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


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.


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 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.

Subsequent posts in this short series are:-

2. Searching for a Secular Byzantine World

3. Searching for a Secular Byzantine World

Ancient, Byzantine or 70s domestic fallout

Artefacts can pop up anywhere in Greece – sometimes even digging up the back garden or snagged on a fishing line. I imagine the same can be said of many countries bordering the Mediterranean. Their earth has experienced the ebb and flow of successive civilisations. Discarded or lost, daily indispensables of yesteryear when resurfaced become mementos of a disconnected past.

Catching up with my widowed grand-aunt many, many years ago she gifted me with the fragment remains of a broken bowl. To remember my grand-uncle by, she had said. It came to him on the bank of the ancient canal in Potidea. He had this great spot there where the fish could be relied on for a meal or two. Occasionally his line brought up curiosities that weren’t edible. Take this one, she said. I thanked her for her wonderful gift and took her word that the fragment was old – αρχαίο and precious.


Top view of my artefact

But how far a throwback is it really? Snagged in a canal built by the Ancient Macedonian King, Cassander; fortified by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian (c.482-565CE); reinforced by the then Byzantine overlord of Thessaloniki, John VII Palaioligos in the early 15th Century CE; and finally redug in the 20th Century, my memento’s hiding place has experienced the traverse of many epochs and today graces a lovely beachside town but when is it from? Questions.

What can be gleaned from just looking at it?

So, I’m of the mind that any pre-existing style can be copied by later generations. I needed to find the earliest possible example of its style to limit how old it could be but not forgetting that its style could have been copied as lately as yesterday.

Fragment showing foot of the fragment.

Fragment showing foot of the fragment.

It’s made from a red clay. It has an incised design etched into its surface that is brown among larger planes of highly glazed ochre/mustard. The design is floral displaying rosettes/spirals and leaves arranged in a cross pattern with arcs opening away from the central motif. I suspect that it’s a repeating pattern but the entire motif is lost. Its most striking curiosity is that it’s glazed only on the inside. The outside of the bowl is both undecorated and unglazed.

Its earthy tones remind me of dinnerware from the 1970s – but they were glazed inside and out. The lack of an outside glaze would be frowned upon by a modern day housekeeper. Fine as an ornament for dusting, how many cycles in the dishwasher could it go without cracking or discolouring? And if not the dishwasher – how well would the outside of it clean after being stacked on top of other such bowls with the curried remains of dinner potently leaving their mark? With modern-day obsessions with hygiene and high standards of cleanliness, unless it was made for decoration I think it must be genuinely old.

Under side of my ceramic fragment. Red earthen ware with no glaze on the exterior of the bowl and no makers mark.
Under side of my ceramic fragment. Red earthen ware with no glaze on the exterior of the bowl and no makers mark.

Beneath the foot there is no,”Made in China” sticker attached with super adherent. Nor is there a country of origin, Greece, Hellas or anywhere else stamped and baked into the ceramic foot. Nor is there any monogram or maker’s mark as are on other byzantine ceramic fragments on display at the Istanbul Archaeology Museum.

It doesn’t look Ancient Greek and its patterning isn’t intricate nor colourful enough to bring Ottoman Iznik ceramics to mind.  So I targeted Byzantine ceramics for my search. The design looks like sgraffito, a technique used by Byzantine potters but its colour is baffling. The majority of sgraffito Byzantine bowls and plates I found on pinterest had a cream background with splashes of green and yellow pigment.

Finally something caught my eye. The reminiscent but unbroken bowl is owned by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and is described thus on Pinterest:

Red earthenware covered with a white slip with incised decoration of five gyrating bands within a medallion under a yellow glaze.  Found in a tomb at Kertch in the Crimea. Byzantine (Probably Crimea) 12th – 13th Century. Museum Number 141-1908

How does a bowl from the Crimea turn up in Northern Greece? Could a trade vessel have gone down the Bosporus through the Dardanelles, the Thracian Sea and thence to Thessaloniki dropping its load or some of it in the canal? But why would a foreign vessel pass so close to the mainland? According to Wikipedia, Russian and Serbian Orthodox Monks/Scribes moved to the nearby holy mountain, Mt Athos, in the 1070s AD – a reason to be carrying Crimean crockery so close to Potidea?

The Victoria and Albert Museum have other examples of Byzanitine sgraffito worked bowls with this colouring that hail from Constantinople in the 12th – 14th centuries. They can be seen here (13th-14th C) and here (12th-13th C). Perhaps it isn’t so old and exotic as the Crimea, 1000 years ago. Perhaps it is only 800 years old and from Constantinople? Looking further across Pinterest I came across this look of ceramic made in Thessaloniki in the 14th century, pinned from the British Museum’s Byzantine Legacy collection.

Where and when and by whom was it made?

I’m satisfied that it’s style is probably Byzantine from sometime between and including the 12th-14th Centuries. Of course it may have been made anytime after that, copying the older style. It looks closest to the Crimean bowl in colour, texture and etching style so although Constantinople and Thessaloniki are closer in proximity to Potidea where it was found, I can’t help thinking of it as Crimean. The fact that it doesn’t bare a monogram hints that it may not have been thrown in a renowned ceramics workshop. It was made for daily use by the Byzantine everyman.

Whether it is just a 70s recreation or truly is a piece of medieval crockery I’m really pleased to have it. When next I’m in Greece, I might have to make the time to go fishing in Potidea. I may just snag myself another mystery – no crock.

My Pinterest enquiry: