Meaningful mingling: classicizing imagery and Islamicizing script in a Byzantine bowl.

Author:Walker, Alicia

Among the sacred relics, precious liturgical implements, and luxurious curios assembled in the treasury of the church of S. Marco, Venice, sits a well-known middle Byzantine vessel of purple-red glass embellished with bright polychrome enamel and gold paint (Fig. 1). Measuring only 6 5/8 inches (17 centimeters) in height and the same in diameter, this delicate object fits in the palm of one's hand. When light passes through the vessel's walls, the motifs are dramatically illuminated. Ivory-colored figures highlighted in gold fill seven large medallions. Brilliant frames of blue, green, yellow, and red florettes encircle these almost monochrome vignettes. Fourteen smaller medallions enclose profile busts, and a web of gilded tendrils weaves through the interstices. The vessel's translucent material, vibrantly painted details, and diminutive size endow it with a jewellike quality. The exact date and location of the object's production are unknown, but scholarly consensus places it in the mid-tenth to early eleventh century and associates it with the luxury art industry of the Byzantine capital, Constantinople. (1)

Because the vessel resides in a church treasury, alongside liturgical objects, a modern viewer might at first glance mistake it for a chalice. (2) But the two handles, which make it possible for the vessel to function as a cup, were not part of the initial design. Since the outer surface is decorated with an odd number of vignettes, one grip always overlaps a roundel, a design that seems unlikely to have been intentional. It is more logical to assume that the object originally functioned without handles, as a bowl. Furthermore, close examination reveals a decorative program clearly unsuitable for a liturgical implement. The large roundels feature classicizing male figures, and the profile busts in the smaller medallions recall Greco-Roman and late antique numismatic and glyptic models (Figs. 1, 2). (3) These themes were certainly inappropriate for an object used in Christian rites. Additionally, whereas middle Byzantine chalices were commonly inscribed with prayers and dedications in Greek, the interior rim and bottom of the S. Marco bowl are embellished with bands of pseudo-Arabic, that is, forms that closely resemble Arabic script but are illegible (Figs. 3, 4). (4) Both the classicizing and Islamicizing features were part of the original design; a distinctive leaf motif appears in the inscriptions and in two of the figural vignettes, evidence of their common conception and execution (Figs. 3, 4, 9, 12). At the same time, their arrangement on the vessel distinguishes the two categories of decoration, with the classicizing elements depicted prominently on the outer wall of the vessel and the pseudo-Arabic bands positioned in less visible areas of the inner rim and base.

The presence of a non-Christian object in the decidedly religious context of a church treasury is not surprising. Following the Fourth Crusade in 1204, a multitude of Byzantine luxury objects, both secular and sacred, were removed from Constantinople and eventually found their way into ecclesiastical and private collections in the West. (5) The bowl may well have traveled as Crusader booty, its material and symbolic value making it a fitting trophy for a Latin Christian and, later, his church. Still puzzling, however, is the object's combination of two seemingly unrelated categories of motifs: classicizing imagery and Islamicizing script. In isolation, each theme is commonly found in middle Byzantine art. Although Christian, medieval Byzantines perceived themselves as inheritors and renovators of Greco-Roman culture. Antique mythological narratives and vignettes feature prominently in middle Byzantine secular objects, especially those of the tenth and eleventh centuries. (6) Although the medieval Islamic world was a perennial political and military adversary of Byzantium, animosity did not preclude artistic exchange. Pseudo-Arabic ornament found in numerous tenth- to thirteenth-century Byzantine buildings and portable objects attests to Islamic artistic impact in Byzantium during this era. (7) Yet the bulk of these Byzantine works of art and architecture are religious, and their Christian character inflects the meaning that their Islamicizing decoration conveyed. In contrast, the pagan imagery of the S. Marco bowl creates a different context and significance for pseudo-Arabic.

