Friday Photo: Liturgical Silver

Today’s Friday Photo depicts a spectacular piece of liturgical silver from the Late Antique/Early Mediaeval period (6th-8th century) in the Near East. The piece is housed in the Dumbarton Oaks collection of Byzantine art, alongside other liturgical items. These items were arranged around the altars of churches, and were employed by priests as they celebrated the Eucharist. Often donated by wealthy or aristocratic patrons, they displayed the  devotion (and prosperity) of the community. Their use as status objects became particularly important as the Byzantine elites stopped endowing civic buildings–a common activity in Roman times. Chalices, screens, and decorated crosses were often donated, although I believe this object is the lid of a ciborium, a container used to hold Communion bread. (Anyone with more information, please let me know!) Its size (over 1 foot in diameter), and its fine workmanship attests to the commitment of the Christian communities of the Near East throughout a period of great change–both political and religious–surrounding the rise of Islam.



6 thoughts on “Friday Photo: Liturgical Silver

  1. The inscription in Greek attracted my attention:
    It reads:
    I googled this Bishop Eutychianos and I came up with some interesting links, some of which also refer to the function of the object he donated.
    Why don’t you let us know what you can make out of these references?
    And of course, thanks for another interesting entry!

    • Thanks for the research lead–the closest I can get to reading Greek is Russian Cyrillic. I also now understand why this (and other associated objects) are not particularly well represented on the Dumbarton Oaks website. It looks like this is actually one of several polycandelon included in the ‘Sion Treasure’, a hoard of liturgical silver found in southern Turkey under suspicious circumstances (ie they were looted.) As such it would have hung from a ceiling like a chandelier, and presumably has candle-brackets on its other side. Bishop Eutychianos (otherwise unknown) presumably acquired them in Constantinople, according to silver stamps, and brought these objects back in a single lot sometime in the 6th century. Several people have suggested they were hidden to protect them from Arab raiding, which is perfectly probable, but of course impossible to verify. Given that many churches continued to receive such donations under Arab rule, though, one should not assume that this is necessarily the case. As with many antiquities from Asia Minor, these are currently the subject of a repatriation request, which the museum looks rather disinclined to go along with.

      All in all, it seems like this object and its fellows have lived a very exciting life, particularly during their 20th century travels. It’s amazing, after all of this, that this piece should still be in such fantastic condition!

      Was this consistent with what you found? Thanks again for pointing me towards this interesting story.

      • There is no reason for thanking me!
        It was as usual a pleasure reading a new inscription 🙂

        And I surely like the way you combined the information about the “life” of the object in its contemporaneity, but also diachronically.

        Perhaps our “discovery” can point to a fault in the positioning of the object in the display and thus enlarge the problem of how “refugee” or “kidnapped” objects should be treated in the host venue so as not to loose their significance by having us misled as to the actual way they were used in their original environment!?!

  2. I think this object may also be what is called a ‘repida’ or ‘exapterigon’, or liturgical ‘fan’, which usually come in sets of two and are used in Orthodox liturgies. They are mounted on staffs and held by servers when the book of the Gospels is carried in procession. Otherwise they are placed upright in stands on either side of the main altar when not in use. You can find examples of these for sale on Orthodox church supply websites. In any case, Marissa, this is a great photo and very interesting post.

  3. if its over a foot in diametre I would also suggest its a liturgical fan – my brain knows the latin name is flabellum or flabbelae, but for some reason my brain wants to call it flobbadobbadob, I must be chanelling the flowerpot men!

  4. The suggestion that it could be a liturgical fan is an interesting one, and I’ve certainly seen several examples of Byzantine fans from this period (but mostly in photos.) After following up on ergamenis’ translation lead, however, I’m reasonably confident in identifying it as a polycandelon. Not only are there several circular polycandela listed among the Sion Treasure, but this bears designs very similar to a cross-shaped polycandelon seen in photos of the treasure. You can find a photo of it here: . What do you think?

    As for the earlier question, about the origins and display of the object, I agree that museums would benefit from embracing the complexity of these objects, rather than overlooking them. One of the great books I’ve read recently deals with some of these issues; it’s called Edge of Empire: Lives, Culture, and Conquest in the East 1750-1850, by Maya Jasanoff. It really puts the great age of archaeological collecting (Napoleon in Egypt, etc.) into it’s imperial context, and demonstrates that many artefacts, from the Elgin Marbles to the Sion Treasure, provide insight not only into the culture that created them, but also the culture that found, valued, and displayed them. In the case of Dumbarton Oaks, for example, their institutional identity is founded upon the collection that their original benefactors put together, including these liturgical objects–it’s understandable, if not necessarily right, that they should try to preserve it. I would hope that they would use these interests as talking points, and a way to enrich the way guests think about the artefacts, instead of stone-walling the discussion and leaving it to lawyers.

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