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Work Plaque of Saint Simeon

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

Plaque of Saint Simeon

© 2006 Photo RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
Christian and Byzantine Art

Author(s):
Astier Marie-Bénédicte

This silver plaque is a precious record of the worship of stylite saints in the eastern Mediterranean in the 6th and 7th centuries. It was originally part of the treasure of the church of Ma'arrat an Numan, Syria. The decoration, figured in relief, recalls the origins of stylitism, a form of asceticism whose followers lived atop a pillar. Saint Simeon Stylites the Elder, the founder of this practice, is shown on his column, calm despite the snake that is threatening to attack.

A Syrian ex-voto plaque

The Friends of the Louvre purchased this plaque of partially gilded repoussé silver in 1952. It records the rise of certain remarkable forms of Christian worship in late Antiquity. The plaque, dating from the late 6th century, was long thought to be part of a reliquary but recent scholarship suggests it is an ex-voto plaque dedicated to Saint Simeon Stylites, because of the inscription in Greek letters along the bottom of the plaque. The inscription reads "In thanks to God and to Saint Simeon, I have given." Recent research has allowed scholars to site the plaque in its original context and seems to lend support to the hypothesis of its votive function. The plaque was part of the treasure of the church of Ma'arrat an Numan in Syria. The treasure also contained a number of other similar small silver plaques engraved with invocations and dedicatory inscriptions.

Saint Simeon Stylites

Unfortunately, the dedication does not indicate whether the saint in question was Simeon Stylites the Elder, who lived in northern Syria between AD 390 and AD 459, or Simeon Stylites the Younger, inspired by the older saint, whose dates are approximately AD 521-592, and who was worshipped at the Admirable Mountain near Antioch. However, the scene illustrated on the plaque suggests the origins of stylitism (from the Greek stylos, meaning a column), which was a particular form of asceticism whose followers spent their lives sitting atop a pillar. This form of mortification was first practiced in the 5th century by Simeon the Elder, who avoided worldly temptation by living on a high column. The saint is depicted as an elderly, bearded man wearing a loose hooded garment and with a large shell above his head. He is perched atop a column behind a latticed parapet. There is a ladder leaning against the pillar and an opening halfway up it to get in and out. The saint is holding a book and seems plunged in deep thought, calm in the face of the danger of the monstrous serpent that is threatening him. The animal is thought to be a reference to an episode from the life of Saint Simeon the Elder, when a snake came to visit the saint to request his help in treating his sick mate.

The veneration of the stylite saints

From the late 5th century, the veneration of Simeon became extremely popular in Syria and throughout the eastern Mediterranean region. The rise of Syrian monasticism was probably encouraged by the tensions then apparent within the Eastern church. The shrine that sprang up around the saint's pillar in Qalaat Seman, not far from Aleppo, became one of the major sites of Christian pilgrimage until the 7th century. Many disciples followed the saint's example, among them Daniel Stylites (d. AD 493), who brought the movement to Constantinople. Although stylite monks lived as hermits atop their pillars, they were surrounded by a community of disciples who brought them food. When they were not praying, they welcomed pilgrims, preached to the crowds below, exorcised the afflicted, and performed miraculous cures.

Bibliography

Berlin Claude, Fumaroli Marc, Moinot Pierre et al., Des mécènes
par milliers : un siècle de dons par les Amis du Louvre, cat. exp. Paris,
musée du Louvre, 21 avril-21 juillet 1997, Paris, Éditions de la Réunion
des musées nationaux, 1997, p. 199, n 35.
Byzance. L'Art byzantin dans les collections publiques françaises, Paris, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1992, n 61.
Buschhausen Helmut, Die spätrömischen Metallscrinia und frühchristlichen Reliquiare, Vienne, H. Böhlaus, coll. "Wiener byzantinische Studien, 9", 1971, B 25, pp. 257-259.
Lassus Jean, "Une image de saint Syméon le Jeune sur un fragment de reliquaire syrien du musée du Louvre", in Monuments et mémoires. Fondation Eugène Piot, vol. 51, 1960, pp. 129-148.
Mundell Mango Marlia (sous la dir. de), Silver from early Byzantium : the Kaper Koraon and Related Treasures, cat. exp. Baltimore, Walters art gallery, 18 avril-17 août 1986, Baltimore, Trustees of the Walters art gallery, 1986, n 71, pp. 240-241.

Technical description

  • Plaque of Saint Simeon

    Late 6th century AD

    Near Ma'arrat an Numan, Syria

    Syria

  • Hammered, repoussé silver, partially gilded

    H. 29.6 cm; W. 26 cm

  • Gift of the Friends of the Louvre, 1952

    Bj 2180 (MND 2035)

  • Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities

    Sully wing
    1st floor
    Salle Henri II
    Room 33

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Additional information about the work

Dedicatory inscription in Greek letters along the bottom of the plaque.