Monday, 16 September 2013

The Venice Cup and the Allure of Kufic

Arabic inscriptions in Islamic and European art follow one of three basic forms: those which are legible, those containing either abbreviations or are of an unclear form, and those which appear completely decorative and are commonly referred to as pseudo-Kufic, pseudo-inscription, or pseudo-epigraphy. The latter has the appearance of Arabic inscriptions, though pseudo-Kufic lacks strict linguistic meanings or translatability, often appearing as purely decorative. In a broad cultural context, Kufic epigraphy has been documented in architecture, textile, painting, coins, crosses, and other items and forms of material culture from Ireland[1] to China[2] during the Western medieval period and beyond. While legible Kufic epigraphy has been studied as clear markers of cultural identity and praised as primary sources in the development of Arabic calligraphy and culture,[3] pseudo-Kufic has been relegated to the underappreciated art historical corner of decoration, illiterate copying, or the occult.

The Venice Cup of the San Marco Treasury features pseudo-Kufic script around the edge of the lip as well as on the base. The gilded and enamelled glass bowl or cup features seven larger medallions of various mythological figures framed by fourteen smaller medallions depicting heads in profile. Flower designs further encompass the main medallions in red, blue, green, and yellow while the cup’s silver handles with blue gem inserts are more likely a latter edition. Originally the cup was interpreted as an “updated” antique bowl by Emile Molinier.[4] However, Anthony Cutler and Ioli Kalavrezou are but some who have linked the cup to Constantinople as a point of origin and specifically to the Macedonian renaissance (867-1056 C.E.). For Kalavrezou ‘the cup does not revive classical art, but holds onto the last remnants of a source of subject whose validity was now less in the subject matter than in the conveyance of a certain form or appearance’.[5] Yet, it is in Alicia Walker’s examination of the pseudo-Kufic inscriptions, which bring to question the occult, Classical, luxurious, and Islamic aspects of the Venice Cup.
Venice Cup

The occult practices in Byzantium and the surrounding Islamic territories provide some cultural links between the two cultures and offers further explanations for the use of pseudo-Kufic on the Venice Cup. ‘It has long been a popular Islamic belief that letters would exert some magical force if written in special ways’[6] which can be seen in a pseudo-Kufic inscriptions in a fifteenth-century Syrian brass casket lids, in magic-medicinal bowls in the twelfth century,[7] and in Islamic seals from the seventh and eighth-centuries which were transformed into apotropaic devices.[8] A ninth-century astrologer Balkh Abū Ma‘shar teaches his student Abū Sa‘īd Shādhān in De revolutionibus the lineage of astrological study, beginning with the Chaldeans and then the Indians, Syrians, and finally the Arabs.[9] The tenth-century Byzantine Souda states ‘that sorcery and magic were invented by the ancient Persians and Medes’[10] which demonstrates a similar worldview by both Byzantine and Arabic sources. From the Byzantine perspective, the language, and thus the visual formal elements of Arabic can be seen as connected with studies in the occult and sciences.

            In terms of the epigraphy of the Venice Cup, Walker notes instances of undecipherable Arabic inscriptions in occult contexts to explain how pseudo-Kufic ‘is still potentially significant, its cryptic character contributing to its esoteric and magic value...[and] can function as an occult language much as the Ephesia grammata of the Greek magic tradition’.[11] Walker links the depictions in the larger medallions to Greco-Roman gods, and their astrological counterparts, creating a strong argument for the use of the cup in ‘lecanomantic hydromantic practices’.[12] While the tradition of divination was wide spread and gained imperial support for a time, the Venice Cup can be understood in more than simply occult terms. The connection between pseudo-Kufic and luxury objects is established both in Islamic sources as well as in Byzantine chronicles and letters. This demonstrates ‘that a shared culture of shared objects implies a certain commonality of court behaviour and of court practices’, as objects depicting inscriptions are stated in Kitab al-Dhakha’iras gifts between Arabic and Byzantine sources, both internally and externally.[13]

Detail of Apollo
            Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos responds in a letter of thanks to Theodore Metropolitan of Ayzikos, “I was thankful to the sender, I marvelled at the Arabic cup, its variegated <beauty>, its smoothness, its delicate work...I also feel a great pleasure, greater than if the famous nectar were abundantly pour over my lips”.[14] The visual beauty of the Arabic cup is espoused in no small terms and the importance of gifting in the period proves a fertile ground for the cultural translation of pseudo-Kufic through inscribed objects. [15] Whether Byzantine or Muslim, parades of gifts feature heavily in the two cultures, allowing for public displays of the private gifts.[16] When noting the pleasure Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos feels when viewing his Arabic cup, the pseudo-Kufic of the Venice Cup can be seen as not only a potential occult marker but also as a cross-cultural motif of luxury.

