Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.02.70

Elfriede Regina Knauer, Coats, Queens, and Cormorants: Selected Studies in Cultural Contact between East and West. Akanthus crescens 10.   Kilchberg, Zürich:  Akanthus, 2009.  Pp. 502.  ISBN 9783905083272.  CHF 130.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Mary B. Moore, Hunter College, CUNY (

[Table of Contents appears at the end of the review.]

First an autobiographical sketch (pp. 6-10): Elfriede Knauer and her siblings were "raised by almost intimidatingly intellectual parents" (p. 7); growing up they met major humanists who frequently visited the family's home. Knauer flourished at the University of Frankfurt, studying with some of the best scholars in Europe who introduced her to many of the non-European cultures. As she puts it: "These were somewhat giddy days, when everything seemed within one's grasp" (p. 8). There followed many years on the staff of the Antikenabteilung of the Berlin Museum, and later at the University of Pennsylvania where she served as a Research Associate, then as a Consulting Scholar in the University Museum. An intrepid traveler, Knauer visited many countries in Europe, Asia and Africa; for her no site is too far and no museum too small not to merit a visit - she has to see them. The autobiography concludes with a list of Knauer's publications (74) plus two in press (pp. 11-13; one of these, "A Venetian Vignette One Hundred Years after Marco Polo: MS Bodley 264, fol. 218r", just appeared in the Metropolitan Museum Journal, 44, 2009, pp. 47-59; another, not listed, concerns the Mona Lisa and is forthcoming).

Fifteen articles comprise the contents of this very welcome book, a definite must-read for anyone interested in the historical, cultural and artistic interconnections between East and West. The earliest article appeared in 1980, the latest in 2006. At the end of each article, Knauer adds new information and a bibliography. The book assembles in one place a corpus of material difficult to access if one is not situated in a good university library. To avoid duplication of general remarks in the discussions below, I have departed from the sequence in which the articles were presented in the book, and where possible discuss them by theme. I begin with those concerned with 'realia.'

A marble jar stand from Egypt in the Metropolitan Museum ,probably created during the Fatimid dynasty (972-1171), is a peculiar-looking object, but not to Knauer (p. 17, figs. 1-3). These stands supported large porous clay jars that filtered water into basins to be collected for drinking. Today, most examples are in museums, but during walks through Old Cairo and the medieval city, Knauer found such stands still in use. Depictions of odd looking buildings that appear in late first century B.C. Roman wall paintings from underneath the Villa Farnesina in Rome, and from Boscotrecase and Boscoreale, near Pompeii, (now in the Metropolitan Museum) (pp. 175, fig. 3; 17s, fig. 1; p. 177, fig. 6) offer links between the ancient and modern worlds. Knauer figured out that these modest structures are wind towers, then goes on to discuss how similar 'wind-catchers' are used in other parts of the Middle East today, a lesson in modern non-electric cooling techniques (p.185, 15-17; p. 187, fig. 18). Knauer posits that their appearance in Pompeian wall paintings reflects the craze for anything Egyptian after the Roman defeat of Egypt in 30 B. C. In the Black Room of Boscotrecase, a villa owned by Agrippa, Augustus' son-in-law, Knauer links two Egyptianizing pinakes (p. 244, figs. 4-5) with the very special role Egypt played in the life of the Imperial family, a subject not addressed by previous scholars. In the same article, Knauer describes how she realized that two odd- looking objects on the North wall of the Red Room from Boscotrecase in Naples were not mere decorations, but must represent 'something' (p. 255, figs. 16-17). A visit to the archaeological museum in Como gave the answer when Knauer spotted two modest Roman marble reliefs, each depicting this object in a scene of a seated poet and his Muse (p. 261, figs. 25-26). It is a scroll holder, easy to recognize in the paintings once you know what it is, but it took Knauer's sharp eye to figure it out.

Knauer's interest in arms and armor, as well as warfare, is the focus of four articles. More than two decades ago, Knauer noticed that in the Amazonomachy on the volute-krater in the San Antonio Museum by the Painter of the Woolly Satyrs, Athena wears a Persian cap (mitra) under her helmet which is pushed back (p. 195, fig. 5). Knauer suggests that this combination of headgear may symbolize the Greek victory over the Persians in 480-479 B. C., and discusses other examples of this Eastern cap worn by various figures in Greek art. While this article focuses on Eastern military elements in the Greek world, another shows the impact Greek body armor had on 'barbarian' tribes (pp. 221-240), specifically Scythians who were familiar with Greek customs as early as the late sixth century B. C. The famous comb from the Solokha kurgan, now in St. Petersburg (p. 226, fig. 2), shows a mounted Scythian wearing a Greek helmet, leather cuirass, and greaves fastened over wide trousers by straps. His opponent wears a cuirass complete with pteryges.

