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.
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, were 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 – 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/falconing. 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 like his prey in the field?
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?
Contrary to my modern idea of the sexuality of dance, her curly hair is confined within the strictures of a headdress in the shape of a halo. Perhaps she isn’t a seductive professional dancer at all, but simply a girl who likes to dance.
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.
Previously in this short series: