RELENTLESS BEAUTY: AN EVOLUTION OF ICONS

RELENTLESS BEAUTY
St Irene in Pala d'Oro Altarpiece
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
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 370 Hagia Sophia
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
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.
Pope Crowns Charlemagne Medieval Drawing
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
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
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
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!

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