Saturday, November 29, 2014

Why Art History - The Treasures of Constantinople

Pope Francis is on a three-day visit to Turkey where he is spending Saturday and Sunday in Istanbul as a guest of Patriarch Bartholomew. I thought this would be a good occasion to recall another Papal visit to Constantinople in 523 by Pope John I. Bishop Ecclesius of Ravenna (mentioned below) was part of his entourage. There is one theory that Anicia Juliana might have commissioned the Church of St. Polyeuktos in accordance with this trip.

The following is an article that was originally posted on Hasan Niyazi's website Three Pipe Problem in August 2013 as a response to the question Hasan posed "Why Art History?"

The remains of the 6th century Church of St. Polyeuktos
It all started with peacocks... those dazzling creatures that represented the eternity of the spirit and had associations with Roman empresses... There once was a church, built by a royal princess who was the noblest in the land, that had a golden dome and was lavishly decorated with the most precious marbles from the empire, colors of green, blue and gold glittering everywhere, with peacock motifs decorating column capitals and niches around the church, it was known to have been inspired from the temple of Solomon. No one knew of its existence till half a century ago when magnificent marble fragments appeared as if by magic in the middle of Istanbul... This, was the Church of St. Polyeuktos in Constantinople, built in the 6th century by Anicia Juliana, a descendant of both Eastern and Western emperors ...

Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem
The first time I had every heard of the Church of St Polyeuktos was when I was doing a book review for this blog on And Diverse are their Hues, exploring the significance of color in Islamic art and culture. In his article "Blue Behind Gold: Inscription of the Dome of the Rock and its Relatives" Dr. Lawrence Nees gave the example of St. Polyeuktos as being one of the fore-bearers for the color scheme and type of decoration used on Dome of the Rock. Dr. Nees painted a radiant picture of a Byzantine church with peacock blue and green used behind gold inscriptions that left me enthralled with this mysterious, magnificent structure and its founder, I had to find out more...

It was during my semester in Istanbul last fall, at a visit to Istanbul Archaeology Museum, I recalled Anicia Juliana and her church once again, upon seeing a capital with peacock motifs. I found the section set aside for the Church of St. Polyeuktos among the Istanbul galleries of the museum, identified by the name of the present day neighborhood where they had been excavated, Saraçhane. There were some beautiful, intricately carved late antique marble works, capitals and columns with a few colored glass still intact, but visualizing the splendor and comprehending the significance of this church required more research.

After inquiring, I learned that Saraçhane was the neighborhood directly across from the Istanbul municipality, near the aqueduct of Valens and the fragments leading to the discovery of this church were found during grading operations in the area in the 1960's. As a matter of fact, I had probably passed by the site, which is labeled an "Archaeological Park," thousands of times in my lifetime. It had been right there, where I took the right turn to go to the antique flea-market, Horhor, one of my favorite haunts in Istanbul. This was just another one of the remains of the Byzantine past buried beneath that great capital of Empires, Istanbul, it's fate, sadly recalling the neglected history of Byzantium.

Ruins of St. Polyeuktos with the view of Aqueduct of Valens
Ruins of St. Polyeuktos with the view of the Istanbul Municipality
So, what was so special about this church and how did we compile a whole picture from the bits of marble strewn about? And where did Solomon's temple fit into all of this? This, is the great wonder of archaeology and art historical research, they tell us the tales of the people and places of the past, bringing to life a culture, a way of life that has been long gone and sometimes even forgotten for centuries but still relevant to us today. From the myth surrounding it about being an exact replica of the Temple of Solomon to its extraordinary decoration program which appropriated distinctly Sassanian motifs next to classical Roman ones, the most ostentatious structure of it's day, Church of St. Polyeuktos, standing in the middle of the processional way, between the Forum Taori and the Church of the Holy Apostles, was waiting to tell us the story not only of its remarkable patron, who dared to challenge Justinian, but also the establishment of signs and symbols of divine and heavenly kingship in Late Antiquity.