Moving to China and the Central Asian steppes (pp. 401-433), Knauer discusses body armor and weapons represented on objects from tombs of the so-called Kingdom of Dian in Yunnan (ca. 400-100 B. C.). The lid of a bronze cowrie shell container depicts a fierce battle including a large metal cuirass standing next to a fallen warrior (p. 403, fig. 1-2). These and other warriors (e.g., p. 405, fig. 4) are armed with extremely long swords, which Knauer notes are a hallmark of mounted warriors of the steppe tribes. Her discussion turns to heavy coats draped over both shoulders, the empty sleeves dangling or the right one over the shoulder to free the arm and hand. These coats were well-suited to a life on horseback in the harsh climate of the steppes. In addition to representations, an actual coat was found in a tomb from Katanda in the Altai (p. 415, fig. 19, a-b). Similar coats are worn by Xianbei warriors from Dien (p. 417, fig. 21), but this coat is not always the garment of a warrior. A draped sleeved jacket may be worn by women (p. 421, fig, 28), and Knauer even found a woman in Tibet wearing a variant of it (p. 422, fig. 30). Knauer is not squeamish about truly barbaric customs, for she delves into the cruel Scythian habit of not only decapitating enemies, but also suspending the severed head from the bridles of their horses. Knauer traces this grisly practice in the warfare of later cultures, e.g., Celtic and Sassanian (p. 305, fig. 13). Her last illustration depicts a mounted Greek soldier with the severed head of a guerilla fighter suspended from the cantle of his saddle, the photograph taken during the civil war in Greece, 1944-49 (p. 314, fig. 23).

A brief article deals with six relief fragments from the Gandhara region of northwestern Pakistan which originally decorated a stupa, a domed tumulus containing relics of the Buddha. (pp. 335, figs. 1-2; 340, figs. 5-8). The largest fragment depicts two scenes from the earthly existence of the Buddha: exchanging his garments with a hunter and taking leave of his groom and horse (fig. 1 a-c). Another fragment depicts Queen Maya's dream of the nativity of the Buddha (fig. 2), despite the absence of the elephant who in complete representations descends from above to touch Maya's side with its trunk. Knauer concludes by discussing why it is particularly difficult to date Gandharan sculpture (pp. 342-344).

During a trip to China nearly thirty years ago, Knauer visited the famous fifth century Buddhist cave-temples at Yungang (Yün-Kang) in northern China. Their proximity to the Silk Route prompted her to investigate their western connections.(p. 62, fig. 1: map). In these caves are five very large statues of the Buddha. Three stand, one over 16m tall; two sit in the 'European posture', i.e., on stools. (Perhaps earlier are the huge Bamiyan Buddhas deliberately destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.) Knauer thinks the large size of the Yungang Buddhas goes back to Hellenistic dynastic monuments, such as that of Antiochos I of Commagene in eastern Anatolia (mid-first century B.C.), which incorporated very large statues. At Yungang this tradition blended with the nomadic heritages such as that of the Parthians whose land ranged from eastern Iran to Central Asia.. Travelers on the Silk Route could have described such huge statues to their hosts. Small objects were not the only carriers of foreign customs and ideas; word of mouth could also serve. The statues of the Buddha at Yungang were placed inside the dimly-lit caves, and Knauer postulates that the reason for this may have been a tradition taken over from India (p. 74). An oddity that did not escape Knauer's eagle eye concerns figures with their booted feet pointing outward (pp. 82-83, figs. 39-41); she notes that this is the hallmark of a true ruler and traces the custom to Buddhist sanctuaries in Afghanistan. In "The Queen Mother of the West" (pp. 435-473), Knauer places Xi Wang Mu (the Queen Mother of the West), an ancient Chinese goddess, in a Eurasian context. Xi Wang Mu sits on a throne, frontal, arms folded, hands hidden in the sleeves of her ample garment; an exotic headdress, called a sheng, is an identifying feature. Often animals flank her. Knauer suggests that the combination of throne and animals has roots in the West where it existed even in pre-Hellenistic times, with backless thrones. Knauer thinks the sheng derives from the high-backed throne of the Anatolian goddess whose pre-Hittite name is Kubaba (p. 449, fig. 24). Knauer also sees a comparison with the Phrygian goddess known to the Greeks as Kybele who may sit on a high- backed throne and remarks that both goddesses are connected with active forces in the cosmos and are representative of untamed nature, which the spread of pastoralism and agriculture in Asia was able to domesticate.

Occasionally, Knauer focuses on one monument, in this case the famous equestrian bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius, usually connected with the emperor's Triumph in 176 (pp. 137- 169). Knauer notes the distinctly Persian saddle blanket which would exclude commemorating the Danube campaigns, because it is a distinguishing trapping of Iranian horsemen and must refer to the East. Knauer reminds us that Marcus was in Antioch in the summer of 176 to conclude a peace treaty with the rulers of Persia and makes a good case that the statue, with its non-militaristic appearance, could commemorate this historical event.

Leaving antiquity and moving forward in time, Knauer seeks to explain some of the features of the façade of the early 12th century cathedral in Modena (pp. 103-135), in particular, the four friezes (p. 107, figs. 2-5). She points out obvious Roman prototypes for the figures of the Prophets and Apostles, but takes issue with the usual conclusion that the long narrow formats, each depicting a row of figures backed by a colonnade, are indebted to Roman columnar sarcophagi. Knauer deftly points out that the Modena columns do not extend to the ground, but simply consist of arches and capitals; thus another prototype must be found. Knauer makes a good case that this unusual background is borrowed from two sources: one is the 'blind arch frieze' (Blendbogenfries) found on Celtic grave stelai (p. 110, figs. 10-11); the second is reliefs incorporated into Roman grave monuments (109, fig. 9; pp.111-112, figs. 12-14).

