Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Touching on Translation: Defining Terms

Before we move further into this study of the Global Middle Ages, a brief word needs to be made on the topic of Translation Theory. Suffice it to say, we tend to avoid the term influence here on Beyond Borders, though appropriation may creep in there now and then. Firstly, Translation Theory is born out of the medieval application of Postcolonial Theory. Nadia Altschul describes the postcolonial approach as one that ‘fosters an examination of all sides of a colonial encounter and examines the different pasts that are active in different presents, but it also works towards a resolution of the structural and psychic inequalities inherited from colonial contact’.1 While Postcolonial Theory’s applicability to medieval studies has been debated, Jeffery Cohen describes the benefits of the theory as a means to ‘rethink keywords of postcolonial theory,’ ‘rethink history as effective history,’ ‘destabilize hegemonic identities,’ ‘displace the domination of Christianity,’ and to ‘decenter Europe’’.2 Translation Theory thus develops out of this theoretical model in an effort to describe the movement of artistic models across cultures without forcing a linguistic emphasis on one centre of production over another, thus the use of translation as opposed to influence. Michael Baxandall saw this shift in language as centred on the issue of agency, with one party influencing another, perpetuating an ideology of a one way exchange, which translation seeks to break by acknowledging the hybrid form.
Touching upon this hybridity, a postcolonial term, Catherine Karkov describes the hybridity of Insular art as seen through the Lindisfarne Gospels. Karkov broadly defines hybridity as referring to ‘ the fact that no culture is pure, cultures always show the evidence of contact with other cultures that leads to changes (hybridity) with both cultures’.4 Thus, the Lindisfarne Gospels are not simply the product of one culture, but rather the product of continue exchange, translation, and artistic editing of this information to suit varying and changing need. Additionally, Postcolonial Theory seeks to understand the peoples or objects studied as fluid, changing, active, and full of cultural agency which reaches even into the present, as seen specifically in Siân Jones’s work with the Hilton of Cadboll stone and regional identity.5 The development of the theory of visual translation, of artistic translation of forms and cultural elements into a local visual ‘language’ is still on going, as seen explicitly in the recent publication of the conference Under the Influence in 2007 and in other conferences such as the University of Edinburgh’s ‘From Influence to Translation: Art in the Global Middle Ages’ in May of 2012 as well as in The Courtauld Institute of Art’s ‘Beyond the Western Mediterranean’ in September 2012. Like any methodological model, Translation Theory is still being critiqued, yet it does offer a means of framing the description  of the movement of artistic models and forms from one culture into another through the metaphor of translation, which itself highlights the inherent change which takes place as language is itself translated from one language into another. Through the process of shifting the words into another language, emphasis shifts, meanings alter, and a new hybrid form is created.

1. Altschul, Nadia. 2009. 'The Future of Postcolonial Approaches to Medieval Iberian Studies', Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies, 1.1: 13.
2.  Cohen, Jeffrey. 2000. The Postcolonial Middle Ages (New York, St. Martin's): 6-7.
3. Brown, Michelle. 2007. ‘An Outbreak of ‘Influenza?’: Aspects of Influence, Medieval and Modern’, Under the Influence: The Concept of Influence and the Study of Illuminated Manuscripts (Turnhout, Brepols): 3.
4. Karkov, Catherine. 2011. The Art of Anglo-Saxon England (Rochester, The Boydell Press): 3.
5.Jones, Siân . 2005. ‘’That Stone was Born Here and That’s Where it Belongs’: Hilton of Cadboll and the Negotiations of Identity, Ownership and Belonging’, Able minds and Practiced Hands (Leeds, Maney Publishing): 37-53.

Image: Hilton of Cadboll Stone © National Museum of Scotland


Monday, 20 August 2012

The Ballycottin Brooch: An Example of Cross-Cultural Translation

The Ballycottin cross brooch is part of a small world of ornamental anomalies that may mirror the Christian and Islamic ideological traditions concerning the philosophies of magic. It is an amulet that is part of the British Museum’s collection of Arabic and Persian seals and amulets. In 1875, it was found in a bog in Ballycottin, which is located near Cork in southern Ireland. The brooch is composed of a gilt copper alloy cross with a circular black glass inlay. The cross portion, decorated with zoomorphic designs, is stylistically Anglo-Carolingian and the inlayed glass, inscribed with the tubnā lillāh (‘we have repented to God’), is stylistically Islamic. The use of the Christian cross and an Islamic inscribed seal indicate a possible translation between two different cultures of the global Middle Ages. This cross-cultural translation of ideologies was based upon inherent belief systems that, albeit may have travelled to other regions of the world, visually remained true to its origins. The Ballycottin cross brooch is thought to have been manufactured in the Carolingian Empire, but it was most likely made by the hands of an Insular artist who settled within the empire. This artist intertwined the Insular and Carolingian styles to form what is now deemed to be an Anglo-Carolingian style. The Islamic seal was combined with this cross because of an inherent conception of the apotropaic efficacy of the cross as well as the protective attributes associated with the black glass. According to Venetia Porter, the black glass may have been a ‘cheap’ substitution for black jasper, which is of note because during the Middle Ages jasper was thought to have healing properties, carry protective energy and bring good luck to its bearer in both the Eastern and Western worlds.

