FROM PILLAR TO POST 4

THE PILLAR OF LIGHT
 There it was just behind the tree, up on that part of the wall that’s covered with vines most of the year. One perfect filigree capital perched on one perfect pillar, one tiny part of the Boukoleon Palace intact, one of two in the whole splintered stone pile to reach us direct from the ninth century. (The other one is some carving at the Sea Gate a block away.) Everything else visible above ground is dragon-spine architectural bones once clothed in multicolored marble. Mosaics, polished marble Rorschach-patterned panels, statues, bas-reliefs– all gone, or mercifully buried, safe for a more enlightened age.

We have very little to go on as to how this place looked. The aforementioned and much-appreciated Tayfun Oner has given us structure based on facts,

Boukoleon Palace.detail © byzantium1200.com

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Carecalla.detail

but we must imagine, assisted by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema and other painters of antiquity, just what this place looked like. So to find this exquisite pillar complete with capital was a happy shock, I’ve never seen it before! The vines that obscured it are all dead now. It’s full-on winter down here on the Shore Road, traffic whooshing by in the frigid wind blowing in from the Marmara Sea across the parkway. Only a masochist would be out drawing in this weather, and this is my payoff. I found the pillar on the second day of a two-day drawing marathon. Last week was sublime, if chilly. Long golden rays lancing through the cold, blue skies over the highway, the Obelisk drawing unfinished, a commission beckoning from inside Hagia Sophia, and I stole two days and went down and worked on the Pillars at the Boukoleon.

A big "Attagirl" from these cool passersby.

I found the Lone Pillar Capital while poking around getting close-ups of the wall, looking for traces of windows buried in successive layers of wall, because Art Angeleno Dan DiPaola in LA sent me a camera. A real camera. A real good camera, and I’ve been just going crazy with it, thank you, Dan! My old one died, I’ve been putting off getting a new one, partly from superstition, afraid I’d snap photos instead of drawing. But not so! Drawing even more!  Came down here to work on this Boukoleon Palace series and just wailed on it. Here’s where we left it last time:

Boukoleon Pillars 3 WIP ©2011 by Trici Venola

Notice the pronounced curve at the bottom. That’s actually what I am seeing although of course the marble slab is perfectly straight. It’s the curve of natural perspective. This time, no sweeping preliminary “perspective” lines in pencil. We learned our lesson drawing the Boukoleon Portals, remember? I drew straight lines and rendered the drawing onto them and then, goose egg, it turns out they actually look curved. This time I’m simply Invoking the Cross. Very apt for a Christian monument. One reader commented that painters of old used to simply grid off their paper. Why didn’t I think of that? I’ve been doing it in my head all this time. All this discipline, simply to avoid the inelegance of marking up the paper with anything but pen. But the Cross really works. To recap on this: Using my pen, or a pencil if it’s longer, I line things up on the actual site that I am drawing. I hold the pen out in a straight horizontal or vertical and see where things are in the site, like this:

See? I line up from points I’ve already drawn, and find where to position what I’m drawing next. I measure by the width of something I’ve already drawn, like the width of one pillar. This time I was able to hunker down and do this only after a lot of dither and fuss. Getting down there to the Boukoleon was like pulling myself by the ear, because I wanted to be drawing those melted marble bas-reliefs in the Hippodrome or mosaics in Hagia Sophia, but I don’t know how long this weather will last. Then I got down there. After so long it felt odd. I smoked a nargile with Osman at the cafe, looked at the sea, walked over to the ruins, drew awhile and finally woke up, drawing. Like so much else, sometimes it feels like just going through the motions, but if I do it right I sort of come to and get excited again. Here’s what we got:

Boukoleon Pillars 4 WIP ©2011 by Trici Venola

Those people of antiquity, even the rich and powerful who built this palace, were surrounded by sudden death. Death by nature: disease, childbirth, the ravages of early old age; death by whim: the whims of a monarch who took it into his head to stage a mass execution or declare  war, death by political upheaval, whether by being killed by one’s relatives for a throne or by one’s neighbors in a riot. Death by plague, starvation, infection, from being caught in the cold. They matured early, lived hard, and for the most part died young. Were they conscious of their fragility? Were they aware of the few seconds of eternity granted them, how precious it was? I think so, for look how they built. Their monuments are still with us. Like the movement in the carved marble figures up on the Hippodrome, still lively although the stone is wasting away, the life-sense of the ancients ran strong. Domes and arches and pillars, still with us. How do they last so long? These people built because they were compelled to and because they knew how. And they built for the glory of God.

