A DATE WITH AN ANGEL: Worlds Collide in Hagia Sophia

A Date With An Angel ©2012 Trici Venola

IT’S ALL ALIVE The date of this angel is probably slightly after 1261. That’s when the re-enfranchised Eastern Christians of Constantinople dug up Henri Dandolo and threw him out the window of Hagia Sophia, officially ending the sixty-year Roman Catholic aftermath of the Fourth Crusade. You remember Dandolo, don’t you? The old blind Doge of Venice who told the Fourth Crusade to sack Constantinople? Buried in Hagia Sophia, center of Eastern Christianity and its foremost temple, which he turned into a cathedral after trashing its entire congregation and their city? That guy. Out the window, his bones gnawed by the dogs. How I love the history here.

Ayasofya Angel photo

This Angel is actually a Seraph, a sexless bodiless representation of Divine Thought. Its re-emergence in 2009, thanks to the Turkish government, colors the whole eastern side of the basilica. It’s the only whole survivor of four, mosaiced into the four pendentives below the dome. A pendentive is that triangular space  that allows a dome to join with the square space beneath it. Why not fill the space with angels? Made sense to the Byzantines. Makes sense to me, but then I’ve been living here awhile.

A Date With An Angel Progression ©2012 Trici Venola

ALL HISTORY MUST INCLUDE A CAT So: fifteen hours drawing this angel from this exact spot: a complete sweep of history. We have the 6th-Century windows around the dome, the post-Latin mosaic Angel, some of Sultan Abdulmecid’s 1841 paint, the Byzantine balustrade, an Ottoman chandelier, and a medallion with Abdulmecid’s tribute in Arabic to family and Allah. All of this in one shot required sitting on a campstool precisely lined up against certain scars on the marble floor, because I have to get up now and then, moving the stool, and the perspective hangs on a hair. Lots of concentration here! As always I muse, while drawing, on the passionate concentration of the original mosaic artists, keeping the grand gesture in such a slow tedious medium. That face up there is over three feet wide.

To break things up a little, I wandered around drawing those graffiti crosses, probably put here by Fourth Crusaders. We talked a lot about them in the post HOT CROSSES: Drawing Crusader Graffiti in Hagia Sophia. I was down on the floor in front of the nave drawing this one hacked into the floor when another sort of angel came over to watch, followed by his parents.

Emirhan on His Sunnet Day ©2012 Trici Venola

COMING OF AGE If there is an icon of boyhood in Turkey, this is it. Emirhan here is attired for his Sunnet, his circumcision, followed by a  party to celebrate his manhood. Every Turkish boy goes through this ceremony, and it bonds them for life. It may or may not take place with an anesthetic, but it will take place. Before the great event the little boy parades around town in as grand a fashion as his parents can afford, often in this costume of a miniature Sultan. Normally I don’t take requests, but when his father asked I just couldn’t resist.

Obama Kedi & Friends ©2012 Trici Venola

AND HERE’S THE CAT One of Hagia Sophia’s stellar guards with Obama Gul Kedi, who our President petted on National TV while visiting Hagia Sophia back in 2008. Hagia Sophia is popular with American Presidents: here it is in 1999 with the Clintons inside.

Ayasofya wClintons 72

Ayasofya with the Clintons Inside © 1999 Trici Venola

Obama Kitty In SituObama Gul lives in Hagia Sophia and like all girl cats has always behaved as a queen, but since her media appearance with the President she is even more fat and smug.

WHIRLIGIGS UNDER HEAVEN

And check out that inlay work above the pillars around the upper alcoves! I always loved whirligigs and so did the Emperor Justinian. St Catherine was one of his patron saints, and we find Catherine Wheels everywhere in Hagia Sophia. Is it mother-of-pearl? With some dark wood or tortoise-shell or black stone, porphyry in the circles…

Justinian and his Empress, Theodora, began building on Hagia Sophia in 532, to replace the previous temple which had been burned in the Nika Rebellion. To create what they hoped would be a glory for heaven, they commissioned Isadore of Miletus, a physicist, and Anthemius of Tralles, an architect and mathematician. Justinian and Theodora’s love was legendary. Like Hagia Sophia, it has outshone all the contemporary criticism, all their probable and all too human flaws. For fifteen hundred years, now, their great temple has stood, a miracle of sensual symmetry, of space and light and beauty. It’s what happens when  great physics, architecture and mathematics combine with great love.

