ST JOHN’S: Drawing in the Wake of the Gospels

Great Artemis ©2012 Trici Venola

Great Artemis ©2012 Trici Venola

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ST JOHN’S BASILICA

it looks like it has been picked up and dropped.

The vast rambling ruin of St John’s Basilica was demolished by earthquake, ravaged by marauders, scavanged by later builders. Huge jagged chunks of sixth-century masonry rear at improbable angles. Columns  march in all directions, supporting nothing, reassembled and re-erected by the Turkish Government. Hordes of Christian pilgrims stagger in the heat, a babble of guides in all languages, and I crouch in the weeds to draw this:

My Favorite Capital © 2012 Trici Venola.

It’s my favorite capital. Rows of them are set out in a field. Nearby, storks nest in season– this time of year, they’re off to Africa. The tombstone at left is likely a gladiator who converted. Here’s a drawing from years ago showing the same capital, this time with storks.

Weedy St John’s with Storks ©2007 by Trici Venola

SELÇUK

Selçuk is near the Biblical city of Ephesus, about ten minutes by car from the Aegean Sea.  Ephesus was rediscovered in the 19th century and somewhat reconstructed. It’s big tourist business. It seems like every travel agency pushes Ephesus tourists to stay in nearby Kusadasi, which is great if you like rampant development, traffic, clubs and stores, but I’ll put my money on Selçuk–in English: Selchuk. It’s got the Selchuk Museum, full of Ephesus, with its statues and gladiator tombstones. It’s got storks nesting on a Byzantine aqueduct. It’s got great tribal art stores and hotels. It’s  got St John’s Basilica, and above it the Citadel.

The Great Virgin & St John ©2007 Trici Venola.

And it’s got Female Power. At the edge of town is the Great Temple of Artemis, a swamp the size of a football field, filled with broken marble, the ruined seat of power for the great Goddess of Asia Minor: the place where it all began. The Great Temple, a wonder of the ancient world, was burned so long ago that Alexander the Great had it restored. Centuries later it fell in an earthquake.

The Goddess Artemis, the Great Mother Goddess of the Near East, appears to be a previous incarnation of  the Blessed Virgin Mary, having much in common with her: powerful  purity; attributes in Holy Trinities- three griffins, three bulls, three bees, etc; affinity with nature and birth; affinity with the moon, ancient source of female power;  powerful, self-sufficient, life-creating sexuality. Priests of both dedicate their sexuality to the Goddess. And of course, physical proximity. The Blessed Virgin Mary lived a few miles away. I’ve come to see them as a sort of double Goddess, which in no way detracts from the mystic power of either diety, I just find it fascinating. But the overwhelming presence for me on this trip has been St John the Apostle. His huge ruined basilica dominates the town, topped by the Citadel above.

THE CASTLE ON THE HILL

The Citadel and St John’s Longshot ©2012 by Trici Venola.

At the right of the drawing above is Ayasuluk, a  6000-year-old Paleolithic hilltop settlement. 

Subsequent civilizations have left artifacts still being excavated: chapels, baths, tombs. The sixth-century Byzantine castle is built on Hitttite bones. The castle walls and fifteen towers were built from stones taken from buildings in Rome. The Citadel is closed to the public, but there are these aerial photos and old drawings. Here’s a photo of that little central chapel from a sign at St John’s:

There must have been a wooden settlement inside the castle walls since all that’s left is what looks to be a 5th-century Byzantine chapel with an Ottoman minaret next to it, and nearby a mounded ruined hamam. On this hilltop, St John is said to have written his Gospel. Here’s how it looks today, from a stairway at the back of the basilica. A staircase entire, all by itself, with one turn in the stairs, roofless and leading up to nowhere. I spent a few hours in this wedge of deep shadow set in the dead white heat of late summer, sitting on marble steps scalloped by centuries of feet.

The Citadel from St John’s ©2012 Trici Venola.

A guard came upon me, and I showed him my sketchbook. It’s wonderful the way people’s faces crease into smiles, seeing the drawings. Later, he and a colleague invited me to tea. I may dedicate my next book on Turkey to the men and women who guard the ruins here, as they have allowed me perspectives I never would have found on my own. They’ve provided chairs, shade, secret views, restroom privileges, heat, tea, and enthusiasm, while protecting these world treasures so that I can experience them. Here on the right is my nice guard, Arif, and his colleague Ismet posing in front of a passage in St John’s. I did this all from life. Don’t they look fine?

The Guards at St John’s Basilica ©2012 by Trici Venola.

I snapped some shots of them, and as they were cracking up in one, I did another take from the photos, wanting to catch those grins. That’s the Citadel again, this time from their guard station at the back of the Basilica ruin.

Ismet & Arif at St John’s ©2012 by Trici Venola.

THE MAN ON THE MOUNTAIN

The Gospel According to St John seems to some scholars to be the memories of an old man, with the perspective of long life. John outlived all the other Apostles, dying in 98 AD. He must have been about 100 years old.

Christian Bits in Selchuk ©2007 Trici Venola.

He and his brother, future Apostle James, started life as fishermen on the Sea of Galilee. They may have been cousins of Jesus. They came to this part of the world after the Crucifixion, when John was entrusted by Jesus with the care of his mother, Mary.

St John Bull 1 © 2102 Trici Venola.

So John took Mary into his household. And sometime between 37 and 48 AD he and Peter took her with them to Ephesus. She is believed to have settled here, in a hilltop community high in the mountains above the city.

This is Meryemana, generally accepted as Mary’s home and last resting place.

In Mary’s House ©2007 Trici Venola.

