Konya ©2005 Trici Venola.

So we all went to Konya: CC, Emine, the film crew, and me, who had facilitated the introduction through a gay-friendly guy at the US Consulate. The film was to include some of my drawings. Very exciting!

With His Mother ©2005 Trici Venola.

Konya today is ultra-conservative. Despite the low probability of anyone there seeing the movie, CC – in the full flush of reunion –  withdrew filming permission. The crew, out all their expenses, were remarkably philosophical about it. Emine had spent so much on the trip it took her months to recover. I had canker sores and was miserable, since the very friendly Turkish family insisted on feeding me cake, which exacerbated the problem, and I was afraid refusal would be rude. But it was worth it to get this drawing of CC, his mom, and the fifteen-year-old dog. It’s one of my favorites, with the moon outside the lace curtains. I still have the little knitted booties she gave me, and I have Emine to thank for all this Konya art.

Konya Dervishes ©2005 Trici Venola.

Konya is the spiritual center of the Mevlevi Dervishes. Founder Rumi would whirl in ecstatic joy in the streets. This has evolved into the Sema, the dance of prayer. Rumi’s poetry endures today. In the 13th century, it was powerful enough to inspire marauder Genghis Khan to spare this mosque.

Spared by Genghiz Khan ©2005 Trici Venola.

During Christianity’s dark age, when knowledge was suppressed and scientists burned along with books, the Dervishes kept reason alight. They preserved and continued science and mathematics. Clear up into the 20th Century, if you wanted to devote yourself to creativity with monastic fervor, the Dervishes would feed and house you in tekkes, spiritual centers that were closed in the dawn of the Republic. One survives in Eyup: Ummu Sinan, and last month I got to go there to draw. Here’s what I got in the first 2 hours:

and here it is after awhile, including some rendering time at home.

Dancing With the Dervishes ©2012 Trici Venola.

What I did was darken places for clarity and strengthen every line that indicated whirling, especially here, where performance-Dervish Alper Alkçay was dancing.

The Master in this group is Serif Baba, the fellow in the center with the pointy hat. These are Bektashi Dervishes, and I was lucky enough to spend last Thursday night dancing with thirteen of them, led by Huseyin here. We were with that gay-friendly diplomat, now retired, celebrating the full moon in Unkapani, spitting distance from Molla Zeyrek Mosque that was Christ Pantocrator. That brooding Byzantine presence, and a tall room at the top of a wooden house, lined with bright woven calligraphic hangings glinting with gold.

Three musicians wailed on strings and a huge tambourine-drum. There was free-form whirling, then a formal Bektashi ceremony. It involved ritualistic, stylized, and quite genuine grief for baby Huseyin, the son of Ali and Fatma, the Prophet Mohammed’s married nephew and daughter, all murdered centuries ago at the genesis of the schism between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, the two horns of the Crescent of Islam. The grieving ceremony seemed an emotional purge. I couldn’t but wonder if this is a cathartic way to deal with the pain of living, for afterwards everybody was happy. At some point all the emotions converged into the Sema, the whirling dance of oneness with God. I don’t know how this group feels about being gay. or having gay friends. All these years later, it doesn’t seem to matter.

Sergio and Bacchus c1541

All drawings Plein Air.


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.


Ναός τῆς Ἁγίας τοῦ Θεοῦ Σοφίας, 

Church of the Holy Wisdom of God

Hagia Sophia Agape.detail © 2011 by Trici Venola


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


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 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.


Nicholas in the Arena.Detail ©2011 by Trici Venola

I’m drawing bas-relief marble chariots so old they look melted. I’ve been walking past this obelisk for years and never drawn it. The faces seemed too rounded by time and weather to be interesting. What a fool I was! I didn’t look hard enough. My only excuse is that there is so much else.

