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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ROMAN MORTAR: Drawing the Sphendone

VISUAL HISTORY 

During difficult times I seek solace in history. It’s the only thing quiets my mind. The world has ended so many times, and yet here we still are. I love living in Istanbul because a lot of the old stuff still looks old. I can actually see the evidence of centuries on these monumental witnesses to cataclysm and triumph. I draw them before the restorers arrive and eradicate all that. I draw a portrait of a place at a particular moment in its history, warts and all: scarred, worn, magnificent. And so to the Sphendone, bulwark of Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district, brickwork so old it looks like lumpy striped stone, now as dear and familiar to me as the bamboo patches on our old hill in Los Angeles. The more I learn about  it, the more I love it. It’s been holding up the whole neighborhood for almost two thousand years.

The Sphendone in 2007.

BUILT TO LAST Leviathan bulkhead of Istanbul’s Hippodrome, the Sphendone looks like the prow of a giant ship powering out into the Marmara. The first time I saw it, in 1999, I did not at first realize that it was made of brick. I didn’t know that brick and mortar could become one rock. During the Middle Ages, the formula for Roman mortar was lost, to be re-discovered as hydraulic cement, which hardens under water. Does the durability of the Sphendone have to do with its being full of water? Because when the History Channel opened up a little door in it a few years ago and went in, they had to do it by canoe.

The Fountain Arch in 2005

EXPLORING WITH LINE Back in May of 1999, rendering a whole stone wall was beyond me. I’d been drawing with a Wacom pen on a computer for too long. I was good at portraits, but I had to sneak up on this architectural stuff, drawing corners and windows, small bits of the whole I longed to capture.  I tried to draw the cavelike arch openings, filled with dirt and old shoes, as you can see to the right of the houri in this walkaround drawing from that first trip. I remember that the little lady in the upper right corner lived across from the cave arches, had a blue tattoo on her chin, and was delighted with her portrait when I held it up.

Around Town One ©2004 Trici Venola

By November of that year, after constant drawing in the sketchbooks, I was able to render a longshot of the South Face of the wall, along with this little girl who lived behind the doorstep I sat on for three sessions. I remember that my eyes had gotten infected, and I had to trade my contact lenses for glasses that weren’t strong enough. Later I came back with lenses and increased the level of detail– and by then, I could.

Sphendone ’99 ©1999 Trici Venola

EVOLUTION OF AN ARENA Byzantium’s great  Arena, the Hippodrome, was created in the late 2nd Century by Roman Emperor Septimus “The Libyan” Severus, the boy who brought us the Circus Maximus and other points of interest in Rome of that same era. The size of our Istanbul Hippodrome is only eclipsed by the one in Rome.

severus

The Hippodrome was enlarged early in the 4th Century by Constantine the Great.

ConstantineBy the early 6th Century, the huge arena held 100,000 people, all gaping at Future Empress Theodora in her salad days, writhing naked and beset by swans in a parody of Leda.

Theodora Alive Crop

Theodora Alive.detail ©2012 Trici Venola

Chariots tore around the track, now roughly followed by the current road. Down the center ran the Spina– the Spine– a flat stone ledge that stuck up a couple of meters above the floor. Its many ornamental sculptures blocked sections of the action, heightening the suspense. The central ornament, still standing, is the Egyptian Obelisk, erected in 390 by Theodosius, lauded here in previous posts Standing the Obelisk and Chariot Parade. You can see the Spina at right in this painting.

Alexander-von-Wagner-The-Chariot-Race

The Chariot Race by Alexander von Wagner

The absolute best way to imagine the Istanbul Hippodrome in its heyday is to watch the famous chariot race from MGM’s 1959 blockbuster Ben-Hur. It’s all over YouTube, knock yourself out. See the Spina in this film grab below?

BenHurChariotRaceMGMChariot racing took on political aspects with the emergence of the Patrician Blues and the Plebian Greens. Sports riots are not a new thing: after Theodora grew up and became Empress, one almost destroyed the city.