Here’s Theophilus, the emperor who built the Boukoleon. He was the last of the Iconoclasts, the Christians who destroyed religious icons and ultimately much pictorial art in the name of piety. His Boukoleon would have been colorful but free of figurative art, which would have been added by his successors, all Iconophiles. Here’s a remnant of how seriously the Christians took idol worship:  Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image or any likeness of any thing that is in the heavens above, or the earth beneath, or the waters under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them nor serve them, for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquities of the fathers upon the children unto the third generation of them that hate me, and showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me and keep my commandments.  –Second Commandment, King James Bible. When I was a kid, I memorized this but wondered what it meant, since Christian art is full of pictures. Was it wrong to make pictures? There was a scene in a movie, showing people worshipping a golden calf, and I was told that the stern wording was about that. As a child I was encouraged to make as much art as possible and I do so to this day. It’s my way of adding to the stream of life, and I know in my bones that it’s an aspect of divine energy. What would it have been like to be brought up to despise pictures? Here in the midst of Islam I think about this often. According to many sources the earliest Iconoclast emperor was born in the 8th century, far to the east, and he was influenced by the Muslim proscription against images. The Iconoclasts were only in power for about a century, from 726-87 and 815-43. The proscription against idols was already there in the Old Testament (although the exact wording quoted above is from the 17th-Century King James version of the Bible) and this lent credence to the case for Iconoclasm. The Iconophiles were equally serious about their beliefs. Here’s a Medieval painting of the story of the Theotokos, a holy icon of the Virgin, that bled when stabbed by a soldier during Emperor Theophilus’s icon purge. It was thrown into the sea by a pious widow and sailed away upright through the waves. Sailing under a pillar of light, it attracted the attention of the monks on Mt. Athos. It was carried from the sea by the holiest monk to the Iveron monastery where it continues to perform miracles. What I see is from a figurative artist’s point of view: a grim castle built on rocks above stormy grey seas, the golden picture sailing serenely, the white pillar of light above it like a Hollywood searchlight, another lone exquisite pillar in the unholy dark.


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FROM PILLAR TO POST 1

BREAKING GROUND, WITH GHOSTS  

Saturday 5 November 1-4:30 PM

Ghosts walk at noon, said the ancient Greeks, when the light sears all the colors to white: bleached and bleak, they are paler than pale. But in my present-day Istanbul, ghosts walk in the intense amber light of November. I feel them down in the marble bones of the old city, like scraps of shadow scuttering in the dark of my day. Because my friends are leaving I’ve felt like a ghost myself. Suddenly the lively present is becoming the happy past, and I stalk down the hill to the Boukoleon, the palace site as changed by winter as I am by the prospect of loneliness. Only one thing to do with all this maudlin self-pity and that is to draw.

It was those pillars got me off Facebook and out into the brisk blue day. As you face the Boukoleon site, your back to the sea, the pillars are high up on the wall to the right of the PortaIs, ending at the Lighthouse. They look to have been centered between brick arches, in a colonnade. The two arches I can see are so desiccated as to resemble old twisted combs, but the pillars are still smooth and white. These original Byzantine pillars and arches are partially covered by a stone outer skin, perhaps added to patch the wall after the palace was burned by Crusaders in 1204, perhaps added by Ottomans after 1453. This stone skin is quite old and weathered. I love this visual history lesson and want to preserve it.

