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Work Patera

Department of Egyptian Antiquities: Christian Egypt (fourth - twelfth centuries AD)

Patera

© R.M.N./H. Lewandowski

Egyptian Antiquities
Christian Egypt (fourth - twelfth centuries AD)

Author(s):
Meurice Cédric

A patera was a bowl for the washing of hands before and after eating. In Coptic Egypt they were often lavishly decorated; in this instance the decor is concentrated on the perimeter of the bowl (with beads streaming from the mouths of two dolphins), and on the handle (with a naked female figure wearing an open-work cross). The movement of the two animals and the woman's legs create a powerful dynamic, making this one of the finest Egyptian pateras of this period.

A luxury utensil...

A patera was not merely a bowl; this one, for example, has a decorated horizontal handle. These utensils played a prominent part in everyday life in classical Antiquity, and were subsequently adopted by Christianity for use in the liturgy. This example was intended for private, domestic use. The nature of the material used, the sophisticated workmanship and the complex decoration all suggest that it belonged to a wealthy household.

...with lavish decoration

This bronze object now has a light black patina. The broad-rimmed, cylindrical bowl has an incised pattern. It is flat-bottomed, so that it can be put down. The lip of the bowl is ringed with a slightly raised pattern of beads, which emerge from the jaws of two dolphins framing the handle. Three small feline heads are placed at regular intervals around the bowl to mark its various axes. These are interspersed with four groups of beads: two groups of six in the upper section, and ten or eleven beads in the lower section. The dolphins, depicted symmetrically and in profile, lend a sense of movement to the piece. The bodies are curled up, their tails raised. For the sake of convenience, and also to give the handle greater strength, they remain attached to the figurine that serves as the patera handle. Placed on a small, slightly concave plinth, this female figure wears only a necklace and two bracelets. Her crossed legs and her arms held at right angles (to provide a better grip on the handle) further accentuate the sense of movement created by the dolphins. On her head the figure wears an elaborate crown consisting of an outer section adorned with beads and leafy scrolls, surrounding a central Greek cross (with branches flaring at their extremities). Above it is another small feline head with a ring attached. Cat and dolphin motifs are frequently found on Coptic objects.

Aphrodite and the cross

The combination of a cross and a naked female figure may appear surprising. Sharing a similar imagery with the goddess Aphrodite, this woman sheds her pagan characteristics by offering a Christian cross. Syncretic images such as this were not unusual in Coptic Egypt.

Bibliography

Bénazeth D., L'art du métal au début de l'ère chrétienne, Paris, RMN, 1992, p. 79.
Bénazeth D., "'Patères' coptes", Revue du Louvre 4, 1994, p. 23, 28 et fig. 1.

Technical description

  • Patera

    5th-8th century

  • Bronze, cast, turned, with handle and rim added

    H. 5.5 cm; L. 34.6 cm; W. 20.5 cm

  • Purchased 1943

    E 16900, E 24032, E 24040, E 10796, E 11927

  • Egyptian Antiquities

    Denon wing
    Lower ground floor
    Gallery of Coptic art
    Room B

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