Byzantine silver bowls
Byzantine silver bowls of the 12th century. Centaurs and sweet-singing sirens on the second band of the Beryozovo bowl are a symbolic parallel of the theme of the banquet, accompanied as it is by music and songs: in the bacchic cycle both centaurs and sirens accompany Dionysus. What is more, sirens were always associated with love, which was one of the keynotes of Yuletide rites. Running lions, snow Jeopards, wolves, bears and hares (the third band) are linked with the theme of hunting, which in Byzantium occurred at the time of the autumn- and-winter celebrations, the Saturnalia.
Hunting wild animals with greyhounds and leopards is depicted also on the rim of the bowl. Images of birds in the fourth row are likewise in keeping with Yuletide songs and rites, dominated by themes of love and marriage. Of special interest is the fifth row, where the faces of youths participating in the acts alternate with zoomorphic masks. Mummer’s acts were a regular feature of Yuletide celebrations.
This being a court festivity, the selection of masks for the pantomime was specific: leonine, gryphon and canine masks as the military emblems of the nobility. Figures of people with heads of dogs and of gryphons symbolising the heathen tribes conquered by the emperor, were meant to illustrate his right to rule the world. Thus the row of masks echoes the theme of Yuletide mummers gotten up as “Gothic” barbarians to dance before the sovereigns. The representations of the sixth and seventh rows incorporate palmettos resembling stylised grapevine leaves, which links them with the theme of the grape- harvest feasts and the abundance brought by autumn.
The image of St. George the warrior in the medallion on the bottom of the bowl is also treated in keeping with the semi-pagan subject-matter: he is shown as the master of the animal kingdom, the patron of hunting and field work. The bacchic background is clearly felt in the images of the Beryozovo bowl. Although the empress is depicted presiding at the table and the bowl was undoubtedly made for a nobleman, Christian themes are superseded by pagan ones. We are enveloped in an atmosphere of hedonism, alien to the ideals of Orthodox Christianity. The patterns on the BeryozOVO bowl testify to the affinity of the culture of the people and the secular culture of Byzantium’s aristocracy; both had a common basis—an outlook inherited from the Graeco-Roman period. The Byzantine craftsman introduced bacchic motives which were congenial to him adapting some, of them to the “heraldic” taste of his customer.
Byzantine court art served one main purpose—to glorify the supreme power of the autocrat, the representative of God on earth. This art favoured symbolic parallels whereby the ruler Was likened to the legendary heroes of the past. An analysis of the scenes depicted on the bowls shows that their general tenor suggests the triumphal cycle of the emperor.
The latter included the following traditional subjects indicative of the main aspects of imperial power: 1) scenes of war victories (descriptive and symbolic), 2) hunting and Hippodrome exploits and court entertainment, 3) scenes from the lives of biblical characters, of historical, mythological and epic personages who were all treated as the emperor’s prototypes. Rhetorical comparisons of the monarch to Achilles, Heracles or Alexander the Great were widely used by Greek encomiasts. Byzantine oratory likened the emperors to mythological and epic heroes famous for their civic achievements and military prowess. Thus, eulogizing Manuel Comnenus the poet Theodorus Prodromus called him. “the new Akritas”.
The subject-matter of art dedicated to the throne remained unchanged throughout the history of Byzantium. But, depending on the socio-political conditions of the epoch, the craftsmen employed different iconographies, they enriched or limited their repertory, accentuating now one, now another group of subjects. Traditionalism was combined with probing into new subjects and stylistic devices.
Under the Comnenes, the art of the court was increasingly secularised. Despite the persistence of such traditional subjects as the crowning of the emperor by Christ or appeals to patron saints, the difference between the art of the court and that of the church became quite striking. This was partly due to the Comnenes’ policy vis-a-vis the church, over which they wanted to exercise effective control. The Comnenes were out to prevent the growth of an independent, wealthy church and monasteries and to circumscribe the powers of the Patriarch of Constantinople. The art of the throne thus to a certain extent did away with canonized forms, and the secular, life-asserting note was enhanced.
The Comnenes sought to strengthen the state of the new type. In contradistinction to the despotic state of the aristocratic bureaucracy, power in this state was held by a feudal family which depended on its hereditary landed estates and its vassals. In the 11th—12th centuries relations of allegiance between the emperors who owned large domains and the big feudal lords became widespread. The latter had their own military retinues, fortresses and vassals who received land from their suzerain and had to take up military service.
