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Photo: Joachim Rotteveel

Sgraffito - Byzantium

Variants of the sgraffito technique were extensively used in the Byzantine World from the 12th century onwards. The Byzantine potters took much more trouble to ensure that vessels for the table such as bowls and dishes were pleasing to look at. This was achieved by covering their inside with an overall coating of white slip and a colourless lead glaze, and further enhancing the surfaces with a colourful variety of incised and painted designs. Consequently, the bulk of fine wares found at Byzantine sites consists of ‘fine sgraffito ware’ (decorated with fine line incisions with a sharp tool) and ‘champlevé ware’ (where larger parts of the white slip were cut away).

Both decoration techniques in Byzantine ceramics were of Islamic origin, mostly inspired by precious metalwork. The Byzantine potters also drew upon the decorative vocabulary of the Islamic World. Some motifs (such as birds, or the so-called ‘Kufic’ border) resembled Sgraffito Ware from Iran and Syria. This is not so strange, because the trade in pottery was international during the Middle Ages. Contacts between Byzantium and the Islamic World were close, and there were even Muslim communities within the Byzantine Empire. Furthermore, excavations in Greece (Corinth), in the Crimea (Chersonesos) and in Cyprus (Nicosia) yielded various ceramics from the Islamic World.

These fancy table wares with a colourless glaze seem to have gone out of use at the end of the 12th century, being overtaken by two different types of coloured Sgraffito Wares. At first, the Byzantine potters added only a single colour to the glaze. This first type is called ‘monochrome sgraffito ware’. It is decorated with human figures, animals, birds, foliate designs and the like, engraved through a white slip and covered with a yellow or green glaze. A considerable number of this Byzantine monochrome sgraffito ware depicts birds, often in free style next to a pointed plant on the interior of bowls. Such a monochrome sgraffito bowl with a bird representation can be seen in the exhibition (no. OC I 14-1950, collection Haags Gemeentemuseum). It was manufactured in northern Greece, actually in the city of Thessaloniki, and can be roughly dated in the late 13th to 14th centuries.

The second type of coloured sgraffito wares is known as ‘brown and green sgraffito ware’ or ‘polychrome sgraffito ware’ with two or more colours in the glaze. It became more common from the 13th century onwards. Both styles were fairly widespread and have been recovered in fragmentary form from excavations at Istanbul, and in Greece, the Crimea and in Cyprus. In addition to the vast improvement in the quality of the lead glaze (which became thicker and with a more vitreous appearance) and the departure from a mono¬chrome glaze, a fine, thin¬ly-potted ware repla¬ced the previous thick, soft and coarse wares. Apart from the introduction of a new range of designs, the sgraffito-technique was also then employed in a more inventive and better controlled fashion.

A good example of this ‘brown and green sgraffito ware’ is shown in the exhibition by a bowl on high foot, also known as chalice, from Cyprus (A 3566). This chalice was made in the late medieval period, and can be dated in the 14th to 15th centuries. The decoration in ‘decadent’ style is finely engraved (with thin lines), showing for instance a small incised circle in the centre of the interior base. On Cyprus, these local sgraffito wares were primarily manufactured in the important pottery production centre of Lapithos on the northern coast of the island. Apparently, Lapithos was the only pottery manufacture centre producing glazed and decorated ceramics with clay of a superior quality. According to a written document, about forty pottery workshops were still in operation in AD 1889, but only four ten years later (in AD 1899).

Because of their geographical position between the Islamic World and Western Europe, the Byzantine potters in Cyprus, Istanbul and Greece played an important role in the development of western European ceramic technology, especially in the introduction of techniques related to sgraffito pottery. The trade of Byzantine sgraffito pottery to the West was first carried out by the Byzantines themselves. However, during the period of the Crusades (in the 12th and 13th centuries) the Italian mercantile cities of Venice and Genoa gradually started to control the trade in Byzantine ceramics in the Mediterranean. This facilitated the introduction of the sgraffito technique in Italy.