            Perhaps the explanation lies within the Kufic script itself as a plastic formal element designed for increasingly complicated and abstracted forms. ‘The birth of Kufic represented, in many ways, a radical break with the past in which Hijazi had still been anchored. The rules that were defined at the outset of the Kufic tradition essentially remained the same throughout its lifetime’.[17] Alain George seeks to explain this phenomenon in his work The Rise of Islamic Calligraphy by addressing the geometric nature imbedded in the design of Arabic. George writes, ‘Kufic, in sum, was built upon a geometric expansion that linked its elements, from the thickness of the pen to the page, through a series of proportional relationships’.[18] Ultimately, the question of why pseudo-Kufic became a popular form in both Muslim and non-Muslim art forms can be more readily answered in that pseudo-Kufic functioned through its iconographical use, i.e. luxury or occult, and through the formal elements inherit to the construction of the script which allowed it be used in increasingly plastic means.


Venice Cup, Byzantine, ca. 10th Century, Glass, gilded and painted, silver-gilt, stones, Height 170 mm, Diameter 170 mm, Overall width 330 mm, Tesoro, no. 109, Venice.

[1]Petersen, Andrew. 2008. ‘The Archaeology of Islam in Britain: Recognition and Potential’, Antiquity, 82: 1082.
[2] Aanavi, Don. 1970. Islamic Pseudo Inscriptions (Ann Arbor, University Microfilms International): 15.
[3] Sauvaget, Jean. 1965. Introduction to the History of the Muslim East: A Bibliographical Guide (London, Cambridge University Press): 52
[4] Buckton, David. 1985. The Treasury of San Marco (Milan, Olivetti): 182.
[5] Ibid., 278.
[6] Aanavi, Don. 1970. Islamic Pseudo Inscriptions (Ann Arbor, University Microfilms International): 83; Porter, Venetia. 2004. ‘Islamic Seals: Magical or Practical?’, Magic and Divination in Early Islam (Surrey, Ashgate Publishing Limited): 187.
[7] Savage-Smith, Emilie et al. 1997. Science, Tools, and Magic: Part One: Body and Spirit, Mapping the Universe (Oxford, Oxford University Press): 73.
[8] Porter, Venetia. 2004. ‘Islamic Seals: Magical or Practical?’, Magic and Divination in Early Islam (Surrey, Ashgate Publishing Limited): 184.
[9] Pingree, David. 1989. Classical and Byzantine Astrology in Sassanian Persia’, Dumbarton  Oaks Papers, 43: 227.
[10] Walker, Alice. 2008. ‘Meaningful Mingling: Classicizing Imagery and Islamicizing Script in a Byzantine Bowl’, The Art Bulletin, 90: 44.
[11] Ibid., 46.
[12] Ibid., 47-52.
[13] Weitzmann, Kurt. 1981. ‘Representations of Hellenic Oracles in Byzantine Manuscripts’, Classical Heritage in Byzantine and Near Eastern Art (London, Variorum Reprints): 409
[14] Kalavrezou, Ioli. 2007. ‘The Cup of San Marco and the “Classical” in Byzantium’, Late Antique and Medieval Art of the Mediterranean World (Oxford, Blackwell Publishing): 282.
[15] Grabar, Oleg. 2010. ‘The Shared Culture of Objects’, Islamic Visual Culture, 1100-1800: Constructing the Study of Islamic Art, Volume II (Surrey, Ashgate Publishing Limited): 51-67
[16] Culter, Anthony. 2008. ‘Significant Gifts: Patterns of Exchange in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Islamic Diplomacy’, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, 38: 92.
[17] George, Alan. 2010. The Rise of Islamic Calligraphy (London, SAQI): 55
[18] Ibid., 57.

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Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Converting the Other in the Cantigas de Santa Maria

As in only few other instances in medieval history, the kingdoms on the Iberian peninsula had populations of different religions living in often close proximity. Without question this posed a number of problems for the Christian church, one of them being the conversion of Christians to Islam or Judaism. That these conversions occurred is documented, though they were not so much happening in large numbers but rather in individual cases.1 Nevertheless, they were anything but welcomed by the church. It is not very surprising therefore that we, at least to my knowledge, don't find visual material depicting conversions to Islam or Judaism. Conversions to Christianity, however, both from Islam and Judaism, were indeed depicted by Christian artisans.I will in short present two examples of such imagery in this post, both are part of the Cantigas de Santa Maria manuscript in the El Escorial (ms. T.I.1).

