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Work Reliquary Casket

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

Coffret à reliques

© Photo RMN / Gérard Blot

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
Christian and Byzantine Art

Author(s):
Marie-Bénédicte Astier

This small silver reliquary, historiated with Biblical scenes, testifies to the spread of Christianity and the emergence of an incipient Christian iconography during the early fifth century AD. The casket is decorated with reliefs heightened with gold, with subjects taken from the Old and New Testaments: the Raising of Lazarus is featured on the lid, with the Adoration of the Magi and the Three Israelites in the Furnace on the sides, framed by representations of Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

A reliquary casket

Discovered in Castello di Brivio, in Lombardy, this ovoid silver casket is sometimes referred to as the "Capsella di Brivio", from the Latin meaning "little box." It was probably designed to contain relics wrapped in cloth. From the fourth century AD onwards, stone reliquaries very often contained a smaller box made of precious metal, such as this. Use of these small, easily transportable reliquaries became particularly widespread during the sixth century, when pilgrimages to the Holy Land became more and more frequent. The sides and lid of the Louvre capsella are decorated with repoussé reliefs heightened with gold.

Scenes from the Old and New Testament

This reliquary is historiated with scenes from the Bible. On the lid, the Raising of Lazarus conforms to the usual early Christian iconographical representations of the scene, and serves as a reminder of the Christian promise of eternal life. The dead man is represented as a mummy, wrapped in bandages and standing upright in a temple indicated by columns topped with a cupola. One of Lazarus's sisters, Martha or Mary of Bethany, is prostrate at Jesus's feet, imploring. Christ is shown with a halo, pointing a long staff at the tomb, bringing Lazarus back to life. The front face of the casket is decorated with another New Testament scene, the Adoration of the Magi, emphasizing the recognition of Christ's divinity. Seated in a high-backed chair, the Virgin Mary presents the Infant Jesus to the three kings, who advance in procession, their arms laden with offerings and wearing the traditional Phrygian bonnet. The scene on the back of the casket is from the Old Testament: three young Israelites from Babylon (Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, as recounted in Daniel I:12) have been thrown into a furnace after being condemned by King Nebuchadnezzar for refusing to worship his effigy. The scene does not include the angel who, in the Biblical account, saves the trio from death by fire. The ends of the reliquary feature the entrances to two fortified towns - probably Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

The birth of Paleo-Christian Art

The Capsella di Brivio exemplifies the importance of the cult of relics in the Christian religion, from the late fourth century onwards. Produced during the early fifth century, the reliquary testifies to the spread of the Christian faith throughout the Roman Empire, and to the creation of a new iconography illustrating the nascent religion and its holy texts. Officially tolerated by the Empire following the edict of Milan in AD 313, Christianity became increasingly established following the baptism of the emperor Theodosius I in AD 380, and his promulgation of the Nicene Creed. Paleo-Christian art flourished during this period, sometimes mixing the new iconography with pagan images. The three scenes decorating this casket are among the most frequently represented, particularly on marble sarcophagi produced in Rome during the fourth century. They are also seen in frescoes in the Christian catacombs, and mosaics.

Bibliography

Milano capitale dell' Imperio romano, Milan, 1990, p. 350Wealth of the Roman World, Londres, 1977, p. 93-94, n 157H. Buschhausen, "Die Spätroemischen Metallscrinia und Frühchristlichen Reliquiare", Wiener Byzantinisch Studien, 9, 1971, p. 240-242, n B 14, pl. 46-47Bozzi, "La capsella di Brivio e il suo contributo allo studio della primitiva chiese plebana", Contributi dell' Instituto di Archeologia, vol. 1, Milan, serie 3, 9, 1967, p. 159-169, pl. 27-30A. Lipinski, "Ori e argenti gioielli del mondo tardo-romano paleocristiano e paleobizantini in Italia fino al movimento iconoclasta", Corsi Ravennate, 12, 1965, p. 405-452Ph. Lauer, "La capsella de Brivio", Monuments et mémoires. Fondation Piot, 13, 1906, p. 229-240

Technical description

  • Coffret à reliques

    Ière moitié du Ve siècle après J.-C.

    Brivio, Italie

  • Argent avec traces de dorure

    l. : 12 cm. ; H. : 5,70 cm. ; Pr. : 5,50 cm.

  • Achat, 1902 , 1902

    Known as the "Capsella di Brivio"

    N° d'entrée MND 572 (n° usuel Bj 1951)

  • Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities

    Denon wing
    Ground floor
    Mosaics gallery
    Room 30

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