DSC01142 copy

So, whatever this whirligig façade is made of, it was made in the 6th Century. It’s recently been cleaned, and what a revelation. It used to look like shallow gray bas-relief. Here’s a drawing from 2004, see? I couldn’t make out the design and had to make do with curlicues.

Balustrade Cross Graffiti 72 ©2004 Trici Venola

The roughened surface of the marble balustrades is acturally fifteen centuries of people carving their names. Over time the names fade down into the marble, leaving a scratched, pitted texture I love.

DSC01143 copyPEELING TROMPE L’OEIL The far right arch in these photos is trompe l’oeil from the Fossati Brothers, Swiss architects hired in 1841 by Abdulmecid to do a restoration. That’s their yellow paint job peeling off the upper walls, trying to match the original gold mosaic below. The Fossati Brothers found the Angel face plastered over. They carefully documented it, drew it, and according to Islam’s proscription on faces, covered it up with a medallion like the ones still on the other three. Our angel is on the northeastern pendentive. The ones to the west are trompe l’oeil to match the mosaic ones to the east. The southeastern medallion may have a face under it. I sure wish I knew.

Guards at Ayasofya ©2012 Trici Venola

Here are more faces from Hagia Sophia’s wonderful security staff. I drew each one at different times and separated them for gift prints. If you are going to spend any time drawing monuments, be nice to the guards.

RELENTLESS BEAUTY

St Irene in Pala d’Oro Altarpiece, St Mark’s, Venice

That there are faces at all on the walls of Hagia Sophia is due largely to Empress Irene of Athens, who ruled Byzantium at the turn of the eighth century to the ninth. Notice her shield and cross: she was a kind of warrior.

ICONS: PORTALS TO POWER  Irene’s Emperor, Leo IV, was an Iconoclast. His father Leo III of Armenia, the first Iconoclast, is said to have been influenced by Islam in his abhorrence of icons. We all know icons as those little gizmos that pop up on your desktop, letting you know where to click to access all manner of things.

Mac Icons

Their origin, like so much else, is pretty much Byzantine. What the Byzantines were accessing was faith. Here are some religious icons.

Religious Icons

A modern program icon designer works with much the same limitations as the original religious painters. In a (usually) small space with limited colors you must create an instantly recognizable image that conveys a sense of where you want the viewer to go.  We icon designers want you to know you’ll be  transported to Desktop or Skype or Adobe Photoshop. The Byzantines wanted you to be transported into Faith. Faith that the saint represented by the icon would intervene with the Power of the Universe to help you. Come to think of it, they’re not so different.

Battle Over Icons, Medieval painting

DESTRUCTION OF ART Icons are a touchy subject. In Communist Russia you could get into a lot of trouble for possessing them. Many were said to perform miracles, survive all manner of cataclysm. In our time icon has come to mean a powerful representational figure, or face, like Hitler meaning Fascism, or Steve Jobs representing idealistic progress. The Byzantines prayed to pictures of the saints, lit candles to them, went on their knees before them, fought wars under and for them. The power was in the faith, but Emperor Leo believed that people worshipped the pictures themselves, so he destroyed them. All of them. Every icon, large and small, and then every pictorial mosaic, fresco and bas-relief went. Hagia Sophia is full of empty frames, carved marble around a vacant space, and lone, austere crosses. The original gold mosaic ceiling, with its geometric designs, was allowed to remain. After the Iconoclasts– the breakers of images– had done with the pictures, they started in on the artists. Leo is not my favorite emperor, but at least there aren’t a lot of pictures of him.

Ceiling Gold in Hagia Sophia

HELL HATH NO FURY… Irene his wife was an Iconodule or Iconophile: she loved icons. She is remembered as a beauty: a tall noble brunette. One fable has Leo discovering some icons she’d hidden, and refusing to sleep with her afterwards.

Harun Al-Rashid

Was she a woman scorned? Leo died in 775, and Irene set about gaining the throne. Beset by her own ministers, Bulgars, and Harun Al-Rashid, she never gave up…wait a minute. Worlds collide….Harun Al-Rashid? Isn’t he supposed to belong in Arabian Nights? Yes, and he did his best to invade Byzantium. Irene kept him out by paying him a whopping annual tribute. When the Pope refused to recognize her rule and crowned Charlemagne Roman Emperor, rather than sulking over the insult, she simply arranged to marry Charlemagne. But she was deposed first.

Medieval drawing of Pope Crowning Charlemagne

ECLIPSE OF THE SON Her son by Leo, Constantine VI, grew up in the shadow of his vivid autocratic mother. He too became an Iconoclast. When the inevitable clash came, Irene gave him short shrift: she seized the throne, and in the same porphyry chamber in which she had borne him, she had him blinded. He died of his wounds. This sickened the people, who proclaimed it “a horror of Heaven” and blamed on it a 17-day solar eclipse.

Byzantine Empress regnant Irene of Athens

Irene and Constantine VI by Hubert Goltzius 16th-Century

THE SKULL CARAFE Nevertheless Irene ruled for five years before being replaced by her minister Nicophorus. You remember Nicophorus? Driven insane by incessant warfare in Bulgaria, he wound up beheaded by Krum the Horrible, Khan of the Bulgars, who had a silver-lined beerstein made of his skull, and to the end of his days drank to his own health from the head of the Byzantine Emperor. That’s Nicophorus on the right, being carried in filled with beer.

Medieval drawing of Krum the Horrible with his famous Byzantine beerstein

THE SAINT The Iconoclasts stuck around until the mid-9th Century and finally petered out.  Irene ended life on an island, spinning to support herself, and in Hagia Sophia, the heart of the kingdom she ravaged her soul to protect, there is no image of her. I doubt there’s one in Istanbul. Fourth Crusaders carried them all off to Venice, the city of that Doge thrown out of the window. Yet Irene endures, for she restored image worship in Christianity. Under her rule in 787, the Seventh Ecumenical Council at Nicea refuted the Iconoclasts, declaring that artistic materials merely represent the saints, a belief upheld to this day. The glorious pictorial mosaics of St Savior in Chora, as well as many surviving in Hagia Sophia, are all from after Irene. Throughout Christianity, religious art endures, and it always has a face.

Greek Orthodox Icon of St Irene of Athens

THE EVOLUTION OF AN ICON Santa Claus, called Noel Baba (Father Christmas) is big here in Turkey. St Nicholas himself was Bishop of Myra, down on Turkey’s Mediterranean Coast. A benevolent leader, he gave all his money to the poor, hiding dowries in the shoes of impoverished virgins to save their pride, which comes to us as the tradition of Christmas stockings. St Nicholas is huge all over Europe. Think of all those Greeks named Nick. Here’s one of many Russian icons of him.

Russian Icon-St Nicholas of Myra

Russian Icon-St Nicholas of Myra

At some point, he became mixed with Lapland myths of tall, fur-suited Father Christmas who lived with reindeer in the snow. Vikings were in Istanbul, the Varangian traders invited in the 9th Century, not to mention the Emperor’s special guardsmen. Here’s their graffiti in Hagia Sophia, and even I feel I’m stretching to imagine that’s when the mix began. But worlds DO collide here…could it be?

Viking Graffiti ©2004 Trici Venola. Means "Halvdan was here."

Viking Graffiti ©2004 Trici Venola. Means “Halvdan was here.”

Victorian Clement Clark Moore turned Father Christmas / St Nicholas into “a right jolly old elf” in his iconographic (!) poem The Night Before Christmas. And in 1930, Coca-Cola hired Norwegian-American illustrator Haddon Sundblom to depict St Nick for their ads in the Saturday Evening Post. These became the prototype for Santa Claus as we know him today.

Haddon Sundblom for Coca-Cola, 193

Haddon Sundblom for Coca-Cola, 1931

Justinian undoubtedly included icons of St Nicholas in Hagia Sophia. After all, he built the church at Myra in memory of the 3rd-Century saint.

SLEIGH BELLS STILL RINGING As the snow whirls in the darkness outside and the wind howls up over the mouth of the Bosporus, Chinese-manufactured Santas rock their hips down in Kumkapi as tourists eat Bosporus fish. A few years ago, they told us that the Mayan Calendar was about to run out. Projected human history was ending, as the Calendar only runs until 2012. Surely the world was going to end as well!  Since the beginning of recorded history, people have been crying that the world is going to end any minute. We’re  years into After the Mayan Calendar. We may be flying blind, but we’re still flying. The Grinch is still around — Christmas lights are now forbidden in Myra as anti-Islam– but so is Santa Claus. Try and eradicate Santa Claus. The world clearly needs a symbol of cheer in the darkness, of good living, of unity, for Santas appear everywhere in every medium, from cheap synthetic to solid gold. The world looks on, smiles, stuffs its stockings. Once again, Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Noel Baba New ©2011 Trici Venola.

Noel Baba New ©2011 Trici Venola.

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All drawings Plein Air, 20″ X 7″ / 18cm X 52cm, drafting pens on rag paper, sketchbook format. All art ©Trici Venola. All drawings from The Drawing On Istanbul Project by Trici Venola, see description on this blog. Thanks for reading. We love your comments!

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TIGERS IN EPHESUS: Tribute to a Departed Friend

THE MARSH KING’S DAUGHTER

Plein Air drawings all, done on-site and at the time.

The Great Virgin & St John ©2007 by Trici Venola

A few years back I went to Ephesus with my friend Cynthia from Maui. We are exactly the same age, both born in the Year of the Tiger. We both love cats. She even has cat eyes! Cynthia’s former husband had run off awhile before, leaving her in the unfinished mortgaged dream house in the middle of the jungle, all alone. After a year she still felt lousy and came to Turkey with a friend on the Sufi Dervish spiritual trail.

Konya Dervishes ©2005 by Trici Venola

Sufism’s genesis was in Konya, and it was in Konya that Cynthia found true spiritual healing in the form God chose to best get her attention: Hakan, a handsome young carpet salesman. Sound familiar? That old story leading to heartbreak? Surprise, they made it work.

Lewis Smoking Nargile ©2005 by Trici Venola

It took some doing. Hakan went to his friend Lewis at the Consulate in Ankara. “I’m in love and there’s a problem,” he said. “How could love be a problem?” asked Lewis. “No permission,” said Hakan, “Nobody believes us.” He explained the huge and visible age difference. “How old are you?” said Lewis. “Oh, about five,” said Hakan. “It was then,” Lewis told me later, “that I knew how much I liked him.” Lewis met Cynthia and told Hakan, “If you don’t marry her, I will.” He stood up for them at their wedding and got Hakan a visa. Hakan and Cynthia moved to Maui and started an import business. She and I went on holiday together on a break during their umpteenth buying trip. Cynthia needed girl time while Hakan stayed with the relatives in Konya, lovely people who adored Cynthia and lived with the TV always on and the halogen light always overhead.

Dervishes Near Konya © 2006 by Trici Venola

Cynthia traveled with a coffee maker and Hawaiian coffee that dissolved spoons.  She had the kind of high-cheekboned, big-lipped blond beauty so beloved by trophy collectors. Wide hips, a lot of good makeup, tons of jewelry, lots of fringe and swishing skirts and cleavage, trailing rose perfume, and these Turkish men just put up their paws and howled. She was ten pounds overweight then and only looked more alluring. We had a great time in Ephesus. “They make a big fuss of us here,” she said with satisfaction.

Cynthia Odalisque © 2005 by Trici Venola

The ruins of Ephesus are near Selchuk, so we went there. Selchuk is in the province of Izmir, Anatolia, and full of old Roman chunks, Byzantine and pre-Alexandrian wreckage, and the purported last home of the Virgin Mary, which Cynthia was crazy to see. We approached between mountains, turreted ruins on their peaks. Fairy-tale storks nest all along the tops of Selchuk’s ruined Roman aqueduct, each tower topped with its bristling nest and the tall jointed black-and-white stork families, little storklet beaks sticking up. Drawing them, I mused on Hans Christian Anderson’s tale, The Marsh King’s Daughter, imagining… Egyptian princesses flying with the storks, long black hair trailing behind them, the one princess dropping down, down into the marsh, the lotus flower bubbling up later with the savage beautiful daughter of the Princess and the Marsh King.

Storks in Selçuk © 2005 by Trici Venola

ST JOHN’S BASILICA Cynthia, jet-lagged, holed up in her room and I wandered Selchuk, drawing. The castle looks down on the town from its hilltop above the vast rambling ruin of St. John’s Basilica, built over his tomb by Justinian and Theodora and later wrecked by earthquake, scavengers and Tamerlane.

