Ask The Expert – Nikolaos Vryzidis

Ask The Expert – Nikolaos Vryzidis

24 November 2021

This month’s expert, Nikolaos Vryzidis, is postdoctoral research fellow at the Department of History and Archaeology of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. He received his PhD from SOAS, University of London with a thesis on the Greek Orthodox Church’s use of Ottoman textiles. His scholarly work primarily explores issues of identity in relation to material culture, and especially textiles and metalwork in the early modern Mediterranean. In 2016 he convened a conference on Mediterranean textiles, which resulted in an edited volume of essays, published by Brepols in 2020. He also pursues research in cross-cultural aspects of medieval Islamic art, part of which will be published in a forthcoming volume on the religious arts that he currently co-edits.

Ask him about cross cultural aspects of medieval Islamic art, Ottoman textiles, and Islamic art in the context of Greek churches.

Please submit your questions to:

Part of Converging Paths, an initiative organised by The Barakat Trust in partnership with the Asia House exploring the arts and cultures of the Islamic World. Converging Paths is generously supported by the Altajir Trust and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture’s Education Programme.


What are the most common objects from the Islamic world found in Greek Churches, and what do you think were considered the most valuable and why?

Different types of objects survive from different periods. If we look at the medieval period, metal and ceramic objects (from Egypt, the Golden Horde, etc.) are the most common. But this relates more to the specific materials’ durability than the objects’ actual popularity. From the Ottoman period the most common objects are textiles and ceramics. In general, for the clergy the most valuable objects are the ones associated with a prominent patron or an important event in the local or wider historical context. Besides this factor, Islamic objects found in Greek churches and sacristies are often distinguished by their refined craftsmanship and luxurious materials. 

How old are the oldest objects from the Islamic world you have found in your research, and what sort of objects are they?

My research is centered on the late medieval and early modern periods. So, my answer to this specific question will be based on the research of other scholars. To my knowledge, the oldest published Islamic objects (mostly ceramics and some rarer examples of metalwork) found in excavations in mainland Greece and Greek Orthodox monastic sacristies are associated with medieval Egypt, especially Fatimid. Besides objects and fragments, there are also archaeological sites in Crete which relate to the period that the island was an independent emirate (824/827–961).

With respect to the objects you have been studying in Greek monasteries,  is there evidence that monasteries were commissioning items, or where they buying ready made items, or receiving them as gifts? 

All three cases apply. As to the relevant evidence, it can be both archival (e.g., inventories) and archaeological (e.g., inscriptions). There is certainly more evidence of the Greek Orthodox Church’s commissioning of objects during the Ottoman period (e.g., special orders of Iznik ceramics or Ottoman silks with Christian patterns). But again, one cannot be certain that the artisan that produced these artefacts was a Muslim. Of course, this is a quite important aspect to consider, for it reveals the limits of the concept of Islamic art in certain multi-cultural/multi-confessional contexts. 

How common was the practice of using garments over a long periods – was there a tradition of using the same vestments from one generation to the next, or was the culture of the Greek Orthodox Church one that valued the new over the old?

In my view, it was not so much a matter of valuing the new over the old, or the opposite. A garment that had a liturgical use was considered to be a sacred object, which would continue to be used and even recycled until it or its fabrics became unusable. New garments were made whenever it was necessary (or whenever the monastic/local community’s finances allowed it). Many garments were also gifts. Their association with a prominent statesman, clergyman (e.g., a Patriarch) or even saint provided a supplementary layer of meaning. In that case the garment’s role in perpetuating memory was equally important. 

Did animals have a special significance in the textiles and other objects used by the Orthodox church, if so, which were the most prominent, and which were the most meaningful?

Yes, animals could and did convey meaning in a Greek Orthodox religious context. This is clearly evidenced by the many animal patterns we find in the religious arts since the early Byzantine period. Birds and feline animals were among the most common motifs. Peacocks were among the most meaningful, as they carried connotations related to immortality, paradise and the Church itself.