The Rain Trough ©2011 by Trici Venola

Here’s my first take, last summer, on the Egyptian Obelisk Pedestal, which I did as a break from drawing The Big Arch. We’re up on the top of the hill in  Sultanahmet, in the center of the Hippodrome. That’s the 10th-Century Column of Constantine in the background. Very different from working down at the Boukoleon; there I saw mostly Turkish people and a few tourists, here I was listening to tour guides address cruise crowds all day. Made a big mistake in the first drawing listening to one blather on utter nonsense about Empress Theodora, who I think of with affection and awe. She was hell on wheels as a performer here in the Hippodrome, and powerfully pious in her afterlife as the Empress who with her consort Justinian built the great monuments we now call High Byzantine.

The carving on the Pedestal of the Egyptian Obelisk is from 390, which means that Theodora herself saw it when the faces were still clear, in 510 or so when she was performing in the Hippodrome. She had an act which became the stuff of legend. She cavorted nearly nude, allowing trained geese to peck corn from various parts of her anatomy. This drove the crowds wild, probably from trying to see, as this Hippodrome is just about the biggest ancient arena in the world, second only to Rome’s Circus Maximus which was built by the same Emperor, Septimus Severus. It probably held 100,000 people.

Egyptian Obelisk

The Egyptian Obelisk was brought to Istanbul from the temple at Luxor by the Byzantine Emperor Constantius in 357. It was raised by Emperor Theodosius in 390, and he made sure we knew it. He had this marble pedestal created, covered with portraits carved in bas-relief. A mystery for me is how these faces survived the Iconoclasts, who spent from around 711 to 843 destroying all pictures in Christian art. So how did the faces withstand this? They couldn’t have been buried or covered, they’re too worn for that. Notice the rain trough in the top illustration, where the water has forced its way through the pipe cut in the marble. That’s 1600 years of wear right there.  Maybe they survived because the carving was commemorative and not religious.  Anyone out there who knows, please tell me, it’s driving me crazy.

Egyptian Obelisk Base, West Face, Hippodrome

Theodosius  and his ministers and family appear on all four sides of the Pedestal. Below them are chariots and dancers, and at the bottom of one side is an instructional illustration of how they stood up the 65-foot, multi-ton, red granite Obelisk, in case you should ever want to try it yourself.

Standing the Obelisk ©2011 by Trici Venola

They attached ropes and winched it up, and the figures are so adorable that I’m putting them here in close-up.

The couple to the left of this first vignette look for all the world to me like a bear fondling a woman, but I am told it’s a man in a hat and they are pulling ropes. A likely story. Think I’m kidding? Look at this photo of the same figures!

Here they are with the winches.  I wonder if the figure to the right is beating time, like in that galley-slave scene from Ben-Hur.

It’s fascinating, how time has worn these figures down to the essentials. A real lesson in anatomical art: everything will be nearly shapeless, but you can still see the set of a haunch, a rounded calf muscle, the swell of a straining back, and that one detail throws the whole thing into focus.

The Egyptian carving up on the granite Obelisk is still crisp, but Theodosius and his ministers were made of softer stuff. They show  as so many globes. Nobody’s got a nose, and lower faces are rounded and pitted into blurs. But the more I look the more I see, and it’s possible to make out lips, hollowed cheeks, curly hair, and on one particularly magisterial figure, Christopher Walken eyes. My mistake with the first take was in outlining too harshly and in trying to ask ink to do what paint does. In other words, I strained the medium. But now I thought I should try many little lines instead of one thick one, so I had to go out there and do it again, on a portrait I did for the Constantinou family of their son Nicholas. I spent forty-five minutes drawing him, with a drafting pen, on a big 35 X 70 sheet of paper. While we worked, I asked him what he was into, for the background. “Sports.” What could I do? Draw Fenerbache and Galatasary? But then I remembered Istanbul’s fine Byzantine heritage of sports riots: the Blues and the Greens. They were chariot teams. Blues were aristocrats, Greens raced for the plebs. In 532 the Blues and the Greens fought so savagely that they destroyed the city. They burned the Palace, the one where the Blue Mosque is now. They burned the old basilica of Hagia Sophia. They rioted for days and planned to burn the Emperor Justinian as well. He had one foot on the boat. He told Theodora to hurry up, or some such. After she’d lost the geese, gotten religion and become Empress, she wore purple robes. She was wearing them then. “Purple makes a fine shroud,” she said, “I will die here with dignity.”

The famous mosaic of Theodora in Ravenna

Justinian was so moved that he quelled the riot, executing, um, 20,000 people on this very Hippodrome, out on the end where the high school is now. And in 532, he and Theodora started building that great lady of High Byzantine art, the present Hagia Sophia. So for Nick Constantinou’s portrait, I chose the Obelisk Pedestal in the Hippodrome of Constantinople, with chariots and dancers, as a background for this fine young face. But I wanted to show the other Obelisk as well, to establish that this was indeed the Hippodrome. The Pedestal side I wanted has  Standing the Obelisk on it, so at the bottom I switched it for the other, which shows the Chariot Parade with its dancing girls. I spent about a week drawing the background, in the searing summer center of Istanbul’s Hippodrome Ramadan Festival:

Nicholas in the Arena ©2011 by Trici Venola

This got me fascinated with the Chariot Parade, so now I’m drawing again from scratch, just for me and my sketchbook. Here’s the first take, from last week, but as you can see I got distracted by a little girl who has just moved to Arizona.

Leyla and the Chariots ©2011 by Trici Venola

Here’s the second take.

Chariot Parade WIP 1 ©2011 by Trici Venola

The weather is freezing now. I’m working bundled up in layers of wool and leather, but I’m still cold to the bone. I can hold out for about two hours max. Drawing these little guys is tricky. They’re so small, and the changing light of the day can reveal details you didn’t see before, so it’s wise to hold out awhile if a figure doesn’t read. Here’s the next session:

Chariot Parade WIP 2 © by Trici Venola

Yesterday I got out there at around 3 PM. A glove on the non-working hand, bare frozen fingers on the right, crouched on my little borrowed stool swathed in a heavy jacket and a huge cashmere scarf, drawing. The air was pink and blue, and everything sharp as if seen under water. I was meeting a protege there at 4:30. I could hardly stand the cold, but I drew all these figures anyway. I’d be just about to call her to say we’d meet elsewhere, and then the drawing would get good and I’d forget myself.

Chariot Parade WIP 3 © 2011 by Trici Venola

Can you see the giraffe? It’s up on top, towards the left. Yes, the bottom of a giraffe: it couldn’t be anything else. 

So exotic beasts, chariots, dancing girls, acrobats and strong men, jugglers and clowns, all doing tricks for the Empress, who had done them herself.  Procopius tells us that, in her days as a performer, she publicly bemoaned the fact that God had so made her that she could only have intercourse with three men at a time, rather than five like she wanted. At nineteen she became devoutly religious and attracted Justinian, who moved heaven and earth and his uncle to change the law so he could marry her. When she became Empress. Theodora abolished forced prostitution and child prostitution and instituted a death penalty for rape. She quelled that sports riot, which has gone down in history as the Nika Rebellion. She invented the tiara and pointed shoes. She laughed at pompous courtiers. She spoke her mind. She was loathed by contemporary historians, branded a harlot opportunist. Yet not one of them, nor any in all the long years after them, has found a shred of evidence that she ever cheated on Justinian. This has led to wild speculation about their private life.

Justin & Theo At Home CGI ivory ©2008 by Trici Venola for Time-Out Istanbul

Oh, these historians, they will never understand. There’s no mystery. What could be more natural? A girl has a few wild years, gets religion, marries a nice guy and settles down.

Justin & Theo At Home CGI mosaic ©2008 by Trici Venola for Time-Out Istanbul