I finished drawing the mosaic of Jesus on the Winter Solstice, four days from Christmas, when Christians celebrate his birth. Solstice rites go back to pagan times, the celebration of the returning of the Sun, a religion-transcending human impulse to mark the happy turn of the year from darkness to light. Here’s a different Son being celebrated, and am I glad my homage is ready in time. Merry Christmas!
Why is it so beautiful? The larger-than-life-size original is in glorious color, yet there’s something compelling about this little black and white study, only 12 X 20 inches. Maybe it’s because the absence of color forces one to pay attention to depth, arrangement, structure. A strong composition works with or without color.
Everybody says “How do you start?” As seen above: slow, light, careful! I took it as far as I could in front of the original, then moved to the giant blowup photo across the way. As to the finish, I confess I did it here at home in about eight hours, looking at various closeup hi-def photos I took. I wanted to get the details right, I can’t get close enough to the original, and that blowup is only okay. As usual, I planned to only draw 10 X 17 inches and leave a nice white border, as I promised patron Michael Constantinou, but ran it to the edge of the page. I just couldn’t stop myself, Michael. You cover that with frame if you must!
In the two days I sat in front of Jesus drawing him, dozens of people came up to the mosaic, gasped, stared, and took a picture, the guards’ chorus of “NO FIL LASH! NO FIL LASH!” echoing in counterpoint to the grinding click of the cameras. The thing is, everyone takes pictures. And most of them are sensational. It’s a glut on the eye, all that color and detail. So, a little black and white drawing, a human doing it, and slowly at that. Slow Life, you heard it here, and if I’d been blogging a few years ago, you’d’ve heard it here first. A portrait of a mosaic at this point in time, taking into account flaws, missing tiles, patterns. All the things that are specific to this image at this moment in its history, and may that history be much longer.
Originally I proposed to the Constantinou Family that I do a big drawing of the Dome Angel, but they’re out of wall space. So we hit on the idea of small studies from the basilica. At first I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of a straight shot at Jesus, someone else’s art with no interpretation or odd angles, but I was wrong. Sometimes it works and you just don’t know why. While I’m drawing, I keep asking, “How can I make this drawing more interesting?” Here’s a section of the robe that had me stumped. Shades of blue and many little pale blotches on the surface. But just look at how many ways there are to render little square mosaic tiles! No formula: this is about giving permission, on a very deep level, to draw it as interestingly as you see it. If you’re bored, chances are it’ll look boring.
Caroling with Canon Ian Sherwood at St. Helen’s Chapel, I met Tara, a Byzantine scholar doing postgraduate work here. She’s a mine of information. For starters, what I suspected is true: the geometric patterns on Hagia Sophia’s walls and ceilings, worked in gold and silver mosaic, are original Sixth Century. Along with Jesus, I’m drawing various architectural details. This one is from just next to the balustrade directly across the gallery from The Last Judgement.
I’ve always loved the silver mosaic there, and wanted to capture the mystery of the place and the aspect of old brickwork under old mosaic.
I started drawing the geometry almost by rote and was dumbstruck to see this pattern emerge. As you can see up in the photo, it looks like tapestry. You really have to look hard to detect the filigree wheels worked into the diamond. The general impression is simply one of lush, exquisite brocade. One of the assets of documentation in black and white is the necessary simplification, which reveals hidden treasures like these.
And at the top of the capital, check out the pattern! Flowers, yes, but notice how the negative spaces between the petals form small Catherine Wheels, going in opposite directions. St. Catherine was a particular favorite of Justinian’s; he founded St Catherine’s Monastery on Mt. Sinai in Egypt. The Catherine Wheel represents the instrument of her torture said to have vanished by magic, leaving the Saint to be beheaded instead. This is considered romantic twaddle by some hagiographers. ls it romantic coincidence that Catherine Wheels often appear in the church motifs? Whether you believe in St Catherine or not, you can believe this: nobody carving this stuff in stone could coincidentally carve flowers that form Catherine Wheels.
To draw this little side alcove, I’ve moved camp across the great sag in the marble floor to the balustrade. Every glance is a potential drawing taking many hours. I could spend the rest of my life inside Hagia Sophia and never begin to mine the wealth of drawing in there. What I love the most is the patina of age over the layers of visible history.
In one glance to the left, up top we have the third dome, built after the first two collapsed. Repainted by the Ottomans after 1453, it’s been restored by the Japanese over the past several years.
There’s the Angel under the dome, discovered in 1841 by the Fosatti Brothers under Sultan Abdulmedjid’s restoration and carefully covered up again until 2009, when it was unveiled to great fanfare. According to Tara, it was created around 1261, after the expulsion of the Western Romans.
The clerestory windows high up catch the light and make the massive dome appear to float, as early chroniclers tell us.
We’re looking north here; the altar is to our right. At the base of the group of windows are some icons that were painted over and have been restored.
Below those is the opposite gallery, with malachite columns scavenged from the ancient Gymnasium at Ephesus. To the right is one of Sultan Abdulmedjid’s four enormous calligraphy medallions, which proclaim his name, the names of his grandchildren, and the name of the Prophet.
Below this is the side gallery to the nave, with more malachite columns and Ottoman additions. The wooden railing is of a pattern I last saw on storm drain lids in the LA River. We called them Cat’s Faces. What a surprise to see them here!
Then there’s antique graffiti carved into the marble balustrade, and below that a very common thing in Hagia Sophia, an excised marble cross. And finally the cracked marble floor, bowed with the stress of centuries.
The Jesus I’ve been drawing turns out to be not as old as we thought. Tara tells me that, despite the sign in front stating that the Deesis Mosaic The Last Judgement is 12-century, it was actually created in 1261. The great master artist is unknown, but his work is as close to immortal as art can be. Having it created was the first thing that the Christians of Constantinople did once they succeeded in expelling the Western Romans, when Dandolo who let them in had been exhumed and tossed out to the dogs, when the horror of the Fourth Crusaders had dimmed to a grim memory, when Hagia Sophia became again an Eastern Roman Christian temple. Islam’s proscription against imagery in art caused the pictures to disappear with the Fall of Constantinople to Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453.
The Last Judgement and other mosaics were discovered under plaster in the 1940s, in their present devastated condition. All this time I thought it was Crusaders had scraped the gold off, since they trashed so much else, but these desecrators were Ottoman. At least they spared the faces, which is more than the Iconoclasts did. With all these art-destroying factions hacking away it’s a wonder that the Jesus survived at all. It’s enough to make you believe in miracles.