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Seeing the Unseen: Plaster Reliefs in Middle Byzantine Constantinople

In: Eurasian Studies
Author:
Flavia Vanni PhD, Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies, University of Birmingham

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Abstract

This paper discusses the scarce, but crucial evidence for plaster reliefs in Constantinople between the ninth and the thirteenth centuries. While many plaster reliefs survived in the Balkan peninsula, there is room to confirm that they were also used in the capital. Plaster reliefs were a quick substitution for marble, but could also answer aesthetic needs and architectural conventions that continued from Late Antiquity in to Middle and Late Byzantine architecture, even with some changes.

1 Looking for Plaster Reliefs (9th–15th Centuries)*

The history of a material is the history of the people who worked with it, those who commissioned it, and the society in which they lived. We often perceive Byzantine architecture through durable materials, such as bricks, marble, mosaic, and wall paintings. However, built environments were also spaces decorated with a range of less durable materials such as wooden furnishings, textiles, and plaster reliefs.1 The first two rarely survive due to later refurbishments, and to the climatic and soil conditions of most of the Mediterranean (except for Egypt), which do not easily allow for their preservation.2 However, their crucial role in the articulation and the perception of the space is well known and studied.3

Plaster reliefs, by contrast with wooden and textile furnishing, are less studied among Byzantinists, especially for the period between the ninth and the fifteenth centuries. However, the tradition of using plaster reliefs for the interior and the exterior of buildings was rooted in the Mediterranean long before the Byzantine Empire.4 Here is not the place to trace the history of the use of plaster reliefs in the Mediterranean. However, it is important to understand that its use in Roman and Late Antique architecture represents the main tradition on which plasterworks continued to be based in Middle and Late Byzantine buildings, even though plaster reliefs were widely used in Islamic architecture too.5 Late Antique plasterworks are the most well-known among Byzantinists. In particular, those from the churches of Ravenna made between the fifth and the sixth centuries,6 those from the church of St. Mary in Grad (sixth century), from the Euphrasian Basilica in Poreć (sixth century),7 from St. Maria Formosa in Pula (sixth century) and in the duomo,8 those from several buildings on Cyprus (fourth to seventh centuries),9 and finally those from Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (sixth century).10 Most of these cases were included in general surveys on the use of stucco between the Late Antique period and the Early Middle Ages and in studies concerned with the evolution of the plasterwork technique in the West.11

The record becomes patchy when we attempt to trace the continuous use of plasterworks from the seventh century until 1453. I will skip here the seventh and the eighth centuries because they are not the focus of this volume; it is sufficient to say that stucco in the seventh and eighth centuries continued to be used as testified by the examples in Cyprus,12 and by some capitals in the Basilica of St. Demetrios in Thessaloniki.13 From the ninth century onwards, the evidence for plaster reliefs increases, and it includes friezes, capitals, arcosolia, proskynetaria frames, colonnettes, free-standing liturgical furnishings, and window transennae.14 While most of the evidence survives in monuments located in the Balkan peninsula, it should not be considered a localised phenomenon. Stuccoworks were also found in few, but key-case studies, in Constantinople.

2 The Evidence from Constantinople

This paper focuses on the few surviving plaster reliefs from Constantinople in light of contemporary production from the rest of the Byzantine Empire. It argues that their use was not only dictated by the ‘absence’ of marble, but from the perpetuation of aesthetic conventions which continued from the Late Antique period, even with some changes. The evidence from Constantinople is composed of most of the same types of decorations recorded elsewhere: friezes, proskynetaria frames, and window transennae. I will not discuss here window transennae, because they deserve a particular focus.15 However, it is important to bear in mind that from the Middle Byzantine period onwards their use became almost ubiquitous.16 In Constantinople, and areas where marble was abundant, such as the Mani, window transennae were also often made of marble or stone.17 However, plaster window transennae allowed for a simple glazing which was sometimes used in combination with other types of glazing (stained glass and marble) to mark different areas of the church, as has been observed for the Pantokrator monastery (twelfth century), and the parekklesion of St. Saviour at Chora (1316–21);18 another case is transennae of a Late Byzantine tomb in the narthex of the Pammakaristos church for which there is less information excepting that they were used in the dome.19 The pieces that will be discussed in the following lines are, unfortunately, the only known surviving stucco decorations from Constantinople. However, they are crucial to trace the continuous use of stucco during the Middle and probably the Late Byzantine period in Constantinople, which followed more general trends in Byzantine architecture.

