PEACE IN THE RUINS: Drawing the Hospital of Sampson

DSC01891 copy

Door in the Topkapi Wall

I sat on a hillside covered with wild mustard, drawing Byzantine bricks through chestnut trees just coming into bloom, and the whole world was yellow and green. A sunny day in April, and I was drawing in dead quiet: a 6th-century Byzantine site between a church of the same vintage and a wall, shown above, from somewhat later. The mustard rioted all over the hill and flooded down into the ruin, celebratory bursts of yellow against the dark pitted  bricks. Nothing indicated that just over the wall hordes of camera-swinging tourists clogged the street. We love tourists here in Istanbul, their money and presence preserves antiquities. But I was grateful for the silence and solitude. The last public hordes to be in the ruin were a thousand years ago, and I could feel those years.

Start 3 copy

Day 1: Peace in the Ruins ©2014 Trici Venola

A breeze came up, fresh with approaching storm. As I drew, an image came clear in my mind’s eye, an image of a foot. A woman’s foot in a pointed slipper: beaded pink fabric on top, leather on the bottom, a ribbon around the ankle.

Sampson Courtyard Walk

Sampson Courtyard Walk ©2014 Trici Venola

It stood on pale marble, near a marble fountain with a lion’s head, down in the very courtyard I was drawing, but clear of weeds. I froze. I let the image come. I thought of Theodora, the 6th-century harlot who became the pious and powerful Empress of Justinian.

Theodora Alive 2

Theodora Alive ©2011 Trici Venola

A small woman with dark hair, in a light dress of powder blue and robes the color of red wine. She walked in the courtyard alone on a sunny day. Did Theodora visit this place? Was she ever alone, or did her attendants stand back in the shadows and let her wander in sunny solitude? Just a pipedream, but it would not let me rest. A mere pipedream of Theodora is as powerful as a banshee, the furious life force projecting down through the centuries. All day and night that pointed toe stood on the marble next to the fountain. For some reason it made me happy.

Mosaic at Sampson

Sampson Mosaic ©2014 Trici Venola

These mosaics were set by sixth-century fingers right into the dirt. They’re dark green and pale gray-green. Think how many earthquakes, fires and wars they’ve survived! Think of the feet that have walked on these chips of marble, the shoes they wore. Below the dirt is a cistern: here’s a well from outside the cafe up top. A dropped stone produces a deep satisfying sploosh.

Sampson WellSo our ruin is the bottom of the structure: the Hospital of Sampson, built by a sainted doctor so adept, it is said, that he healed the Emperor Justinian of a hideous illness with the laying-on of his hand. His reward was the construction of this multistoried structure, a haven for the infirm poor, linking Hagia Sophia and Hagia Eirene.  Being built by master architects in the pre-electric 6th century, it was full of sunny courtyards.

Start 4

Day 3: Peace in the Ruins ©2014 Trici Venola

I was allowed to draw the site on the condition that I take no photos down in the ruin. Hagia Eirene’s fabulously aged façade runs straight down into it.

DSC02038 copy

Hagia Eirene, the second Hagia Sophia (built by Theodosius I,) and the Hospital were all burned in the Nika Riots in 532. The Emperor Justinian re-built all of them, and both basilicas stand today. Here’s a section of the ruin at the base of Hagia Eirene. See the slanted bricks running behind the ruined section in front? There must have been a roof of some kind, later incorporated into the new Church and Hospital.

Slant Bricks at Sampson

Slant Bricks at Sampson ©2014 Trici Venola

The Hospital ruin was excavated after WWII. Until four years ago, the structure in front of it was a private home. Its transformation to upscale cafe brought a fresh group of archeologists and students. A catwalk was built down into the site. Weeds were cleared, bits photographed and catalogued and stacked at the edges, large trees cut. Photographs can be seen at the cafe. Then the walkways were removed, and the site allowed to go back to the wild mustard. It’s lovely.

Day 3

Day 5: Peace in the Ruins ©2014 Trici Venola

LAYOUT

What did hospitals look like in the 6th century? We have an idea of the floor plan of this one, created in CGI by Byzantium 1200. Hagia Sophia is at the bottom and Hagia Eirene at the top. The Hospital is in the center, linking the two. Our area is to the far left.

HospSam 2

Sampson Hospital CGI recreation, © Byzantium1200. Used by permission.

