HOT CROSSES: Crusader Graffiti in Hagia Sophia

posted in: Sketchbook Adventures | 4

The Fourth Crusade

There were two sides to the Christian church: the Catholics in a collection of city-states in Italy, and the Eastern Roman Christians– we call them Byzantines– an empire ruled from Constantinople. Venice, in Italy, looked longingly over at the glorious city of Constantinople, bastion of the Eastern Roman Church and very, very rich.  The two factions did not get along. Eastern Roman Christians favored trade over war, and they bathed, looking down their long narrow Byzantine noses at the unwashed, body-eschewing “Latins,” the Catholics who they considered filthy warmongers, observers of pagan Latin rites.

Pope Innocent III tried to muster up a Crusade against the Byzantines but only succeeded in drumming one up to take Egypt from the Muslims.  To get there, the Fourth Crusaders hired Venetians to build ships for them. They couldn’t pay for the ships. Enrico Dandolo, Doge of Venice, old and blind, suggested that they recapture Zara, in Hungary, for the Venetians, and then go sack Constantinople. So the Crusaders, mostly Italian and French out for treasure and glory, became mercenaries for Venice.

Crusade videos abound on YouTube,  In one, the unctuous narrator actually says that the Crusaders didn’t mean to destroy the Christian city of Constantinople. He says they had no choice but to sack it to pay the Venetians. “Um…I maxed out my credit card, so I’m going to kill you and your family and take everything you own to pay it…”

It’s true that the Crusaders scrupulously honored their debts to Venice. Picture a household gutted of its glory and beauty, the husband and wife disemboweled among the bodies of their raped children, screams from the convent nearby, flames belching out of church windows, coffers smashed open, blood and stench everywhere, sky black with oily smoke, silks and satins billowing through splintered shutters– and a bunch of bean counters making piles for the Venetians. “One for you, and one for me…”

Jacopo Tintoretto, The Second Conquest. A Venetian, the artist painted heroism.  

This accounts for the glories of San Marco Square in Venice, plundered from Constantinople, among them the four bronze horses taken from the Constantinople Hippodrome.

Crusaders in Constantinople
Mural, in Istanbul’s Archeological Museum, of Constantinople before the Fourth Crusade. Huge grey building is Hagia Sophia.
Eugene Delacroix, The Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople.  

Istanbul Through the Ages, the top floor exhibit of Istanbul’s Archeological Museum, houses broken marble from site after site destroyed by “the Latins,” punctuated by photographs of art treasures now in Venice.

Upstairs in Hagia Sophia, just behind the Deesus Mosaic, is a grave in the floor. It’s Dandolo’s. He died in 1205 and was buried by his request in Hagia Sophia. But he’s not there. 57 years later, when the Byzantine Christians of Constantinople succeeded in vomiting out the Catholics, they dug up Dandolo and threw him out the window.

Alexius Angelos

During the convoluted and bloody track of this Crusade, Pope Innocent III, horrified at the mayhem, excommunicated all the Crusaders. After being presented with the spoils from Constantinople, he accepted them back into the Church.

The Imperial Tombs were all over at Holy Apostles, on the site of what is now Fatih Mosque. Everyone of consequence was entombed there, and there were celebrated relics of the saints. Over the protests of one Latin priest, the Crusaders ripped open the sarcophagi, took all the gold, and threw the bones to the dogs in the street. And that’s what happened to St Luke, to Constantine, St Helen, Justinian and Theodora, the relics of Ss Timothy, Andrew, John Chrysostom, Gregory the Theologian… What remains of their glittering reliquaries can now be seen in the Treasury of St Mark’s Basilica in Venice. If St Mark had been buried at Holy Apostles, he would have been chewed by the dogs as well.

There were other factors in this mess. Alexius Angelos, deposed Byzantine Emperor, promised the moon to the Crusaders if they helped him get back his throne. He got it, and died soon after, proving a miserable ruler who bankrupted the Imperial treasury.

Opened Sarcophagus in front of Hagia Sophia

There are many sources for all of his, but let’s hear a contemporary account:

How shall I begin to tell of the deeds wrought by these nefarious men! Alas, the images, which ought to have been adored, were trodden under foot! Alas, the relics of the holy martyrs were thrown into unclean places! Then was seen what one shudders to hear, namely, the divine body and blood of Christ was spilled upon the ground or thrown about.

They snatched the precious reliquaries, thrust into their bosoms the ornaments which these contained, and used the broken remnants for pans and drinking cups… just as… Christ was robbed and insulted and His garments… divided by lot; only one thing was lacking, that His side, pierced by a spear, should pour rivers of divine blood on the ground. Nor can the violation of the Great Church [Hagia Sophia] be listened to with equanimity. For the sacred altar, formed of all kinds of precious materials and admired by the whole world, was broken into bits and distributed among the soldiers, as was all the other sacred wealth of so great and infinite splendor.  —The Historian Nicetas Choniates, 1155-1215/16

There is no excuse for the Fourth Crusade, but there are these crosses.

Hole-In-One Cross ©2012 Trici Venola

After a couple of weeks hunting and drawing crosses, I can see these guys, these Crusaders. They’d been camped out in Venice, fighting and looting Zara in Hungary, excommunicated, nothing more to lose.

Fourth Crusade The Templars ships arriving at Constantinople , 1204 . Chromolithography .

Then to  Constantinople, telling each other it was meet and just to behave like beasts in the fabled streets. Now in the dusky church the massive  pillars rising up into glory, mayhem below, fires here and there reflected on the marble floor, glittering off the gold ceiling mosaics high above. Whores singing, one lolling in the Patriarch’s Seat, drunken carousing, the altar hacked to pieces, puddles of sacrificial wine. Bedding and loot spilling out of sacks, chainmail in stinking heaps, exhaustion, hilarity. Illiterate treasure-hunters, murderers and thieves by our standards, but with the same desire to make a mark that Justinian had, and only a knife, an axe, a sword to make it with. All of them played by Ray Stevenson of Rome. Hack, crunch. “You call that a cross? Hang on, let me at it.” They might wrench away every gold crucifix, but still carve one as well. “I was here,” it says, “I lived.”  Just guys. We can almost forgive them for St Luke.

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All drawings Plein Air, done with drafting pens on rag sketchbook paper 18X52cm / 7X20 “. All drawings and most photos ©2012 by Trici Venola. All drawings from the series Drawing On Istanbul by Trici Venola. I know you’re out there, so feel free to comment. We love comments, and Followers get a special place in Art Heaven.

4 Responses

  1. nelsa silva

    I love Istanbul and these drawings bring to me the need to go back and see the city with Trici’s eyes.

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