Friday, January 25, 2019

Turkey | Istanbul | Hagia Sofia | Enrico Dandolo


There are few greater ironies in History than the fact that the fate of Eastern Christendom should have been sealed—and half of Europe condemned to some five hundred years of Muslim rule—by men who fought under the banner of the Cross. Those men were transported, inspired, encouraged, and ultimately led by Enrico Dandolo in the name of the Venetian Republic; and, just as Venice derived the major advantage from the tragedy, so she and her magnificent old doge must accept the responsibility for the havoc that they have wrought on the world.
Byzantium: The Decline and FallJohn Julius Norwich


Hagia Sofia, in the Sultanahmed District of Istanbul, may be one of the most recognizable buildings in the world. The one-time church, then mosque, and now museum with its immense dome and soaring salmon-colored walls has become the symbol of Istanbul and of Turkey itself. 
Hagia Sofia (click on photos for enlargements)
The site where Hagia Sofia now stands, located on a prominent headland overlooking the Bosporus Strait, which flows from the Black Sea into the Sea of Marmara and separates Europe and Asia, was the Acropolis of the ancient city of Byzantion. The current Hagia Sofia was the third and last of three churches built at the same location. The first, known as the Great Church, was built by Constantius II (r. 337–361), son of Constantine the Great, who founded a new city on the site of ancient Byzantion in a.d. 324. He dedicated the city and on May 11, 330 and renamed it after himself: Constantinople. The Great Church built by Constantius II, later to be called Hagia Sofia (“Holy Wisdom”) was dedicated on February 15, 360.This church was destroyed by fire in 404 during riots triggered by John Chrysostom (c. 349–407), the 37th Patriarch of Constantinople, who in a series of hair-raising sermons from the pulpit of Hagia Sofia fulminated against the unbridled licentiousness of the Byzantine Emperor Arcadius and his court, singling out for particular opprobrium the Emperor’s consort, Eudoxia, whom he compared to the Biblical Jezebel. These sermons got him banished from Constantinople. Following mass demonstrations among his followers, who had been driven to a frenzy by his sermons (his name Chrysostomos in Greek, anglicized as Chrysostom, means “golden-mouthed”), he was allowed back into Constantinople, where he again preached from the pulpit of Hagia Sofia, this time comparing Empress Eudoxia to Herodias, the mother of Salome, demanding the head of Saint John the Baptist on a platter. This and other infelicities got him exiled from Constantinople yet again. His infuriated followers protested and in the ensuing riot Hagia Sofia was set aflame and almost completely destroyed.

Emperor Theodosius II (r. 408–450) rebuilt the church and dedicated it on October 10, 415. This second version of the church lasted until January 14, 532, when it was burned to the ground the during the so-called Nika Riots. This uprising was caused by, in the words of Byzantine historian Procopius (c. 500– c. 54), “some men of the common herd, all the rubbish of the city . . . the lowest dregs of the people in Byzantium” who attempted to overthrow Emperor Justinian. Nika, Greek for “conquer”, was the rallying cry of rebels; thus the Nika Riots. Faced with this formidable insurgency Justinian at first had considered abdicating and fleeing the city but then was bucked up by a rousing speech by his famous, not to say notorious, wife, the former ecdysiast and prostitute Theodora. She dismissed with scorn “the belief that a woman ought not to be daring among men or to assert herself boldly among those who are holding back from fear,” and concluded: 
For while it is impossible for a man who has seen the light not also to die, for one who has been an emperor it is unendurable to be a fugitive. May I never be separated from this purple [the color of royalty], and may I not live that day on which those who meet me shall not address me as mistress.
Bucked up by these words, Justinian ordered a savage reprisal. Thirty thousand rioters were corralled by forces loyal to the Emperor and slain on the floor of the huge stadium known as the Hippodrome, located not far from Hagia Sofia. 
Theodora (c. 500 – 28 June 548) portrayed on a mosaic in a church in Ravenna, Italy (not my photo)
Wasting no time, in February 23, 532, thirty-eight days after the destruction of the second Hagia Sofia, Justinian began the construction of the third and final version of the church. Amazingly, the immense structure, then and for the next thousand years the largest building the world, was completed in five years, ten months, and four days, and dedicated on December 27, 537. On this day, Justinian, in a curious holdover of pre-Christian pagan rites, sacrificed 1,000 oxen, 6,000 sheep, 600 stags, and 10,000 various birds in honor of the new church. In a more Christian mode, he donated 30,000 bushels of grain to feed the poor of the city. Entering the completed church for the first time he gazed up at the immense dome and proclaimed “Glory to God, Who has deemed me worthy of fulfilling such a work. O Solomon, I have surpassed thee.”
Interior of Hagia Sofia
Interior of Hagia Sofia
Despite structural flaws that required major revisions and damage from earthquakes (a temblor on May 7, 558 brought down the original dome), fires, riots, and aging, the basic structure of Hagia Sofia remains the same to this day, although of course it no longer serves as a church. It was converted into a mosque by Sultan Mehmed II on May 29, 1453, the day Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks and Byzantium, after 1123 years and eighteen days, came to an end. Then in 1935 Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the secular state of Turkey, ordered that Hagia Sofia be turned into a museum.

