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!”


More treasures from the Shōsōin by Zumrad Ilyasova

Leaving Kyoto for Tokyo on Thursday morning, we looked up in the sky and noted its resemblance to an airy batik silk spreading above our heads. Not the clouds were attached to the blue ground—it was almost like the in-between had been dipped into blue dye, absorbing it to various depths. We did not know we would encounter more outstanding blue-grounded textile creations later in the day.

On the last day of our trip we returned to the place where we started—to the Tokyo National Museum. We came to see the second rotation of the Shōsōin exhibition and were highly rewarded for coming back. It was the renewed textile section that caught most of our attention. Fragments of a patterned Tang dynasty nuki-nishiki silk (weft-faced compound twill), once sewn together into a bag for a biwa lute, stroke us with their vivid colours and the high quality of the weave. The central decorative element karahana, or the Tang rosette, was rendered in nine colours on a clear blue ground. Each flower petal was composed out of five different shades, which not only added depth and volume to the lotus flowers but almost followed the aesthetic principles of buddhist painting.

As we encountered the karahana painted on multilayered gowns underneath the “foreign” armours of the dynamic wooden sculptures of the heavenly guardian deities and on the dry lacquer sculptures of Buddha’s disciples at Kōfukuji, we started to think about material translations in different media. One fascinating object we saw at the Shōsōin exhibition in Nara—the eight-lobed wooden Tang mirror case covered with a karahana-patterned silk—may provoke further thoughts about the relations between actual silk covering a wooden core and its painted replications. 

We have seen a number of different material surfaces evoking textile patterns throughout the trip. Painted wood, dry lacquer, but also paper, like the scroll displayed at the Thirty-Six Immortal Poets exhibition in Kyoto, emulating a metallic embroidery or a brocade with its floral decoration applied with mica powder. On the other hand, certain textiles seemed to refer to other materials, for example by resembling hanging metal temple banners through radiant embroidery, or by “becoming” anatomic organs and corporal fluids inside the “true icon” of the Shakyamuni Buddha sculpture at Seiryōji.

Replicas of the organs made of silk found inside the Shakyamuni Buddha at Seryōji

Next to the lute cover fragments we saw the karahana motif on a bigger scale, assembled out of multicoloured felt pieces on the kasen rug with a similar deep blue ground. An other blue-grounded textile object was the joku mat for a buddhist offering table with paired ducks on a lotus flower applied with the kyokechi resist dyeing technique. In the vitrine of preserved scraps we even saw tiny fragments of chain stitch embroidery on blue ground. The technical variety presented in the exhibition reminded us to treat the generalizing term for the medium of “textiles” with more caution. 

Kyoto Day 3: Seriality and Fragmentation by Kristopher Kersey

On our last day in Kyoto we spent the morning at Rokuharamitsuji and the Rengeōin (despite the scaffolding) before visiting a special exhibition on the Thirty-Six Immortal Poets at the Kyoto National Museum. In the afternoon, the group split to see sites of individual interest: Kinkakuji, the newly reopened Kobe City Museum, and Fushimi Inari.

Following on the heels of a dynamic seminar on ivory carving (led by Sarah Guérin) the evening before, we were well primed to discuss the sculptural assemblages at the morning temples. Beginning at Rokuharamitsuji, we spent nearly an hour enraptured by the famous statue of Kūya, discussing not only its famous figuration of iconic language, but also the fine details of the carving, the state of preservation, and its relationship to the other sculptures in the single-gallery Treasure Hall.

Image result for sea of buddha

In contrast to the intimacy of Rokuharamitsuji, the subsequent Sanjūsangendō presented an overwhelming array of sculptures: one thousand “identical” iterations of the Bodhisattva Kannon standing ten rows deep with 500 each flanking the monumental Kannon icon at the center of the long hall. Joining the 1001 Kannon, were twenty-eight attendant deities standing in the first row (along with the Wind and Thunder Gods). A special autumn viewing platform allowed us to gain a new, but ahistorical, perspective on the so-called “sea of Buddha” (as the contemporary artist Sugimoto Hiroshi terms the site in his reframing of the altar as installation).

