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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