Over three million people a year visit the museum of Hagia Sofia, making it Turkey’s biggest single attraction. Every morning hundreds of people line up by the entrance gate for the 9:00 opening, this despite the spate of terrorists attacks that have plagued Istanbul in recent years. On January 6, 2015, a female suicide bomber killed herself and one policeman in front of the police station just 200 feet from the entrance to the museum. On January 12, 2016, a Syrian member of ISIS blew himself up and killed thirteen tourists in front of the Obelisk of Theodosius, 1,000 feet from the museum entrance. (The obelisk stands on what was once the old floor of the Hippodrome, now Sultanahmet Square, where the Nika rioters were massacred. According to legend their bones are still buried there.) But still crowds stream into Hagia Sofia. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, mill around the main floor of the building, which measures 220 by 250 feet. Some stand in the exact center of the main floor, where an inset disk of dark marble known as the Omphalos marks the spot believed by some to be the Navel of the World. Almost everyone cranes their necks upward to the vast dome, 102 feet in diameter and peaking at 182 feet above the floor. The more curious may take note of the 104 columns in the interior, including eight huge shafts of porphyry taken from quarries in Upper Egypt and believed to have first stood in the Temple of the Sun in Baalbek, in what now Lebanon, the eight columns of green marble from the quarries of Thessaly in Greece, and the many other columns of variegated stone, all transported here to grace Hagia Sofia.

Most visitors will trudge up the broad stone steps, the centers of which are worn down inches by centuries of foot traffic, to the galleries overlooking the main floor. Adorning the walls of the the South Gallery are several magnificent Byzantine-era mosaics that have been painstaking restored after being plastered or painted over when Hagia Sofia was a mosque. Perhaps the most famous mosaic, The Deesis, is on the side wall the middle bay of the South Gallery. In Byzantine art a Deesis (Greek for “prayer” or “supplication”) is an iconic representation of Christ flanked by John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary. John and Mary are shown turned toward Christ with the their hands raised in supplication, interceding with Christ on behalf of mankind at the time of the Last Judgement. The Deesis in Hagia Sofia, measuring 20 feet wide and 13.5 feet tall, was probably created in the latter part of the thirteen century, although this dating is disputed, making it one of the very last mosaics added to the church and in the opinion of some the very finest. The mosaic had been covered with plaster and paint when Hagia Sofia was a mosque. In 1934 the American historian Thomas Whittemore and a team of craftsmen and restorers from the Byzantine Institute of America began the painstaking work of uncovering and restoring the Dessis. Not until 1938 was the restoration completed.
The Deesis
The Deesis
Almost everyone who enters the South Gallery stands for at least a few minutes in front of the Deesis, many snapping photos with cameras, smart phones, and tablets. Most then turn and proceed to other mosaics at the end of the gallery. Before leaving the middle bay a few may notice near the wall opposite the Deesis a blue sign bearing the words “Grave of Henricus (Enrico) Dandolo, Doge of Venice and commander of the armies that invaded Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade. He died during the expedition and was buried in Hagia Sofia.” Of the few who notice the sign even fewer stop to glance at the stone inset in the floor bearing the inscription “Henricus Dandolo”. This, allegedly, is his tombstone. Enrico Dandolo was the only person ever buried within the confines of Hagia Sofia. Most Byzantine emperors, including Constantine the Great, were entombed at the Church of the Holy Apostles, which was demolished in 1462 and replaced by Fatih Mosque (Mosque of the Conqueror). The tomb of the Conqueror of Constantinople, Mehmed II, can still seen there today. Other Ottoman sultans were entombed in courtyards just outside Hagia Sofia and at various other locations around Istanbul, but none were ever buried within Hagia Sofia. Enrico Dandolo alone was accorded this honor.
Alleged tombstone of Enrico Dandolo
Alleged tombstone of Enrico Dandolo
The Latin Empire of Constantinople created by the Frankish Crusaders and Venetians under the leadership of Enrico Dandolo lasted until 1261, when the Byzantines ousted the occupiers and recaptured the city, but their empire would never recover its former greatness. Irreparably weakened, the Byzantines stumbled forward for another 247 years, but were finally defeated by Mehmed the Conqueror in 1453, creating the fault lines between Islam and the Occidental Christian world that exist to this day.
Writing in the early 1950s, historian Steven Runicman, author of the three-volume The History of the Crusades, states flatly: “There was never a greater crime against humanity than the Fourth Crusade,” adding that the disastrous event was “unparalleled in history.” In light of the world wars, nuclear bombings, and holocausts that took place during the first half of the twentieth century, to say nothing of the ethnic cleansings and other wholesale atrocities that have occurred since, this may sound like an exaggeration. Yet it is true that the wounds created by the Fourth Crusade are still raw today. In 2001, 797 years after the fall of Constantinople, Pope John Paul II felt compelled to issue a statement on the matter: “It is tragic that the assailants, who set out to secure free access for Christians to the Holy Land, turned against their brothers in the faith. That they were Latin Christians fills Catholics with deep regret. . . . How can we not share, at a distance of eight centuries, the pain and disgust?”