Weedy St John’s ©2007 by Trici Venola

Over the tomb is a flat marble platform, erected by the Turks, with four marble pillars framing the original dark, pitted old headstone scored

St John’s Headstone © 2005 by Trici Venola

with Coptic crosses. The ruin meanders all over the hill, stairs going up to nothing, massive chunks of masonry tilting up out of the ground, and some gypsies trying to sell fake old coins. One showed me a hipbone and kneecap sticking out of a wall of dirt, as well as some buried mosaics.  Sadly they have now replaced and corrected the old sign that described how Mary came to be in Ephesus. In embossed painted metal, it said:

…AND JESUS LOOKING DOWN FROM THE CROSS SAID TO JOHN TO TAKE HIS MOTHER INTO HIS HOSE.

St John’s Mood © 2005 by Trici Venola

From St John’s you can see the square double-domed mosque built from stones hauled from the ruined basilica, and beyond it on the marsh the remains of the Great Temple of Artemis, a wonder of the ancient world.

The Great Temple of Artemis was burned in 356 BCE, the night Alexander the Great was born, by a fame-seeking madman whose name escapes me. Alexander declared that Artemis allowed her temple’s destruction because she was preoccupied with his birth, and had it restored. But as the powerful religion of Artemis lost ground to the Romans and then the Christians, the temple fell into disuse. Finished by an earthquake, it was scavenged to build St John’s, Selchuk Mosque, and Hagia Sophia. Only one pillar remains pointing to the sky. Of course there is a stork’s nest on it.

Great Artemis 72A CONVERGENCE OF GODDESSES This great granite statue of Artemis now lives in the museum at Selchuk, eerie and powerful. In its niche around the corner from the massive marble images of Caesar Augustus and his Empress Livia, crosses hacked and burned into their foreheads, and other effluvia from Ephesus. This Artemis is not Apollo’s kid sister Diana. This Artemis  wears a paneled dress and a high crown covered with triple images of creatures: three sphinxes, three bulls, three bees.. Where her chest would be are masses of breasts or bull’s testicles or penises entering vaginas, depending on what you read. I lean toward this last: life creating itself. All of the ideas, though, represent powerful fertility. Some sources claim that the stone polyps really represent the sacrifice made by her priests, who castrated themselves to serve the Goddess, echoed later by Catholic priests dedicating their manhood to the Church. Whatever the Great Mother Artemis has on her chest, she is not human. Alien, squarejawed, a tilted blank gaze and the cryptic closed smile of a Kore, a concentrate of power, purity and fecundity distilled by time into Virgin; Goddess of all things, beginning and end. Standing there I thought about the other local Great Virgin, Mary. Hm…Virgin Mother, moon as attribute, unconditional love for all living things, goddess of women, desexed priests…my spine turned to ice as I realized whose face I was seeing. It was time to wake up Cynthia and go up the mountain.

In Mary’s House © 2007 by Trici Venola

Meryemana is the house generally agreed by Muslims, Jews and the Catholic Church to have been the home of the Virgin Mary, lost for centuries and rediscovered after a nineteenth-century vision by a stigmatized German nun. Archeologists dug where Sister Mary Emmerlich dreamed, and found a stone foundation on a steep slope in a grove of trees. The Virgin’s attributes abound: roses and orange blossoms. Even her new moon is evident in all the Turkish flags on the trinket stands. The place is packed, and whether or not you believe that Mary was here, millions of people who do believe it have been here, and the collective faith knocks you to your knees. Cynthia sobbed over her holywater flask, down by the wall covered with prayers.

Sweet Virgin Mary © 2005 by Trici Venola

Apostles John and Paul were thrown out of Ephesus because their conversions were putting a hole in the silversmith trade. Nobody was buying the little silver Artemis charms anymore. Perhaps it was then that the New Virgin became the local goddess. More stories: an ecumenical council in 430-something, in a 4th-century church built of her tomb. Now it’s a dark little restored church packed with pilgrims, an Order dressed in turquoise and blue, and many candles. Despite the mob there is deep and pervasive peace. The altar is where the old kitchen was. On the wall in Mary’s bedroom is a naive painting, an Assumption, with a treatment I had never seen. The adult Jesus holds an infant Mary. There’s no graffiti save the little painting above, of her face, far down on the wall, with a little wooden frame hung around it.