THE NIKA REBELLION

Nika-Schnorr_von_Carolsfel

Empress Theodora

532: Smoke-sabled skies, a copper sun, the palace burning, blood and noise, mobs of people slaughtering each other in what has come to be called the Nika Rebellion. Emperor Justinian quelled the riot at the behest of Theodora, who refused to leave the city. “Purple makes a fine shroud,” she famously said, fingering her royal garments, “leave if you like.” Justinian bought off the leaders of the Blues, and his ferocious general Belisarius laid waste to the remaining rioters, executing thirty thousand rebels out on the edge of the Sphendone. Buried where they died, their bones are said to sleep behind its arches to this day.

Sphendone. Fountain Arch ©2004 Trici Venola

AFTER JUSTINIAN By Fall of 2004 I was able to render an entire arch. I’ve always loved this antique Ottoman fountain and modern brick terrace juxtaposed with the looming savage East Face of the Sphendone. That lump of brick in the middle remains from the bricking-up of the arches after an earthquake of 551. Behind them is a series of concentric chambers opening into a main corridor. Bear in mind that the present ground level of the Hippodrome, up top, is several meters above the original floor, which was filled in over the centuries. Here’s our Fountain Arch in 1982, behind the clothesline to the right:

Sphendone 1982. Anonymous

And here it is in February of 2005.

Chariot racing was never the same after the Nika Rebellion. But Byzantines and Ottomans alike loved spectacle as much as we do today. Lions, gladiators, elephants, dancers, actors wearing huge masks, fire-eaters, and acrobats capered through the regimes, held up by these massive Sphendone arches. Here’s a CGI recreation of what the place looked like in 1200, reproduced with permission from the fabulous Byzantium 1200 website.

Sphendone ©byzantium1200.com. Used by permission.

The arches at the bottom are the ones that are still here. By the 16th century,  the Hippodrome was reduced to this:

These surviving pillars are scattered all over Istanbul, chopped into paving, in Ottoman ruins of baths and bakehouses. Some possibly survive intact, in the Islamic Arts Museum and in the Blue Mosque. The Spina is buried under the present surface, still ornamented by the Egyptian Obelisk, the remains of the Serpent Column of Delphi, and the 11th Century Obelisk. Over the Sphendone is the Sultanahmet Technical and Industrial High School, built around the turn of the 20th Century. Here’s a satellite view of the Hippodrome today, with my outline in white indicating the original size. The Sphendone is at the bottom, below the red roofs of the school.

Hippodrome ©2012 Digital Globe

WALKING AROUND THE SPHENDONE On the West Face is a small metal door in a stone lintel. It looks like something out of The Hobbit, and so does this drawing I did of it in 2004.

Sphendone.The Hobbit Door ©2004 Trici Venola

This is where the History Channel went in. Here’s a long shot of the street. See the tops of the arches?

When I drew the door, I did it on a Sunday for fewer cars. Construction workers on the building opposite yelled at anyone who tried to park there. I don’t speak Turkish, but those guys loved the sketchbook.

Later I came back and took pictures, and just look at all the artifacts here.  This little window has a Star of David to its right, most likely in its previous incarnation as an Islamic symbol.

This next thing was probably inside a house. But before that? I’ve been told there was a mosque in here, and government offices. The top of this Roman arch has been cut to resemble Ottoman architecture and the inscription cemented on.

Here’s another bony old arch showing through modern brickwork.

Not so long ago, this entire wall was covered with houses. The government ripped them down, but left the skin behind.

DRAWING THE ARCHES Now here’s a refresher on where we started, back in Constantine’s time, when all the arches looked the same.

Sphendone, Walking Through Byzantium, ©2007 by byzantium1200.com. Used by permission.

Then earthquake, mayhem, cultural upheaval, fire and conquest. And now, like people in a family, simple survival has given each arch individual characteristics. I thought two drawings would set me at ease, but my fascination with the visible history of the Sphendone continues. I wish they would light it at night and leave it alone. Now that I’ve learned how to draw those first arches I saw, I can’t. A cafe known in the neighborhood as Ugly Mushroom has been allowed to build a plastic-shrouded, television-blaring structure that blocks the magnificent cavelike arches along the East Face, where you used to be able to smoke nargile while contemplating the 1700-year-old brick and mortar. So I moved south, and drew this Parking Lot Arch. On Wednesdays, there’s a Farmers’ Market here.

