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Work Vase from Emesa

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

Vase d'Emèse

© 2000 RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
Christian and Byzantine Art

Astier Marie-Bénédicte

Found at the site of ancient Emesa (Syria), this silver vase is a fine example of the flourishing metalwork and fabulous treasures of the Byzantine church in the 6th and 7th centuries AD. Its decoration identifies it as a liturgical item used to hold wine during the Eucharistic ceremony. Medallions around the body of the vase are decorated with biblical figures: Christ flanked by St. Peter and St. Paul, the Virgin between two angels, John the Baptist, and John the Evangelist.

A liturgical cup from the Byzantine era

Presented to the Louvre in 1892, this hammered silver vase was discovered in the late 19th century among church ruins at Homs (ancient Emesa) in Syria. Remarkable for its large size and fine relief decoration (repoussé work and engraving), the broad body and tall cylindrical neck resemble a classical amphora. A handle (now lost) would have facilitated its use. The vase seems to have been made during the late 6th or early 7th century AD, when Byzantine metalwork flourished-especially liturgical items. The cup was most likely intended to hold the ceremonial wine.

A decorative scheme featuring biblical figures

The vase's decoration is restricted to a broad panel around the body, bordered with garlands of stylized foliage and acanthus horns, and punctuated by eight medallions, each containing a portrait bust of a biblical figure. On one side, the Virgin Mary is flanked by two angels; on the other, Christ is shown holding the Book of the Gospels in his left hand, with his right hand raised in a gesture of benediction. The portrait of Christ is flanked by traditional eastern iconographical representations of St. Peter (with long hair and a short, curly beard) and St. Paul (with a high, bald forehead and long beard). The two remaining busts are less readily identifiable: one shows a bearded older man with a face similar to that of Christ (possibly St. John the Baptist). The other, younger and beardless, may be a portrait of Christ's favored disciple, St. John the Evangelist.

An artifact from Syria or Constantinople?

Christian communities proliferated throughout Syria and Asia Minor from the 5th century AD, and the abundant silverware, plates, cups, and other liturgical items discovered throughout the eastern Mediterranean testify to the fabulous treasures of their churches. Most feature votive inscriptions, and were often presented by worshippers or members of the clergy. However, the present vase, from Emesa, bears neither an inscription, nor the customary five hallmark stamps of the imperial administration in Constantinople. The quality of the reliefs would seem to indicate that it was made in the Byzantine capital, although it could equally be the work of a talented local craftsman, in Syria. In the absence of other comparable items, the debate over the vase's origins remains unresolved.


Catalogue d'exposition : Pietro e Paolo. La storia, il culto, la memoria nei primi secoli, Rome-Palazzo della Cancelleria, Milan, 2000, n 74, p. 218.
Ch. Delvoye, Byzance, l'art byzantin dans les collections publiques françaises, Paris, Musée du Louvre 1992, n 62, p. 115

Catalogue d'expostion : Silver from Early Byzantium. The Kaper Karaon and related Treasures, Baltimore, 1986, n 84, pp. 255-256

Age of Spirituality. Late Antique and Early Christian Art 3th to 7th century, Metropolitan Museum of New York 1977-1978, 1979, n 552, pp. 615-617

Technical description

  • Vase d'Emèse

    Fin du VIe ou début du VIIe siècle après J.-C.

    Homs (ancienne Emèse, en Syrie)

  • Argent, martelé, repoussé et gravé

    H. : 45 cm.

  • Don J. A. Durighello, 1892 , 1892

    Bj 1895 (MNC 1652)

  • Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities

    Sully wing
    1st floor
    Salle Henri II
    Room 662
    Vitrine centrale 8 : Antiquité tardive

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