Byzantine Treasures in Britain: Early Byzantium
In 1860 the chairman of the Select Committee on the British Museum, questioning Sir Anthony Panizzi, the museum’s principal librarian, prompted: “You have also, I imagine, Byzantine, Oriental, Mexican and Peruvian antiquities stowed away in the basement?” “Yes,” replied Panizzi, “a few of them; and, I may well add, that I do not think it any great loss that they are not better placed than they are.”
Byzantine antiquities were rescued from the museum’s basement largely through the scholarship of O. M. Dalton, of the Department of British and Mediaeval Antiquities and Ethnography. He is remembered by Byzantinists mainly for his Catalogue of Early Christian Antiquities and Objects from the Christian East… (1901), Byzantine Art and Archaeology (1911) and East Christian Art (1925).
It was not until 1958, however, that Britain had its first Byzantine exhibition, Masterpieces of Byzantine Art at the Edinburgh Festival and subsequently at the V&A. It was largely the creation of David Talbot Rice. Since then several exhibitions have attracted the attention of the public, not least “Byzantium” at the Royal Academy in 2008, and curators such as the British Museum’s David Buckton have finally given Byzantium the limelight it deserves.
In the spirit of this Anglo-Byzantine détente, therefore, I’ve compiled a list of Byzantine highlights you can find in collections the length and breadth of Britain:
BRITISH MUSEUM, LONDON
Largitio dish of the Emperor Licinius
Made and stamped at Naissus, AD 317
London, British Museum, 1969
Found at Nis, Serbia, in 1901.
The outer inscription reads LICINI AVGVSTE SEMPER VINCAS (Licinius Augustus, may you always be victorious). The inner inscription SIC X SIC XX (As ten, so twenty [years of rule]) occupies the centre of the largitio (from which we get the English “largesse”).
Gold coin-set pendant
London, British Museum, 1984
Enclosing a double solidus of Constantine the Great, its obverse is struck with a profile bust of the emperor and the reverse has confronted busts of his sons Crispus and Constantine II wearing consular costumes and holding eagle sceptres.
The Projecta Casket
London, British Museum, 1866
Part of the Esquiline Treasure, this toilet casket (?) was unearthed by workmen in 1793 at the foot of the Esquiline Hill in Rome. Probably given as a wedding present, it possesses two cupids, Venus in a shell and fantastic sea-creatures. Other elements include nereids and peacocks, though the main feature is the inscription SECVNDE ET PROIECTA VIVATIS IN CHRISTO (Secundus and Projecta live in Christ) preceded by a crux monogrammatica with alpha and omega.
The Corbridge Lanx
London, British Museum, 1993
Found in 1734 by the River Tyne near Corbridge, the lanx (which shows the shrine of Apollo on Delos with Artemis and Apollo framing three women: Leto, Athena and Ortygia) was originally used to present sauced food – as distinct from the discus which was used for unsauced grub.
Carthage, late C5-6th
London, British Museum, 1860
Excavated by the Revd Nathan David at Bordj-Djedid in 1857, the principal motif of this large mosaic was a hunt. Despite the Byzantine medium, the Germanic dress and facial hair of the horseman suggests it was commissioned (or at least altered) by a Vandal landowner.
Gold Medallion of Justinian
Constantinople, mid C6th
Discovered near Caesarea (in Cappadocia) in 1751, it occupied a spot in Paris’ Cabinet du Roi until stolen in 1831. Fortunately, the British Museum found a sulphur cast made of the coin and two electrotype copies of it are now possessed by the British Museum and Bibliotheque Nationale. Looking like a victorious general, the legend reads DN IVSTINIANVS PP AVG (Our Lord Justinian Perpetual Emperor). On the reverse the emperor is nimbate and the legend reads SALVS ET GLORIA ROMANORUM (The salvation and glory of the Romans).
Ivory Pyx of Menas
London, British Museum, 1879
Originally deposited in the church of San Paolo fuori le mura, Rome, where it was bought by Alexander Nesbitt, this large ivory box is dominated by two scenes. The first conflates the trial and execution of St Menas, an Egyptian soldier martyred under Diocletian. The second shows St Menas, now nimbed wearing a chlamys with tablion, standing in his sanctuary in orant pose. It probably functioned as either a reliquary or incense box.
ASHMOLEAN MUSEUM, OXFORD
Gold opus interrasile bracelet
Eastern Mediterranean, C5th
Ashmolean Museum, 1977
Found in Syria, the bracelet contains eight collet settings for oblong emeralds and oval sapphires. Though just as satisfying as the obvious bling is the opus interrasile, a delicate type of openwork decoration that, here, contains intricate scrollwork.
NATIONAL MUSEUMS OF SCOTLAND, EDINBURGH
Silver-gilt ewer from Traprain Law
Mediterranean, late C4th
National Museums of Scotland, 1920
Excavated in 1919 at Traprain Law, east of Edinburgh with nearly 150 items of silver plate, the ewer is decorated with five zones of repousse relief. The most attractive parts are the scriptural scenes: Adam and Eve, the Adoration of the Magi, and Moses striking water from the rock. Containing heaps of silver plate cut, crushed and folded and reduced to bullion, it was probably part of a hoard that brigands had looted in antiquity.
NATIONAL MUSEUMS AND GALLERIES ON MERSEYSIDE, LIVERPOOL
Constantinople, AD 513
Liverpool Museum, 1867
The consul sits on a lion-headed throne wearing the triumphal toga, his feet raised on a dais. In his left hand he holds a mappa, and in his right a sceptre surmounted by a bust of the Emperor Anastasius. Clementinus is supported by the personifications of Constantinople and Rome, and above the inscriptions (held up by columns) are roundels containing portraits of Anastasius and Ariadne. Consular diptychs like this were handed out to officials and friends on their appointment to the annual office. If you recognise this one’s features, it may be that you saw its cousin at the V&A where a second Clementinus leaf can be seen with its inscriptions and faces re-cut to commemorate Orestes, the western consul of AD 530.