Sphendone.Parking Lot Arch ©2006 Trici Venola

Delicious produce below, and the shouts of sports players in the school yard above. Here’s the South Face with the Parking Lot Arch over to the right in 1935, hidden behind a house:

Farther along in the South Face is an even more evocative Ghost House Arch.

Sphendone. Ghost House Arch ©2006 Trici Venola

Gladiators and rebel martyrs long gone, that’s a piece of a commode up there just below center. The two arched windows up top belong to the high school. This antique structure– festival bones, water and brick and blood– functions as its foundation. They just drilled right into the solid old Roman ruin. See here, on the right?

If this structure wasn’t serviceable, it would never have survived so long. But survive it does. I sat in a playground full of shrieking children to draw Ghost House Arch. And as the South Face rounds over into the West Face, there’s this Wooden House Arch.

Sphendone.Wooden House Arch 72 ©2006 Trici Venola

Sublime, isn’t it? Just look at the runnels in that brickwork from centuries of storms. This house survived because it’s several meters in front of the wall, although from a distance it blends right in. The building up top belongs to the high school. I drew this one in 2006 to great acclaim by the neighbors. Immediately to the right of the house was a group of vociferous scarved women who refused to be drawn, but who ran over cackling from time to time with cups of tea and yells of delight at the progress. How I miss them! I used to live two blocks from here. These wooden houses are about two hundred years old. There was one across the street, but one night in a storm it collapsed. The next day it was almost gone, carried away for firewood by these indomitable scarved duennas of the neighborhood.

Witness to so many lives lived and passed out of recollection, this brickwork gives me peace. My terrifying problems seem as ephemeral as storms on old brick. They may erode the shape into something unforeseen, but the Sphendone still stands. Roman mortar– it hardens under water.

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All drawings © Trici Venola. All drawings done on site. Standard size is 18 X 52 cm / 7 X 20 in, drafting pens on rag paper. We love your comments.

SAINTS AND ANGELS 5: Divine Energy In Hagia Sophia

A MONK, AN ANGEL AND EMPRESS ZOE 

Today a South Korean monk showed me an angel on an iPhone. Such times we live in. Her name is Jaywon, and if she had said she was fourteen instead of forty, I’d not have been surprised save for her eyes, which have seen a great deal. She and her friend Joohee were touring Hagia Sophia and ran into me drawing from those giant blow-ups of the mosaics. We exchanged pictures and I told her about Empress Zoe, in front of the photo of the Angel Gabriel. Jaywon said that I was taking in blessings from working among all the angels and art and energy. A nice exchange to have in this very old temple in an ancient sacred place. This is a small, self-contained, joyous woman with a shaved head, wearing loose light clothes and carrying that iPhone. On it was a video of something coming out of the dawn. A circle of pure white light, and a spear of it separated and came toward the bottom of the frame. Divine energy, she said. She was incandescent in the dark cold basilica, and I asked to draw her.

Yesterday was a dream drawing day. Michael Constantinou will be here any minute to pick up his art, and still two pieces to go. I stood in line and forked over 20 lira as usual, and charged upstairs to the end of the Imperial Gallery. Huge crowds eddied around me all day, bags bumping into my head. It’s a popular spot, sporting mosaics of four Imperial Majesties, one  prince and two deities. Not only that, the  adjacent alcove is the prime spot to get a shot of the Madonna over the altar. Everyone’s bundled in bulky coats, they’re bigger than they usually are, they stomp by like they’re smaller. At times I just clutched my drawing safe to my chest. But what a day!

Empress Zoe WIP 1 ©2012 by Trici Venola

Zoe here really drew herself. A Byzantine princess, porphyrygenita: born to a reigning emperor and empress –in 978–  in the porphyry birth chamber, likely in the Boukoleon Palace. I refer to porphyry a lot, so here’s a chunk of it lying in the rain outside Hagia Sophia, built with pillars from ancient structures. It doesn’t show in the drawing yet, but Zoe’s face is set into a former mosaic, much earlier in style, texture and size of mosaic tiles.  What I’m doing in this Plein Air sitting is getting the light right: drawing the surface slightly rippled with age, squinting to see in the gloom. I’m getting the Grand Gesture, and the details will come later.

