23 July 2008

A Frosting of Peacocks

Anicia Juliana--or Juliana Anicia, depending on your source-was a petite woman, pretty when a girl, masses of hair determinedly controlled, immaculately groomed but not ostentatiously dressed (dressed as a Roman: they weren't Byzantines yet). Her (probable) portrait in the Metropolitan suggests this, suggests that the young people could tease her out of her firmness. Her other surviving portrait suggests very little. The early 500s were not a good time to be an independent-minded woman in Constantinople--look at how Theodora was traduced-but Anicia Juliana had enough money to do whatever she wanted.

What she wanted to do by the time she was a grandmother was to rebuild Solomon's Temple, and she did in the three years from 524-527. Agios Polyeuktos was privileged as to be the guest of honor because his church was on her property. He was a soldier, martyred in 255, and the church claimed a piece of his skull. That was pretty much it, unless she knew more about him than we do. Juliana Anicia's great-grandmother, Empress Eudocia (401-440), had built the first Polyeuktos about seventy-five years earlier. Eudocia was a poet--this will be relevant in a moment--who had married Theodosios II, the Eastern Emperor. Eudocia's daughter, Licinia Eudocia (422-462), married the Western Emperor, Valentinius III (371-392), son of Galla Placidia who herself built a wondrous building.

Bear with me on the names a little longer Licinia Eudocia's daughter Placidia married Juliana Anicia's father, Olybrius. Olybrius had been Emperor of the West for six months in 472. Juliana Anicia's husband was a distinguished German general, Areobindus, who refused an offer of the crown in the 512 riots. She must have been furious. Their son, also an Olybrius, married the niece--or daughter--of the Emperor Anastasios (591-518). Always so close and yet never empress.

If you drew lines north-south and east-west across Constantinople, they would intersect at the site of Agios Polyeuktos, on the grounds of Anicia Juliana's estate that had earlier belonged to Eudocia. The excavations of the 1960s have mostly been reburied, the finds are mostly in storage in the Istanbul museum, though if you make it across the lanes of traffic, occasional columns and bits of carving show through the dust. Five hundred years after Anicia Juliana, her church was the site on an imperial processional route where the emperor would stop to get a new candle on Easter Monday.

Her church was worth more attention than a candle. It must have been inexpressively beautiful, although she tried to express it with seventy-six lines of hexameters carved around the edges, frost-white against a peacock blue background. Parts of seven lines survive, but someone in the tenth century copied down the whole poem which now lives in Heidelberg. This is her voice:

. . . glittering beyond description with the brightness of the sun on both sides! On either side of the central nave, columns standing upon sturdy columns support the rays of a golden roof. on both sides recesses hollowed out in arches have given birth to the ever-revolving light of the moon. The walls . . . have recalled to life in measureless paths marvellous meadows of precious materials, whose brightness nature, flowering in the deep depths of the rock, has concealed and guarded for the house of God, to be the gift of Juliana . .
That is, in fact, remarkably close to the remnants that were found--niches frosted with peacocks with green glass eyes, their beaks holding lamps on gold chains (there would have been at least thirty of these); walls and columns frosted with grape vines--leaves and grapes you could pick, palm trees dripping with dates, flowers, crosses, vases, leaves, eggs-and-leafy-darts, beads-and-reels, monograms, hallucinatory plants, apostles; confronted peacocks under the arches; capitals overspun with networks of basketry and vines and fabric and acanthus leaves; wall skirting inlaid with amethyst, mother-of-pearl, colored glass, colored marble. Much of this carving was backed with peacock blue--never an inexpensive color and one wonders where it came from. Nearly all the imagery is taken from passages in Kings and Ezekiel in the Old Testament that describe the Temple of Solomon, as are the dimensions. With one exception: where the Old Testament called for cherubim, Juliana Anicia called for peacocks, the birds of Empresses.

Juliana Anicia's temple had mosaics on the walls and apse and floor, acres of them--white roses against black and red, and saints, but in the eighth century, mean-spirited doers of God's will destroyed the saints. And the columns: in addition to the pillars frosted with carvings, there were columns covered with inlay, long hexagonals set with squares of amethyst, triangles and narrow trapezoids of green glass. These hexagonals were interspersed with more squares of amethyst, the hexagonals and squares set into a network of narrow gold glass strips.

Agios Polyeuktos became a quarry at some point in its history. The Palaiologoi retrieved pieces of a screen for their church of the Pantokrator (Zeyrek Cami), and later on the Turks incorporated pieces in their own buildings. More pieces of Anicia Juliana's temple have been identified in Barcelona and Aquileia. And at San Marco in Venice. The picture above is Ruskin's study of the south-west corner, the corner you come to from the water, showing two of the three palm leaf and basketry capitals, and one of the two frosted pillars the Venetians brought from Constantinople, before or during or after 1204. The Venetians may not have known that Anicia Juliana had built Solomon's Temple, but when they rebuilt San Marco in the thirteenth century--making it unrecognizeable to anyone from the twelth--they were conscientiously rebuilding Solomon's Temple with what they understood to be the Old Testament measurements.Solomon's Temple had two pillars before the entrance (I Kings 7:13-22), and Anicia Juliana's pillars were placed outside the main entrance of San Marco. The Venetians thought they were Solomon's.

Juliana Anicia lived from 463 to about 528. After her temple was completed, there was little need for her to stay. She fortunately never saw Justinian's riposte.

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