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.
Earlier this summer the Hellenic Literary & Historical Archive, more familiarly known as ELIA from its Greek initials, released researcher Alkis Xanthakis’ Directory of Greek & Foreign Photographers in Greece, 1839-1960 in CD format. This extremely useful tool has entries for many if not most of the photographers known to have worked in Greece during the period specified, with the emphasis necessarily on native photographers; inevitably, the entries for some of the more obscure practitioners can be on the sparse side. Each entry includes (where known) basic information such as date of birth and death, nationality and place and period of principal activity; a brief biography; and one or more examples of the photographer’s work. The information is available in English and Spanish as well as Greek.
The photographers can be consulted alphabetically by surname, by date, by nationality and by location; the latter is particularly useful, given that many professionals in the 19th and early 20th centuries tended to confine their activities to a single town or geographical area, often extremely restricted. Unfortunately, the Windows-only CD has no true search function, so that one has to wade through what are in effect very short menu pages to find something (96 of them, in the case of surnames beginning with ‘P’). In general, this otherwise highly commendable effort is rather let down by a very inflexible and old-fashioned digital execution; for example, whilst actually occupying a relatively small screen area, it refuses to run in windowed mode, thereby making it impossible to switch between it and other applications – a major limitation in what is a research tool rather an entertainment CD.
The entire database will eventually be available online. In the meantime, ELIA has very courteously announced that copies of the CD can be obtained free of charge by personal application either from the Archive or from the National Bank of Greece’s Cultural Institute, both in Athens. Researchers abroad should write to the Photography Archive at ELIA, Agiou Andreou 5, Athens 10556.