Ethiopian Art in Swiss Collections (Meseret Oldjira)

Trips to Zurich’s Museum Rietberg and to Geneva’s Ethnography Museum, or Musée d’ethnographie de Genève (MEG) offer exciting opportunities to view Ethiopian Art in Switzerland. Both museums contain an extensive array of artworks and material culture from Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas, although their approach to exhibiting these works is strikingly different. In keeping with the museum’s historically oriented approach, the Rietberg’s display of Ethiopian Art focuses on pre-modern religious artworks, which are on permanent loan to the museum from a private collection. The objects on view include two impressive panel paintings – an early-eighteenth-century triptych and a fifteenth-century diptych. Without an accompanying text elaborating on these objects, I assume their dating is based on stylistic grounds. The large triptych illustrates the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child surrounded by multiple registers portraying saints and two Christological scenes. Its crowded composition is dominated by the active poses of the figures and the bright color palette of yellows, blues, and reds. Inscriptions in Ge’ez name some of the key figures across the three panels. In the central panel, the seated Virgin and Child are flanked by the protective figures of the archangels Michael and Gabriel with outstretched wings and raised swords. The lower register of this panel, which is separated from the upper register by a row of the Twelve Apostles, shows the equestrian saints Gelawdewos (Claudius) and Tewodoros (Theodore) vanquishing their enemies.

The left panel of the triptych consists of three registers portraying a Christological scene along with local Ethiopian saints and Saint George. At the top register we find a representation of the Harrowing of Hell, where a large figure of an elaborately dressed Christ stands victoriously over trampled demons, while angels fly above the rescued Adam and Eve standing behind Christ. Below this scene, the central register portrays the three Ethiopian saints Tekla Haymanot, Ewostatewos, and Aregawi looking toward one another as if in conversation. The third register at the bottom depicts Saint George rescuing the young woman Birutawit from a dragon, which lies crushed under the saint’s white horse. The right panel of the triptych similarly depicts a Christological subject alongside portraits of local and other Eastern Christian saints. The most prominent part of this panel is the bloodied body of the crucified Christ flanked by the sorrowful Virgin Mary and John the Evangelist. A soldier on horseback identified by an inscription as Longiwos (Longinus) pierces the side of Christ with a lance. Another prominent figure in this panel is Saint Gebre Menfes Qidus, a revered saint in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, who is depicted with his characteristic long hair, orans pose, and accompanying lion and leopard. 

The second Ethiopian artwork at the Rietberg is a diptych possibly representing scenes from the life of Saint George on two long rectangular panels. The panels illustrate the martyred body of Saint George at the center of a tightly packed crowd, who stand in front of a stylized arcade topped by a gabled roof against a bright red background. The configuration of the figures, their modelled faces and flowing drapery achieved through gentle gradation of color contrast sharply with the frontality and flat surfaces of color and pattern seen in the larger triptych.

In the left panel of the diptych, a group of men described by the Ge’ez inscription as “the bishops and the people” mourn over a shrouded body in the center. The “bishops” are distinguished from the “people” by their broad trimmed headgear. In the right panel of the diptych, the same crowd is once again labelled as “the bishops and the people,” and, here, they hold the dismembered body of Saint George. They are accompanied by the additional figure of the archangel Michael, identified textually by an inscription and visually by his halo and outstretched wings. The flaking of the paint on the lower part of Michael’s wings has revealed the underdrawing, offering some insight on the panel’s material production. An inscription at the top of the panel describes the scene as “How the angel [ ] the body of Saint George.” Although the verb in the inscription is no longer visible, we can see in the image that the angel Michael appears to bless the martyred saint. 

The display of Ethiopian Art at Geneva’s Musée d’ethnographie includes a wider array of artworks and objects such as elaborately designed hand crosses belonging to priests; pectoral crosses; private devotional objects such as healing scrolls; and large secular paintings from the twentieth century.

