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Work Bowl from Caesarea Palaestinae

Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities: Christian and Byzantine Art

Coupe de Césarée de Palestine

© 2001 RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
Christian and Byzantine Art

Author(s):
Astier Marie-Bénédicte

The elegant decoration and contrasting colors of the silver, copper, and niello inlays make this bronze bowl an exceptionally ornate piece. It was created in the Lower Empire, and commemorates the founding of Caesarea Palaestinae. However, constrained by the political context, the artist has chosen to celebrate the ancient city established by the Phoenician Straton I (374-362 BC), rather than the considerably expanded city renamed Caesarea by the Jewish king Herod the Great (first century BC).

A masterpiece

This bronze bowl, discovered in Beirut, Lebanon, is an exceptionally ornate piece in many ways. Its form - a cylindrical bowl whose bottom, instead of being flat, is a segment of a sphere with a ring-shaped foot - is fairly rare. Furthermore, the elegance of the decoration, the care with which it has been executed, the incised details, and the concern with obtaining color contrasts through the inlays are signs of a virtuoso artist. The effect originally sought by the artist was one of sparkling colors - the whiteness of the silver, the red of the copper, and the black of the copper alloy contrasting sharply with the golden color of the bronze. The object was probably an official commission, and can be approximately dated to the fourth century AD using stylistic and technical criteria. The figurative scenes, inspired by formulas frequently found in the Lower Roman Empire, are not particularly original. However, their juxtaposition takes on a particular meaning, since they are illustrating a historical event: the foundation of Caesarea on the Palestinian coast.

The foundation of Caesarea Palaestinae

The incised names of the figures do not leave any doubt as to the episode depicted. Although the city only took on real importance in the first century BC when Herod the Great, the king of the Jews (40 BC-AD 4), renamed it Caesarea and began major construction work there, the artist has depicted the establishment of the ancient city Straton's Tower, named after the Phoenician king Straton I of Sidon (374-362 BC). Straton introduced the worship of the god of Sidon, Eshmoun, whom the Greeks identified with Asclepius. Asclepius appears beside his daughter Hygieia, shaking Straton's hand. Represented on both sides is a scene of libation to Tyche, the goddess of fortune and protector of cities, and two ships landing on a shore populated with wild animals. The snake is thought to symbolize the protective power of Asclepius against the hostile beasts. Finally, a consultation with the oracle is depicted, in the sanctuary of Apollo, which predates the foundation of both cities.

A commemorative object

The decorative choice of the bronzesmith was probably dictated by the contemporary political context. The bowl commemorates the foundation of the city, and specifically the celebration of the games instituted on this occasion (the inscription engraved above Tyche evokes the "Sacred Games"). The decoration on the object indirectly shows the religious antagonisms that affected the Roman Empire beginning in the first century AD: here, art and religion are closely serving Roman politics. Indeed, there is a political agenda behind the fact that the first founder of Caesarea (a Phoenician) has been chosen over the second (a Jew). After the suppression of the Jewish revolt of AD 66 by Titus until the end of paganism, Roman power transcribed the origins of the city in its own way, with no concern for the role of Herod and the importance of the Jewish community at the time.

Bibliography

Y. Turnheim, A. Ovadiah, "Art in the Public and Private Spheres in Roman Caesarea Maritima", Rivista Di Archeologia, suppl. 27, 2002, p. 17-18, fig. 16-17.G. Finkielsztejn, "Asklepios Leontoukhos et le mythe de la coupe de Césarée maritime", Revue biblique, 93, 1986, p. 419-428, fig. 2.E. Will, "La coupe de Césarée de Palestine au Musée du Louvre", Monuments et Mémoires. Fondation Piot, 65, 1983, p. 1-25.

Technical description

  • Coupe de Césarée de Palestine

    IVe siècle après J.-C.

    Provenance inconnue, probablement Méditerranée orientale

  • Bronze incrusté de différents alliages

    H. : 8,20 cm. ; D. : 20,20 cm.

  • Acquis en 1962 , 1962

    Br 4391 (MND 2249)

  • Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities

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Additional information about the work

Latin inscription inlaid with silver indicating the names of the figures