Sitting at the crossroads of eastern Mediterranean trade, ancient Cyprus was a melting pot of people. This wonderful wine jug exemplifies the creolisation of cultures that was particularly flourishing between 750 – 600 B.C. on the island. Here we see the classic shape of a Cypriot oenochoe, with a trefoil lip and bulbous body. The seemingly simple geometric decoration on the sides is also typical; colourful, inventive and full of playful allegory. The form and decoration of the vessel is intended to evoke the shape of a fattened bird, with the trefoil mouth imitating the head and beak, while the concentric circles at either side form abstract wings. This tradition of a vessel suggesting the shape of animals from across the natural world was longstanding in ancient Cyprus, dating back to the Bronze Age. Indeed the potter and painter who created this remarkable object were following a nearly 2000 year old tradition of zoomorphism.
Yet there is one striking detail that marks this piece out as something remarkable. The depiction of a standing deity, shown reaching towards a sacred tree with a bird placed distinctively below them. The gender of the figure is not clear and this may be intentional. What is clear though is that the figure does not represent a domestic Cypriot god. Rather, they are likely Assyrian or perhaps Phoenician. Either way, with their languid pose and abstract features, the Orientalising influence of the East is clear. During this period, the great powers of the middle-east; Egypt, Assyria & the Levantine states were greedily eyeing the natural resources and strategic location of Cyprus. The island became inundated with foreign traders, dignitaries and settlers. They brought with them a distinctive style that left its mark on Cypriot art.
Images of Eastern deities are not unknown in Cypriot ceramic art but they are vanishingly rare. One notable example of very similar style can be found at The Metropolitan Museum (accession number 74.51.509). This piece shows the exact same figure reaching towards a tree and surrounded by birds. Research on that particular vessel suggest that images such as this relate to a specific deity who could commune with animals.
We cannot be certain what the exact meaning behind the figure on the pot was. But certainly the individual who bought or commissioned the vessel was making a statement about themselves and their dual identity. Perhaps they were a first or second generation immigrant to the island with origins in the East, a diplomat or trader. We can never know, but this remarkable object stands as a witness to a period of migration and change that set Cyprus on a path that would define its history up to the present day.
AUCTION | African & Oceanic Art and Antiquities | Tuesday 15 October | Edinburgh