One of these secular paintings represents a grand royal banquet at the court of the Ethiopian Empress Zewditu. According to the museum, the painting dates from around 1920 and was completed by the artist Bähaylu Gäbrä Maryam. As the focal point of the painting the Empress Zewditu sits enthroned at the center of composition, not unlike the Virgin Mary of the triptych at the Rietberg. The painting portrays a microcosm of the Empress’s court from the lowliest servants to dukes and princes, and even foreign dignitaries. Although secular paintings such as this are rare in Ethiopian Art prior to the nineteenth century, we can see some of the lasting stylistic legacy of religious paintings such as the panels discussed above. This legacy is particularly apparent in the composition, which favors frontal figures in a variety of active poses; in the brightly colored and patterned surfaces; and in the use of registers to suggest spatial depth. 

Among the Ethiopian artworks at the MEG, I was most intrigued by a small object identified by the museum as a pendant in the form of a miniature bible. This pendant, which according to the museum dates from the twentieth century, bears remarkable similarity to European miniature book pendants from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Composed primarily of ivory and glass beads, this pendant represents a miniature book with a cover that contains a sculpted scene of the Crucifixion. I rarely encounter such objects in other museums with an Ethiopian Art collection. Much like the diptych at the Rietberg, this miniature book pendant left me with several unexpected questions, which I hope to pursue further.

Hope and Artistic Creativity (Ittai Weinryb)

During my time as part as a fellow at Global Horizons, I was working on two different projects. The first, a book which centers on the circulation of art and material culture in the Black Sea during the Middle Ages, where I examine how Europe negotiated with its frontier societies in the Black Sea and especially the Crimea, and deployed new technological means in artistic creation to subjugate indigenous population in its frontier territories. The study hopefully will combine, for the first time, an analysis of colonial European art and indigenous art produced by local populations. Amongst other, I hope my study will also shed new light on the origins and foundational aspirations of European Globalism in the 16th-19th centuries. Because of the Covid pandemic, while in Europe, I was not able to travel to the Ukraine and Russia, and so decided to focus on another book-length project.

This project, centers on the sentiment of Hope as a category for artistic creativity. This is a cross-disciplinary project, still in stages of development, involves not just the visual arts but also comparative literature, psychology, anthropology of religions, and sociology.

Fig. 1

This project had benefited greatly from my stay in Bern. One rainy morning, together with another Global Horizons fellow, Samuel Luterbacher, I embarked on a research trip to the remote Hermitage and church of Notre-Dame de Longeborgne which is located nearby the small village of Bramois, in the heart of the Valais. The hermitage, first constructed in 1522, when the residents of the village of Barmois handed over some of the caves located in the wild forest mountainous region (Fig. 1) to a group of Franciscan monks whose have maintained the hermitage and erected a church to the Madonna. The church then swiftly became a popular pilgrimage site throughout Switzerland. Apart from two altars, the interior of the hermitage is covered with more than 185 painted panels known as ex votos (Fig. 2). These rectangular wooden painted panels, each displaying some earthly misfortune which, surprisingly, is intersected and saved by divine intervention.

Fig. 2

Three centuries of painted ex-votos are visible in Longeborgne. They represent the most important collection of ex-votos in the Valais. An ex-voto such as the ones in the church, are painting, object, or plaque bearing a formula of recognition, which is placed in a church, a chapel in fulfillment of a vow or in gratitude for a grace obtained. The term comes from the Latin “ex voto suscepto” (in accordance to a vow made). These votive panels are the clear expression of an aftermath of an event, where the sentiment of hope, was a catalyst in its making. The painted panels themselves, are the outcome of the sentiment of hope. Their existence is a fulfilment of a vow, who’s in its heart lies hope. Hope that was made into a vow, and was fulfilled and therefore a panel came into existence. The formulaic representation on these panels always narrates an event containing divine intervention. The examples at Longeborgne are striking. An ex voto dated to 1847, shows, in somewhat Caspar David Friedrich manner, a man standing in front of the Hermitage, with the Madonna and Sorrow hovering in the skies above (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3

For the man, the ex voto could have either given as a sign of Hope or as a thank you for wish received. The Hermitage and the surrounding nature all mark the centrality of the place in relations to hope. Hope is accomplished or fulfilled when devotee and sacred place intersect. The votive panel is a testimony for human wish and place intersecting. In another, earlier example, a man kneeling, hat thrown on the grounds before him, marking a completion of a pilgrimage, and harnessing relations between sacred space and pilgrim (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4

His hands are brought together, marking hope for a wish to be fulfilled. Another panel, dated to 1775, shows a man kneeling in front of the Black Madonna (Fig. 5). The panel seems out of place, for the Hermitage at Longeborgne is dedicated to Our Lady, and the Black Madonna has a shrine dedicated to her in the monastery of Einsiedeln more than 200 kilometer away. We can only assume that the panel was offered at Longeborgne because the devotee, whose name is missing from the panel, could not make the long journey from Valais to Einsiedeln in east Switzerland.

