Engraved Bronze Bowls of the 12th–13th Centuries Cover Image
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12.–13. gadsimta bronzas bļodas ar gravējumiem
Engraved Bronze Bowls of the 12th–13th Centuries

Author(s): Elita Grosmane
Subject(s): Archaeology, Cultural history, Visual Arts, Local History / Microhistory, 13th to 14th Centuries, History of Art
Published by: Mākslas vēstures pētījumu atbalsta fonds
Keywords: Bronze bowls; Metalworking; Iconography; Middle Ages;

Summary/Abstract: The rich material of bronze items produced by local masters on the territory of medieval Latvia testifies to a high level of metalworking skills. The diversity of artefacts increased during this period, as imported objects were often used as samples for local imitations. Bronze bowls are part of the applied arts that flourished in the course of these two centuries; they are common in various European regions and have caught the interest of art historians not so much due to their form but because of the iconography of their engravings. There was quite a high demand for such bowls and the numbers found continue to grow in excavations, even if their origins and function remain unclear. Another complex issue is that of the relationships between the paradigm-setting centre and periphery because there are no known written sources of the time describing bowl making. However, the high level of bronze processing allows us to assume they could have been made anywhere with a larger concentration of finds. All bowls are made of tin bronze. Their forms are quite similar. They consist of a slightly thickened round base from which thinly forged sidewalls rise up to 5–6 cm, and an upper edge about 1 cm wide. The diameter of bowls is about 20 to 30 cm. These vessels could be either decorated or plain but their classification is based on the content of the interior engravings. The issue of datingAll known artefacts are dated from the second half of the 11th century to the 13th century when bowls were especially popular; they were no longer made after that. It remains dubious whether such bowls already existed in the first half of the 11th century. None of the vessels found so far has any year number allowing for further assumptions. The same can be said of signs suggesting any development. Therefore, the grouping and systematisation of these finds has so far been unsuccessful. Different explanations of the origins and function of bowlsThe origins of bowlmaking are usually related to monasteries where monks became the sole experts and keepers of the classical cultural heritage. Monasteries were probably responsible for iconographic samples while the bowls could be made by town craftsmen; merchants who distributed the ware were townspeople too. In the late 19th century, researchers interpreted these bowls in the context of sacred art, seeing them as either christening bowls or vessels for the collection of donations. The researcher Josepha Weitzmann-Fiedler related the origin of bowls to the ritual of confession and purification of the soul performed by nuns. No less popular is the hypothesis about the bowl as a decorative interior item. The form of the vessel was adaptable to polyfunctional use while the large numbers of finds demonstrate that it was a highly demanded good ending up in various social strata. The latest research emphasise the use of bowls for hand washing. IconographyThe complex iconography of inside engravings derived from both Greco-Roman mythology and Christianity endows bronze bowls with particular value. Winged youth was a common image and the so-called bowls of virtues and vices with Latin inscriptions are also often found. Insight into the local historiography Eastern Baltic bronze bowls became the focus of attention right after the finding of the so-called bowl of Otto the Great discovered in Viljandi (Estonia) in 1886. Jelgava painter and librarian Julius Döring made a drawing of the precious find and published it and historian Hermann von Bruiningk provided an analysis. At the turn of the 19th–20th centuries, art historian Wilhelm Neumann turned his attention to bronze bowls, stating that they had come from Western Germany between Aachen and Cologne. Archaeologist Tatjana Pāvele wrote about bronze bowls 50 years later. She concluded from a broader historical perspective that bronze bowls indicate that “active trading with Western Europe was going on in the 11th–13th century”.Bowls found in Latvia Bowls are largely held in the collections of the Riga History and Navigation Museum and the Latvian National History Museum; in addition, two fragments of bronze bowls from Latvia are in the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte Berlin. Riga is the place where the most impressive and luxurious bowls have been discovered – precious items imported from Europe, featuring high-quality execution of the vessel and its décor. These artefacts could have ended up in Riga in the late 12th or early 13th century when the most active contacts formed with the potential centres of their origin – Lower Saxony and North Rhine-Westphalia. Two bowls are thematically part of the so-called group of vices. The top-quality example features a crowned superbia image in the centre with five surrounding vices – IDOLA–TRIA (idolatry), INVI–DIA (hate, envy), ӿ IR–A ӿ (rage, revenge), LVXV–RIA (luxury) and LIB–IDO (lust). The second bowl can be interpreted as a modified and simplified version of the vices vessel, with the main image of a winged figure – angel – while the inscription has been lost. This piece can be said to exemplify an intermediary phase and was probably made at some workshop near Riga, considering the local craftsmen’s high level of skills. Among the most valuable pieces is a bowl rich in representational elements, featuring a rhythmical procession of knights; this vessel was taken out of Latvia in 1940. A thematically rare example is a bowl with a bird similar to a gryphon. Several bronze bowls have been discovered in Latvia in archaeological excavations: two were found in a burial ground in Liepenes (Krimulda) while one emerged from the Pūteļi graveyard (Turaida), placed at the foot of the deceased together with other valuable items. During restoration, a forged rosette consisting of about 1 mm large dots and lines was discovered on the bowl. Conclusions The total number of bronze bowls found in Latvia so far is eight to nine (some fragments are hard to define): five of them are engraved, four appear to lack engraving, although such a conclusion has emerged due to their fragmentary condition. The bowls are similar with regard to their form but they do not make up a homogenous group. Two bowls found in Riga stand out for their narrative message: the so-called superbia with surrounding vices and the procession of knights; both are thought to be imported. These items belong to high-quality pieces in the context of Latvia but also reflect characteristics typical of mass production. The next group consists of two bowls also found in Riga whose engravings reveal the transformations resulting from the long route of dissemination, pointing towards a peripheral origin. The last group is made up of bowls uncovered in archaeological excavations. It is noteworthy that all four bowls were discovered in the burial grounds of the Liv people near the River Gauja; no such finds have emerged so far in either Latvian or Lithuanian archaeological materials elsewhere.

  • Issue Year: 2019
  • Issue No: 23
  • Page Range: 15-25
  • Page Count: 11
  • Language: Latvian