On fol. 68v the visual narrative begins by presenting the Christian-to-be as looter of Christian property, illustrated in the two images in the top register. His turban and beard mark him as Muslim. He is then shown selling everything, apart from on single image of the Virgin Mary and Christ child, which he keeps for himself and that he ostentatiously presents in the second register. The narration then switches to his home. Here the image of the Virgin miraculously begins to lactate, thereby convincing him and his family to convert, which is illustrated in the last image on the page. Several points about this imagery are notable. While the text of the story focussed on the man and the wonder taking place in his home, the illustrations have an additional scene taking place simultaneously to the miracle. The wife and child of the man, depicted on the left were added in the illuminations. She and her child are indiscernible from Christians by their looks alone. The space within which they are depicted however makes their religious affiliation unmistakeable: a piece of cloth above the alcove, where she sits with her child identifies her as Muslim. Tied around two pillars, it displays pseudo-kufic script framed by four swastikas. While mother and child appear to be in embrace in the first of these two scenes, in the second one she breast feeds him. Remarkably, this is the very scene in which the image of the Virgin stars lactating. The two women are thereby linked through the act of giving milk.

Several conclusions might be drawn from the imagery. For one the conversion is the result of miracles, so that one might be inclined to suggest that the imagery implies the Muslim figures are so far away from god, that they need a miracle to be converted.2 However, one must not forget the text itself, miracles are the central part of all of the narrations of the Cantigas simply due to the genre. The visual link that is established between the Virgin and the Muslim woman further contradicts with this explanation. Instead it seems plausible to suggest that the contemporary approach regarding the Islamic threat in the thirteenth-century is reflected in these images. A strategy of conversion rather than of elimination, which also had an impact on other media as the Vita of St. Raymond shows, terminus ante quem 1351, that tells of the conversion of more than ten-thousand Muslims.3

A different story is told in Cantiga 25. Illustrated over two pages, the Cantiga tells of a Christian who borrowed money from a Jewish money lender. When the time for paying the money back comes, the Christian happened to be in a different city, unable to give it back himself. By calling upon the Virgin he is eventually able to deliver a chest with the money through a miracle. The Jew, however, decides to hide the chest and pretends to have never received the money. His scheme is eventually foiled andexposed by the Virgin, resulting in his conversion to Christianity. While the Jew is the depicted with what at that time were commonly used visual markers such as, a crooked nose, pointed hat and a beard, it is notable that his conversion results in a visual change. He is depicted in profile view in every single image before the conversion, a technique often used for figures of questionable character, but during his baptism he is shown in a three-quarter profile view.4

As in the other image, it appears as if these images reassure their readers that the religious Others can be tamed, that the Other while in their midst might be made into one of their own. The reality, however, was quite different, even if Muslims or Jews converted to Christianity they were frequently still considered suspicious characters. One might suggest therefore that these scenes of conversion are not manifestations of the desire for a peaceful life together under one religion. Rather they are a reassurance of the superiority of the Christian belief, presenting the audience with visual evidence of Christianity's victory both on the material plane (as e.g. in scenes of military success that I have not discussed here) and on the spiritual plane.


1Burns, Robert I, Las Siete Partidas Vol. 5 (Philadelphia : Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), xxxiv-xxxv, 1439-1440.
2Lipton, Sara, Where are the Gothic Jewish women? On the non-iconography of the Jewess in the Cantigas de Santa Maria', in Jewish History, 22 1/2 (2008), 139-177
3Smith, Collin, Christians and Moors in Spain Vol. 2 (Warminster : Aris & Phillips, 1989) 60-63.
4See Mellinkoff, Ruth, Outcasts: Signs of Otherness in Northern European Art of the Late Middle Ages (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993) for a detailed account of visual markers for the Other.

1.  fol 68v. ms. T.I.1, El Escorial,  from Prado-Vilar, Francesco, 'The Gothic Anamorphic Gaze' in Under the Influence. Questioning the Comparative in Medieval Castile, eds. Cynthia Robinson a. Leyla Rouhi (Leiden: Brill, 2004)
2. detail fol 68v. ms. T.I.1, El Escorial, from Patton, Pamela A., Art of Estrangement. Redefining Jews in Reconquest Spain (University Park: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2012)
3. fol 39r ms. T.I.1, El Escorial, from Patton, Pamela A., Art of Estrangement. Redefining Jews in Reconquest Spain (University Park: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2012)

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Monday, 2 September 2013

Unity, Wholeness, and Continuity in the Monadic Form

In the Middle Ages the teachings of Pythagoras were well respected and studied in both the Western and Byzantine-Arab parts of the world. Priya Hemenway, author of The Secret Code, wrote that “the Pythagoreans believed that nothing exists without a centre around which it revolves. The centre is the source and it is beyond understanding, it is unknowable, but like a seed, the centre will expand and will fulfil itself as a circle.”[1] This is the essence of the Pythagorean monad, the basis for forms used in the measurement known as the Divine Proportion. The term monad derives from either the Greek menein (to be stable) or monas (oneness) and has become known as a symbol for The Seed, Essence, The Builder, Foundation, and Unity.[2] Medieval thinkers like Abbot Suger valued the monad for its moral symbolism in relation to the finding of one’s self or perhaps God. This belief or moral idea originates as a “seedling” and grows into a full-fledged circle as the idea grows within the individual or spreads to others. Medieval architects used this form in the construction of many works of architecture during both ancient and medieval times hoping the building would be built on a foundation of wholeness, unity, or continuity. In this post I will examine two works of architecture from varying time periods (the Pantheon and Notre Dame Chartres) to better understand the development of the monad and the monad’s possible symbolic qualities at each of the sites.

