1. Searching for a Secular Byzantine World

Who were the Byzantines? I mean, really, who were they?

It’s been said that the Byzantine Empire flourished while the rest of Europe languished in the dark. That the Byzantines safeguarded the texts of the Ancient Greeks to eventually inspire the Western Renaissance. That the Byzantines were the vanguard of the physical defence of European Christianity. And almost unchallenged is the pervasive belief that the Byzantine community was one that was dedicated to God, where each daily practice was infused with Christian–religious significance.

They’re all such big statements. Looking at the art and artefacts of a society can tell us how a society or individuals wanted to be represented and understood. Looking at the tools and utensils and such that they used in their daily lives can give us an idea of what they needed to get through their day. But what of their hopes and aspirations? Their literature should help but you’d have to be a scholar to know titles for which to search.

So when I look for the Byzantines I encounter a wall beatified with sainted icons and illumined religious texts. Beyond this impregnable iconostasis there is military and political history and ornate jewellery, often featuring religious motifs.

Until one day I came across the 13th-14th Century pottery from Cyprus.

Bowls, slipware depicting people – the yous and the mes – not saints. Naïve, linear depictions that appear hastily drawn and at first glance, ugly. I was at once fascinated and disappointed. How far had ceramic decorative arts fallen in the hands of the Byzantines since the Hellenistic Age? I couldn’t believe what I was presented with. They had to be an historic aberration – a solitary transgression of artistic progress. They had to be from just one site – one workshop, the work of one potter. But no, there were others, not as prolific but there.

Familiarity breeds content – in my case charm and fascination. Looking closely I saw romance and flirtation, a dancer and sportsmen and soldiers. A healthy attachment grew in my heart for them and I began to ponder why they were made? Were they supposed to have a decorative function? Were they a socio-political artefact? Was food served on them?

I understood their function was to share, so I’m compelled to share them with you.

These are some of the wonderfully informative and at the same time cryptic bowls that I’ve come across.

Romance

By far the greatest representation of images I’ve found on the internet are what I’m assuming are wedding portraits. Representations of the men and women are standardized. Men’s cloaks just cover the knee. Clean shaven, they wear their hair in a bob, a part of their legs is rendered, at least their feet but most often from the knee down. They may or may not be brandishing a bardoukion (the flanged mace favoured by soldiers of the Byzantine army) or sword. The women’s cloaks match the men’s in their decorative patterning – Byzantine ‘His and Hers’, however their skirts generally cover their feet but not always. The women aren’t always depicted with hair but wear a floor length scarf/veil. Adding to the sense that two people are in love or of one spirit is their conjoined chest cavities and one set of arms between them – they will no doubt toil together through life’s challenges. In an example held by the Victoria and Albert Museum, the couple’s combined chest is tied together with crossing straps. In these “wedding portraits” the couple hold aloft a bough of some sort – wheat? A symbol of celebration and fertility? They stand under its arch.

Bowl

Bowl C.83-1933,© Victoria and Albert Museum, London http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O143970/bowl/

Flirtation is the attraction of this quirky example of brown and green slipware that seems unique held in the Bank of Cyprus collection. This one, unlike the “wedding bowl” type appears to depict a courtship.

Sgraffito Slipware BowlGP 1999-337, Bank of Cyprus Collection

In a scene that brings to mind Greek folk songs, the girl, fan in her upstretched hand, is being pursued through a field of flowers by the young gallant whose kerchief she seems to have procured. His upstretched bardoukion isn’t intended to beat her but more an identifier that he is the male in the picture. He holds a seistron – a percussion instrument that was shimmied or rattled to create music and also used to attract prey in a hunt. Is she the bird he is preying upon? the One he wishes to attract? It seems he has succeeded or did she first elicit his attention by taking his kerchief?

The kerchief “mantili” she holds in her right hand, mayn’t be his, but I can’t stop thinking it is because of the proliferation in folk songs, admittedly of a much later period, where the “mantili” is a euphemism for love/sex. The patterning of their costumes don’t match, there is no bough above them and there’s distance between them, all of which could indicate, drum roll… a pre-marital liaison or extra-marital courtship.

Romance, love, flirtation in a secular Byzantine world are just a taste of what these bowls offer. I find them bewitching; I hope you do too, as I hope to feature more of them on this blog soon.

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