Views and Reviews


Beyond the Western Mediterranean: Materials, Techniques and Artistic Production, 650-1500

Wednesday, 1 May, 2013 by Anabelle Gambert-Jouan

Ivory pyxis with poetic inscription, Cordoba, 960s. Copyright the Hispanic Society of America, New York

On Saturday 20 April 2013, scholars gathered at The Courtauld Institute of Art for Beyond the Western Mediterranean: Materials, Techniques and Artistic Production, 650-1500, organised by Sarah Guérin (The Courtauld Institute of Art) and Mariam Rosser Owen (Victoria and Albert Museum) and sponsored by the Barakat Trust, the Economic History Society and Sam Fogg. Guest blogger Anabelle Gambert-Jouan shares her views.

The upcoming opening of the Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Mediterranée in Marseilles this summer will invite the public to take a new look at the culture of the Mediterranean. In light of the attention that will soon be turned in this direction, Saturday’s symposium appeared to me as a perfectly timed opportunity to reconsider my perception of the region’s rich history. Instead of approaching the Mediterranean in its entirety, the day’s presentations offered in-depth and varied explorations of the notion of a shared medieval culture in the Western Mediterranean and in the territories beyond the sea’s southern shores.

The first session took us on a peregrination from Morocco to Nigeria, passing through Mauritania and Mali. Sam Nixon drew our attention to the trade of raw materials, including gold and ivory, as well as that of glazed pottery, glass vessels, beads and copper, to name a few. This archaeological consideration of the connections between North and West Africa shed light on the trans-Saharan exchanges of production practices, material culture and architecture. Moving along the Niger River Basin, Kathleen Bickford Berzock introduced us to the area’s rich visual culture, with a particular focus on sculptures of horse and rider. These objects’ symbolic association with wealth and power speak of local articulations of status, which found a resonance in a wider Islamic context.

From one Mediterranean shore to another and across the boundaries of the Sahara, the study of the movement of objects, technologies and ideas asks us to reconsider notions of centre and periphery. The analysis of data related to shipwrecks established a regional maritime landscape that consolidated the perception of the Western Mediterranean as a distinct cultural entity. The creation of new centres may prove problematic in the long run. In the meantime however, work like Ronald A. Messier and Chloé Capel’s study of the development of the medieval city of Sijilmasa (Morocco) in comparison with Tedgaoust and Kumbi Saleh (Mauritania) creates a much-needed balance in terms of scholarship devoted to lesser-known regions.

To delve into the details of all fourteen presentations would be impossible in a single post. Topics ranged from the transmission of techniques of carving rock crystal and sand-casting bronze doors to the dissemination of specific motifs. Each speaker’s individual approach enriched a wider discussion on the nature of the connections between Western Mediterranean sub-regions. With subjects spanning over eight centuries, the day’s lectures led us from North/West Africa to Norman Sicily, Southern Spain and finally to Castile during an impressive presentation in which Jessica Streit discussed possible architectural ties between the Assumption Chapel at Las Huelgas (Burgos) and Almohad mosques.

The Sahara and its neighbouring regions are rarely included in the art historical narrative of the Middle Ages. The consideration of the movement of objects, artistic practices and techniques across areas perceived as natural barriers challenged preconceptions. The lectures drew out the lines of less studied, albeit extremely rich, networks of cross-cultural exchanges across the desert and beyond. By stressing the complex and changing nature of these links, the conference successfully avoided creating overly rigid boundaries that would prevent a larger scale dialogue between Western Mediterranean regions and other parts of the medieval world from taking place.

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