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Silvia Pedone (“Tor Vergata” University, Rome)
Visual effects and visual infection in Islamic and Byzantine champlevé sculpture

The stronger the infection the better is the art, as art
Lev Tolstoj, What is Art?

    In a brief but insightful paper, published on the Revue archéologique in 18461, the French archeologist Adrien de Longpérier underlined the presence in French medieval art of some foreign ornamental features (fig. 1), rather pertaining to the oriental cultural and artistic tradition, that is to say the so-called pseudo-cuphic characters2: in the clear definition of  Longpérier, “lettres arabes qui ne donnent aucun sens, mais qui se rapprochent beaucoup pour la forme”3.
    These particular characters are in fact widespread throughout the Mediterranean area as an effect – and I would say, metaphorically, as an “infection” – of the pervasive influence of Islamic culture4. An enduring contagion that determined the continuous presence of such motives in artistic traditions far removed from Islamic conception of art, for example in fourteenth century French works or in Renaissance Italian painting and sculpture – in the decoration of draperies, borders or architectural elements – where these ornamental features seem to be immune to the rediscovery of ancient classic legacy and its deep impact on the evolution of style and taste5.
    If we can understand the surprise of Longpérier to find Islamic ornamental patterns merging together with the mimetic principle governing the main Western pictorial tradition, all the more in nineteenth century, when the Islamic epigraphic documents were first scholarly studied and transcribed, the problem of artistic “contamination” between different pictorial systems is no less puzzling for us today. Indeed, in trying to explain the presence of the same features (or at least very similar ones) in artistic and cultural domains that had supposedly no historical contact, we have to face two different options: an “epidemiological” hypothesis, based on the idea of a transmission and migration of materials, “representations” or “forms”, from one group or culture to another6, even if in a hidden way, and a “structural” hypothesis, resting on the assumption that there may be some kind of spontaneous and independent convergence, according to some “formal”, cross-cultural universal laws7. But these are hardly totally exclusive approaches, and I rather think that they are complementary phenomena8.
    In any way, that is what we can surely see in the case I want to deal with here: the spread of Islamic ornamental motives in the Byzantine artistic production, taking into account that the encounter between Byzantium and Islam was made of points of collision but also of collusion9.
    More specifically, I will discuss some examples of the so-called champlevé sculptural technique10, in which the calligraphic visual effects of Arabic handwriting are given their utmost emphasis. The very flatness of the scheme and the sharp chromatic contrast between the dark ground and the brightness of the design make optically evident the decorative pattern11. With their linear and frieze-like disposition the champlevé decorations are particularly apt to simulate the graphic, two-dimensional effects of handwriting, or pseudo-writing (fig. 2a-b).
    As observed by Owen Jones in The Grammar of Ornament, the regular repetition of a set of few elements on a sequential series allows the visual recognition of a basic scheme or unit, combinable and variable according to different series12. Repetition is here the key factor to gain an ornamental effect. But unlike strictly geometrical decoration, the perception of homogeneity and regularity is more “subjective” and the rhythm of the signs is more lively and “organic”. Typically, the uniformity of horizontal lines gives the illusion – at a certain distance – of real writing, however the characters only “se rapprochent beaucoup pour la forme”, as Longpérier put it13. But, why not to use real writing? This is a difficult question, and probably several factors concur here, technical competence, economic/pragmatic choices, aesthetic preferences and much more. Perhaps we can speak of a combination of fascination and misreading, if not even of the desire to appropriate the visual effect neutralizing the mental infection.
    However that may be, we find Islamic cuphic characters in the architectural decoration of Christian Byzantine churches14. The earliest example, on a monumental scale, is that of the Panagia of Hosios Lukas15, where we can focus our attention both on the rich brickwork decoration of the walls and on some fragments of the long champlevé cornice on the external eastern wall16. These fragments are decorated with three types of cuphic motives, presenting different degrees of similarity with their original models, from a maximum of resemblance to a free stylization playing with the vertical elements of the letters alim and alef17. The first part of the cornice shows a very close analogy with real cuphic inscriptions, as we can judge from the comparison with the casket of the Museum of Gerona cathedral18, dating to the 10th century, or with different silk fragments coming from Egypt and Palestine19. The same motif appears in one of the few artifacts surely made in Constantinople, for example the cup of the Treasury of San Marco20. Another useful term of comparison is also offered by an Egyptian drawing, with a very similar inscription on dark ground, a possible medium of transmission of ornamental patterns21. In the second and third sections of the Panagia cornice there are only the Arabic letters lam and alef, joined in a glyph to form the name of Allah, and identifiable from the particular “curl” on the vertical arm of the letters. This ornamental design will be the most common solution in Byzantine domain, as shown by other pieces: an analogous cornice from the presbytery and apse of the church of Dafnì22, or the borders of some slabs now in the Byzantine Museum of Athens23, resembling the decorations of the helmet of Joshua in the famous fresco of the Hosios Loukas Panagia24. The success of this stylized pseudo-cuphic character is witnessed by its widespread use in Greece, as underlined also by Miles, Ettinghause and Grabar25.
    Though not confirmed by specific findings, it seems nevertheless plausible to suppose the existence in that period of books of models from which the sculptors could take the designs to be transferred on marble, as it’s possible to infer, for example, comparing the slab from the Museum of Athens26 (fig. 3a) with a drawing now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York27 (fig. 3b). If in the drawing the relationship between the rampant lion and the text is justified by an illustrative function, in the Byzantine relief the letters are completely meaningless and merely ornamental. Nonetheless, we may note an analogous effect of the formal structure.
    Thanks to the stability of the modular basic unit and its repeatability it’s possible to find not only many other examples from the same geographic area28, with more or less evident contaminations of classical motives, but also works of completely different provenance, like the Limoge cup from the Louvre (1200 ca.), striking for the close connection of its ornamental pattern with the examples we have already proposed (fig. 4)29.
    From the 10th to the 12th century, the constant “contagion”, facilitated by the aristocratic collecting practices and the ensuing circulation of Islamic objects, as well as by the mimetic trends within Byzantine tradition, determinates new applications for pseudo-cuphic motives: we find them on capitals – like that ones from Makrinitza30 (with black ground) and St. Vittore and Corona in Feltre31 (with red designs) – but also on sepulchral slabs32, depending on Islamic prototypes, where the cuphic characters are interwoven with vegetal motives in a thick arabesque. From this point of view, the sarcophagus of Anna Melissena33 of 1276 is specially relevant: the letters spring and emerge from the raceme weave extending on the whole surface of the slab, with a final effect – now partly lost – very similar to Islamic niello-works34.
    A later evolution of the same ornamental scheme is detectable in examples like those from the Byzantine Museum of Athens35 or from the Peribleptos church of Mistra36. Here the fusion with vegetal motif is complete and generates a new original pattern.
    We have seen here only few – but I hope meaningful – cases of a very complex process of exchange, assimilation, interference and transformation. A phenomenon that testify, on one hand, to the selective and deforming intersection of forms of visual taste with very different ideological foundations, but, on the other hand, it attests also to possible common roots of something like an “ornamental habit”, all the more important because we are dealing here not merely with aniconic and “abstract” visual materials, but also with a form (or, better, a trans-formation) of writing.
    If Islamic artistic culture, with its rejection of the mimetic principle, has elevated calligraphy to a sovereign status, the very artistic reception and misconstruction of Islamic writing has contributed to unveil its pure, latent ornamental order. And, at heart, making sense of this order is the sense of art.