August 25, 2010
The object pictured above is the so-called Jasper Cup, or Bowl, a highlight of the treasury of the Athonite Monastery of Vatopedi. What follow below are the opinions, expressed forty years apart, of two tolerably knowledgeable British aesthetes, Robert Byron and John Julius Norwich.
Byron first: “In the whole collection one object stands alone. This is the cup bestowed on the monastery by Manuel Cantacuzenos, son of the Emperor of that name, who was despot of Mistra from 1349 to 1380. Standing about 10 inches high, it consists of a broad bowl of transparent, gold-flecked jasper, yellow, dark green, and red, which is mounted on a thick octagonal stalk of silver-gilt. From a bulge in the centre of this, two rhythmic tapering dragons spring off at a tangent, until, taking an acute-angled turn, they come to rest upon the metal rim, wings folded, heads supported by little pair of clutching claws”. (The Station, 1928)
And then Norwich: “For the truth is that the treasures of Athos, though nearly always interesting and often beautiful, are rarely in themselves sublime. One or two, admittedly, catch at the breath; … several others fascinate for their associations, like the monumentally hideous jasper receptacle presented to Vatopedi by Manuel Cantacuzene, son of John VI, with its dire warning of what, five hundred years later, was to be described as art nouveau by a deluded posterity”. (Mount Athos, 1966)
Personally, I can see where Norwich is coming from. The proportions of the bowl and its base are worryingly out of balance with each other, and there is something about the whole thing which tends to set one’s teeth on edge. Maybe after a while it set the Despot’s teeth on edge, too, so that he ended up banishing it to the skevofilakion of Vatopedi.