2. Searching for a Secular Byzantine World

Continuing from my previous post looking at the secular art in Byzantine ceramics of the 11th-14th centuries CE.. Perhaps a more appropriate title for this post would be Byzantines at play – hunter/falconer; a dancer; and a lady at sport.

The Hunter/Hawker

The Hunter Hawker ceramic bowl, From George and Nefeli Giabras Collection, The Bank of Cyprus Collection

Held in the Bank of Cyprus Collection, this 14th Century bowl from Cyprus depicts a young gallant in a field surrounded by birds. There is a zig-zag pattern of leaves around the rim of the bowl reinforcing the outdoors nature of the scene. The field is indicated by the flowers around him. The birds, we are told, are either his prey – falcons if he is at play, or scavengers eyeing out carrion. I lean towards the idea that he is hunting for sport – falconing? as there is no illustration of carrion anywhere in the image. He bares aloft his bardoukion – the Byzantine mace- and most likely a seistron in his other hand. The seistron would be rattled to attract the prey.

His clothing is sumptuous in its decoration and the birds surrounding him are similarly rendered. To me, the birds decorated so indicate a belonging with the male figure. They appear kept by him – likely trained for the hunt. I can’t help thinking of the sport of hawking. I imagine that the gallant attracted his game with the seistron, clobbered it with a fling of the bardoukion and awaited its retrieval by the birds. Perhaps my imagination is running amok in the field?

Dancing Figure An Athenian Ceramic reproduced with the kind permission of the Benaki Museum in Athens, Copyright, Benaki Museum, Athens

This Athenian bowl from 11th – 12th Century, held in the Benaki Museum, depicts a dancer mid performance. To my mind in her hands she clicks together pairs of metallic zills or wooden spoons that have been used in  Greek folkloric dancing like castanets. The ball on the other side of her is a prop that belly dancers today incorporate in their choreography. The patterning of her blouse is a standard motif that has been used in many of these ceramic illustrations that haven’t depicted dancers – e.g., wedding bowls. Regardless, it calls to my mind rows of coins that would shimmer when she shook. The flaring out of her skirt in both directions evokes the movement of her hips taking it there. Immodestly, her skirt falls just below her knees, like male attire in her world – something excused by her occupation. Perhaps she is dancing a precursor of today’s tsifteteli?

Byzantine sportswoman playing Erasmus' globorum?
Byzantine sportswoman playing Erasmus’ globorum? held by the Famagusta Museum, Cyprus. Image reproduced with the kind permission of Dr Michael J. Fuller


The third bowl is Cypriot. I came across it on the St Louis Community College website and am reproducing it with the kind permission of Professor of Anthropology, Dr Michael J Fuller. It fascinates me in that I can’t make out exactly what the woman is doing.

The floor length gown and restrictive coiffure define her sex. She holds a ball dangling on the end of a some kind of holding stand in one hand which she is poised to hit with a baton/bat in the other. What sort of sport is she playing? Did it involve any other players and if so how many? Two as in shuttlecock of perhaps more as in croquet? Perhaps it was something akin to Erasmus’ globurum – that she could have perhaps played alone, hitting a wooden ball and seeing how far it would go?

These have been my pick of three Byzantines at leisure. What I’ve found gratifying in trying to understand what’s being depicted here is that I’ve been able to refer to my  understanding of Western medieval history or my personal experience with Greek folk culture to try and get a connection to the past they represent. You may look at them and find something wholly individual in them. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Other posts in this short series:

1.Searching for a Secular Byzantine World

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6 thoughts on “2. Searching for a Secular Byzantine World

  1. I’m not sure there is a secular Byzantine world as Greece today is still defined by the church. I believe turkey is also dominated by the mosque which was the other crucial part of the Ottoman Empire.

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    • To look at history as it’s presented to us it’s easy to believe that everyone in the Empire were committed Christians by indoctrination if not by faith. A Chinese friend of mine insists that everything is permissible in China behind closed doors. How similar was Byzantium to present day China? Was everything permissible behind closed doors or did they do things that the Church or State had no interest in documenting? I love these ceramics because of the naivety of their depictions and that they were personal items, indicating to me that in them we may glimpse their world off bender knees.

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      • It wouldn’t surprise me if that happened given the secretive nature of Greeks. Even in the bible it says that everything is permitted in marriage except homosexuality, incest, coveting others and murder.

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      • I’m wondering about their day-to-day, not just their love lives. Although some of these bowls raise questions about courtship, and for me, gender roles. But what of their Theatre? Sport? Secular literature? What were their pastimes? Naughts and Crosses or Chess or Backgammon?

        Also, what was the purpose of these bowls? A great many of them depict couples under bowers or wreaths. Were they witnesses to wedding ceremonies/contracts like Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding Portrait was?

        Were they made to decorate the walls or furniture or were they used to dine with?

        The rendering is so naive by comparison to the Church’s icons and illustrated manuscripts they just scream to me, personal article, like a photo. Was pottery a personal pastime?

        What were most likely to have been considered important and therefore to have survived the centuries, were articles of faith, diplomacy or trade. I can’t believe they spent all of their available free time praying, not ALL of it anyway.

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