Fig. 5

Maybe one of the striking examples at Longeborgne is the panel displaying a carriage accident (Fig. 6), where the hope for the intersection of the Virgin Mary of Longeborgne has saved the humans in their misfortune. The two men standing to the left of the carriage, seem shouting in distress for the Virgin to Help them, they are not begging, but almost demanding divine intervention.  Hope is an image for the moment, a visual manifestation of psychologically driven physical desire. It is a visual proclamation grounded in the history of gestures that is embedded in something deep, that connects to the sincerest moments on interiority, when the soul manifests itself physically. At the Hermitage at Longeborgne, the votive panel marks hopeful desires that are unique for the time and the place but at the same time could be found throughout, Switzerland, and beyond.

Fig. 6

Temporal ramifications of “layering” as an art historical methodology (Samuel Luterbacher)

During my time as part of the Global Horizons project, I examined aspects of Iberian imperialism in Asia and artistic production in the larger Indo-Pacific region through the lens of export lacquerware in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Its focus is a type of lacquerware  made in Japan as well as Southern China for a European market. These pieces are known in modern scholarship as “Nanban” lacquerware, meaning “Southern Barbarian” in Japanese. Local artisans responded to the influx of Iberian merchants and missionaries by modifying their craft. After extracting and refining the sap of a species of trees common to East Asia to yield the lacquer polymer, they applied various decorative techniques of embedding gold powder and bits of mother-of-pearl upon successive layers of the wet, binding substrate. This research examines lacquerware’s production and afterlife from the perspective of maritime trade, looking at its production and movement through the port cities of Goa, Macao, Nagasaki, Manila and Acapulco. A process of material layering inherent to the lacquer tradition— that is, of piecing together and binding different elements upon a single surface— parallels these objects’ alterations and material accretions in the hands of multiple far-flung recipients.


Fig. 1: Portable lacquered shrine (1580-1630) with crucifixion painting (signed by Joseph Almorín, 1778), collection Jorge Welsh, Lisbon.

The portable shrine (fig. 1) shown here exemplifies the continuous “layered” artistic histories created through this maritime zone. Produced in Japan for a Catholic consumer base at the turn of the seventeenth century, it traveled  across the Pacific to Colonial Mexico, via Manila. It landed in the hands of a local artist who painted this picture of the Crucifixion directly upon its lacquered ground, creating a shimmering surface of glistening paint, gold and pearl. This shrine testifies to the disparate materials and distant makers who were spread across wide geographical, temporal, and cultural coastal realms.

My time at Global Horizons offered the opportunity not only to conduct research and visit local collections, but also a crucial place to workshop ideas for an essay and wider book project with the scholarly team. The generous comments, discussions, and suggestions shared among the group offered me  a space to reconsider the temporal ramifications of “layering” as an art historical methodology, one that subsequently moves beyond the frameworks of hybridity that have long pervaded discourses of cross-cultural contact. This meant not only addressing the multiplicity of materials and makers which compose these travelling objects, but accounting for the aesthetic effect that such layering creates.​

Fig. 2: Reverse glass painting with Holy Face and Relics, Spain, c. 1600, Vitromusée, Romont, Switzerland

These reflections coincided with visiting collections to examine comparative objects traded along Indo-Pacific routes and their subsequent surface effects. This included a visit to the Vitromusée in Romont, which is dedicated to the arts of glass. The collection holds one of the largest collections of reverse-glass painting in the world. This process entails painting an image on a piece of glass and viewing  the finished picture through its overturned side. While the technique has precedents in antiquity and the medieval period, it found a new stage of development in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Northern and Southern Europe, particularly in the production of popular devotional images (fig. 2). The sheet of glass acted as a protective layer for the image, making it an equally portable medium which accompanied missionaries on their travels to Asia. This would initiate fabrication of reverse- glass painting in India, Japan and China, even prompting an export production in the Portuguese colonial enclave of Macao (fig. 3).

