Sunday, January 25, 2009

Cypriot Tomb Scratchings

Tassos Papacostas' monograph-article, "The History and Architecture of the Monastery of Saint John Chrysostomos at Koutsovendis, Cyprus, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 61 (2007) pp. 25-148, reprints a photograph by Cyril Mango from a medieval tomb slab (fig. 28), first published in Dumbarton Oaks 44 (1990) fig. 186. On the left, I have sketched out the general elements of the slab. The lines on the upper left represent the entombed human. The figure is drawn so scantily and reminds me of medieval graffiti. A couple of additional lines, moreover, add complexity to the reading of the piece. First, there are drilled holes parallel to the oval that frames the figure. Scratchings inscribing an arc across the slab suggest the slab's placement under a swinging door, a threshold (whether of primary or secondary setting). A clef-like symbol tops the upper right edge. The vertical lines are cuts along the slab.

Isn't this a puzzling image? Its haphazard (dare, I say) vernacular character introduces questions about the nature of funerary demarcation in the Byzantine and Latin Middle Ages. Is a childlike scratching sufficient to outline the bodily character of the deceased, lying below? Is the funerary image simply indexical, pointing a finger to the body underneath the slab? In order to place the slab in context, I have followed the comparanda in Brunehilde Imhaus' authoritative catalog of Cypriot funerary inscriptions, Lacri
mae Cypriae: Les lamres de Chypre, 2 vols. (Nicosa, 2004). This is a spectacular publication. I am pouring over the 564 comparative pieces, relishing in the beautiful combination of clothed human figures, insignia and text.

The examples from Lacrimae Cypriae, however, are much more articulated. Consider the figure on the left, (no. 166, v. 1, pp. 87-89, pl. 78), the tomb of a knight from the Cathedral of Saint Sophia, dating to 1370. The inscription identifies the figure as Messire Ansiau de Moustazou. Although carved with incisions similar to the Koutsovendi slab, the iconography is elaborate. We can identify a full figure whose features (face, hair) are stylized to fit the elaborated dress (chain link, armor, shield). The composition is framed by a Gothic triangle with floral decorations and heraldic shields. Around the iconic field we have a Latin insciption wrapping around the edges of the slab.

Compositionally, we are in safe art-historical territory and can say lots about iconography, status, identity, and style. Although found in a provincial setting, the slab derives from a rich tradition of medieval funerary art that depicts full bodies. For a comparable crusader example, see tomb of William of Saint John, Archbishop of Nazzareth, from Acre, illustrated in Jaroslav Folda's, Crusader Art in the Holy Land: From the Third Crusade to the Fall of Acre 1187-1291 (Cambridge, 2005), p. 495, fig. 337. These inscribed slabs are related to the graphic techniques of manuscript illuminations. Other tombs pop out into the third dimension; one of my favorites such sculptures is a recumbant knight from Normandy (ca. 1220-1240) at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The art historical context shows a range of representation, from three-dimensional physicallity to two-dimensional stylization. In lacking elaborate artifice, the slab of Koutsovendis disrupts our expectations of beauty. Whether talismanic, cartoonish, accidental, or uniconic, the slab expands the margins of what the medieval viewer of Cyprus would find acceptable for monumental, public commemoration.

I must stress that I have NOT seen the original piece, so my observations here are very tangential, perhaps fitting the incomprehensible character of the piece. Nor am I an expert on Lusignan Cyprus. Superficially, the slab connects to a body of haphazard visual notations that I've collected from Corinth and other Byzantine sites. See discussion on graffiti and street art in this blog.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States