See the pillars?

sampson5

Sampson Hospital CGI recreation, © Byzantium1200. Used by permission.

The Hospital was built right onto Hagia Eirene. That explains those melted-looking brick lumps in  Hagia Eirene’s façade.

Lumpy Buttress 1

Façade, Hagia Eirene

Here’s a satellite shot of the area from above. The Topkapi wall slants across from top left to bottom right, where the gate is. Hagia Sophia is bottom left, Hagia Eirene is the dome at top right. Karakol Restaurant is next to it at right center. See the Hospital?

Sampson Site Satellite Shot

The Hospital may have fallen into disuse, but I can’t discover when it collapsed or was demolished. It was probably when the Topkapi Wall was built, after 1453.

Peace.Door Detail

Peace in the Ruins.Door Detail.©2014 Trici Venola.

During the Ottoman years, Hagia Eirene was used as an armory, hence the crescent and star emblem over the doorway. Here’s an Ottoman now!

Day 5 wMike

Day 7: Peace in the Ruins ©2014 Trici Venola, with Mike Akbayrak.

SAINT SAMPSON

Did Hospital come from Hospitable?

St Sampson the Hospitable

St Sampson the Hospitable

St Sampson the Hospitable, aka St Sampson the Innkeeper and Unmercenary, was the son of rich important Romans. Already well-educated, he continued to study medicine, and doctored the sick without charge. When his parents died he set his slaves free, passed out alms and prepared himself to go into the wilderness– which was likely anywhere outside of Rome.

Eventually he went East to Constantinople: Eastern Rome. He moved into a small house, took in strays– poor and sick people– and cared for them. Undoubtedly a good doctor, he was credited with healing hands, if not outright miracles. His fame grew and with it his ability to treat more people.

The Patriarch of Constantinople, in recognition of Sampson’s great virtue, ordained him to the holy priesthood. St Sampson the Hospitable kept many alive, but died young, in about CE 530, and was buried at the Church of Holy Martyr Mokios in Constantinople.

SAINT MOKIOS

St Mokios1

St Mokios the Unmercenary

Scratch one saint in this town and you find another.  St Mokios was another great physician, one of the Holy Unmercenary Physicians, twenty doctors in antiquity who refused to accept money for their services. They were all canonized.

Synaxis Holy Unmercenaries

Synaxis (Reunion) of the Holy Unmercenaries

Judging by his beard, St Sampson appears second from right in the front row. The earliest precepts of Christianity include acceptance and treatment of the sick, as evidenced by this painting of Christ visiting the lepers.

Umercenaries visit Lepers

Christ Healing the Ten Lepers, Synaxis of the Holy Unmercenaries

St Mokios was beheaded around 295 for exhorting pagans to convert. His church was built on the site of a Temple of Zeus by Constantine in the next century, collapsed and was re-built by Justinian. Poetically, Sampson was interred there. People came to his tomb to be healed. His ghost continued, it is said, to kindly haunt his Hospital. Twice it upbraided a worker for laziness. Imagine the ashen-faced nurse trying to report that to a superior.

1123 hospital

A Hospital in 1123

A huge fire in Constantinople burned so fiercely that the lead sheets on the top of Hagia Sophia melted, it was said, and poured like rain. Fervent prayers to St Sampson preceded a deluge of real rain that put out the fire and saved the hospital. Think of the staff and patients alike shouting in prayer, nurses helping cripples to kneel, others lying muttering, flat on their backs clutching crucifixes, flickering light on the medical treatises rolled in the pigeonholes, doctors frozen with their instruments, eyes squeezed shut or white all the way around in terror, the air charged, the tension pulled to the snapping point, and the final, overwhelming crash of thunder, the release of rain, the screams of relief and joy, of renewed faith.

Day 6

Day 10: Peace in the Ruins ©2014 Trici Venola. Not anywhere near finished.

Here’s a splendid cathedral in St Petersburg, Russia, in honor of the Saint.

Cathedral

The Cathedral of St Sampson the Hospitable in St Petersburg, Russia

Azure and white, with its own reflection pool, it houses this spectacular iconostasis.

iconostasis-in-st-sampson-cathedral-in-st-petersburg

Iconostasis in St Sampson’s Cathedral, St Petersburg, Russia

I think of the actual Saint and his austerity, his love for the poor.