Knauer's interest in garments led her to investigate the custom of covering the hands, mouth and head in pagan and Christian customs, as a mark of honor and respect (pp. 347- 384). This study offers a vast array of examples both literary and visual extending from Herodotos writing in the fifth century B. C. to a French miniature of the fourteenth century. In a short article, Knauer focuses on historical costumes in one of the frescoes by Giotto in the Arena Chapel at Padua (pp. 91-101). The figure of Infidelity (p. 94, fig. 2) wears a distinctive cap with a broad brim of contrasting color, a high "comb" over the crown, similar to the crest of a Greek helmet, the cap held in place by long ties extending from hanging flaps. A similar cap is worn by a Mongol in the "Martyrdom of Seven Franciscans at Ceuta" by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in the church of San Francesco in Siena. Knauer stresses that from the second half of the thirteenth century on, hundreds of foreigners came to Venice, Genoa and Florence, many of them Mongols and Muslims bringing with them their exotic garments which could easily have influenced a perceptive and curious painter.

My favorite article in the book is "Fishing with Cormorants." In the late fifteenth century, the Venetian artist Vittore Carpaccio painted a scene titled Hunting on the Lagoon, now partly in the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, partly in the Museo Correr in Venice (pp. 387-388, figs. 1-3). This painting is our only evidence for the apparent popularity of this sport in Renaissance Venice. The cormorant is an inedible water bird that swims largely submerged so that only its head and neck appear above water; its habitat is shallow salt and fresh water. Though wild, it may be tamed and trained to catch and deliver fish to its owner. A ring around its neck prevents the bird from eating its catch which is stored in its expandable beak pouch. After delivering the fish, the bird is free to catch its own. Knauer describes the history of fishing with cormorants which was associated with France and Holland and encountered as far east as China and Japan; in the latter country, it is a modern tourist attraction, as the author observed and photographed in 1981 at Gifa, Honshu (p. 393, fig. 7).

The volume concludes with much appreciated chronological charts of the cultures included in the volume, ranging in date from 3000 B.C. to 1818 A.D. (pp. 476-481), a map of Europe, the Middle East, India, the Steppes and Asia (pp. 482-483, and finally an Index (pp. 484- 502.)

Knauer's presentation of such seemingly disparate material reflects her total comfort with its wide geographical, chronological, historical and archaeological range, also with the relevant ancient and modern literature. Knauer collects and discusses an extraordinary amount of comparative material for each article, far more than may be mentioned in a review. These articles, together with others not included in the volume, attest to Knauer's enormous erudition, unlimited curiosity, keen eye for the unusual and deeply inquiring mind. Each offers new and important information to any reader interested in the intricate interconnections between East and West. They, demonstrate that Knauer's scholarly work defined the term globalization long before this noun became a cliché.

List of Titles

"Marble Jar-Stands from Egypt," pp. 15-59
"The Fifth-Century A.D. Buddhist Cave-Temples at Yün-kang North China. A Look at Western Connections," pp. 61-89
"Einige trachtgeschichtliche Beobachtungen am Werke Giottos," pp. 91-101
"Tribuerunt sua marmora provinciae. Beobachtungen zu antiken Vorbildern von Wiligelmus' Genesis-Fries an der Domfassade in Modena und zu den sogennanten Metopen," pp. 103-135
"Multa egit cum regibus et pacem confirmavit. The Date of the Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius," pp. 137-169
"Wind Towers in Roman Wall-Paintings? 'The Wind Blows where it wills' (John 3:8)," pp. 171-189
"Mitra and Kerykeion. Some Reflections on Symbolic Attributes in the Art of the Classical Period," pp. 191-219
"Knemides in the East? Some Observations on the Impact of Greek Body Armor on 'Barbarian' Tribes" pp. 221-240
"Roman Wall-Paintings from Boscotrecase. Three Studies in the Relationship Between Writing and Painting," pp. 241-287
"Observations on the 'Barbarian' Custom of Suspending the Heads of Vanquished Enemies from the Necks of Horses," pp. 289-331
"Fragments of a Life: Buddhist Sculpture from Gandhara," pp. 333-345
"Verhüllte Hände, verhülter Mund, verhülltes Haupt. "Beobachtungen im iranischen Kulturbereich," pp. 347-384
"Fishing with Cormorants. A Note on Vittore Carpaccio's 'Hunting on the Lagoon'," pp. 385-399
"Quisquiliae Sinicae," pp.401-433
"The Queen Mother of the West. A Study of the Influence of Western Prototypes on the Iconography of the Taoist Deity," pp. 435-473
Comment on this review in the BMCR blog
Read Latest
Index for 2010
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review
Bryn Mawr Classical Commentaries

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010

HTML generated at 14:19:39, Monday, 01 March 2010