I found a spot next to a broken place on the low brick wall and set up. This consists of setting out my water bottle and putting down the light cushion I schelp down there in a light sack. Carrying it is a much smaller pain in the ass than the one you get sitting on a brick wall for hours at a stretch. I did a quick-and-dirty rough to figure out how to position it on the page. I was tempted to use a slanted format like so many of the sketchbook drawings, but opted for straight-up-and-down to harmonize with the other two big Boukoleon drawings.  On first glance it seemed like I could fit both the top of that wooden house, upper left, and the top of the Boukoleon Window, lower right, into the drawing.  But after invoking the Cross– you remember the Cross, don’t you? –where we draw a mental straight line from one point on the subject to find where another point is– I realized that the perspective was closer to this:  I didn’t actually re-draw it, this second version of the rough is tweaked in Photoshop  to illustrate my mental picture. What I actually did this afternoon in the cold changed Boukoleon site was to put the rough down on the bricks in front of me and weight it with a couple of rocks so I could look at it. Then I pulled out a clean new sheet, doubly precious as it is now Bayram, the Muslim equivalent of Christmas, and every store is closed for the next several days. I have a very few sheets of this size on hand, so I hope this won’t be a false start. If I run out of paper I can’t continue this project now. If I can’t draw my mood will flood up and choke me. Worse, it’ll poison the time I have left with my friends. So I stared at the site, holding out the pencil in a straight line, seeing that indeed the perspective really is that slanted. Sigh. Something has got to go, and it’s the top of the wooden house, because I’ve got to get that little corner of window down in the lower right.
I did a very few passes with the pencil to this effect, pulled out a #8 Artline drafting pen, turned the point sideways and began to draw. Little light strokes, not taking it too seriously. Heigh-ho, nothing heavy here. Drew for about half an hour, and here’s what we got. It’s the pillar and arch on the far left.

Boukoleon Pillars 1 WIP ©2011 by Trici Venola

An old fellow in a big coat shuffled up. He comes by every day but my old work spot was off his beat. He’s shrunk into his coat, which is new and stiff, and he’s had a bad stroke. He really, really wanted to talk to me, but all that came out was a series of baas. To my horror I realized that he wanted to sit next to me and watch me draw. If the drawing is well started, that’s not a problem, but in the early stages I could cheerfully rip the head off my best friend. Please not now, working hard, come back later, I said in Turkish. I think I said this. He smiled at any rate, two stubs of teeth, and shook my hand. His hand was clean, his handshake firm. Somebody takes good care of him. At last he left, and not a minute too soon. I’m polite, but the Art Demon is a real bitch, and rude to boot. If I didn’t keep a hard lock on that door I’d spend my life in trouble, apologizing or feeling guilty. I encounter and read about surly artists all the time, usually young men. I wonder what that feels like, to give into that desire to scream at people who interrupt you in the creative process. I’m a lone woman in an alien patriarchal society not my own, and being rude is stupid. So the Art Demon Bitch can complain all it wants but we are polite and save our fire for the drawing.

I drew for a little while and the light was more and more intense. The sun was dead on my little bit of wall, clear amber, a searchlight blaring just above the horizon behind me, when the guy I’ve been calling the Ghost walked over to say hello. I asked him to sit for his picture, and here it is. His name is Hasan. Not an old guy at all. Weathered, but young. As I drew him I thought of Boo Radley in To Kill A Mockingbird, that sense of a watchful sad guardian. He guards the Boukoleon. The two cats are his. I hope he is warm enough to sleep.

Then in a second, the light was gone. I see I’m going to have to get out here a whole lot earlier these days. The minute I stopped drawing I felt awful. Dead and grey, trying not to think of those halcyon sessions with Gabrielle, that day Nazan walked with us down to Kumkapi, the sea gold under the dark silver cloud. That was a bare month ago. Now all the leaves are brown, I’m wearing a heavy leather jacket, it’s dark at five. I stomped over past the tour busses to the cafe. Everyone was inside. I sat there smoking nargile and feeling punk, but I finished the drawing of Hasan and called my friends, and later we had a fine dinner together and I felt normal and happy again. But after the cafe I walked along the highway, the sea and sky dark clotted grey, lights across the water, a high silver half-moon. Coming through the Stable Gate I saw the fellow who stands there saluting the cars. He too resembles a ghost, but he can’t be one because he’s aged since I drew him in 2008. Hiking up the hill toward Hagia Sophia I thought of how I love the marble bones of this place, how they comfort me. My fears and cares seem to melt into the fabric of history, like the ghosts, black transparent overlapping wings shifting and changing, ready to swirl up and blind me. But at the bottom is all that Byzantine Roman marble, smooth and cool and blessedly solid under my feet, all the way home.

Gold Cat ©2005 by Trici Venola

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.