The development of this system brought about changes in the army. The old levy of the peasants ceased to exist;; Mounted spearmen with heavy shields made up the core of the army. In addition to regular Byzantine contingents the army included foreign units. “The barbarisation ” of the army, where, beginning with the late’l 1th century, English mercenaries came to the fore, affected the process of the formation of Byzantine knighthood. Under Manuel Comnenus the traditions of Western knights were strongly felt.
The emperor shared with his men the burdens of camp life and was the first to challenge the enemy; a lover of tournaments and dramatic hunting, of secular music and songs, he was the exemplary military leader guided by the knightly code of honour. The first three Comnenes—Alexius I, John. II. and Manuel—were above all zealous warriors. They stayed in military camps far from the capital, among their relatives and devoted retainers. The relations between the basileus and his retinue became much closer.
Under these conditions the culture of the court began to favour motives reflecting the outlook of that social group which became the mainstay of the Comnene state. Feudal knights sought their ideal among the heroes of epic tales. Accordingly, the poem of Digenis Akritas must have become especially popular. Although the plot of the poem is laid against the background of the Byzantine-Arab wars of the 9th and I Oth centuries, in the 12th century it assumed a new social ring.
The events on the Byzantine Seljuk borders brought it up-to-date: from the early 1090’s to the early 1170’s the Comnenes staged a regular offensive, gradually driving the Seljuks into the interior of Asia Minor. The text of the poem now included mention of the Turks and the Sultanate with, the capital in Konya. While idealising the courage and high morals of the akri- tes, the poem also reflected the political mood and ethics of the knights. Thus, the gallant emperor Manuel was styled by his contemporaries “the new Akritas”.
According to Eustathius of Thessalonica, it was during the reign of that emperor that the fury of the Hagarians was subdued: they put down their arrows to take up the plough and replaced their mounts with oxen. At that time many Seljuks were leaving their villages ..to-find new homes on Byzantine land. The same merits were attributed to Digenis Akritas whose war exploits resembleepisodes from Manuel’s wars against the Seljuks in Asia Minor. Manuel’s eastern campaigns roughly covered the same territories as the conquests of the “glorious Akritas”.
The appearance of epic motives in court art was due to the impact of folk culture and folklore and to a certain, democratisation of Byzantine literature in the Illh and especially 12th centuries. The poem itself is clearly rooted in heroic ballads about akrites. It existed both in written form and in oral tradition. Despite its pronounced aristocratic trend, the poem reflected country-wide ideas and sentiments. The invincible Digenis Akritas was the national hero who protected his homeland against the “heathen” foreigners.
The penetration of folklore motives into court art was promoted by the “democratisation” of the life of the court and the growing role of the knights, who were attracted by the character of Digenis Akritas. The popularity of epic tales among urban traders and craftsmen is attested by scenes 011 the glazed pottery of the 11th—13th centuries found during excavations in Constantinople and the major provincial centres of the empire—Athens, Corinth, Chersonesus. The medallions on the bottoms of dishes show the exploits and romances of Akritas (Akritas conquering dragons and lions; Akritas and the daughter of the Emir Haplorabdius). In folk art (pottery) Akritas was depicted as an ordinary warrior wearing a helmet or a low cap, and in court art he appeared as a high-born military leader in a coronet. The folklore motive of Akritas fighting dragons does not occur on silver ware. The love scenes, too, reveal two different approaches. Silver bowls present gallant scenes in the troubadour tradition: a youth trampling lions plays the cither for his lady. The glazed pottery plate from Corinth, on the contrary, presents a realistic scene devoid of all romantic gloss: a youth embraces a young girl sitting on his knee.
The rich bowls whose decor could be traced to the glorification of Manuel Comnenus as the “new Akritas” may have been among the gifts brought to Kiev by the Greek mission of 1164. The mission was sent by Manuel to the Kiev Prince Rostislav, to persuade the latter to receive the Greek Metropolitan John. The mission’s success was largely due to the precious gifts it gave the Prince, especially rich silks. One of the bowls was found in Chernigov, the other in Vilgort on the Kama River, but their similarity leads 11s to believe that they were brought to Russia at one and the same time and in one batch. Byzantine silver ware often reached the Urals via the Russian lands: merchants from Novgorod took it to the Urals to exchange for furs.
