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.

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Drawing the Boukoleon Portals 7

Tuesday 27 September 2011 2:00-5:30

EMPRESS ZOE & THE CROSS

Here’s a picture Joy Harvey sent me of Empress Zoe (978-1050) waving from the Boukoleon. How do we know it’s the Boukoleon? Because of the ships. That’s the row of portals right there. Those triangles on top are sitting on the lintels, over the arches I’m drawing these days, forgetting to breathe, trying to get it right. In the old days, they didn’t even show.

This splendid CGI reconstruction of the Boukoleon at byzantium1200.com shows flat grey marble around pillar and lion details.

©byzantium1200.com. Used with permission.

The CGI artist is working with Byzantine scholars, and his reconstructions are masterful. If there was any data on the color and texture of the Boukoleon facade I’m sure he would include it. From my years of wandering the Palace ruin, I think the facade of the Boukoleon was highly decorated. The Byzantines never did anything that wasn’t ornamented to the nth degree.

This vivid recreation of a palace by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema is close to the mark. I thought I was new to his work, but guess again, like everyone else in Western Civilization I’ve grown up on his imagery in the movies. All that Cecil B. DeMille Bible stuff, Spartacus, Gladiator, Rome and everything else of antiquity– full of Sir Lawrence’s imagery. This painting, Spring, was done around 1900. Pure speculation, but…Check out that layout!– a row of high stately portals on the right, a small arch to the front over a doorway, right where there’s the ghost of one in the existing wall, and behind those pillars at the left, an enormous arch. Notice the pophyry and malachite– those pillars in the back are definitely green. A pillar lying in the weeds inside the ruin is malachite and the thickness reaches above my knees. I wonder if Sir Lawrence visited the Boukoleon after the railroad ran through it in 1873? Before the highway, when there was still some neoclassical marble clinging above the portals and the front was a lagoon…

Another of his paintings, Hero, done in 1898, is also evocative of the Boukoleon.   Nobody rendered the ancient world like Sir Lawrence, and I’m grateful, he helps me. Thanks to all these artists and my own observation, I have a vivid idea of what this place looked like, with translucent sheets of white marble, giant lions, saffron and speckled green and amber stone, pophyry and malachite and white marble fitted together with a lo-rez ziggurat cut, as we can still see in the arches over the doors of various mosques and in Topkapi Palace.

Things like this play through my mind while I’m drawing the precious, dessicated old dragon that the Boukoleon has become. They play through all right, and I don’t notice them go, because I’m mired in ghastly perspective problems like this one, today. That damn pencil got me into it, and I had to use it to get me out.

Actually it’s a lovely pencil, the one I borrowed from the bus driver. I never saw him again although I look for him every day. He’s going to have to fight me for this pencil. It’s become a talisman. It’s so long and sharp. It’s much longer than my drafting pens, so long that I can hold it up to line up various points on the drawing and find the perspective. Which DOES NOT match the spiffy pencil horizontal lines I drew last week when the world was young and I started this project.

Just for laughs, before I started inking it in from scratch, I checked the topmost right point of the Third Portal, using the Cross Method. I held the pencil up, level, and Mah Gawd, it was level with…the inner arch of the Far Left Portal? This CANNOT BE!! It’s much higher than that…isn’t it?

I checked the other side. Level with that Center Portal top inner right corner? Whaaa? ?????The black inner top right corner? Level with that point HALFWAY DOWN the Center…oh, this can’t be right…

Well thank God for that pencil. I drew and I drew, and I knew the proportions were all wrong, yet I checked them over and over again and…

THE CROSS NEVER LIES. See? The blue lines are my faulty perspective lines. The red lines are the Cross.

This is EXACTLY the correct size, position and perspective of the Third Portal. I’m still wrestling with the bottom. It seems too steeply slanted, so I left it for tomorrow when I am not tired. Because  I felt like I’d climbed all Seven Hills. I had pack up and hike down to the tea garden, drink some water, shake my hand and my head around. I came back, unpacked, measured, measured, measured some more, took a big deep breath, and laid it in with the pen. After carving that thing out in pencil against all my drawing instincts, it felt like coloring in a book. I made a mental note: When the drawing is nearly done, blacken all the shadows to where they are at around 5 PM.

The drawing was right. The world was beautiful. I noticed that it had gotten really windy, almost cold. Hurrying down along the CIty Walls, I had to hold my hat on. Across the highway, the water was deep teal with ripped whitecaps and seagulls rioting all over the surface. Through the Stable Gate, up the hill and down, stopped at the Spice Bazaar on the way home for olives and cheese and cashews. Oh how I dreaded climbing the hill to my apartment, so I decided that that was going to happen to someone else: the person I was at that moment got to look at the minarets of the Yeni Mosque. The tram was jammed, but I did indeed turn into someone else, someone who didn’t care that much about a little old hill, for coming across the Galata Bridge, the light turned to that fairy color between pink and blue, the sea whitening under the fading sky.