The morning ended with a visit to see the Satake version of the Thirty-Six Immortal Poets, a two volume set of early thirteenth-century (imaginary) portrait scrolls that were cut apart and sold in 1919. Reunited for the first time in a century, the scrolls were beautifully installed, with each given his or her own pseudo-tokonoma. The group was especially well prepared to view this exhibition, since most had by then acquired monoscopic lenses (gyararī sukōpu), which allowed for close inspection of the detailed lines of the physiognomy. These two temples and one exhibition served as excellent final sites of analysis, since they engaged the primary themes of our week-long seminar discussions: the relationship of physiognomy to mimesis, sculpture to body, calligraphy to pictorial line, and figure to ground.

Kyoto’s Sounds by Stefanie Lenk

Today, Japanese Buddhists mostly aspire to be reborn in the Pure Land – a Buddhist heaven – rather than attaining Nirvana which is considered too difficult a task for a lifetime. At Uji, a small town next to Kyoto, the Pure Land touches earth. In the middle of the 11th century, at about the time when Pure Land Buddhism came to the fore in Japan, the nobleman Fujiwara no Yorimichi built here a temple called Byōdōin which is a precise imitation of the Pure Land, in the way it is described in the Visualization Sutra (Amitāyurdhyāna Sūtra). The sutra tells us how the Buddha helps aspirants to the Pure Land to reach the heaven by means of a a meditation practice. This practice is based on the visualization of the Pure Land. Also, the recitation of the name of the Buddha Amitabha (Amida in Japanese), the Buddha who resides over the Pure Land, is crucial.

For most of our group, today’s highlight probably were the wooden sculptures of boddhisattvas, carved by the workshop of the famous Heian sculptor Jōchō, which formed the retinue of the Buddha Amitabha in the central hall of Byōdōin. One thing to note is that the Pure Land was definitely imagined as a place full of music! The boddhisattvas play flutes, drums, cymbals, lutes and a host of other instruments which make us aware that hardly any of us has a clear idea of what classical Japanese music actually sounds like.

The idea that heaven must culminate in heavenly music strikes us as pretty familiar. Less obvious we find the central role chanting plays on the worshippers’ path towards the Pure Land, and more generally in many Japanese Buddhist schools. Everyone can attain rebirth in the Pure Land, the Visualization Sutra says, as long as one is mindful of Amitabha and chants his name. We have done it ourselves a few days ago when we stayed overnight on Mount Koya at a temple partaining to the Shingon school and started the morning with chanting: “Na-Mu-A-Mi-Da-Butsu” (“Adoration for Amitabha Buddha”).

A forefather of this practice is the monk Kūya, a famous sculpture of whom we visit in the museum of the small temple of Rokuharamitsuji. The sculpture, created by Kōshō (died 1237), shows how Kūya travelled in the 10th century around Japan and spread the practice of nenbutsu (recollection of the Buddha) by reciting his name. From his mouth exit six images of the Buddha, mounted on a thin wire. Each figure of the Buddha stands for one of the six mōra Na-Mu-A-Mi-Da-Butsu. In Japanese, words are not broken up in syllables, but in signs. All of these mōra are chanted at the same length which makes for a very rhythmic chanting practice. In the sculpture of Kūya, a sound becomes an icon. Incantation and visualization are one.

When a member of the staff of the museum of the Rokuharamitsuji temple tells us the history of the temple, the importance of nenbutsu for many different schools of Japanese Buddhism becomes clear: Kūya founded the temple in 951 and left it unaffiliated. Only later the temple became associated with the “esoteric” Buddhist school Tendai. Today, however, the temple pertains to another esoteric sect, Shingon, the same that we came across on Mount Koya. Throughout the temple’s history, the memory of Kūya as well as his sculpture were preserved. Kūya, best known as an identification figure of Pure Land Buddhism, left in fact a mark on many Buddhist practices.