Classification and analysis of Byzantine works of artistic craftsmanship found on the territory of Eastern Europe, is essential for the study of Russo-Byzantine relations in the 10th— 12th centuries (Chapter III). Archeological and numismatic finds studied by Soviet researchers (hoards of Byzantine coins, glazed pottery, glass, textiles) supplement and concretise the information which written sources give on Russo-Byzantine contacts. Imported art ware is quite important in ascertaining these Contacts (silver ware, cloisonne on gold, carved ivory, miniature carved icons in stone). An analysis of these objects is also important in ascertaining the Byzantine influence on the development of monumental sculpture and jeweller’s craft in Old Russia.
According to numismatic and archeological data, the first stage in the relations between the East European tribes and Byzantium is dated in the 5th—7th centuries. In the 8th and the first half of the 9th century an economic recession gripped the Byzantine Empire. The fresh influx of Byzantine art ware into Eastern Europe, which began in the 10th century, was due to the two following reasons:
1)The political stabilisation within the empire and on the international scene prompted a revival of urban life. The crafts and trade in Constantinople and Thessalonica registered a rapid upsurge. The volume of foreign trade grew, and money circulation increased. Art-craft ware, especially such luxury items as fine silks, gold and silver brocades, jewellery and glass ware, was in ever greater demand both among the Greek aristocracy and the rising nobility of the Roman-Germanic and Slav states; 2) With the formation of the Russian State, trade with the Greeks was regulated by special treaties. As Kiev Russia scored fresh political and economic achievements, and especially as it embraced Christianity, all-round contacts with Byzantium continued to develop.
Imports of Byzantine art-craft ware increased still further in the 11th and 12th centuries. At that time the economic and cultural relations between Byzantium and Russia were particularly close. The expansionist policy of the Russian princes gave way to good- neighbour relations between the two countries. This state of affairs continued till the beginning of the 13th century when Constantinople was seized by the Crusaders and the Mongol hordes set upon Russia; these two events paralysed all Russo-Byzantine contacts for a long time.
Constantinople was the main purveyor of works of Byzantine applied arts into Eastern Europe as it was the biggest centre of the art crafts. Economically and politically Russia was directly connected with the Byzantine capital. Merchants’ caravans, diplomatic missions bearing rich gifts, dignitaries of the church, architects, painters and goldsmiths set out from Constantinople to Kiev, Galich and Vladimir-on-Klyazma; Russian pilgrims to the Christian shrines brought back holy relics. Byzantine works of artistic craftsmanship are to be found mostly in major urban centres in the south of the Crimea and Russia (Chersonesus, Sudak, Sarkel, Kiev, Chernigov, Smolensk, Old Ryazan, Vladimir, Suzdal, Moscow, Novgorod). These finds are especially numerous in Chersonesus, around. Kiev and in Novgorod. The.absence of imported objects in the intermediate areas is due to the fact that they accumulated in the larger towns and became “immovable property”. The main and shortest route between Russia and Constantinople was the road “from the Varangian land to the Greeks”. Its southern section, from Kiev down the Dnieper, was called “the Greek: route”. The mouth of the. Dnieper was guarded by the port of Oleshye, subject to Kiev, where the boats were rigged anew. Thence the sea route to Constantinople lay along the Bulgarian shore of the Black Sea. There was also a transit route whereby Byzantine goods were shipped via the South Russian principalities, Bulgaria and the Danube towns. This route was more safe, for it skirted
the Polovtsy (Cumart) steppes and led to the Danube and the Black Sea via Moldavia, the valleys of the Prut and the Seret. Byzantine imports could go north via Chersonesus and, till the 12th century, Taman. Chersonesus was linked with Kiev by the selfsame “Greek route” and by a steppe route via the Perekop Isthmus and up the Dnieper. In the 12th century Sudak, held by the Polovtsy, played an increasingly important part in trade with Byzantium on the Black Sea. The Dniester route, marked by finds of Byzantine coins, led into Galicia. Sarkel could be reached via the Sea of Azov and the lower course of the Don. The principalities of Ryazan and Vladimir- Suzdal could be reached along the upper Volga or from Kiev up the Desna and Seym to the upper course of the Oka River.
The main consumers of the costly Byzantine imports were noblemen and dignitaries of the church. Greek objects were used in the court and church ceremonial. Byzantine enamel occurred in the hoards of jewellery buried in the ground during the Mongol invasion (Old Ryazan, Kiev). Less costly objects found their way into the homes of the well-to-do urban merchants and craftsmen (steatite icons in the Chersonesus houses). Byzantine objects for the use of the church reached the churches and monasteries where they were preserved until the October Revolution of 1917. Imported silver ware was often re-imported, with the Novgorod merchants bringing it into the extreme northeast districts—as far as the Ob Inlet.