Bright Morning Face © 2006 by Trici Venola

ROME Next day we wandered down the main streets of Ephesus, the Biblical town that died when an earthquake robbed it of its harbor, and admired the library, the remaining statues, the massive stadium. In its

Gladiator Headstone © 2005 by Trici Venola

heyday Ephesus was a major city with indoor plumbing and heating, covered walkways, a population of 200,000 and a cemetery just for its gladiators, who were dug up in the 20th century by German investigators and subjected to forensic studies to see how they died. The result is a swell exhibit: a museum case with the tombstone and the actual punctured skullcase or fractured femur, along with an illustrated description of what made the wound and how the man died. I drew this one in the Selchuk Museum, just around the corner from the Great Artemis.

Crossed Caesars © 2005 by Trici Venola

Lili by Candlelight © 2007 by Trici Venola

THE MINISTRY OF FUN

Two years later, Cynthia and I went back to Selchuk with Lili,  also from Maui. The sumptuous villas of the Ephesus rich had just opened. They marched up the hill over the posh section of town just like they do in every city to this day. We’d all seen the HBO series Rome, and the hill villas, like the Roman statues, brought out the scheming passionate Atia in us.

The Marsh King’s Daughter flew with the storks to a Viking’s home in Denmark. By night she was the toadlike image of her hideous father, with her mother’s generous sweet spirit. By day she had her mother’s beauty and her father’s vicious temper, which her Viking protector adored. Only his wife knew the secret…

A glint at times in Cynthia’s cat-eyes, of fury barely checked. This was the sword-edge of an implacable life force. When administered with smoky voice and exquisite tact, it was capable, in one week, of getting a depressed mutual friend out of fusty hair and bedroom slippers and into spike heels, toreador pants, slicked-back hair and a holiday. Me, I just started growing my hair down to my hips.

Aphrodisias Composite ©2007 by Trici Venola

Lili in Aphrodisias 2007. Photo by Cynthia Ucarer

On that trip I became ordained in Lili’s Ministry of Fun, of which Cynthia was already a priestess. Here is our creed: DO IT ONLY IF IT IS FUN. IF YOU MUST DO IT, FIND A WAY TO MAKE IT FUN.

Sirinci 72

In the Greek mountain town of Sirinci we bought white khaftans and drove inland to Aphrodisias.  We held a priestess ceremony out in the ruins, each becoming free of something, with flowers and singing and incense. Only with these Aloha Blondes could I carry on so, to the sun’s dazzle on a whole tour group’s worth of snapping cameras. Afterwards I put my wreath on a stone lion. A guard approached. Uh-oh, I thought. “Madam,” he said with respect tinged with awe, “we are all wondering, where are you ladies from?”

Stork Pillar in Selchuk ©2005 Trici Venola

Stork Pillar in Selçuk ©2005 Trici Venola

Back on that first trip, Cynthia and I returned from Ephesus to discover that a big soccer game had taken over the town. We dressed in our earrings and trailing scarves and  went out to dinner. All the way out at the edge of town was the marsh with the one Artemis pillar and a lumpy old weedy hamam. Beyond the fence was a dark poor area, just little cement houses, all deserted with the game on. At the very end of town was a triangular lot at the end of two streets edging the marsh. There was a cafe, lit and open and no TV, with one woman who made us dinner. We sat there under the grapevines as darkness came slowly down on the town. Two men sat down nearby. One joined us, speaking with Cynthia at length in French about their respective youths in Paris. Something creaked in the quiet, and out of the dark trundled a popcorn vendor. “It’s a Fellini movie,” someone said. We stayed for hours, drinking coffee and red wine, the dark silence punctuated by an occasional car full of screaming soccer fans roaring out of the dark and away. A rose man materialized. The man who spoke French had a friend with a huge mustache, who jocularly gave us each a longstemmed, strong-scented red rose.

