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.

—-

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!

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, from two posts back? The old blind Doge of Venice who told the Fourth Crusade to sack Constantinople? And he was 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 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 Kitty & Friends ©2012 Trici Venola

Here is one of Hagia Sophia’s stellar guards with Obama Gule Kitty, 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 Gule 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 Isador 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, it 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 total faith and 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 this marble is 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 from 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 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

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 was an Iconoclast. When the inevitable clash came, Irene gave him short shrift: she seized the throne, and very likely in the same purple chamber in which she had borne him, she had him blinded. This killed him and 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? He wound up beheaded by Krum the Horrible, Khan of the Bulgars. 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 the window. Yet she 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. 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 “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. This 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. And as  the snow whirls in the darkness outside and the wind howls up over the mouth of the Bosporus on this 20th of December 2012, the day before believers in the Mayan Calendar tell us the world is going to end, it’s fitting that we end this post with a commemoration. Since the beginning of recorded history, people have been crying that the world is surely ending, but we will more surely see another Christmas, another New Year…

2014 POSTSCRIPT: It’s two years into After the Mayan Calendar. We may be flying blind, but we’re still flying. Once again, Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Noel Baba New ©2011 Trici Venola.

Noel Baba New ©2011 Trici Venola.

—-

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!

GREEN MAGIC: A Summer Day in PLOVDIV

GREEN MAGIC

Boris (Nicolay) and the Empty Plate © Trici Venola 2007

The trees in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, are huge green thunderheads. The parks are magnificent, with paths running among lush grassy hillocks dotted with flowering bushes and amusing statues. There is no litter. The Roman ruins are immaculately preserved and the churches have icons. Their unique Old Town, picturesque without being kitsch, is full of tall old wooden houses with high angles and sweeping curves.

In Old Town Plovdiv © Trici Venola 2008

I discovered all this when on a visa run from Turkey in 2007. For years I’d done the one-day visa trot via bus, a marathon ordeal involving two border crossings in the same 15-hour period, always at the worst possible time and when I was most broke. But as long as you left every three months– that was on a US Tourist Visa– and got that visa stamp, you were legal. This is changing: soon tourists will have to leave for 90 out of each 180 days. Happily I have residence status now, but in 2007 I was grateful simply to take the train instead of the bus. You can lie down on the train. They wake you up at the border and you go through the usual bureaucratic checks. Then a little sleep until 8 AM, and the delights of Plovdiv. I’d walk around all day, get on the train back to Istanbul  at 11PM, and do the whole thing in reverse. I couldn’t afford to stay away a week, or even a few days, but I sure liked Plovdiv. I went there 13 times, in sickness and health and all weathers, one day every three months for three years.  Here I go again, and this time, I’m taking you with me.

Japan in Plovdiv © Trici Venola 2008

The first time was in May 2007, after a grisly forced move to a fixer-upper in a strange Istanbul neighborhood. I stumbled off the train, and everything was in Cyrillic. I knew nothing about the town. But I saw a double line of huge plane trees leading away from the station. They had commenced radically “pruning” all the trees in Istanbul the year before. Imagine cutting off both arms at the elbow to trim a cuticle. I’d nearly lost my mind over it. Now, bemused and scratchy-eyed with sleepiness, I stumbled along in the amazing shade between two stately rows of plane trees marching down the middle of a divided street. I had forgotten that green smell of big trees, how the air is fresher near them. Stoned on oxygen, I stopped right there and drew the building on the left below. Kept going and found this interesting juxtaposition: a beautiful girl in her first flush of attention from the world, and a woman who had looked like her, or so it seemed.

The Face She Deserves © Trici Venola 2007

I found a money-changer and a cafe with trees growing up through the roof. I sat there drinking coffee and coming awake. In Paradise. The coffee cost what it had in Istanbul in 1999. The Cyrillic menu had pictures on it. I realized I could get ham and eggs. Real. Ham. And. Eggs. Lazzarin, said the napkin. I was to spend thirteen mornings there over the next three years.

Lazzarin Cafe Day & Night © Trici Venola 2007

Some hours and half this drawing later, I staggered out of the cafe back to the line of plane trees, followed it to a park, lay down on a lush grassy hill surrounded by birdsong, and fell asleep.

Lovely Tree in Plovdiv © Trici Venola 2009

Hours later I woke, hungry again, and walked to a restaurant in the trees. I stayed there for hours, eating pork ribs, drinking coffee and drawing into the dusk, until it was time to take the train home. I had fallen in love with Plovdiv.

Summer & Fall at Lazzarin Cafe © Trici Venola 2009

I could hardly wait to go back. The following August, it was time again. My life in Istanbul was largely a matter of survival, and going away for even one day was so freeing…all I had to do was draw and catch the train. I hadn’t felt like that in years. The second trip, I walked a different way after the cafe and found a giant walk street lined with shops, casinos, restaurants, and this bronze clown.

