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Bowl with Harpy on Interior

Late Byzantine
13th century
9.2 x 31.7 x 9.2 cm (3 5/8 x 12 1/2 x 3 5/8 in.)

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The harpy is a mythological hybrid, frequently identified with the siren, with a woman’s head and the body of a predatory bird. It is a fearsome beast that lures men with its charms but inflicts death with its treacherous talons, which are revealed so prominently in this image. Such a distortion of nature in no way prevented these alien creatures from being objects of fascination. In fact, they became naturalized in the imagination and the visual arts of ancient Greece and continued to exist up through modern times. The dual character of the harpy is artfully shown by the meticulous rendering of her elaborate crown, swinging earrings, and patterned plumage, which resemble courtly textiles. Yet all of this luxurious fashion only serves to camouflage the menacing character of a raptor.

During the medieval centuries in the east Mediterranean and west Asian territories between the Byzantine and Islamic cultures, images and styles were often shared and adapted. It is at times difficult to determine the route and the medium of exchange from one culture to another, making the origin of a motif problematic. In this case, however, the harpy was known to be popular in Islamic art, and the elaborate headdress, the pointed curlicues of the drawing, and the series of spirals on the outside of the bowl point to Islamic sources of inspiration transferred into a Byzantine environment, very likely in the Black Sea area.

The bowl’s design is executed in the sgrafitto technique, where the thick lines of the drawing were incised through a white slip coating. The interior was then covered with a translucent green glaze and fired, producing a hard, impermeable surface that protected the sgrafitto design and allowed the bowl to be used for food and liquids.

- S. Zwirn

D. Talbot Rice, "Late Byzantine Pottery at Dumbarton Oaks," Dumbarton Oaks Papers 20 (1966): 207-19, fig. 1.

Handbook of the Byzantine Collection (Washington, D.C., 1967), 91, no. 314.

C. Mango, "The Byzantine Collection," Apollo 119 (1984): 21-29, fig. 14.

G. Bühl, ed., Dumbarton Oaks: The Collections (Washington, D.C., 2008), 170, pl. p. 171.

Acquisition History
Purchased from George Zacos (dealer) by Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, DC, September 1958.

Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Byzantine Collection, Washington, DC.