At last we took our roses and our leave and wandered home through the dark streets, up the hill past the rampart-like gate leading to the ruin of St. John’s church, and started down. At the base of the hill was the road, and across it the town entrance, a huge modern stone fountain with a big arch and a giant reproduction of the Great Artemis. We heard it first, a pounding scream coming from the crowd next to the fountain. As we came down the hill the noise became deafening. Close up it was a Bacchanal.

Leaning Old Minaret © 2005 by Trici Venola

In ancient times people would fling themselves into a sexual frenzy in the names of their deities: Dionysius, Demeter. When Christianity took over, the people continued to dance in worship. Nothing could break them of it. After six days of backbreaking labor the serfs would dance on the seventh, and they would always do it in the churchyard. Passion and worship, forever married. Now we looked down on a chaotic festival of screaming young men dancing to pounding music simulcast from the stores in the street. Flung water glittered in a strobe light. The dancing became wilder as people fell and leaped into the fountain. They took the winning soccer colors—yellow and blue– and wrapped them around the hips of the Great Goddess and shimmied them. One pubescent kid saw us watching him, strutted shirtless with his chicken chest stuck out and his wet pants plastered to him, stood at the huge stone back of the goddess facing us applauding across the water and danced like a stripling priest. Cynthia and I stood at the lip of the fountain, encouraging the young girls, but in the end, as so often, we were the only women dancing.

Cynthia Odalisque.Face Detail © 2005 by Trici Venola

In the fairy tale, The Marsh King’s Daughter found faith, which unified her lovely form and spirit. She ascended in joy to the Kingdom of Heaven, leaving only a withered lotus flower behind. Cynthia is slipping away now I am told, across the world in Hawaii, and I write this in the winter’s dark of Istanbul years later. The Aloha Blonde is taking her roses and her leave, those cat eyes and the husky voice murmuring French to some eternal young man. She is flying with the storks, her glory trailing behind her, and I’m posting this for all of us left at the party.

Tiger Sisters: Trici Venola & Cynthia Ucarer, 2005.

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All drawings Plein Air. All art ©Trici Venola. We love your comments.

CHARIOT PARADE

Of course it’s a giraffe. It couldn’t be anything else. Look at those feet, and if those aren’t spots I don’t know what they are.  The head once stuck up above the edge of the marble step. After staring at the remains of this bas-relief for hours on end drawing it, I can see that there was a whole frieze attached to the step as well. It was a glorious parade, beautifully carved and probably painted and embellished with metal as well, showing strong men and dancing girls, exotic beasts and acrobats hanging off the newly-erected Egyptian Obelisk. 1600 years ago in the Hippodrome, the crowds must have gone wild, seeing this unveiled, possibly in the midst of a celebratory parade just like it. We celebrate art like this now because it’s original and we’ve seen photos of it, because it’s actually old and looks it rather than being a fake antique or something rendered unrecognizable by restoration, because of the things it has witnessed. It’s something to realize, that before mass production and the mechanized age, a work of art was celebrated because it was the only thing in the world that looked like itself.

Here’s a close-up shot of the Giraffe in context. The reason I think there was another frieze attached is because of that cheese-like texture in the marble above.

See? We’re looking at a marble step, as it were, with the bas-relief carved onto the face of it. The top of that step is all dented and polished with 1600 years of rain. Above that are many tiny erosion holes in patterns that look combed. This is because the marble-cutters left this part unpolished, another clue that it was intended to be covered. This  very coarse marble surface segues up into some arches at the top. Let’s see if I can find a photo:

Yep, there had to have been a whole lot more to this parade. The Byzantines ornamented every surface. They would never have left the bottom of those arches bare like that. Something was in front of it. I’m tempted to say that those little water-filled round holes on the flat of the step are artifacts of this, but they’re not symmetrical so I’m not sure. At any rate, we can see that the Giraffe must have had a head, and that it must have stuck up above the rest of him, in front of the flat surface above.

If you’ve just joined us, you should know that this is the Egyptian Obelisk Pedestal we’ve got here. It’s on the Hippodrome in the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul. The Byzantine Emperor Theodosius erected the Obelisk in 390, and he had this Pedestal carved to commemorate the occasion. Despite marble being softer than its granite burden, it’s been holding up for 1600 years. There’s some pertinent history in the previous blog: Standing the Obelisk. In the photo to the right, you can see some carved marble at the bottom. Our Chariot Parade is below it. Theodosius’s engineers reinforced the marble Pedestal with four square granite blocks. The Obelisk was broken almost in half and was lying unused at the Temple at Luxor before the Byzantines brought if from Egypt. These blocks may have been cut from the unused portion. They look exactly the same as the Obelisk itself, but they’re much more worn than it is, so again I’m guessing. The rough surface is between the very bottoms of them. They would have nicely framed the figures on the vanished frieze.