Three years later, on the 800th anniversary of the fall of the city to the Venetians and Frankish Crusaders, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the 270th Archbishop of Constantinople and the leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church, whose headquarters is located in the Fener district of Istanbul, accepted the Pope’s apology: "The spirit of reconciliation is stronger than hatred. We receive with gratitude and respect your cordial gesture for the tragic events of the Fourth Crusade. It is a fact that a crime was committed here in the city 800 years ago . . . [but] the spirit of reconciliation of the resurrection . . . incites us toward reconciliation of our churches.”

On November 27, 2004, in what was hoped would be a further gesture of good will, Pope John Paul II presented two sets of relics to Patriarch Bartholomew while the later was on a visit to Rome. One group of relics contained the bones of Saint John Chrysostom, who as we have seen instigated the riots which resulted in the burning of the second Hagia Sofia. The second group included the bones of Saint Gregory Nazianzus (c.329–390), a priest from southwest Cappadocia in Turkey who eventually become the 35th Archbishop of Constantinople. These relics, which had placed in new crystal reliquaries, were to be transported to Istanbul and on November 30, feast-day of St. Andrew, patron saint of the city, installed in the Patriarchate headquarters the Fener district.

These relics, it was generally believed, had previously been in Constantinople and had been seized as war booty after the sack of the city in 1204. Patriarch Benjamin alluded to this in a sermon given on November 20, 2004: “For 800 years these relics have been in exile, although in a Christian country, not of their own will, but as a result of the infamous Fourth Crusade, which sacked this city in the year of our Lord 1204. . .” While Benjamin was grateful for Pope John Paul’s gesture, he added that the return of the relics was a “warning to all those who arbitrarily possess and retain treasures of the faith, piety, [and] civilization of others.”

