ROLLING ST LUKE’S BONES
Like those nesting Russian dolls, one fitting inside the other, we come at last to the core Saint Physician. Were St Sampson and St Mokios influenced by St Luke? He was buried just up the hill at Holy Apostles. Both saints had similar stories. Both came from wealthy families, were highly educated, practiced medicine, and gave everything to the poor. A contemporary of Jesus, St Luke healed the sick, painted his pictures, wrote his gospels, grew old and died in Bithynia, now in Western Turkey.
Relics of St Luke were interred, with Byzantine splendor, by Constantine in 357 at the Church of Holy Apostles in Constantinople, now the site of Fatih Camii (Mosque) in Istanbul’s Old City. Many saints and emperors were eventually buried there, including Justinian and Constantine.
A fire that destroyed the church left the coffins of the saints untouched. Justinian rebuilt Holy Apostles in 527, just up the hill from the Hospital. The holy and imperial tombs were eviscerated in 1204 by Italian Crusaders, who grabbed the gold and threw the bones to the dogs in the street. According to an aghast contemporary account, this is what happened to St Luke.
Another account has a grim 8th-century priest stealing St Luke’s bones, as well as a painting of the Virgin by the saint, to save them from the Iconoclasts. Still another says St Thomas the Apostle spirited St Luke’s painting to India around 50 CE. The legend of St Luke’s artistic endeavors includes as many True Paintings as there are True Relics, but it did result in his being Patron Saint of Artists, and for that I salute him with this post.
An excited recent post from Padua, Italy, reports the saint’s entire skeleton found in a lead coffin there, including the skull which spent a time with Charlemagne. Did some abject Crusader, fired with remorse or venality, pick up the relics and pack them off? Charlemagne pre-dated the Fourth Crusade by four centuries, so what about those stories of the Skull being at Holy Apostles? While the bones continue to cause fuss, the spirit of the great physician and evangelist of the New Testament has never left us. It undoubtedly inspired Sampson.
So much for corporeal splendor! St Sampson the Hospitable, Justinian, Theodora, Pulcheria, Eudocia, St Mokios, Constantine, St Luke. Glorious physicians, empresses and emperors lying together in the street, ignominious piles of greened bones stomped by blood-crazed Italians raging under a smoke-blackened sky, devolving into the rumor of divinity.
Their works fared better. All over the Middle East is the visual history of Constantinople, of Justinian and Theodora, in churches standing and savaged, in the foundations of the mosques, hospitals ruined and rumored as well. The study of medicine continues in universities worldwide, continuing the work of one gorgeous dedicated Greek girl. And worldwide is the legacy of the Unmercenaries: medical care for the poor. Despite the railroading of medicine by the rich in so many countries, free clinics keep springing up. The marriage of medicine and faith continues in Islam and Christianity and Quantum Physics, in the study of psychosomatic medicine, in the emphasis on mood as it affects the immune system. As always, the light that burned in Constantinople still flares and flickers like a torch in the winds of ignorance, but has yet to be put out. Down in the courtyard the cats play in the ruined fountain, but under the weeds the lion still roars.
All drawings Plein Air by Trici Venola. All drawings © Trici Venola, 1999, 2014. Peace in the Ruins was created with drafting pens on rag paper and measures 50 X 70 cm. Other drawings were done with drafting pens in sketchbooks measuring 18 X 26 or 18 X 52 cm. Special thanks to the excellent and cordial staff (and cats Hatem and Duman) of Karakol Restaurant next to Hagia Eirene, Topkapi Complex, Sultanahmet, Istanbul, and to Chef Theo, for showing me, on a dank cold January day, this site. We are none of us much without the others.