The inscription upon the glass, on the other hand, is a different matter. The Arabic inscription most likely would not have been decipherable by a Christian, which would make the glass, aside from its value as a gemstone, meaningless. However, the inscribed glass fits snuggly into the space within which it is laid, which alludes to a probability that the cross was fashioned for this particular piece of glass. So, why would this specific piece glass be placed within the cross instead of a non-inscribed section of the same type of glass or stone? I would suggest that the inscription of the stone was recognisable, but non-legible to a non-Arabic speaker. Since there is written documentation of physical encounters between the Christians of the West and Arabs of the Holy Land, it may be supposed that the Arabic language was encountered as well. The Arabs of the Holy Land were considered to be knowledgeable about magic and medicinal cures, and the ingredients needed for such cures were often sought out from territories under Islamic rule. Names of various Eastern ingredients for medicines have been found in manuscripts such as the tenth century Old English list of medical recipes, Lacnunga, and the late ninth century manuscript, Bald’s Leechbook. Since there was a known link between Arabs and medicine as well as various sources of documentary evidence notating the Arabs’ cognisance about magic, some of which coincided with Western beliefs, it may be possible that a Christian artisan who was somewhat knowledgeable about the Arabs would incorporate this inscribed piece of glass within a cross. The coalescence of these two elements would most likely have been based upon an implementation of text as a protective shield in an effort to make a particularly efficacious amulet, especially since both Christians and Muslims used religious text within amulets. The creator of the Ballycottin brooch would not have known if the Arabic text was religious in nature, but it may have been assumed as religious since the text was inscribed on what was interpreted to be a particularly apotropaic gemstone. Hence the Ballycottin cross brooch became a double-layered amulet that encompassed an apotropaism that surpassed the aptitude of one culture by intertwining two cultures together, in a probable effort to make an amulet that embodied the utmost protection.  


Image:  © The Trustees of the British Museum     AN867280001

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

The Power of Porphyry

While studying at the University of Edinburgh, I have developed an extreme fascination with Cosmati works of art. Several of my colleagues and I made a trip to Rome this past fall where I was able to examine these exquisite works first hand. Although my primary interest in the Cosmati floors are that of geometry and cosmology, I often return to the subject of patronage. Why this pattern? Why this décor for this structure? How did this design benefit the patrons? The answers vary by location, but one quality that was commonly shared amongst the Roman works was the inclusion of porphyry as a material. At the height of Cosmati fashion in the twelfth century, purple had transferred as colour of the emperor to that of the church. Purple had long been associated with those of high ranking as the colour was costly to produce difficult to come by. The use of the colour in both royal clothing and depictions of royals came to symbolize their great wealth. As troubles arose between the emperor in Constantinople and the Papacy in Rome, the colour was then adopted by the Church. This adaptation by the Church suggests perhaps a different royal, the divine king of the Heavens, God. The inclusion of the colour purple in religious art is in homage to God, and serves as a form of propaganda, promoting the rule of the church over that of the empire. This is perhaps best displayed at Santi Quattro Coronati, which houses two Cosmati pavements and several layers of patronal intent.

As stated by medieval Rome specialist, Dr. Claudia Bolgia, ‘the Cosmati came in the spirit of antiquity, but also used the material of antiquity in their creations.’ This could not be more true. Spolia was essential in the construction of medieval Rome, often promoting the domination of one cultural idea over another. This is the case at SS Quattro Coronati in the Saint Silvestro Chapel. The eleventh pavement of Saint Silvestro is said to be the earliest structure in Rome in the Cosmati style. The multi-coloured marbles of the floor of course include porphyry, which in this particular case makes reference to the papacy protecting their position against the imperial rule. The Saint Silvestro pavement was perhaps best used as propaganda in following years during the reign of Frederick II. Frederick II had inherited Naples and Sicily in an arranged marriage, allowing him to more easily pursue Rome. By 1220, Frederick was granted possession of Rome by Pope Honorius III. It was not until the papal return to Rome from Avignon in the fourteenth century that the Church regained a prominent place in politics. How is it then that the floor, and the porphyry, served as papal patronal propaganda?

The Cosmati pavement is dated to the eleventh century, but with addition of thirteenth century frescoes, the promotion of the papacy becomes apparent. The floors were funded by Pope Paschal II in his reconstruction of the city. His intention was to promote the papal presence within the community through refurbishment. The frescoes, commissioned by Cardinal Stephan, were added to the chapel in 1247, argued against for the foreign rule of Frederick. The frescoes depict Constantine bowing down to Saint Silvestro, a representation of imperial authority conceding to temporal power. The two artistic works- the pavement and the frescoes- together create a political statement that allows the material porphyry to be fully associated to the papacy. Porphyry is more easily attributed to the papacy over the rule of the emperor when consideration is given to the fact that both patrons were of the church. These patrons firstly made the voice of the church heard through the Cosmati pavement, which included porphyry in a cosmological illustration that is interpreted as a statement of God being the more prominent ruler of the universe, and secondly man. The frescoes second papal authority in depicting an emperor cowering to a church figure. The pattern of the floor and the addition of the fresco to the site therefore allow porphyry to exemplify the power of the papacy.
With this in mind, can purple be considered a colour and symbol of power in all art? Is porphyry the medium of choice because of this interpretation? In the case of Cosmati floors, most often considered a cosmological illustration, I feel the porphyry is representative of the kingly God, but this political propaganda must certainly not be overlooked.

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