The first plaster relief to discuss is a fragmentary frieze found in a room excavated in 1983 by the Istanbul Archaeological Museum Directorate, during the construction of the railway.20 The room is located in the area of the palace of the Boukoleon, north of the so-called ‘Justinian House’.21 The room measures 5×7 metres, and it had a decorative scheme which, at least in its last phase, was composed of different materials: cornices and colonnettes made of architectural ceramics, two stone arches with glass inlaid, marble friezes, a marble sculpture of angel made in champlevé technique, and a stucco frieze.22 They are all today on display at the Archaeological Museum of Istanbul, and were dated by Marlia Mundell-Mango to the second half of the ninth century.23 The plaster relief probably belongs to this phase, since a chronology to the second half of the ninth century fits well with the style and the decorative pattern. In fact, the stucco frieze is decorated with a series of flutes and vertical fillets (probably darts) (Figs. 1–2), which is the same motif as the architectural ceramics from the same room.24 Flutes of this kind tend to disappear from marble and stucco sculpture after the end of the tenth century.25 Some close comparisons are the marble cornice in the Fatih Camii (church of St. Stephen) at Trilye (ninth century),26 and the cornices and the impost of the capital from the lost church of St. Clemens in Ankara.27 The room’s opus sectile pavement is later than the carved elements, and should be dated to the time of the emperor Nikephoros Phokas (963–9).28 The original function of this room is unknown, since its surroundings were not excavated. Scholars agree that by the time of the installation of the marble floor, the room functioned as a chapel or oratory. Therefore, the room was built and decorated between the second half of the ninth and the late tenth century, which corresponds with the interest shown to this area by the emperors from Theophilos (829–42) to Nikephoros Phokas.29 The use of stucco in this room seems to me to be a choice not dictated by the absence of marble, because marble supply was not a problem in Constantinople and the emperors in this period did not lack the means to afford marble.30 The plaster frieze reproduces the motif encountered on some ceramic cornices from the same room, which were mounted on walls through chunks of plaster.31 It is possible that the plaster relief was worked at the time of installing the ceramics and modelled en-pendant with them. These architectural ceramics are among the first encountered in Constantinople, perhaps an introduction from the Abbasid territories.32 The stucco frame of the Boukoleon room, even in its generic design, belonged to this innovative decorative system and it is possible that the two materials (stucco and ceramics) were often paired together.

Figure 1
Figure 1

Istanbul, Arkeoloji Müzeleri, stucco frieze from the room in the Boukoleon palace area excavated in 1983

Citation: Eurasian Studies 19, 1 (2021) ; 10.1163/24685623-12340111

Photo: Author
Figure 2
Figure 2

Drawing of the stucco frieze from the Boukoleon palace area, and hypothetical reconstruction of the decorative pattern

Citation: Eurasian Studies 19, 1 (2021) ; 10.1163/24685623-12340111

Drawing by The Author

Plaster reliefs and architectural ceramics also appeared next to each other in a room belonging to the Sampson hospital complex;33 though, there the two may not have been contemporary. The plaster reliefs were described by Dirimtekin as ‘cadre d’icones’ decorated with geometric patterns and dated between the eleventh and the twelfth centuries.34 Dirimtekin justified this chronology based on the close resemblance of the stucco frames to some at the Archaeological Museum of Istanbul; however, the inventory number provided by Dirimtekin does not correspond with the published catalogues of sculptures of the museum, nor those on display, and the current location of the stucco proskynetaria is unknown;35 thus, I could not verify this chronology. Some information can be extracted from the context to which they belonged: the room no. 5. Room no. 5 is the result of some works which altered the sixth-century structure and may be connected with the refurbishments made by Leo droungarios in the 970s when he was in charge of the hospital of Sampson.36 The opus sectile floor confirms this chronology37 and the architectural ceramics,38 while the masonry of the niches (recessed-brick) provides us only with a terminus post-quem (mid-tenth century).39 We can neither exclude nor confirm, that the stucco frames and the wall paintings they were associated with, but now lost, are later works. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries the hospital was still functioning and had some religious images destroyed by the Crusaders during the sack of 1204.40 Unfortunately, the images mentioned in the text cannot be identified with those framed by the plaster frames.41 Therefore, we should date the plaster frames more broadly to the Middle Byzantine period, a chronology that fits well with the general spread of proskynetaria frames in Byzantine architecture.42

