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2019 MIRINTHI Panagiotis Kampanis


Mirinthoi (Threads)

Speaking of seals… the Byzantine lead seals or molyvdovoula are undoubtedly one of the most important and interesting facets of Byzantine culture.

Great in “art”, but small in “package”, these lead seals are considered by contemporary research an open book of information on Byzantine life and culture.

Byzantine seals were mostly attached to documents but also to other objects, and served in place of or along with a signature to verify their authenticity.

The seals were impressed on small round lead disks, in whose center was a hollow channel through which a thread (mirinthos) was passed to tie the seal to the document. Originally, the seal was not appended to the document but handed over separately; later, the seal began to be tied to the document with this thread. To strike the seal the Byzantines used a special tool called the boullterion. This pincer-shaped instrument consisted of a pair of crossed iron jaws with hammer-like ends, the inner face of which was engraved with the images and inscriptions to be impressed in the lead when the seal was struck.

Two types of images appear on the seals: religious and secular. The foundation of Byzantine society was markedly religious, and the small round surfaces of the lead seals offered it yet another medium in which to express the faith and world vision of Christianity. Among the images featured on the seals are busts or full-body figures of saints and archangels, depictions of Jesus and especially of the Mother of God and heavenly intercessor, as well as scenes from the New Testament and prayers for help and protection. Among the religious symbols that appear, the cross figures prominently. The secular images include busts or full-body depictions of human figures in frontal or profile view, some bearing a crown of laurels, others holding a scepter or a club. There are also scenes of animals and birds, real and imaginary alike. Among the former are hares, lions, panthers, deer, wolves, eagles, and peacocks and other birds; the latter include griffins, winged stallions, sphinxes, winged lions and flying dragons. All had a clearly apotropaic function, as did invocations such as Help, Divine Virgin Mother, or Help, Lord Jesus Christ, which sometimes accompanied the image and served to heighten the seal’s protective, apotropaic power.

When Maria Kompatsiari first encountered the lead seals, she was captivated by the small, secret stories they harbored and decided to incorporate them in her work. The austere, full-frontal forms of Christ and the Virgin Mary, saints and officers found their place in her cryptographic works. Historically, cryptography was used to convert the content of a message from an ordinary readable text to a puzzle that would remain unintelligible without the secret knowledge of its decipherment. During the middle Ages, it was associated with occultism and black magic, something forbidden.

The most characteristic feature of Kompatsiari’s work—and what makes it so special and unique—is the secret code of writing she uses to create a kind of communion or spiritual encounter between the observable world and the world of ideas. In her works, symbols and words fuse, at first glance with no apparent meaning. At times, letters are combined in arithmetical fashion, allusions to numbers with some esoteric meaning. Set phrases presuppose a rite of initiation, which must be expressed obliquely if it is to remain hidden.

The “speechless” tongue she deploys is one of resonant silence. It is the unuttered sigh of a pervasive, exclamatory marking of experience that defines a magical discourse in which the understandable coexists with the incomprehensible, and structured, articulated discourse with formless, near incoherent sound.

Intertwined, symbol-laden filaments, which resemble inexplicable acrobatics of the mind, fashion works of art whose naturalist elements are transformed into psalms to an unseen spiritual world that the viewer is invited discover, word by word—an experience that makes the particular journey even more enchanting.

Freeing our imagination and willingness to search beneath and beyond what we take for granted, the artist intimates through her work a world that is known yet unshielded, familiar and uncanny at the same time, a world which contains us and which we contain, with all the magic of its mystery and darkness, all that reverberates from the depths of our being.

On this canvas, linear depictions of the lead seals of Byzantium—golden threads by needle embroidered—seal the artist’s work.

Maria Kompatsiari’s work is not “understood”, as Cavafy once wrote, but “felt”!!!!!

Dr. Panagiotis Kambanis
Archaeologist – Historian