The art of Byzantine ceramics

Archaeology has shown that common, everyday artifacts can offer valuable and often unique clues to past civilizations. If carefully examined in comparative research, a vessel’s shape and decorative pattern can be combined with study of technique and material to lead to information as diverse and intricate as a culture’s customs, eating habits, aesthetic taste, trade and economy. But when exhibited in museums, everyday objects from ancient civilizations rarely appear that revealing. At best, they can be enjoyed for their decorative motifs, color and variety of forms; but they only make broader sense if supplemented with explanatory panels and background information. To avoid covering too broad a field and distracting the viewer with an overabundance of material, the exhibition «An Encounter with Byzantine Glazed Pottery,» currently at the Byzantine and Christian Museum, focuses on one aspect of Byzantine ceramics: technique. This is what makes the exhibition both concise and easy to understand but, at the same time, rather technical and lacking in broader outlook. True, the exhibit answers questions of technique but leaves the more inquisitive viewer with other questions – such as about the development of decorative motifs and iconography – that it does not answer. The exhibition is being held on the occasion of the International Academy of Ceramics (IAC) conference and numerous cultural events taking place in Greece to celebrate the IAC’s 50th anniversary. One of three exhibitions (another is on contemporary ceramicists and ceramics from the Balkans) organized for the occasion, it is a joint project by the Byzantine and Christian Museum, the Museum of Byzantine Culture in Thessaloniki and the Benaki Museum. The prevailing technique presented in the exhibition is the so-called «sgraffito» technique (and its variations), a term taken from the Italian verb sgraffiare which means to engrave. Sgraffito first appeared in the 11th century and soon became the most widely practiced and varied technique. Contrary to painted or relief decoration, sgraffito involves engraving patterns through a layer of covering slip (diluted pure clay with which the surface of the vase is covered either by dipping or by pouring once the shape is established but while still wet). Visual effects vary according to the thickness of the engraved line which traces the red color of the clay against the light-colored slip of the background. One of the finest versions of the technique is the fine sgraffito which spread in the second half of the 12th century and captured the elegant aesthetics of the Komnenian period. Some of the best examples of the fine sgraffito technique come from the Alonissos shipwreck and are among the exhibition’s highlights. Spiraling forms, mostly of animals, and lacy abstract motifs are drawn with delicate lines and detailed design; enhanced by the pastel-colored combination, the visual effect is gentle yet strong. A variation of the fine sgraffito ware is found in the so-called «measles ware» vases mostly associated with the Peloponnese. Their distinctive feature is the combination of fine engraving with red or red-brownish spots grouped in patterns. Fine sgraffito and its variations gradually gave way to the incised sgraffito technique which is distinguished by its bolder lines and larger patterns, mostly of warriors and hunters. A technical step up, the incised sgraffito is what produces «champlevé ware» (which means to remove, in French, lever, the field, champ). The idea of projecting the entire decorative motif in light color against a dark colored background and in low relief is what sets apart the technique. Champlevé offers a reversal of the light and dark combinations and recalls the contrast between the black and red figure vases of ancient Greece. Once the sgraffito techniques were mastered, technical concerns shifted toward more inventive ways of applying color as well as accelerating production. These developments gained momentum roughly at the time of the Latin conquest in the early 13th century and continued throughout the 14th century. Uninspired by the limited combinations of a light background and a dark pattern and the reverse, craftsmen who had mastered all sgraffito techniques by the early 13th century increasingly turned to color in shades of brown, yellow (iron oxide) and green (copper oxide). But the most significant advancement of the period is the tripod stilt, small clay devices that enabled many vases to be stacked together in a kiln, therefore enabling mass production and specialized workshops. The first ceramics made using tripod stilts was the so-called Zeuxippos ware marked by its meticulous decoration and shiny glaze but also enhanced by color; a yellow and brown shade for the earliest specimens and yellow-orange glazes in the subsequent Palaeologan period. The majority of Zeuxippos ware was discovered in the eastern Aegean, Cyprus and the coast of the Middle East. Also characteristic of the Palaeologan period is a decrease in the size and a change in the shape of pottery. Smaller and deeper pots may suggest a modification in diet (soups and broths seemed more popular) but may also reflect changing tastes brought about by Frankish influence. The exhibition takes the viewer through the Byzantine period and stops at the 15th century. After that, pottery in the Balkan region became limited both in terms of shapes and decorative motifs. But those areas which remained under Roman rule, such as Cyprus and Crete, continued to produce interesting variations and styles of pottery. Largely influenced by Italian pottery, post-Byzantine ceramics could very well be the subject of another exhibition. «An Encounter with Byzantine Glazed Pottery,» at the Byzantine and Christian Museum, 22 Vassilisis Sophias Avenue, tel 010.721.1027. The exhibition runs to October 31.