BYZANTINE MEDICINE

Justinian

Emperor Justinian’s famous mosaic portrait in Ravenna, Italy

If you were going to get sick in the Dark Ages, best to do it in Constantinople. It remained a beacon of light and learning in a world increasingly darkened by ignorance and superstition. Byzantine medicine was full of discovery, as well as preserving medical practices from the golden age of ancient culture, all of which influenced Islamic medicine. When the Western world began to wake up in the Renaissance, the information was there, waiting to make the world well.

Angels and Demons in a 13th-century Medieval Hospital

Angels and Demons in a 13th-century Medieval Hospital

By Medieval times, medical treatment in Europe  was largely a matter of prayer, with angels or demons responding to carry off the patient. But 6th-century Constantinople was still lit by the glow of ancient Greek and Roman enlightenment. Byzantine society was educated. Primary school was easily available for both boys and girls, even in the villages. Women played a large part in Byzantine culture. The Augusta Pulcheria, sister to Emperor Theodosius II, had established women on a par with the Holy Virgin Mary and set them on a course of, if not equality, respect.

tournai nurses

Medieval Nurses in Tournai

The legend of Justinian’s healing  by St Sampson, resulting in our Hospital, is likely true. Justinian subsidized private physicians to work publicly six months of the year, a breakthrough in medicine. Our Hospital would have had a Chief Physician: Archiatroi, professional nurses: Hypourgoi, and orderlies: Hyperetai.

MEDICAL STUDIES THROUGH THE AGES

Eudocia

Empress Eudocia in the Byzantine Museum in Istanbul.  Saints and Angels.detail © 1999 Trici Venola.

A hundred years before Justinian, in 425, Theodosius the Second’s beautiful Empress Eudocia, a highly educated Greek, established the first University at Constantinople: The Pandidakterion. It was in the Magnaura Palace, now being excavated  behind the Four Seasons, next to Hagia Sophia, in Sultanahmet. Along with law, philosophy, geometry, astronomy and music, it taught medicine. A hundred years later, the new Hospital of Sampson opened almost next door. It’s likely that its fledgling doctors, then as now, interned at the hospital for the poor.

465px-ViennaDioscoridesFolio483vBirds

Birds, from the Vienna Dioscorides Folio, 515 CE

Here’s a gallery of birds from the Vienna Dioscorides, an illuminated manuscript in Greek, created in 515 in Western Rome. Over the following centuries it became a hospital textbook, containing treatments for snakebite and other calamities. It certainly was used in Constantinople, for it was discovered here in the 1560s and identified as the famous textbook.

Examination_leper

Examination of a Leper, Dark Ages manuscript

By the late seventh century, doctors at the Hospital would have had access to The Medical Compendium in Seven Books, a distillation of information by one Paul of Aegina, a respected physician. He appears to have deserved respect, as the Compendium was in use as a standard medical textbook for the next 800 years.

12th century St Bartholemews hosp

St Bartholemew’s Hospital, 12th-century

By the 12th century, Constantinople had well-organized hospitals, medical specialists, wards segregated to treat specific diseases, and systematic treatments. They even had women doctors, those Byzantines. Faith was important. After the groundbreaking Hospital of Sampson, hospitals were built next to churches, and later, under the Ottomans, next to mosques. When medicine failed, Byzantine patients prayed with icons of Cosmas and Damien, patron saints of medicine and doctors. Continued emphasis on charity resulted in medicine being available to all.

mental disorders

Treatment of Mental Disorders, Medieval treatise

Many other great physicians practiced in Constantinople, but the atrocity of the Fourth Crusade slowed medical development in the 13th century. Still the Hospital of Sampson survived. When the infamous Italian Crusaders captured Constantinople in 1204, they converted the Hospital into a Western Roman hospital– a hostel for poor and sick pilgrims.

Monks in Hospital

Medieval Monks in a Hostel

This soon organized into a military order and became quite rich, spawning a daughter institution in Flanders. When the Byzantines recaptured Constantinople in 1261, the Brothers of St Sampson fled to Corinth and built a hospital there, a multipurpose unit that, among many commercial ventures, actually served the poor.