This apparent chastisement did not sit well with some in the Pope’s camp. A Vatican spokesman first cast doubt on whether the relics of Saint Gregory of Nazianzus had ever been in Constantinople in the first place. Instead, he claimed, the relics had been translated (the technical term for moving relics from one place to another) to Rome for safe-keeping in the eighth century by Greeks nuns. Other accounts, however, insist that in 950 his relics were moved from his birthplace at Nazianzus to Constantinople and were subsequently seized by the Crusaders and taken to Rome. As for the relics of Saint John Chrysostom, the spokesman would only allow that they had been translated to Rome “at the time of the Latin empire of Constantinople.” He also insisted that the relics had not been stolen, since according to well-established Catholic belief relics could not be translated unless the relics themselves, which were believed to possess spiritual power, allowed it to happen. Ultimately, it was God’s Will that the relics had ended up in Rome. Thus while the Pope was apologizing for the sack of Constantinople in 1204 he was not apologizing for the translation of the relics to Rome. The return of the relics was a good-will gesture only and not an admittance of any wrong doing. This point being made, the relics of Saint John Chrysostom and Saint Gregory of Nazianzus were, as planned, handed over to Patriarch Benjamin on November 27, 2004, and they now reside, apparently of their own volition, at the Patriarchial Cathedral of St. George in the Fener district of Istanbul. Thus have the events of 1204 reverberated down to the twentieth-first century. 
Although the relics of Saint John Chrysostom and Saint Gregory of Nazianzus ended up in Rome, innumerable other relics were translated to Venice—stolen, in less technical terms—by the Enrico Dandolo-led Venetians. Relics were, of course, just part of  the Vast Array Of Loot seized during the sack of Constantinople and transported back to Venice, much of which is still on display in the city to this day. But relics may have had a special importance to Enrico Dandolo, since his family had long been involved in the “translation” of religious artifacts to Venice, and indeed the rise to prominence of the Dandolo Family was due at least in part to the honor bestowed upon it by what in the eyes of their fellow Venetians were these acts of religious piety. Thus when Enrico Dandolo translated relics to Venice he was just continuing a tradition initiated long before by his illustrious family. 

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Italy | Venice | San Giorgio Maggiore | St. Stephan


From Greece I wandered north to Venice. Like the swallows returning to Capistrano, I am back at my old haunt, the We Crociferi. This is an old Jesuit monastery that has been remodeled into a hotel. They even stuck me in the same room, top floor, at the end of the hall, the most remote place in the whole immense pile. Apparently I am not cool enough to be mixed in with all the young hipsters who stay here.
We Crociferi on the right (click on photos for enlargements)

After throwing my portmanteau in my room I took the water bus to the island of San Giorgio Maggiore.
The Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, on an island of the same name  about a third of a mile south of St. Mark’s Square 
Domenico Dandolo, the leader of the Dandolo clan at the beginning of the twelfth century, had at least four sons: Pietro, Vitale, Bono and Enrico. He was the grandfather of the Enrico Dandolo—not to be confused with his uncle Enrico—who masterminded the Fourth Crusade and the 1204 Sack of Constantinople. Vitale oversaw the family’s business in Venice and Pietro became a monk at the monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore. Bono managed the family business in the Venetian Quarter of Constantinople, which had been established by the Chrysobull of 1082. Enrico, as we shall soon see, became an important figure in the Church. Signatures of the Dandolos pop up on various documents at this time, attesting the rising status of the family. For example, in June 1107, Domenico and his son Vitale signed as witnesses to a document granting large donations to the Benedictine monastery at San Giorgio Maggiore. Later the year Domenico and his sons Vitale and Pietro served as witnesses to a document transferring ownership of properties in the Venetian Quarter in Constantinople to a church dignitary in the Venetian Lagoon. In February of 1113 Pietro witnessed a thirty-day loan of 130 lire to one Bona Kecii and her daughter Matilda. When the women were unable to pay up he also witnessed the foreclosure and seizure of the property.

Domenico’s son Bono, while managing the family business in the Venetian Quarter of Constantinople, was also involved in the translation of relics, “translation” being the technical term for moving relics from one place to another. Such “translations” were considered furta sacra, sacred theft, because according to Catholic belief at the time, a relic could not be moved unless the spiritual force associated with the relic allowed it to be moved. There were many example of relics which were apparently satisfied with their present location and thus resisted all attempts to move them. If attempts to move, or translate, the relic succeeded, this was prima facie evidence that it wanted to be moved. Thus while it may have appeared that the Venetians were stealing the relic they were actually performing the very pious act of carrying out the wishes of the relic itself. Ultimately, it was God’s Will that the relic in question would end up in the hands of whoever deserved it the most.

In 1107 or thereabouts his brother, the monk Pietro, arrived in the city to take over a post at a church owned by Monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore. In the course of a conversation with a priest at another church nearby the latter let slip that within his church was hidden the body of Saint Stephan, Christianity’s first martyr (I had earlier visited the Church of St. Stephan in Iran). The two went to church and sure enough, the sweet smell often associated with the bodies of saints was soon detected emanating from the altar. They broke into the stone altar and discovered the coffin containing the body of Saint Stephan. Pietro spirited the body back to the Venetian Quarter and placed it in his own church until arrangements could be made to send it back to his monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice. 