Meryemana is a huge attraction, especially now since Sister Mary Emmerlach, the stigmatized German nun who dreamed that Mary lived here, is being canonized this year. Excavations based on her 19th-century dreams revealed the foundation of this house, which corroborated various records including a 4th-century  Ecumenical Council, enough to convince the Pope. Whether you believe Sister Emmerlach or not, the collective faith left by millions of pilgrims of all religions is impressive, as attested by these wishes left by the faithful. In dozens of languages, they fill a whole wall. The wishes are left up until they biodegrade, leaving a palpable energy.

Back in the 1st century, John and Peter set about converting the pagans of Ephesus, with such good results that they were kicked out of the city by the Guild of the Silversmiths, which was taking a loss in the sales of little silver Artemis charms. Mary had not yet been recognized as a goddess by sufficient numbers to warrant charms of her own, although now they abound. Here are mine, in local stone.

Domitian in Ephesus. About ten times life-size.

Emperor Domitian exiled John to the Isle of Patmos, where he wrote Revelation, also known as The Apocalypse. There are pieces of a giant statue of Domitian in the Selchuk Museum, a monstrous baby face remniscent of the horrifying giant Pillsbury Doughboy in Ghostbusters.

After Domitian’s demise John was pardoned and returned to Ephesus, where he lived out the rest of his days. Now the town of Selchuck is modern, built since the late nineteenth century around the aqueduct at the Ephesus railway stop. Its main attractions in old days were the Temple of Artemis and the Citadel. John must have lived there, in house or hut, writing his Gospel up there, howling out the Word in the wind and rain, the searing sun.

He wanted to be buried near the Citadel, and he was. Every other Apostle was martyred, but John was said to have “gone into the cave of his church”  and vanished. Of all the saints, John is the one with no relics anywhere. When Constantine, in the 4th century, opened his Tomb, there was nothing but air.

St John’s Tomb, from behind the site of the altar. The small stone is a sixth-century tombstone. ©2012 Trici Venola.

THE MONUMENT

The original church fell to pieces, and in 536 our old friend Byzantine Emperor Justinian started this new one. He built a magnificent six-domed cruciform church echoing the Church of Holy Apostles, now lost, in Constantinople-now-Istanbul.

The love story of Justinian and his Empress Theodora is legendary. The basilica has Theodora’s name all over it, in monograms of capitals on the columns, in the very walls. I find this poignant, as Theodora died in 548 and was buried in Holy Apostles long before St John’s was finished: in 565, the year Justinian died. It was built by Ephesians under Justinian’s edict. Emperor of the greatest High Byzantine monuments, he was a bloody, tax-levying, hubris-ridden autocrat, but it is not farfetched to imagine him lost in contemplation of a reunion with the most compelling of Empresses.

THE MIRACULOUS SHIFTING SANDS

John was said to be sleeping beneath his tomb, and his breath caused the dust on it to stir. This dust was said to perform miracles, especially every year on May 8, the all-night Feast of St John. The church called the dust Manna, and sold it to the faithful. For a thousand years, pilgrims came, even St Augustine, leaving with flasks of Manna. It is surely dusty there now, dust blowing into the cracks of the few surviving mosaics and around the shiny modern marble of the monument now over the supposed Tomb.

My own personal non-scholarly feeling on this is that St John was actually buried up on the ancient Ayasuluk mound, but who am I to argue with St Augustine?

EARTHQUAKE

St John is credited with an earthquake while imprisoned on Patmos which got him sprung, but the one that demolished St John’s happened in the 1300s. It must have been a lulu. Just look at this!

The earthquake-wrecked temple was further ravaged by Tamerlane’s  Mongol army in 1402. In one of the poetic ironies that keep me living in Turkey, the marble of the ruined Temple of Artemis had been pillaged by Justinian’s builders to create St John’s Basilica in the first place, which was in turn pillaged to create Isa Bey Mosque. This is what’s left.

The only one of these not yet to fall to an earthquake is the mosque, which stands squarely among palm trees on a hillside below the two ruined temples.

MANY FACES OF LOVE

The Sweethearts’ Tomb © 2012 Trici Venola.

Battered but miraculously whole amid the wreckage, this is supposed to be a tomb that was turned into a fountain. I sat on a rock in dwindling black shadow and drew it for about two hours. Had to finish the wall behind it from a photo, as the sun was killing me. This has all the earmarks of a lovers’ landmark for generations of Selchuk teen-agers. The graffiti is all about love, and from the number of postings, I’d say Deniz and Ozon must have had one hell of a romance.

Eros & Priapus in Selchuk Museum © 2012 Trici Venola.

The Selchuk Museum has all kinds of imagery: lions, dolphins, emperors, warriors and saints, and love in all its forms. Right in the middle of the drawing above is this juxtapositon: Augustus with a cross in his forehead and an Early Christian-like Roman, flanked by Dionysius and a headless angel. Now where else are you going to see that?

Eros & Priapus in the Selchuk Museum © 2012 Trici Venola.

It’s all here: Storks, aqueduct, ruined temples, ancient and modern Goddesses, the Tomb with its shifting dust, the memories of vanished romances. The people of Selchuk keep it all alive. In this place of sainthood and miracles amid reverberating female power I drew this lady, Karim Hanim, who lives just around the corner from that longshot of the CItadel and St John’s. I met her through my lovely friend Frances, who has lived here for years and speaks fluent Turkish. Karim Hanim worked her whole life. She posed for me in her home, surrounded by children and grandchildren, on the Bayram, the holy day following Ramazan. Of course I drew the patterns later from photos, to save our precious time for her hands and feet and presence, her face. For some reason, drawing her made me cry.

She Was A Pretty Girl ©2012 by Trici Venola.

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All drawings Plein Air. All drawings from the series Drawing On Istanbul by Trici Venola. All art © Trici Venola except for the two drawings from Google Maps. All drawings created in sketchbook format, using drafting pens on 18 X 52 cm rag paper.

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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.