Medieval Hospital in Spain

A Medieval Hospital in Spain

ROLLING SAINT LUKE’S BONES

Like those nesting Russian dolls, one fitting inside the other, we come at last to the core Saint Physician. Were St Sampson and St Mokios influenced by St Luke? He was buried just up the hill at Holy Apostles. Both saints had similar stories. Both came from wealthy families, were highly educated, practiced medicine, and gave everything to the poor. A contemporary of Jesus, St Luke healed the sick, painted his pictures, wrote his gospels, grew old and died in Bithynia, now in Western Turkey.

St Luke Andrea_Mantegna 1454

St Luke in a painting by Andrea Mantegna, 1454

Relics of St Luke  were interred, with Byzantine splendor, by Constantine in 357 at the Church of Holy Apostles in Constantinople, now the site of Fatih Camii (Mosque) in Istanbul’s Old City. Many saints and emperors were eventually buried there, including Justinian and Constantine.

Church-of-the-Holy-Apostles

Church of the Holy Apostles

A fire that destroyed the church left the coffins of the saints untouched. Justinian rebuilt Holy Apostles in 527, just up the hill from the Hospital.  The holy and imperial tombs were eviscerated in 1204 by Italian Crusaders, who grabbed the gold and threw the bones to the dogs in the street. According to an aghast contemporary account, this is what happened to St Luke.

1204 Siege Constantinople Jacopo Tintoretto

Siege of Constantinople in 1204 by Jacopo Tintoretto

Another account has a grim 8th-century priest stealing St Luke’s bones, as well as a painting of the Virgin by the saint, to save them from the Iconoclasts. Still another says St Thomas the Apostle spirited St Luke’s painting to India around 50 CE. The legend of St Luke’s artistic endeavors includes as many True Paintings as there are True Relics, but it did result in his being Patron Saint of Artists, and for that I salute him with this post.

St Luke Painting Byz Mus Athens

One of many depictions of St Luke painting the Virgin, from the Byzantine Museum in Athens

An excited recent post from Padua, Italy, reports the saint’s entire skeleton found in a lead coffin there, including the skull which spent a time with Charlemagne.  Did some abject Crusader, fired with remorse or venality, pick up the relics and pack them off? Charlemagne pre-dated the Fourth Crusade by four centuries, so what about those stories of the Skull being at Holy Apostles? While the bones continue to cause fuss, the spirit of the great physician and evangelist of the New Testament has never left us. It undoubtedly inspired Sampson.

Peace In the Ruins

Peace in the Ruins.final. ©2014 Trici Venola.

So much for corporeal splendor! St Sampson the Hospitable, Justinian, Theodora, Pulcheria, Eudocia, St Mokios, Constantine, St Luke. Glorious physicians, empresses and emperors lying together in the street, ignominious piles of greened bones stomped by blood-crazed Italians raging under a smoke-blackened sky, devolving into the rumor of divinity.

Peace.Cat Detail

Peace in the Ruins.Cat Detail. ©2014 Trici Venola.

Their works fared better. All over the Middle East is the visual history of Constantinople, of Justinian and Theodora, in churches standing and savaged, in the foundations of the mosques, hospitals ruined and rumored as well. The study of medicine continues in universities worldwide, continuing the work of one gorgeous dedicated Greek girl. And worldwide is the legacy of the Unmercenaries: medical care for the poor. Despite the railroading of medicine by the rich in so many countries, free clinics keep springing up. The marriage of medicine and faith continues in Islam and Christianity and Quantum Physics, in the study of psychosomatic medicine, in the emphasis on mood as it affects the immune system. As always, the light that burned in Constantinople still flares and flickers like a torch in the winds of ignorance, but has yet to be put out. Down in the courtyard the cats play in the ruined fountain, but under the weeds the lion still roars.

Lion Head Sampson

The Lion Fountain at Sampson ©2014 Trici Venola

—-

All drawings Plein Air by Trici Venola. All drawings © Trici Venola, 1999, 2014.  Peace in the Ruins was created with drafting pens on rag paper and measures 50 X 70 cm. Other drawings were done with drafting pens in sketchbooks measuring 18  X 26 or 18 X 52 cm. Special thanks to the excellent and cordial staff (and cats Hatem and Duman) of Karakol Restaurant next to Hagia Eirene, Topkapi Complex, Sultanahmet, Istanbul, and to Theo, for showing me, on a dank cold January day, this site. We are none of us much without the others.

Advertisements

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

—-

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.


STANDING THE OBELISK

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