‘We are the clay and thou our potter’: Biblical themes on Macedonian tiles

Maria Lidova discusses the fascinating Vinica Tiles from Macedonia (FYROM), as featured in the Imagining the Divine exhibition.

Last week, the Ashmolean Museum’s exhibition Imagining the Divine was visited by the fourth President of the Republic of Macedonia, Dr. Gjorge Ivanov.

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Dr Ivanov’s visit to the show was inspired by the major international loan to the exhibition of nine clay tiles discovered in 1978 among the ruins of a late Roman fortified settlement near modern Vinica in eastern Macedonia.

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The Vinica Tiles on display in Imagining the Divine, Ashmolean Museum. (Image © Empires of Faith/Maria Lidova)

These small reliefs commonly dated to the 6th century represent mass-produced objects. Stone or plaster moulds were used to shape the soft clay which later was fired in the furnace to produce terracotta tiles. The plaques are relatively small, measuring roughly between 28-35 cm high and 20-30 cm wide.

Zoomorphic motifs on the surface of the tiles are interspersed with religious symbols, Old Testament subjects and Christian saints. On one plaque, two male figures are standing frontally before the viewer. Both are clad in Roman military costumes and hold spears. Above them a star is visible on the left, another star-like rosette in the centre represents the sun, and a moon appears in the upper right corner. One of the warriors raises his left hand in the direction of the sun.

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Detail of Joshua stopping the Sun, Museum of Macedonia, Skopje inv.337-VI. (Image © Empires of Faith/Maria Lidova)

From the accompanying inscription we learn that this is Joshua who, according to the Old Testament account, stopped the movement of the sun for a day. The subject and the message of the laconic image on the tile is immediately apparent to anyone acquainted with the Biblical story:

Then spoke Joshua to the Lord in the day when the Lord delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon. And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. […] So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day. (Joshua 10:12-13)

The presence of Latin is a characteristic feature of the Vinica tiles. Besides providing legends for the represented motifs, they often reproduce well known texts, most commonly taken from the Psalms. Following the standard practice of the time, the texts start and end with the sign of the cross and often form a sort of a frame around a figurative image. This unity of word and image enhanced a powerful visual message, in which the letters became an integral part of the relief representation.

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This plaque bearing a cross shows the symbol of Christianity almost dissolved into the text ‘Crux Cristi vince et vincere presta omnibus sperantibus in te (O cross of Christ, win and bring victory to all who put their trust in you)’. Vinica City Museum inv.366-VI. (Image © Empires of Faith/Maria Lidova)

The tiles were found scattered, many of them broken, so their original placing is unclear. In any case, they must have been used as wall decoration: traces of mortar on the back of some indicates that they were attached to large flat surfaces. Their display in the exhibition tries to allude to this original setting. Whether the tiles decorated a religious or a secular building is still a subject of debate, but they were clearly intended for a Christian audience.

Comparable and roughly contemporaneous tiles were found only in southern Spain and North Africa. The ones found in Andalusia are rarely figurative and for the most part depict various religious symbols and ornamental motifs. Particularly popular among this group is the representation of Chi Rho (the first two letters of Christ’s name in Greek) placed beneath an arch that rests on two massive columns and decorated with a shell motif. The votive nature of the Andalusian tiles and their connection to a private commission is revealed in the inscriptions. One of the plaques bears the following text:  BRACARI VIVAS CVM TVIS (Bracarus, may you live long with your companions).

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Tile with Chi Rho. Several tiles bearing the same image and name were found near the town of Ronda in Spain. The identical design of the reliefs indicates that they were produced as a series. Whether they were made to decorate the private residence of Bracarus or formed part of a votive gift intended for a church or a chapel remains unknown. Victoria & Albert Museum inv.A.62-1930 © The Victoria and Albert Museum

While the Andalusian material is relatively modest in comparison with the Vinica tiles in its figurative imagery, the earthenware plaques from Tunisia offer an array of additional subjects and motifs, including Adam and Eve, the sacrifice of Isaac, and others.

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Display of late antique ceramic tiles in the Carthage National Museum, Tunisia. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Stylistic differences between the three groups of artefacts found in today’s Macedonia, Spain, and Tunisia point to three different workshops, distinct tastes and local approaches to form and clay production. However, together they demonstrate how important the art of ceramics was in early Christianity across the territories and geographical zones and how effective a small image made of clay could be for Christians worshipping in different parts of the late Roman world.

The Macedonian tiles stand out for the quality of their execution, state of preservation and diversity of visual motifs. They have a traceable archeological history and together form an exceptional group of late antique artefacts still barely known to the general public. Thanks to the generous loan to Imagining the Divine, the tiles are on view in the UK for the very first time; a unique opportunity that simply cannot be missed.

One thought on “‘We are the clay and thou our potter’: Biblical themes on Macedonian tiles

  1. Good Morning, Quite enjoyed this essay since I am doing a number of puppets that represent the Greek area, and am interested in the religious development and changes within that region. Too, the writing on the terra cotta reliefs, always a good means of story, after the art historians give a writing up on it in this wonderful study Empires of Faith. atk

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