The classicizing motifs on the vessel vary in their relations to antique models. Some figures possess clear parallels to Greco-Roman and late antique depictions of specific deities, while the identities and sources of other figures are ambiguous. In response to this iconographic uncertainty, some historians of Byzantine art argue that the maker of the vessel misunderstood or disregarded the identities of his ancient models. (8) Other scholars discern a generic relationship among the figures, interpreting the classicizing decoration as a formulaic allusion to the prestigious aura of antique art and culture. (9) Still others suggest that the figures' iconographic ambiguity and lack of identifying inscriptions are intentional omissions, serving to disempower pagan images. (10)

The pseudo-Arabic motifs are typically explained as a decorative and generic appropriation of an Islamic artistic form. (11) The combination of Islamicizing ornament and classicizing vignettes is said to evince aesthetic eclecticism--perhaps intended to bring the Greco-Roman decorative motifs "up to date"--but no deeper association is perceived between the two. (12) In all these discussions, the original function of the bowl has received little consideration. A clearly secular object, the vessel is presumed to have been used in a private context and has been related to an "Arab" drinking cup cited in a letter written by a mid-tenth-century Byzantine emperor. (13)

No doubt, some medieval viewers saw only an aesthetically pleasing array of antique figures--or a dangerous gathering of pagan idols--when they gazed on the S. Marco bowl. But others may have perceived a meaningful mingling of classicizing and exoticizing elements. By perpetuating an assumption that the program of the bowl lacks particular significance, earlier interpretations instigate a rupture between the pagan and foreign elements on the object and in Byzantine culture more broadly. Although the hybrid nature of the vessel's program defies easy explanation, eclecticism and idiosyncrasy need not be equated with confusion or lack of meaning. Rather, the active selection and combination of classicizing and Islamicizing features may reflect the artistic innovation of the medieval maker, who adapted art forms from the Greco-Roman past and Islamic present to express the particular associations that these non-Christian cultures held for the Byzantine user. It may be fruitful, therefore, to focus not on the deficit of meaning between the Byzantine object and its iconographic and inscriptional models but rather on the creation of meaning within the vessel itself, on the significant relation this object establishes between Islamic and classical cultures, on the one hand, and between these groups and Byzantine culture, on the other.


It is possible that the hybrid program of the S. Marco bowl reflects a perception prevalent among the middle Byzantine educated elite that both the ancient Greek and contemporary Islamic worlds were sources for occult learning, specifically, divination. The vessel may reflect knowledge of antique divinatory culture and may even have been used in lecanomantic hydromancy, that is, divination through containers filled with water. Lecanomancy and hydromancy were ancient mantic, or divinatory, techniques with relatively consistent textual traditions until at least the fifteenth century. (14) The practitioner gazed into a vessel and witnessed revelations communicated in the surface of the liquid. Information was sought from demons, spirits, or deities, depending on whom the medium conjured. The small size of the S. Marco bowl limited the area in which the message appeared, serving to concentrate the diviner's attention and enhance the efficacy of the device. (15)

Divination occupied a prominent place in ancient learning and remained popular from antiquity through the late Middle Ages and beyond. In Byzantium, attitudes toward the occult were ambivalent. The church, unsurprisingly, held the mantic arts in suspicion because of their association with pagan idols and the demonic. Accusation of involvement in magic was a recurring form of political invective. (16) Nevertheless, members of the Constantinopolitan elite studied and even engaged in divination, providing a vibrant context of production and use for the S. Marco bowl. The vessel can be situated in this privileged social space, where classical and Islamic intellectual and artistic traditions intersected with middle Byzantine thought and practice.


Scholarship on Byzantine secular art traditionally privileges the authority of Greco-Roman models, judging the success of medieval works of art according to the effective revival or survival of antique forms and meanings. (17) As a result, Byzantine artists and audiences too often appear as passive conduits or ill-informed imitators of classical sources. In contrast, recent studies increasingly insist on the agency of medieval makers and users in the deployment of antique models and interpret the potential significance of classicizing elements according to Byzantine systems of meaning. (18) Furthermore, earlier analyses pay little attention to the Islamicizing elements of the S. Marco bowl, despite the evidence these features contribute regarding the date and meaning of the object. Although aesthetically hybrid, the vessel is semantically unified, reflecting a broader system of Byzantine thought that grouped Greco-Roman and Islamic traditions in a common cultural...

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