One of the primary finds that helped to identify St. Polyeuktos was the inscriptions that were to be found around the fragmentary niches, the apse of which were filled with the outspread tail feathers of a peacock. The inscription was identified as the seventy-six line epigram recorded in a 10th century source, Palatine Anthology, which stated that it belonged to the church of the martyr Polyeuktos built by Anicia Juliana, the great-granddaughter of the empress Eudocia (wife of Theodosius II) "who built a structure to rival the temple of Solomon." Dr. Martin Harrison, who excavated the dig also discovered that the unit of measurement used in the church was the royal cubit as opposed to the Roman foot and the church measured 100 royal cubits feet square, the measurement of the Temple at Jerusalem, built by King Solomon in tenth century BCE. Princess Anicia Juliana had not only planned and executed one of the predominant signs of kingship in every detail of her church but she had also brazenly declared it like a manifesto in one of the most visible elements of the structure, the decorative inscription.

The Church of St. Polyeuktos appears in the Byzantine Book of Ceremonies, which mentions the emperor stopping here during imperial procession for Easter Mondays where he changed his candle before continuing along the Mese to the Church of the Holy Apostles. Another literary source that mentions the church of St. Polyeuktos and adds an interesting dimension to the whole construct is the sixth century story by Gregory of Tours. In this story, Juliana's confrontation with the "upstart" Justinian (he was of peasant stock while she had the blood of the Theodosian dynasty coursing through her veins) and her victory over him is told. Justinian looking for more revenue to fund his defense and building projects requests Juliana make a contribution to public funds. She humbly asks for time to gather her treasure and meanwhile instructs her workers to plate the roof of the church using all of her gold. When Justinian comes back, she takes him to the church where they kneel in prayer and when they are done, she points to their surroundings, and tells him to take what he likes. Since he is not about to take apart a house of God, Justinian is about to leave when Juliana gives him her emerald ring saying, "Accept, most sacred Emperor, this tiny gift from my hand, for it is deemed to be worth more than this gold." The passing on of the ring has been interpreted by scholars as the last member of the Theodosian dynasty passing on the right to rule to her successor. It is also assumed that Juliana was a disillusioned, old woman by now, neither her husband nor her son attaining what she deemed was rightfully theirs, the position of emperor.

From what can be gathered from the archaeological evidence and the remaining artifacts, St. Polyeuktos had been pillaged during the fourth crusade, some parts making their way to Europe and finally collapsed around the 13th century. Except for a few marble fragments in museums and the two pillars gracing the Piazzetta outside of the south walls of the San Marco under the auspices of Pillars of Acre, all that remains in place of this once magnificent church whose influence can be seen from the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul to the S. Vitale in Ravenna is the substructure. Some scholars believe the workers that created the splendid, marble decorations for the church were recruited by Bishop Ecclesius on his visit to Constantinople to go to work in S. Vitale in Ravenna while others probably worked on Justinian's two churches, SS. Sergius and Bachus, and Hagia Sophia, that bear a striking resemblance in the quality and type of marble sculpture to St. Polyeuktos. This is why Justinian's legendary quote upon completion of the Hagia Sophia, "Solomon I have outdone thee!" is believed actually to be addressing Juliana.

Pillars of Acre, Venice, from the Church of St. Polyeuktos, Constantinople (source)
San Marco, Venice, taken from the Church of St. Polyeuktos, Constantinople (source)
Today, when I stand in Saraçhane Square and look around me, instead of seeing another busy, Istanbul thoroughfare with a sea of bustling humanity and throngs of vehicles passing through on their way to some other destination, I imagine the imperial procession approaching St. Polyeuktos, with large tapers in their hands or members of the factions, the demarche of the Blues with the deme of the Whites receiving the emperor and the criers saying "Your divine Majesty is welcome" and the acclamations of eulogy being chanted by the criers and the people... It's almost as if a silent, black and white movie just became a technicolor movie with sound. As I venture around the ruins, I try to imagine and draw courage from Anicia Juliana, a woman who was bold enough to compare herself to King Solomon 1500 years ago. When I consider the decorative cycle with those unique Sassanian inspired plant motifs, I get a glimpse of the far-reaching interaction between the two rival courts, cultures, and can't help but wonder how much more there is to know that we still haven't discovered or been able to see through our Greco-Roman centric, point of view. I liken the site to a momento mori in the inevitable abandonment and destruction of even such a significant structure when it fulfilled its usefulness.

Standing amidst the ruins of St. Polyeuktos
Art history is the visual manifestation of the common link that connects us to the past, the present day as well as the future. Every work of art I encounter has a story to tell about the time, the people, the culture and the world at large which broadens my perspective about the world I am living in and my place in it. My journey in the world of art history is a very personal one that has given me a sense of belonging. By studying the history of art, I not only discover the details of different cultures from history, I also find the common link that bonds us all together as human beings. St. Polyeuktos was obviously not the first work of art that I encountered to get me interested in this type of study and Byzantine art is not the only concentration I am interested in, when it comes to art history, I am not discriminating, I will take it all in. I have favorite artists and favorite time periods of course but as I progress further into my research, I realize that the two fundamental aspects that has me so enthralled every single time is how each work touches my soul and my intellect. I would like to thank Hasan for giving me this opportunity to share my thoughts on 3 Pipe Problem. One of the greatest benefits of blogging about art history has been the connections I have made with like minded individuals and I feel I owe a special thanks to Hasan for this as well. His generosity of spirit has been a connecting force for a lot of art history bloggers from all the corners of the world.

Marble bust of Anicia Juliana, Metropolitan Museum of Art (source)

1. Nees, Lawrence. Blue Behind Gold: Inscription of the Dome of the Rock and its Relatives. Video hosted by (link)

2. Canepa, Matthew P. Two Eyes of the Earth - Art and Ritual of Kingship between Rome and Sasanian Iran. University of California Press. 2010. Preview available at Google Books (link)

3. De Cerimoniis (ed. A. Vogt, pp. 68 and 43-4; ed. Reiske, pp. 75-6 and 50) Translated by M. Harrison. Excavations at Sarachane in Istanbul. Vol. 1. Princeton University Press. 1986. pp.9-10

4. Gregory of Tours - Glory of the Martyrs. Translated by R. Van Dam. Liverpool University Press. 1988. Preview available at Google Books (link)

5. Harrison, RM Excavations at Sarachane in Istanbul. Vol.1 The Excavations, Structures, Architectural Decorations, Small Finds, Coins, Bones, and Mollusc. Princeton University Press, 1986

6. Harrison, M. A Temple for Byzantium. University of Texas Press. 1989.

7. Mango, C and Sevcenko, I. Remains of the Church of St. Polyeuktos at Constantinople. Dumbarton Oaks Papers. Vol. 15. 1961.

8. Palatine Anthology. Book I - Christian Epigrams. pp.7-11. Available online at The Internet Archive (link)

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

How does what we see in museums affect our view of art history?

Sidki Efendi Turkish Ambassador to the Court of Saint James British 19th century oil
George Dawe, Portrait of a dignitary in Turkish Costume,ca. 1825
 (formerly titled, Sidki Efendi, Turkish Ambassador to the court of St. James)
(San Diego Museum of Art)

There are certain defining moments in all of our lives when we feel we have figured out the answer to some profound truth that we had been searching for all our lives... maybe without even knowing we were. I had my "aha!" moment in a museum... before a 19th century portrait of a Turkish dignitary. Portrait of a Dignitary in Turkish Costume is attributed to George Dawe, an English painter who was renown for his portraits of Russian nobility and generals, but the museum label mentions a prior attribution to Thomas Lawrence with the sitter identified as Sidki (Sitki) Efendi, the Turkish ambassador to the British court in 1800. I like to think of my painting as the portrait of Sitki Efendi. I call it my painting because when I came across it in the gallery devoted to French, Dutch and Italian Paintings 1600 - 1900 at the San Diego Museum of Art, I felt as if I had run into a long lost friend... someone I recognized. And I hadn't realized how much it mattered to see a 'friendly' face on a museum wall until that moment. Sitki Efendi looked like a guy you might run into on the street, at a cafe, basically anywhere in Turkey... san the fez, of course. His face was an ordinary, recognizable Turkish face. There was no doubt in my mind. So, I sat there a while and contemplated the significance of seeing something familiar, from your own culture on the wall of a museum. I had always done this consciously and unconsciously noting the 'Turkish' features in works of art but this was different... this was a real person.

I am an art historian of Turkish origin and every time I visited a museum, especially in Turkey, and encountered only miniatures, illuminations or calligraphy instead of portraits or paintings of real people I felt as if my past had been taken away from me. I kept on comparing what I had experienced to a Brit visiting the National Portrait Gallery and seeing the characters from their history in all their glory. Everyone knew what their Queens and Kings looked like, They had a concept of the general features of Englishmen and women and the landscapes they inhabited... as opposed to us who had to look at miniatures with abstract figures and landscapes that evaded exact representation.  Of course there are a handful Ottoman Sultan Portraits as well as landscapes and portraits from late 19th early 20th century but these are far and few between. I had come a long way from the days of trying to read my own culture in Western terms by the time I encountered Sitki Efendi in San Diego but this did not lessen the novelty of the experience. As I sat and looked at the other portraits hanging nearby executed by Anton Raphael Mengs, Francisco Jose de Goya and Pompeo Girolamo Batoni, I wondered if this was how Spanish, French or Italians felt when they saw portraits of people from their own culture in American museums... which then led me to ask how much does a countenance on a painted canvas influence our museum experience? I emphasize countenance because even though the artist included a reference to the Hagia Sophia behind the sitter and there is a Turkish carpet covering the table he rests his elbow on, it is his face that I recognize as my own rather than these symbols utilized in Western art.  The fact that this was a person as opposed to an object that was wholly Turkish captured my imagination.

Reflecting on this experience as well as other countless encounters in museums where I have noted people from different nationalities examining pieces specifically from their cultures with more intent than others, I have often wondered how much thought or emphasis a museum puts to its target audience when designing an exhibit or acquiring works of art. There was an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art ironically called Interwoven Globe where a visitor would think that there was no textile industry to speak of in the Ottoman Empire and they had absolutely no influence on Europe except for ladies posing for portraits in Turkish costume. The influence of Ottomans on European textiles was covered by the inclusion of two paintings by Sir Joshua Reynolds and only a handful of textile remnants from the Ottoman empire. There were beautiful vestments made from Turkish silks with the explanation that these were made from kaftans given to ambassadors while serving at the Ottoman court but were donated to the church or sold at public auction when they got back to Europe because they "were hopelessly unfashionable at home.
This raises the issue of how our home institutions affect how we view art or how our "worldview" of art history is formed? What kind of influence do the directors or the museum-going public exert on the collections of a museum?

These are not questions I can answer here and now but this was a conversation I started having with Hasan Niyazi of 3 Pipe Problem right before his untimely death on this day last year. He sometimes lamented the lack of sources available to him out there in Oz and the fact that he had to travel half way around the world to see works by his favorite Renaissance artists. We also talked about the influences in our upbringing - he, like most people of Turkish origin grew up surrounded with tiles or copper items decorated with traditional Turkish designs. But none of these things discouraged Hasan nor were a hindrance to his work on Renaissance art history. We have to remember this when we are moving forward and keeping the spirit Hasan embodied alive...

Monday, September 29, 2014

Turquerie, Orientalism and Coffee

Carle Van Loo, Sultane (Mme de Pompadour portrayed as a Turkish lady), 1747
(Musee des Arts Decoratifs, Paris)

Today is International Coffee Day, a day for the celebration and enjoyment of the sine qua non of our morning rituals. While most people might be celebrating this auspicious occasion by enjoying the complimentary cup of coffee offered by their friendly neighborhood cafe or the most convenient Dunkin Donuts, I have been thinking more along the lines of the use of coffee in exotic constructions of "the other" in European painting. The first example that came to my mind was the image of Madame de Pompadour portrayed as a Turkish Lady, Sultane, painted by Carle Van Loo for her chateau at Bellevue, along with two other paintings displaying her occupied with pursuits associated with the Turkish harem in the French imagination, Two Odalisques Embroidering and An Odalisque Playing a Stringed Instrument (lost).