Bronze Clown in Plovdiv © Trici Venola 2007

At the very end of that day, exhausted, I found the Plovdiv Old Town and I was a goner. I knew I’d come back again and again.

Angel Spot © Trici Venola 2007

The city is on a flat plain near a river. Jutting abruptly up from this plain are several steep rocky areas. One is a park entire, topped with radio towers. Another is Old Town. One side features the famed Roman Theater, a working theater with frequent productions. Three local women about my age told me in English about them.

Plovdiv’s Roman Theater © Trici Venola 2009

This drawing took most of a hot August day in 2009, and I learned a lot from onlookers. Plovdiv locals all seem to know the history of the town, which the Romans called Trimontium: Three Hills. And they’re proud of it. Coming out of Old Town is a pedestrian underpass which has table-sized stone blocks as the sidewalk. I was so tired it didn’t register, but coming up the steps I ran into two local guys who sent me back to see it, and was I glad. It’s a Roman street, and on it is the mosaiced lobby of a Roman apartment house, now an art and theater center with catwalks over the mosaics and a lively art scene. They will always have one of my books.

High Angles in Plovdiv © Trici Venola 2007

The steep stone streets of Old Town are flanked by the angles, gables, windows and gates of Plovdiv’s historic wooden houses. I’ve never seen woodwork like this, with long stately curves inside and fantastic detail everywhere, the most draw-able stuff imaginable.

Ottoman Wooden Interior © Trici Venola 2007

The centuries-old fanciful woodwork is a legacy of wealthy Ottomans, and here are some now, as Coney Island cut-outs.

Ottoman Cutouts © Trici Venola 2010

Right in the center of Old Town is a Byzantine gate in a Roman wall, flanked by tall angled wooden houses.

Hissar Kapiya, Byzantine Gate in Plovdiv © Trici Venola 2008

It took me a few tries to draw Hissar Kapiya, but I got to meet Krasi, now a friend for years, who worked nearby:

Happy Krasi © Trici Venola 2010

Philip of Macedon

At the very top of Old Town’s hill is the ancient stone fortification over the river. Yes, ancient. Little old Plovdiv, Bulgaria, is over 8000 years old, in fact the oldest continuously occupied city in Europe. Another of its former names is Philippopolis, since in the 4th century BCE it fell to Philip of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great.

Shriveled Stone Wall © Trici Venola 2007

Wooden Krum the Horrible

The land that is now Bulgaria and the land that is now Turkey have had their differences. Early in the 9th century CE, Krum the Horrible, the Great Khan of the Bulgars, went to war with  Byzantine Emperor Nicophorus of Constantinople, who went insane in the struggle. Khan Krum won. He found Nicophorus dead on a dung pile and made of his skull a silver-lined beerstein, with which he drank his own health to the end of his days. You can read all about Krum the Horrible in this History blog by Bruce Ware Allen.

Krum the Horrible

That second trip, I lingered in Old Town until dusk. Afraid I’d miss the train. I gave up all thought of trying to find my park restaurant in the trees. I walked back to Lazzarin Cafe and ran into a group of artists and poets. They made a big fuss over my sketchbook, which almost made me cry, I was so tired and they were so nice. Here’s a drawing of Sugar, and a first take on Hissar Kapiya.

Sugar and the Gate © Trici Venola 2007

After that the trips blended one into the other, a continuous flood of happy images always in May, August, November and February. I was stunned to discover, in pulling art for this post, that there are over forty drawings. So we’re dividing them up into Summer and Winter, large so you can read the comments on them. Something about Plovdiv loosed poetic feelings in me. Blame it on the trees!

Old Men in Plovdiv © Trici Venola 2008

Guys playing chess under the trees asked me to join, but I begged off to draw them:

The Chess Players © Trici Venola 2008

These guys remember the Iron Curtain. I wonder what it feels like for them to hear church bells again?

And Kissed My Hand © Trici Venola 2008

Two years ago, I got my Residence visa, and my trips to Plovdiv ceased. Right now in Istanbul the air outside is so hot and thick you can chew it. There’s a heat haze between my balcony and the one next door. The city seethes unceasingly, dozens of millions exhaling in the heat. Up in the bazaars, cats lie exhausted, ironed flat into the shade. Heat shimmers up off the vast cement of the new improved Hippodrome. All over Istanbul, people struggle for shade, but Istanbul’s wonderful trees are mostly pruned down small, these days, some into lollipop shapes and some just dead, amputated trunks jutting leafless into the sky. This ruthless pruning makes no sense to me, but it’s the way they do it here, and much as I love Istanbul, I can do nothing about it. Thank God I have a coping secret. I close my eyes and think of Plovdiv. Somewhere in the world is a town where they love trees as much as I do.

Church Spot © Trici Venola 2008

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All drawings Plein Air. All drawings pen and ink on sketchbook paper, full size 18 X 52 cm / 7 X 20 inches. All drawings © Trici Venola. We love your comments. Thanks for reading.