Fig. 3: Reverse glass painting with the circumcision of Christ, Macao, c.1750, Vitromusée, Romont, Switzerland

The Indo-Pacific operated as a space for the encounter of different light reflective technologies, including  reverse-glass painting, copper painting, mother-of-pearl, featherworks, and lacquerware. The case of reverse painting on glass becomes particularly interesting in relation to lacquerware, as many European observers compared lacquer’s translucent qualities of glass and mirrors. In both the lacquered export shrine and reverse glass paintings, the experience of viewing the devotional picture is articulated through a translucent and light-reflective exterior. However, while scholarly discussions of surfaces often focus on an object’s optical effects, this made me consider the tactility of these materials. Indeed, lacquer and glass painting possess a smooth and seamless surface, which invites touch. Furthermore, in a pre-industrial era, smooth and seamless surfaces entail a labor-intensive production process, one that paradoxically conceals any hint of manufacture. As a metaphor and model for this project, “layering” highlights an accretive multiplicity of makers and materials as the world became connected through new systems of exchange. At the sametime, it can also inform acts of artistic superimposition and colonial erasure in an era of imperialism. (Sam Luterbacher)

Baptism as an Obsession, Censers as Meeting Points by Ivan Foletti

As a guest at the Global Horizons Project, I spent an important part of my stay working on Late Antique Christian initiation. My ambition was to touch one of the neglected questions linked to initiatory rituals: the use of “objects” during baptism. This is a hard task: we do not have any evidence of such practices in written sources. On the other hand, we know for sure that the bodies of neophytes were ointed, their names inscribed to be read before the ritual, and that they received new white garments. To make it simple: the ritual of baptism was certainly accompanied by objects devoted to its practical, but also metaphorical, acts. How to deal with such a dichotomy?

The hypothesis I started to work with, in collaboration with my research team, is that these objects may have been exceptional both in their material features and their layout. Such an idea was justified by the recurrent presence of certain compositions – e.g., the Women at the Sepulcher – on a large number of objects which may have served as containers or as supports for scripture. I have been examining two groups of objects: the first group are ivory pyxides spread all around the world in museum collections [fig. 1]. Never analyzed from the chemical point of view, they were in the following centuries used for containing oils and incense. This idea is supported also by Late Antique representations of such containers. As such, their possible use during baptism seems plausible. This seems confirmed by the circular compositions reminding of the monumental decorations typical for initiatory spaces [fig. 2]. The same can be said about the second group: ivory diptychs.

It was with these premises in mind that I visited, together with my colleague Adrien Palladino, the collection of the Musée de Valère in Sion, where one of the most impressive Late Antique pyxides is preserved. Its entire decoration is devoted to the representation of the Women at the Sepulcher [fig. 3]. Unfortunately, we couldn’t touch the object and explore its interior. We discussed, however, how strongly this object might have been linked with the notion of death and resurrection. As recently demonstrated by Ally Kateusz, it is highly plausible that initiatory rituals were, up to the 4th century, administrated mainly by women. This was due to the fact that funerary rites were “women territory”, and that the traditional interpretation of baptism was precisely that of a ritual death followed by a resurrection into the new community. In this sense, the visual concept of the Sion pyxis seems to perfectly fit with this general framework. Very interestingly, the women on the pyxis are holding in their hands carefully rendered censers. These were linked with the cult of the dead. More interestingly, we know that incense was also widely used during initiatory rituals.

And now the funny point: while staying in Bern, I happened to discuss censers many times with Beate on which she was writing a book chapter. Probably executed in the Holy Land, the latter were linked to the pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulcher, but also to healing rituals. More interestingly, the iconography of these censers – generally dated from the 6th to the 12th centuries – is astonishingly similar to that on the pyxides. For instance, in some cases the Women at the Sepulcher appear on them [fig. 4]. This opened a conversation between Beate and myself about the actual function of these objects. Her arguments are perfectly fitting with my initial interpretation. The obsession, mentioned in the title of this short post, became a way of proposing parallel object stories.  The fact that censers are represented on pyxides makes an intersection of the functions of censers and pyxides in the baptismal ritual highly plausible. The same object may have experienced, during its “life”, several functions. While changing functions over time, it may have maintained an essential identity thanks to the representation of death and resurrection on it. But this is only the beginning of a story, which I hope will continue, and be taken up next during a public conversation in Brno this Autumn…