Figure 3
Figure 3

Deutsches Archäologisches Institut (DAI), Zentrale, Archiv der Zentrale, NL Schazmann, Paul, No. 61 Skizzenbuch grau, p. 69

Citation: Eurasian Studies 19, 1 (2021) ; 10.1163/24685623-12340111

Courtesy of Deutsches Archäologisches Institut

The now almost destroyed Odalar Camii preserved some fragments of plaster reliefs too. The original function of the Odalar Camii had been at the centre of a lot of debate since the beginning of the twentieth century;43 however, the current opinion is that it probably belonged to St. John of Petra’s monastery, one of the wealthiest monasteries of Constantinople, especially during the Late Byzantine period.44 The stucco pieces are now lost, but they survive in two unpublished drawings of Schatzmann (1934) preserved at the DAI archive in Berlin in ‘Skizzenbuch grau’ no. 61. The first (Figs. 3–4) shows a frieze with a five-leave palmette and half-palmette scroll with traces of gilding and red paint (probably the preparation for the golden leaf). The second is a life-size profile of a torus cornice with two flat fillets and blue and red paint traces (Fig. 5). Perhaps the pieces are parts of the frieze photographed by Schatzmann and published by Westphalen in pl. 38 no. 4, whose material is not specified.45 Both the photograph and the sketches document the display of the same decorative motif, the torus profile, and the dimensions, which are for the first fragment 16 cm thick,46 and for the second a diameter of 14 cm.47 They both had traces of red paint on the leaves, while only the second had blue in the recessed parts, a common practice in Byzantine sculpture.48 Gold is not recorded here, but it is possible that the traces of red may belong to the preparation for gilding.

Figure 4
Figure 4

Deutsches Archäologisches Institut (DAI), Zentrale, Archiv der Zentrale, NL Schazmann, Paul, No. 61 Skizzenbuch grau, p. 69, detail of the stucco frieze

Citation: Eurasian Studies 19, 1 (2021) ; 10.1163/24685623-12340111

Courtesy of Deutsches Archäologisches Institut
Figure 5
Figure 5

Deutsches Archäologisches Institut (DAI), Zentrale, Archiv der Zentrale, NL Schazmann, Paul, No. 61 Skizzenbuch grau, internal cover not numbered

Citation: Eurasian Studies 19, 1 (2021) ; 10.1163/24685623-12340111

Courtesy of Deutsches Archäologisches Institut

The original location of the plaster friezes within the building is unknown. However, one of the drawings of Schatzmann seems to suggest that one was located next to a mosaic surface (Fig. 4); this is not surprising since stucco cornices are frequently used to mark the transitions between wall revetments made of opus sectile and niches, spandrels or domes covered with mosaic.49 The thickness of the frieze perhaps suggests a stringcourse or a dome cornice, as it is almost identical to the one in the katholikon of Hosios Loukas (ca 15 cm),50 and it is thicker than the plaster reliefs and marble arcosolia used for funerary monuments (usually between 5 and 10cm).51 Schatzmann’s drawing of the plaster relief is also very important because it testifies to the use of mosaic in the church; whether it was in the crypt, or the upper church is impossible to say.52 Indeed, it is known that the lower crypt was decorated with wall paintings, while there is less information about the upper church.53 Regarding the chronology of the fragments, it is impossible to say whether they belong to the Middle or Late Byzantine phase of the building. The torus profile and the ornament are typical to both periods, finding comparisons with the stucco friezes from the Çanlı Kilise in Cappadocia (around the end of the eleventh century),54 with the torus marble stringcourse cornice of the northern church of the Pantokrator monastery (twelfth century),55 and with the one in the dome of the south church of the Lips monastery (1290–1300).56 Both chronologies correspond to some of the phases of the monument: ninth to tenth century for the crypt, mid-twelfth century for the church,57 and end of the thirteenth-beginning of the fourteenth century for the sculptures.58