Still, we can see  enough to get an idea of the fabulous spectacle chiseled here in stone. Here’s the Strong Man. Look at that chest, those biceps, that bulging thigh muscle. Dancing girls, you say, where are they? They prance at intervals throughout. Here’s the one on the far left, with only a series of dots to mark where her scarf was. Perhaps it was made of gold or bronze, attached with tiny pins. Dancing ahead of the Giraffe are, possibly, two more. These are so desiccated that it’s hard to tell if there’s one or two. She, or They, look to have been leading the Giraffe, for

once again we see two parallel lines of tiny dots. There was probably another dancer at the far right, but only some scratches and lumps remain. The next dancer is back on the far left, in the second row down. She prances along with her hands high over her head, holding something up there, possibly a tambourine. Here’s the fourth, and isn’t she pretty, strolling along with her hand on her hip.

And the next dancer, leading the parade, just look at her strut!

And here’s the Acrobat, hanging off the Obelisk. This sort of art is symbolic in that one figure stands for many, and size is relative to importance, not reality. So there were likely many acrobats cavorting about the Obelisk. They may have somersaulted up there from each others’ shoulders through spinning rings of fire, they may have catapulted up there from elephants to cling triumphant to the pointed top, with chariots racketing all around the racetrack, blue and green, plumed horses glittering in painted harness, There may have been, on that missing frieze, an entire zoo of fabulous flaming acrobatics. Ancient theater was performed in the brilliant light of noon, but fire was popular, mirrors of polished metal made spotlights of the sun.

At either end of the Chariot Parade are two big round shapes topped with three long cones, all lumpy and combed with time. I don’t know what they were, but there’s something very similar shown in the Great Palace mosaics nearby in the Mosaic Museum. See the grey thing in the middle, next to the fellow running wheels? Here’s a close-up of one section of our Chariot Parade, showing the same object, near the Obelisk with Acrobat. This establishes that we’re looking at the Hippodrome, for there’s the Spina– see it running along under the figures?The mosaics were created for Justinian when he rebuilt the Palace after the Nika Rebellion in 532, a little over a century after the Chariot Parade was carved, and you can see them when the Mosaic Museum reopens in May. That section celebrates sports and games, certainly still being played in the Hippodrome of Justinian and Theodora. The Hippodrome was up and running by the third century. Down its center ran a narrow raised section, the Spina. The statues and monuments were there to heighten the suspense and excitement of the races and spectacles by making it harder to see what was going on. Here’s our Obelisk in CGI in the very center of the Hippodrome, up on top of the Spina.

Hippodrome Spina © byzantium1200.com. Used by permission                                              

The present surface of the Hippodrome is about twelve feet above the top of the Spina which is still there, under layers of rock and cement and pavement, while hordes of tourists eddy above it, the Sultanahmet hustlers like barracuda around them. And me perched cold to the bone on my little stool in the golden freezing afternoon, unable to stop drawing the Parade although my hands are stiff, thinking of the thousands of skies that have looked down on the Obelisk, the rain sluicing down, the axes chopping, the campfires smoking, all those thousands of turbans milling around it in Ottoman times, when the Hippodrome was the Horse Market. Governments have toppled but never the Obelisk. These tiny figures, hardly a foot high, have withstood earthquakes, fires, plagues, the Iconoclasts and the Crusades. Theodora and Justinian executed twenty thousand people here after the Nika Rebellion, but the tiny dancers continue to cavort, unabashed by their diminished and roughened surfaces. It’s as if the pulse of life was in the marble itself, and the wearing-down of the surface only shows where it is strongest.

Perhaps one day I’ll go into the computer and paint this Parade the way I think it looked, from the research I’ve been able to do merely by looking. Meanwhile I’m glad that I’ve been able to spend so many hours with it, the drawing freezing it at this moment in its slow descent back into the mother stone.

Chariot Parade ©2011 by Trici Venola