A Day Trip to Saint-Maurice d’Agaune by Nancy Thebaut

With the number of COVID-19 cases in rapid decline throughout Switzerland, Meseret and I decided to take a day trip to Sion and Saint Maurice. I’ll focus this blog entry on Saint Maurice only, however, as other Global Horizons members have previously written about their time in Sion.

Just a few minutes from the train station is the city’s crown jewel: the Saint-Maurice d’Agaune Abbey and Treasure. Founded in 515 by King Sigismund of Burgundy, the abbey is a prominent stop along the Via Francigena, or the pilgrimage route that connects St Peters in Rome to northwestern Europe. It is dedicated to Saint Maurice, a third-century Theban military saint who was popular among the kings of Burgundy and the princes of Savoy. Typically armed with a lance and shield, he was the patron saint of the Holy Roman Empire from the tenth century onward. In many Germanic countries, he is often represented as black in the mid-thirteenth century and thereafter.

The two most striking aspects of Saint-Maurice d’Agaune are its palimpsestic architecture and treasury. After visiting the church, we entered a partially open-air archaeological site that—with the help of excellent and newly installed educational displays—reveals the abbey’s complex architectural history. We were able to simultaneously see the site of the original tomb of Saint Maurice as well as parts of the five earlier churches.

The collection of the treasury is astounding, and thanks to the recent research and curatorial work of Pierre-Alain Mariaux, it is also now more intellectually accessible than ever before. A few standouts include St Martin’s vase (ca. 20 BCE vase with a fifth- or sixth-century setting), the ewer of Charlemagne (1st half of the ninth century), and the châsse of St Sigismund and his children, which was made in the so-called Saint-Maurice workshop (12th century). Perhaps my favorite, however, is the head reliquary of St Candidus (ca. 1165). In neighboring drawers and display cases, we found former contents of this reliquary, including twelfth-century textiles and relic labels from the Holy Land, a head cap (kamelkaukion) that likely belonged to Count Amadeus III of Saxony (1103-1148), and bits of wax that a goldsmith put below the silver plate to prevent deformations.

On a more personal note, the trip felt significant in a couple of ways.  It was my first art-related trip since the outbreak of the pandemic, and so to study such an exceptional site and collection of objects in person—and not on a screen!—was a veritable treat. But more importantly, visiting the abbey of Saint Maurice seemed particularly timely in the wake of ongoing Black Lives Matter protests throughout the globe. With the start of the fall semester only a couple of months away, I am actively thinking about ways that I can bring what I learned at the abbey into the classroom. Namely, that studying St Maurice the person, his relics, those sites that bear his name, and his modern-day (mis)appropriations might offer students an important way into thinking about black representation and erasure in the Middle Ages and beyond.

Researching global horizons at times of a pandemic?! Our way: the GH seminar by Stefanie Lenk

The time since early spring has been a great challenge in many respects. One of these challenges has been the almost complete standstill of academic life. It is only now that Swiss university libraries slowly open their doors again, academics being allowed in their offices – carefully respecting the required safety distance, and academic mailing lists containing a little more than the depressing sight of one conference cancellation after the next. Normal university life, to be sure, seems still far away. In Bern, a very quiet term has just ended. When the buzz and excitement of a proper university term will kick in again, no one can tell today.

Like everyone else, the Global Horizons project had to put up with drawbacks. Our journey to Colombia this summer had to be postponed, as did Saskia Quené’s long prepared international conference Between Figure and Ground. No less incisive, however, has been the sudden absence of daily companionship with colleagues and friends, of ideas flying around and the mutual encouragement at times.