Meanwhile, word of the theft of the relic leaked out. The Byzantines were furious, but apparently they did not have the legal authority to enter the Venetian Quarter and remove the body from the sanctuary of the Venetian church. They did, however, make stern objections to the relic being sent back to Venice. So the relic remained in Pietro’s church for a year. Finally the Byzantines cooled down and the the matter of the theft was largely forgotten. Arrangements were made to ship the relic back to Venice by boat. Seventy-two Venetians, important men in the Venetian Quarter, escorted the body of Saint Stephan the Protomartyr to Venice. Among them were Bono Dandolo and Orio Dandolo, a relative of Bono’s. The boat arrived back in Venice in July 7, 1109 (or perhaps 1110), where it was met with great ceremony. The Doge himself oversaw the transport of the body to the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, where it was placed in the monastery church. For the next six hundred years the acquisition of the relic was celebrated by an annual ceremony. For the Dandolo family the whole affair was yet another feather in their cap. The relics of Saint Tarasius had been brought back to Venice by the first Domenico Dandolo. Now his great-grandsons Pietro and Bono were instrumental in adding Saint Stephan the Protomartyr to Venice’s great collection of Christian relics.

The original monastery and attendant church on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore was destroyed by an earthquake on Christmas Day, 1223. A new monastery was rebuilt and the church itself rebuilt or remodeled at least twice, and then starting in 1560 under went major revisions according to the plans of the great architect Andrea Palladio (1508–1580). Palladio’s neo-classical facade of the church, visible across the waters from the area of the Ducal Palace, is now one of the most iconic sights of Venice, and perhaps just as famous for eliciting one of art historian John Ruskin’s most memorable outpourings of bile: “It is impossible to conceive a design more gross, more barbarous, more childish in conception, more servile in plagiarism, more insipid in result, more contemptible under every point of rational regard.” 

It remains somewhat of a mystery what happened to the relics of St. Stephan supposedly translated here from Constantinople by Bono Dandolo and his compatriots. The relics were presumably there when famous English peregrinator Thomas Coryat visited the church in 1608, two years before the Palladian facade was completed: “I was at the Monastery of the Benedictine Monks called Saint Georges, which is situated on a very delectable Island about half a mile [sic: Coryat did not have the benefit of Google Earth] Southward from Saint Marks place. It is a passing sumptuous place, and the fairest and richest Monastery without comparison in all Venice . . .” Coryat was told the relics of “Saint Stephen the first Christian Martyr” were “under a goodly Altar of red marble . . . ” but apparently he did not see them himself. Coryat did achieve passing fame for introducing the fork, which he first encountered in Venice, to the English dining table. Before then, the English had apparently been content  with using their hands or spearing their solid eatables with a knife. He is also credited with introducing the word umbrella into the English language.

No modern-day guidebook to the church mentions St. Stephan’s relics, and the docent will say only the “relics may be in the altar.” As is the wont of his tribe, he refuses to elaborate. St. Stephan and St. George, the island’s namesake, are memorialized by full-length statues in niches between the columns on the monument facade of the church. On either side of the columns are sarcophagi, topped by busts, of Doge Tribuno Memmo, who along with Orso Dandolo and 133 other prominent citizens of Venice signed to document which established the Benedictine monastery on the island back in the year 982, and Sebastiano Ziani  (r. 1172–1178), who, as you may recall,  brought about the reconciliation of Pope Alexander III (c. 1100–1181) and Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa (1122–1190) which resulted in the 1177 Treaty of Venice.
Palladian facade of San Giorgio Maggiore
Palladian facade of San Giorgio Maggiore
Palladian facade of San Giorgio Maggiore. The sarcophagi, topped by busts, of Doge Tribuno Memmo and Doge Sebastiano Ziani  are to the left and right of the columns.
St. Stephen (left) and St. George (right)
St. Stephen
St. George

The main altar the church. The base, which appears to be red granite, may be part of the altar referred to by Coryat. Whether  or not the relics of St. Stephen are actually still in the altar is unclear.