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Work Pilgrim flasks

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

Ampoules à eulogies

© Musée du Louvre/G. Poncet

Egyptian Antiquities
Christian Egypt (fourth - twelfth centuries AD)

Author(s):
Lyon-Caen Christiane

Pilgrim flasks, or ampullae, are small metal, glass, or terra vials such as this one, used by pilgrims in Antiquity and in the early Middle Ages, to carry home water or oil from the lamps burning in the sanctuaries visited. They also held oil that had been placed near the relics of a martyr and even earth scooped up piously from around a worshiped tomb.

The flask

This ampulla is shaped like a flattened gourd with two small handles on the side and a small spout. Its size and quality set it apart from the usual flasks, although the images are typical: Saint Menas, identified by his name written in Greek, and Saint Thecla.
The two figures were not contemporaneous: Saint Paul converted Thecla to Christianity, and Menas was martyred during the reign of Diocletian (third century). They were probably placed together on these small sacred souvenirs because their Egyptian shrines were situated near each other: Menas was worshipped in the Abu Mina basilica southwest of Alexandria; and Thecla in Dekheila, in the outskirts of Alexandria, on the road to Abu Mina.
Menas is always depicted in the same, strictly symmetrical pose: standing, wearing a short, long-sleeved tunic cinched at the waist by a broad belt, his shoulder covered with a military cloak and wearing laced boots. He faces forward, his arms are raised, and he is flanked by two kneeling camels.
Thecla had refused to marry a high-ranking magistrate of Antioch and sentenced to face "the beasts" in the arena. The unfortunate animals - bulls, lions, bears, seals, and others - retreated four times when confronted with the power of God and the projectiles hurled from the stands by women spectators, who strongly supported their unfairly convicted "sister."
The image of Thecla is a stereotypical as that of Menas's: the saint is standing, slightly off-balance, with her hands tied behind her back. She is surrounded by the animals in the arena: two bulls, a she bear, and a lioness.
.

Two martyrs

These two martyred saints are emblematic of Egyptian hagiography. Menas was an Egyptian soldier martyred in Phrygia. As his body was being brought back to Egypt was the camel carrying it stopped suddenly in the desert. The escort of his followers decided to bury Menas at that spot. A miraculous spring appeared, and the site became a major pilgrimage destination. The quasi-industrial production of Saint Menas pilgrim flasks flourished in the 4th and 5th centuries: pilgrims from throughout Europe purchased and disseminated these objects. Thecla was buried in Seleucia in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey); the origins of her cult in Egypt have not been clearly determined.

The pilgrimage

Religious pilgrimages were already well established in the pagan traditions of Antiquity. Worshipers returned home from these trips with souvenirs of terracotta figurines and amulets depicting the deity visited. Early Christians adopted this custom and undertook pilgrimages to the tombs of saints and martyrs. Stories of these voyages have survived, such as Etheria's Pilgrimage, a narrative of a trip she made to the Holy Sites in Egypt and the Middle East in the fourth century. She received "holy flasks" from the monks who provided hospitality to the pilgrims.

Bibliography

Metzger C., Les ampoules à eulogie du musée du Louvre, Paris, 1981, n 76, pp. 35-36, p. 94, fig 94.
Metzger C., Catalogue d'exposition Lattes, 1999, "Égyptes... l'Égyptien et le copte", n 114.
Metzger C., Catalogue d'exposition, Institut du Monde arabe, Paris, 2000, "L'art copte en Égypte, 2000 ans de christianisme", n 6, p. 40.
Cannuyer C., L'Égypte copte, les chrétiens du Nil, Paris, 2000, p. 27 (photo et texte).
Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, I, 2, col. 1722ss.
Coptic Encyclopedia, Tome I, article "ampoula" pp. 116-118.

Technical description

  • Ampoules à eulogies

    VIe siècle après J.-C.

  • terre cuite

    H. : 12,50 cm.

  • Legs Weill, 1950

    E 24445, AF 7035

  • Egyptian Antiquities

    Denon wing
    Lower ground floor
    Gallery of Coptic art
    Room B
    Vitrine C5 : L'Egypte chrétienne

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