However, Global Horizons did not simply stop when Covid-19 arrived in Europe. In fact, one of our group endeavours even intensified over the last months, and has been a great source of consolation and inspiration. I am talking of our GH seminars, in which project members, GH’s scholars in residence, and guests discuss a paper or a project of a couple of the attendants, often at an early stage of development. The GH seminar has always been my favourite part of a university week. But now, exchanging ideas with colleagues is a special gift. Of course, we met online. Often, we got together over large distances, called in from Paris or Berlin. GH seminars’ atmosphere is very collegial and encouraging, but still, everyone is of course eager to bring something interesting to the table. Thanks to the great diversity in Global Horizon’s profile, the breadth of topics is astonishing. This semester, just to give you an idea, I pondered over interactions between two illuminated late medieval gospel books at the Ethiopian monastery Dabra Hayq Estifanos, learned about the many ways to look at perspective in Fra Angelico’s Annunciation at the Prado, thought for the first time about the re-use of late antique medicine boxes as reliquaries, or followed Al-Biruni on his “geometrical path”. It must be said that this is only a fraction of this term’s particularly rich programme!

When it was my turn, I brought a dissertation chapter that I am currently revising for publication, which looks at the personification of Jordan in the dome of the Orthodox baptistery of Ravenna. Every time, I am a bit anxious before I present, and enthused afterwards! It is one thing to ask a friend or colleague for their opinion on a draft, but it is another to find yourself in front of a dozen of really smart advisers, scrutinizing your work from totally different angles, who all just want your best!

To say it in more general terms, this unusual semester made me that much more aware of the great gift of academic collaboration and exchange, which even defeats the constraints of a pandemic.

Global Horizons Writing Retreat in Valendas by Nancy Thebaut

Writing can so often be a lonely endeavor, but during a recent Global Horizons writing retreat up in the quiet mountain village of Valendas, it was anything but that. Housed in a seventeenth-century townhouse (with multiple wall paintings intact!), we spent a few days writing, talking about writing, and setting goals for the coming semester and year. We also found time to have delicious communal meals and take walks around the village, characterized by its dramatic views of the Rhine, snow-capped mountains, and dairy farms.

We arrived on Saturday and kicked off the retreat with a discussion about issues we individually faced with our current writing projects, whether dissertations, books, articles, or conference papers. There was admittedly something deeply comforting (and even cathartic) about sharing our challenges and learning that we all face similar difficulties. So often, we tend to think that we are alone in our struggle to write; this is, of course, far from true. Coping with writer’s block, finding time to write, resisting distraction, and managing writing-related anxiety were all common problems voiced by members of the GH team.

After taking turns naming the challenges we face when writing, we began to think in terms of strategy: what are our different tricks, so to speak, in overcoming these difficulties? I found myself taking lots of notes during this part of Saturday’s and then Sunday’s group meetings. For some, beginning the day with a timed session of free writing was a way to get into one’s work and overcome the initial anxiety that many of us face each time we open our current project; for others, creating a realistic ‘to-do’ list the night before is crucial for a productive writing session the following day. Other tips include writing in 25-minute spurts that are each focused on a particular question or problem; planning rewards in addition to writing goals each day; and keeping all writing for a single project within one word document (so that nothing gets lost!). 

An additional point of discussion was the place of conferences in relation to our writing projects. Some apply to conferences with the idea that, if accepted, the conference will be the opportunity to develop projects otherwise not yet begun; for others, conferences are for work that has already been carefully thought through. Although sometimes our strategies differed, we all agreed that formal analysis can be an excellent way to overcome writer’s block: simply pull up the image that interests you the most in your project, and begin writing about that. Writing, in this way, can be a form of thinking, and it is through the process of writing that many figure out what they want to say about their objects.

These meetings, however important, were of course not the primary way we spent our time in Valendas. On Sunday, the first full day of the retreat, we had breakfast at 8 am and then promptly found different rooms within the house, many of which were filled with long tables perfect for communal writing, and settled in with our laptops for the day, taking breaks only for meals and an occasional walk. I personally had one of the most productive writing days that I have had in a while—there was something deeply motivating about working alongside other pre-modernists in a space to which we had traveled for the sole purpose of writing. Learning that we all experienced similar personal and intellectual challenges viz. our own projects and sharing tips on how we could all be more satisfied with our work was at once edifying and empowering. I am trying to remember what I learned in those few days in Valendas as I continue to write—albeit now in a much more isolated state, given the Coronavirus outbreak—and recall that we are not alone in the challenges we face, personally and intellectually, as academic writers.  