A circle is synonymous with unity or continuity, but the monad differs as it is a circle encompassing a dot or smaller circle. This smaller model is the seed, the place in which the circle grows from. This point is constant and remains in place and size as the circle grows.


 Hadrian’s Pantheon of the 2nd century CE is a product of the Pythagorean monad. Plato’s Timeaus, which echoes the ideologies of Pythagoras, was a highly read source during the time and likely where Hadrian pulled inspiration for his design.[3] The structure is aligned with the four cardinal directions, is circular with a central axis, and features an oculus which in this case, serves as the seed of the monad. The oculus was created in homage to Apollo, the god of the sun. Apollo’s symbol is the monad being that his name is loosely translated to “without multiplicity,” similar to that of the monad since it remains one circle no matter how many times it multiplies in size and layers.”[4] The twenty-eight ribs of the vault are a reference to the lunar calendar and the circular layout implies repetition and continuity in the months.[5] The sun (the oculus) and the moon (the ribs) placed within the monad represent the marriage of the two. This is not only implied in their shared placement within the monad, but also in the five registers which created the coffers in the dome. Five is the sum of two (the first female number) and three (the first male number) and is therefore their product after uniting.[6] The union of male/female and sun/moon in turn is a reference to the continuation of man and the cosmos.[7] In conclusion, the Pantheon’s monad is a religious reference to the god Apollo and a cosmological reference to the constant growing of the universe.

Dome/Monad of the Pantheon

Classical era structures like the Pantheon paved the way for medieval designs that wished to incorporate a monad with both religious and cosmological meaning. As polytheism faded to the rise of Christianity, the monad adopted Christ as the new seed in the Middle Ages. The school of Chartres studied the monad through the antique documents of Plato, taking into consideration the form’s cosmological and religious potential. Notre Dame Chartres (NDC) implemented the monad in the design of the rose windows. Dionysius of Areopagite, Dante, and Abbot Suger have all commented on the splendour and ecclesiastical symbolism of the light provided by the windows, but as that has been discussed in a previous post, I would like to stay focused on the monadic qualities of the West rose window.

NDC West Rose Window Monad

 In this image I have highlighted the seed of the monad in red which is also the image of Christ. The yellow and blue circles represent growth of the circle, and symbolically, the spreading of the Word of Christ. Being that Jesus is the son of God, His presence can also be interpreted as The Sun. As discussed in a previous post, the number twelve is present in the growing of the circle.[8] The Sun/Son rests on quatrefoil representing the four seasons and twelve refers to the twelve months of the year.[9] I believe the increasing circles of the monad represent the passing of the years, and in a biblical sense the passing of Christ’s Word over the years increasing the size of the Christian world.

Although I have only provided two examples in this post, the monad is found across the globe in buildings of both ancient and medieval construction. The monad is present in the floor plan of Dome of the Rock, Delphi, the Westminster Abbey Cosmati Pavement, the dome of Hagia Sophia, and many, many more historic sites. Pythagoras so keenly promoted this form not only for its symmetrical perfection and geometric simplicity, but because of the symbolic possibilities in its usage. The symbolic interpretation may have changed over time, but the underlying theme of growth, unity, and continuity remained as constant as the “seed” which is the essence of the monad.


[1] Hemenway, Priya. "Pythagoras and the Mystery of Numbers." The Secret Code: The Mysterious Formula That Rules Art, Nature, and Science. [S.l.]: Evergreen, 2008. 51. Print.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Joost-Gaugier, Christine L. Measuring Heaven. Ithaca: Cornell University, 2006. 167-168.  Print.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Foster, Richard. Patterns of Thought: The Hidden Meaning of the Great Pavement of Westminster Abbey. London: Jonathan Cape, 1991. 155. Print.
[6] Joost-Gaugier, 167-168.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Miller, Malcolm B. Chartres Cathedral: The Medieval Stained Glass and Sculpture. London: Pitkin Pictorials, 1980. 92. Print.
[9] Lundy, Miranda. Sacred Geometry. New York: Walker &, 2001. 46-47. Print.

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