Amedee Van Loo, Le Dejeuner de la Sultane (Sultana's Luncheon), 1783
(Musee Cheret, Nice)
These paintings were made for the royal mistress's personal bedroom, a chambre a la turque within the Bellevue. Considering the sensual nature of their position, images of the seraglio being associated with the royal mistress is considered to be quite natural by many scholars. It is argued that in these paintings, Madame Pompadour, linking her image with the Sultana in the Turkish harem, is supposed to be reinforcing her assertive role within the court and in the King's personal life, "presiding over the king's pursuits and pastimes, always with his confidence and trust."1 Although the relationship of the Ottoman Sultan with his consorts is a complex one that is hard to define by Western standards, there were examples of very powerful queen mothers and favorites who reached out to even foreign leaders.

Kahve Keyfi (Enjoying Coffee), First half of 18th century
(Pera Museum)
While Madame de Pompadour is portrayed as a single figure being attended by a single servant, there are a whole retinue of attendants surrounding the figure of the Sultane in Le Dejeuner de la Sultane painted as one of four tapestry cartoons by Amedee Van Loo in 1783. Although it has been assumed for many years to be Madame du Barry, Louis XV's next mistress, the patron of the commission for Le Costume Turc, series tapestry cartoons, seems to be a little ambiguous. Some scholars argue that the Sultana's face recalls the royal mistress. Comparing Amedee Van Loo's series, Le Costume Turc with the one his uncle Carle Van Loo painted for marquise de Pompadour is studied as the height and decline of turquerie. 2 Ever since the Turks left their coffee behind after the siege of Vienna in the 16th century, coffee-drinking had become a popular activity in Europe.  Having one's portrait painted being served coffee was a sign of rank and luxury. 3 The French interest in coffee and the Turkish culture in particular was related to the two embassies the Ottoman Sultan sent to France in 1721 and 1742.  The arrival of Mehmet Celebi sent by Sultan Ahmet III. in 1721 as an ambassodor to Louis XV's court caused quite a stir in Paris society, causing the start of turquerie. It is reported that the Parisian elite would rent windows looking out onto the streets to watch the Ottoman delegation pass through on their way to and from the palace.  The ritual of drinking coffee, which is a natural as breathing to Turks, was another activity they watched with fascination.

Jean-Baptiste Vanmour, Women Drinking Coffee, First half of 18th century

(Pera Museum)

Jean-Baptiste Vanmour who lived in the Ottoman capital from 1699 until his death in 1737 working with the French and later the Dutch ambassadors, created some of the most reliable depictions of Ottoman people and interiors. Since he was part of an embassy, he got to experience the rituals of the palace firsthand. Although he would still not be allowed inside a harem (the section of the house devoted to females) Vanmour's paintings show realistic interiors and women.

John Frederick Lewis, The Cofeebearer, 1857

European artists' fascination with Constantinople and the Orient was an ongoing phenomenon that culminated in Orientalism in art. Canvases of Western artists, depicted their fantasies of throngs of women, lounging about, sometimes naked, waiting for the pleasure of one man.  Those who visited came back with props, sketches and memories of exotic lands and strange people, those who did not, relied on accessories, costume books and travel memoirs. The dainty coffee cup became one of the most iconic props used by Orientalist. 

Daniel Valentine Riviere, Phanariot Greek Ladies, mid 19th century
(Pera Museum)
As artists traveled and experienced the Orient personally, they began to create remarkably beautiful works of art with intricate details and bright, illuminated colors. The scenery, architectural details, the costumes were all rendered meticulously with fairytale like, dreamy protagonists. The Orientalists' attention to detail and obsession with beauty was quite similar to the PreRaphaelites except this time brunettes were at center stage instead of redheads.

John Frederick Lewis, Harem life, Constantinople, 1857

And so, our daily cup of coffe went down in history as something rare and exotic, a thing of beauty... 

Osman Hamid Bey, Kahve Ocagi (Coffee stove), 1879
(Private Collection)


1 Stein, Perrin. “Madame de Pompadour and the Harem Imagery at Bellevue.” Gazette
 des Beaux Arts, Vol. 123, (January 1994), pp. 29-44.
Stein, Perrin. "Amedee Van Loo's Costume turc: The French Sultana." The Art Bulletin, Vol. 78, Bi, 3 (Sep., 1996), pp.417-438.
3 Ibid., p. 427

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