Free Nicholson Museum exhibition presents the art of Cyprus

8 February 2016

The Sky and the Sea: Ancient Cypriot Art brings together a beautiful range of objects from the museum’s Cypriot collection – the largest in Australia and the world’s fourth largest outside Cyprus - to demonstrate the evolution of Cyprus’ culture. 

Medieval lead-glazed brown and green sgraffito bowl from the time of the Crusades

Sgraffito bowl from the time of the Crusades

Cyprus was the first Mediterranean country where Australian archaeologists conducted excavations. Their first dig began in 1937 and University of Sydney archaeologists continue the tradition today at the ancient capital of Nea Paphos.

The influences on Cypriot art are myriad. In the 10,000 years since people started living on the Mediterranean’s easternmost island it been occupied or ruled by the Egyptians, the Phoenicians, the Assyrian and Persian Empires, the Ptolemies, and the Roman and Byzantine Empires. In more recent centuries the Crusaders, the Franks, the Venetians and the Ottoman and British Empires controlled the nation.

“Each left their mark on the island archaeologically and artistically, helping the Cypriots develop their own material cultural identity,” says exhibition curator, Nea Paphos archaeologist and Sydney University Museums Manager of Education and Public Programs Dr Craig Barker

Cypro-Archaic period jug, with abstract bird design circa 750-600BC

Cypro-Archaic period jug, c. 750-600BC

Birds are a common motif. Cyprus lies on a major bird migratory route between Africa and Europe; more than 200 species of bird migrating over the island annually and there are more than 370 local species. Their prevalence was an inspiration to the Cypriots.

“Birds were popular from the beginning of figurative art in Cyprus, with avian representations flourishing during the Cypro-Geometric and Archaic periods,” says Dr Barker. “Jugs, vases and bowls often captured the beauty of flight in a unique stylised form. This was more about art than science; there appears to be no attempt at accurate representation of species.”

Unsurprisingly for an island state, the sea was a lifeline for Cyprus and also a major influence on its art. Located on international maritime trade networks, its harbours became major trading emporia. During the Late Bronze Age (c. 1650-1050 BC), Mycenaean pottery from mainland Greece and local imitations became commonplace.  In later periods imported Athenian black and red figured pottery and other Greek vases reflected a growing connection with the Hellenic world. Then, during the Crusades, Cypriots showed a flair for making lead-glazed sgraffito pottery.

“This style was known across the Byzantine world, but no-one else produced it with the flair of the Cypriots,” said Dr Barker. “The creative design and exuberant colour displayed continued the island’s long decorative tradition.”

Exhibition details

What:  The Sky and the Sea: Ancient Cypriot Art

Where:  Nicholson Museum, Manning Road, southern end of the Quadrangle, University of Sydney.

When:  From 8 February

Opening hours:  Monday to Friday, 10am-4.30pm; First Saturday of the month, 12-4pm

Contact:  Phone 02 9351 2812



Jocelyn Prasad

Media and Public Relations Advisor
  • Level 7 Jane Foss Russell Building G02

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