Here’s Zoe’s Emperor, her third.

Zoe’s Constantine WIP ©2012 by Trici Venola

The guides all laugh at how old and fat she was when she had this mosaic made, followed by a two-minute hash of her life. He was a lot younger than she was, etc. I got to wondering about this sacrificial lamb, so last night I went online and learned a few things. One was that Zoe was beautiful, and she stayed so, not  easy in the 11th Century. Who cares if she improved slightly in the official pix? Who doesn’t? The other is that this husband was a former lover.

Today started with a bang. I set up in front of the giant blowups in the North Gallery, to get the mosaic details right. Schmoozing with the guard, I opened up my bitsy folding stool. A sharp snap, and it collapsed. A broken wire. Disaster. I cannot sit on the floor. Asked for a chair, but no go. We cobbled the thing together. I cautiously lowered myself onto it. Completely immersed in work, a loud pop and I was slap on my back, pocket contents skittering on the icy marble. People rushed over and hauled me to my feet, and Mohammed the hero guard brought me…a chair. With arms and everything. Oh bliss. And this is what we got today.

Empress Zoe ©2012 by Trici Venola

Empress  Zoe was quite a girl. Young and lovely, she was shunted into a convent to get her out of the way by competative relatives. At fifty, she was yanked out, crowned Empress, and married to a man who wouldn’t sleep with her. She drove him crazy trying to get pregnant. He ignored her. She took a lover and flaunted him all over the Court. They found her husband boiled to death in his bath. Zoe married the lover the same day, which made him Emperor Michael IV. Clearly he was from a family of hustlers. He demanded that she turn all her power over to his brother, John the Eunuch, and then shut her out of his life before becoming terminally ill. John the Eunuch commanded her to adopt his nephew MIchael. When Michael IV died, Michael-the-nephew was crowned Emperor Michael V. He dumped Zoe into a convent on the Princes’ Islands. This enraged the populace, because Zoe was a princess, porphyrygenita, born to the purple by God, so Michael V brought her back. It was too late: he was deposed. The ministers decided that Zoe must rule, but jointly with her sister Theodora, whom she loathed. Zoe wanted to forgive Michael V, but Theodora had him blinded and sent to a monastery. The Byzantines were big on blinding, they considered it PC compared to beheading, which they did to quell rebellions.

This coin shows the two Empresses, looking goose-like from much handling. In order to increase her power, Zoe wanted to marry. She was now in her sixties and, thanks to alchemy, unguents and potions, still beautiful. In former lover Constantine Manomachos, she found a husband, the third to be scraped out of the Husband Mosaic and re-grouted in another hopeful image. If longevity was hoped for, he wins the prize, for his image has survived out of thousands, for a thousand years.

Constantine Manomachos agreed to the marriage on the condition that the sisters accept his longtime mistress, Maria Skleraina. This was not a problem. Zoe and Theodora liked Maria Skleraina enough to include her in the family throne, even making up a title, Despoina, which means Mistress but also means Empress. So the chariot of power, now pulled by four horses, galloped on, with frequent public showings of affection among the crowned quartet on the balconies of the palace, reassuring a scandalized and worried populace that all was well.

Zoe’s Constantine ©2012 by Trici Venola

Oh, worry.  Mortality is all around these days. Friends are dealing with horrifying diseases. People tightly woven into the fabric of my existence are gone, missing in the action of my life. Facebook photos of jazzy friends of yore show older versions I barely recognize. And sometimes they’re of me. It seems to come with the territory of having survived this long. In these days I find enormous comfort in the gleam of light on old marble, the carved artifacts of vanished lives. Divine energy, said Jaywon, and I think of that spear of light detaching itself from the dawn, coming toward me on the miracle of video. Standing next to a massive malachite pillar old long before Christ, feeling the power surging under me in this holy spot, looking up at the towering surface gnarled with age and scarred with witnessing, I feel so simple, so innocent in my small breadth of years, so young.

Jaywon with Gabriel ©2012 by Trici Venola

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All drawings Plein Air by Trici Venola. All art © 2012 by Trici Venola. Thanks for reading. We love your comments.