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The present ceramic dish is a seminal example of Byzantine sgraffito ware. Sgraffito, the technique of using a stylus to incise decoration into a thin layer of slip (liquid clay) prior to firing, is characteristic of Byzantine ceramics dating from the late 11th century. Most effective when practiced on redware coated with a contrasting white slip, as in the present example, sgraffito permitted the ancient artisan to move freely across the surface of the vessel and develop intricate patterns with spiraling motifs.
The carefully delineated forms of the fish and close attention to details such as the scales and fins place the present dish within the category of fine sgraffito ware, which came to dominate Byzantine ceramic art from the mid 12th century through to the beginning of the 13th century. The use of an acute stylus permitted craftsmen to concentrate on details from fish scales to bird feathers and, in the case of human beings, clothing. Significantly, there is a fine sgraffito dish from the mid 12th-century Pelagonnesos Alonnesos shipwreck, which is incised with five fish laying across its interior, the effect comparable to trompe l'oeil (Nea Anchialos, inv. no. N. A. 17 (1401)). Whilst the treatment of the scales is slightly different in these fish, there is a conceptual parallel with the present carp, in that their heads are almost identically contrived, with two curved lines signifying the back of the head and a large eye at the centre, formed from a dot within two concentric circles. This depiction of a fish is found in other Byzantine ceramics, including a small mid-12th century bowl in Athens, in which the scale pattern is close to that seen on the present fish (Collection of the 1st Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities, inv. no. 1944).
The present dish is distinguished from these slightly earlier examples by the inclusion of colour. Green tints (copper oxide) have been applied to the design in a spontaneous manner, resulting in what has been described as a 'sunshine-and-shadows' effect (Dauterman Maguire and Maguire, op. cit. p. 4). These chromatic elements enliven the design as the seemingly uncontrolled brushstrokes contrast with the sharply delineated incised decoration. According to Dauterman Maguire and Maguire, the application of pigment was, in fact, a carefully orchestrated process, intending to create sophisticated chromatic rythmns within the design, which would have appealed to the Byzantine enjoyment of motion (Dauterman Maguire and Maguire, op. cit. pp. 4-9). The impressionistic manner in which the green tints have been applied in the present vase finds a parallel in a late 13th / 14th century bowl with a bird found at Thessaloniki (Museum of Byzantine Culture, inv. no. BK 1501), in which the rim is also painted in a dark green colour. In the present dish, the circular rythmns of the green brushstrokes serve to create a sense of dynamism, whilst also being reminiscent of dappled light on water, reminding the viewer of a fishpond.
With its dancing fish, detailed with scales and cross-hatching, and flanked by palmettes and volutes, the present dish is stylistically consistent with other 12th and 13th century Byzantine ceramics. Numerous examples, including the one from Thessaloniki mentioned above, show birds flanked by trees in the shape of leaves, analogous to the arrangement of the scalloped leaf-like forms on either side of the border of the present dish. Such fanciful motifs are reminiscent of Islamic models, whilst the continuing appearance of birds, fish and other animals in dishes and bowls bears testament to the Byzantine love of nature. Literary evidence suggests that ceramics were not inexpensive items (Dauterman Maguire and Maguire, op. cit. pp. 14-15). However, such vessels would nonetheless have been designed for everyday use, with elaborately incised and polychromed examples like the present dish, evoking the appearance of the precious metalwares used by the Imperial elite.
D. Papanikola-Bakirtzi (ed.), Byzantine Glazed Ceramics. The Art of Sgraffito, Athens, 1999, pp. 15-23, 28, 118-142, nos. 5, 134, 142; E. Dauterman Maguire and H. Maguire, 'Byzantine Pottery in the History of Art', D. Papanikola-Bakirtzi, E. Dauterman Maguire and H. Maguire, Ceramic Art from Byzantine Serres, Urbana and Chicago, pp. 1-20; D. Papanikola-Bakirtzi, F.N. Mavrikioy and H.H. Bakirtzis, Byzantine Glazed Pottery in the Benaki Museum, Athens, 1999, pp. 149, 153, no. 319; R. Cormack and M. Vassilaki (eds.), Byzantium 330-1453, exhib. cat. Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2008, pp. 142-149; H.C. Evans and W.D. Wixom (eds.), The Glory of Byzantium. Art and Culture of the Middle Byzantine Era, AS 843-1261, exhib. cat, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1997, nos. 28, 281
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