Madrid and its surprises by Corinne Mühlemann

The forecast predicted rain. Madrid’s sun was the first surprise we encountered on this trip. We felt as if the winter is gone. While enjoying the sun we were thinking about the workshop Dialogues in the Late Medieval Mediterranean: Methodological Encounters and (Dis)Encounters which was organized by the Cost Action Islamic Legacy: Narratives East, West, South, North of the Mediterranean and should take place the following day.

The workshop was held at the Casa Árabe, the second surprise. Al-bait al-‛arabī is a meeting point between Spain and the Arab world in Madrid as well as Córdoba. It exists since 2006 and allows different institutions, private as well as public, to dialogue and interact. The location was perfectly chosen by the organizers since our discussions were diverse ranging from Mudejar inscriptions to Cyrillic script on Ottoman diplomatic documents to medieval textiles from Iberia. The researchers themselves showed a wide geographical range too, from as far as Croatia and Serbia in the East to the US in the West. This variety in topics as well as in different methodological approaches enriched our discussions in many ways. It was just the perfect surrounding to present our thoughts about the transfer of craft knowledge between Baghdad, al-Andalus and Norther Europe on the basis of the Niello technique for metalwork and the Lampas weave for textiles. Furthermore, this workshop enabled us to think about a future workshop Global Horizons will organize in 2021 together with Antonio Urquízar and Borja Franco (both UNED, Madrid) from the Cost Action.

The third and last surprise certainly was the special exhibition Las artes del metal en al-Ándalus at the Museo Arqueológico Nacional. We were able to see one of the Niello objects discussed in our paper. Seeing this casket in front of us created further questions about its marvelous making. How discussions in front of objects enrich our thinking is something we will keep in mind for the preparation of our workshop in 2021.

Metal Work in Al-Andalus – exhibition architecture made of metalwork

Global Horizons in Sion by Stefanie Lenk

This week we got spoiled with inspirations from many directions. Jaś Elsner visited us in Bern and we discussed his current work on copybook drawings for Coptic textiles on papyri. We got into a lively discussion about how to detect and talk about the determinacy and indeterminacy of drawings – a subject that has kept us busy since Jess Bailey’s and Corinne Mühlemann’s Drawing and Weaving workshop earlier this year.

On the following day we travelled to the beautiful city of Sion in the Valais, an hour and a half away from Bern. We were so lucky to have two excellent guides at our side – Patrick Elsig, the director of the History Museum of Sion, and Mme Zinn who showed us around the Basilique de Valère – a veritable time-machine!

Patrick Elsig led us through the current exhibition Aux sources du Moyen Age which assembles a surprising wealth of art from the first millennium found in the Valais. Also the interior design of the exhibition space is worth to be seen, as its former use as the prison of Sion is not only still palpable, but even used in an imaginative way to frame the exhibits.

The basilique de Valère and the attached History Museum are extraordinary for the richness of curious and wonderful things – be it the oldest playable organ in the world, the mill inside the church, the church treasury in the former archive of the basilique, filled with graffiti of its distracted users, or the panel showing the adoration of the magi that showed us once more in how many ways the horizon plays a central role in the imagination of the sacred and the mundane worlds.

Post Scriptum: Golden Delights

We couldn’t leave Kyoto without exposing ourselves to the glittering elegance of the golden pavilion of Kinkaku-ji. Originally built in the 14th century and turned into a Zen temple in 1408, the natural dark wood pillars and opaque white plaster walls contrast yet complement the glimmering upper stories that take your breath away. 

Although it is not possible to enter the building, Shaka Buddha and Yoshimitsu are placed inside, looking out over the pond that lies as a staging mirror in the middle of wildly colored autumn trees. 

Surprisingly, there is nothing tacky about the pavilion, it refuses any annotation to discourses on kitsch and art. Furthermore, it isn’t hard to believe that the graceful application of uncountable square gold leaf foils inspired Japan-obsessed Viennese artists and art historians around 1900 to gain interest in the materiality of the so-called gold ground.

That the medieval notion of gold as a substance that prolongs human life still resonates on Japanese menus, persuaded us to be on the safe side. Strolling around in fields of gold we were pretty sure–”no one is luckier than we are!”