The use of plaster reliefs recorded in these three buildings in Constantinople is consistent with their use in the Byzantine Empire. Cornices and friezes were used in the katholikon of the monastery of Hosios Loukas (eleventh century),59 in the katholikon of Vatopedi (beginning of the eleventh century),60 probably in the Panagia Kosmosoteira in Feres (1152),61 and in the katholikon of the monastery of Daphni.62 Proskynetaria frames made of plaster are also known from different buildings, such as the Protaton church on Mount Athos (tenth century), and St. Panteleimon at Nerezi (1164).63 These cases come from religious buildings; however, an isolated passage from the written sources provides us with some evidence for plaster reliefs in lay and domestic contexts. This is the comment of the canonist Theodore Balsamon (late twelfth century) on canon 100 of the council of Trullo, where he complained about the rich who decorated their houses with ‘indecorous’ painted scenes of erotes and human figures made of stucco.64 It has been noted that Balsamon’s Comments are full of references to contemporary laws, practices, and contemporary life.65 Canon 100, first written in 692, is one of the first occasions when the Church dealt with the power of images making a distinction between good and bad images using the criterion of corruption and purity.66 In the late twelfth century, Balsamon made this prescription more restrictive by condemning an aristocratic habit or fashion. It goes into detail by specifying the material in which the ‘indecorous’ images were made: stucco.67 This latter aspect is particularly relevant because mentions of plaster reliefs are infrequent in any genre of Middle and Late Byzantine texts.68 Byzantine authors almost never used the adjective gypsinos (made of gypsum) or the terms gypsos (gypsum/stucco) and koniama (plaster/stucco) in relation to the decoration of buildings. This does not mean that plaster reliefs were not appreciated nor used (otherwise Balsamon would not have complained about them), but that they cannot be easily spotted in texts because they are not accompanied by the specification that they were made of plaster. Nevertheless, the material evidence in combination with the written sources shows that plaster reliefs continued to be used without interruption from Late Antiquity to the Late Byzantine period, and this raises questions about how it was perceived and why its use continued in the Middle and Late Byzantine periods.

3 Plaster Reliefs in Byzantine Architecture

As we saw above, plaster reliefs were used next to a variety of other materials (mosaics, coloured marble, architectural ceramics, wall paintings). They combined to adorn the building in the richest way possible. The plaster’s easy workability allowed artisans to create elaborate carvings, which could be covered with gold and paintings (as in the Odalar Camii), and were highly appreciated. A confirmation comes from the sixth-century ekphrasis of Hagia Sophia of Constantinople by Paul the Silentiary.69 This literary text is most well-known for its description of the numerous types of marble which covered the interior of the church, but there is also a passage which has been connected by scholars to the stucco cornice that runs through the naos and the narthex.70 Paul described it as ‘The twining vine with shoots like golden ringlets winds its curving path and weaves a spiral chain of clusters. It projects gently forward so as to overshadow somewhat with its twisting wreaths the stone that is next to it. Such ornaments surround the beauteous church. […]’.71 Paul focuses the reader’s attention on the evocative shape of the cornice which resembles a golden vine scroll, while he overlooks its actual materiality. This is not the case for the variety of marble revetments and marble sculptures of the Hagia Sophia which are described in great detail with regards to their colour, their ability to reflect the light, their shape, and their durability. This reflects the appreciation the Byzantines had for marble itself, which is a direct inheritance from the Greek and Roman tradition.72 If we want to understand how Byzantines appreciated plaster reliefs, then, we should turn back again to the material evidence. In most of the buildings analysed, stucco was used next to other materials. The use of different materials in the architectural decoration perpetuated the taste for variety, which aimed at arousing thauma (wonder) in beautiful buildings through the impossibility to fix the gaze on anything in particular, because of the incredible artisans’ craftmanship and the variety of materials.73 Variety was one of the major aesthetic principles that guided Late Antique and Byzantine art and literature.74 Plaster reliefs were part of these devices, which came together to make the visitor feel lost and at the same time amazed by the shining colours and extravagant shapes.

In sum, plaster reliefs were an aspect of Byzantine interior decoration which continued to characterise religious and lay buildings in Constantinople and in the rest of the Byzantine Empire. However, it is difficult to give an exact answer to the extent of the real diffusion of such reliefs in Middle and Late Byzantine Constantinople. The three cases discussed above provide us with the premise for recognising the use of stucco in the capital as well as in the Balkan Peninsula. The high availability of marble in Constantinople may also explain the scarce diffusion of stucco here, at least in public, and religious buildings. Nevertheless, we should not forget that plaster reliefs are easily removable and that the history of the buildings from Constantinople to Istanbul and their continuous change in use may have affected the amount of plaster reliefs originally present there. The stucco artisans, or people in charge of stucco decorations (gypsoplastai) were active in Middle Byzantine Constantinople alongside painters, sculptors and carpenters, as attested by Chapter 22 of the Book of the Eparch.75

While made of an ephemeral material, plaster reliefs had a long life in Byzantine architectural practices, a life that is visible to us through fragments and pieces to put together, but that testifies to their appreciation by the Byzantines.

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