A Byzantine church shaped ciborium

A Byzantine church shaped ciborium

A Byzantine church shaped ciborium

31.5 x 14.5 x 14.5 cm (12 ³/₈ x 5 ³/₄ x 5 ³/₄ inches)
6th century AD

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From a late 1990s private collection; formerly acquired on the UK art market in the early 1980s




A marble lid reliquary casket, having the shape of a Church ciborium ("ciborion"- Kißoprovin Greek) squared in plan with pyramidal lid; the lid is composed by a pyramid cornered on four sides by branches of palm, flanking on three sides a central Greek cross closed within a laurel wreath; on one side the laurel wreath is flanking the Christian Monogram Chi-Ro; the base of the pyramid composed by three straight lines, with open holes to both sides (possibly a later modification); the body of the reliquary is composed by 4 arcaded outer faces, each supported by four small columns, and a central pilaster with columns incorporated, on three sides, the space over them creating a niche shaped like a shell; on the frontal side the space of the pilaster is sculpted like the door of a Church, decorated with three over posed crosses, the central ones closed inside a circle; the upper rectangular space of two niches is decorated with vegetal ornaments representing vine branches and scrolls, while the two spaces under the holes of the lid are respectively ornamented, on one side, by vegetal ornaments flanked by a couple of crosses under one arch and, on the other (the frontal one corresponding to the fictionally carved church doors), from the image of the Divine Lamb Agnus Dei under a triangular architecture imitating the door of a Church; the back of the divine Lamb is surmounted by a crossed staff, while the on his side are represented the Archangels Michail (Michael) and Gavril (Gabriel) flying towards Him wearing Imperial attributes, a small standard-sceptre (Labarum), a cloak like a Paludamentum and a globe; the upper part of the body present a decorative architectonic element decorated by ovules.

Reference: Grabar, A., L'età d'oro di Giustiniano, Milano, 1966; Wamser L., Zahlhaas, G., Rom und Byzanz Archaologischen Kostbarkeiten aus Bayern München, 1999; Hahn C. (ed.), Objects of devotion and desire, medieval relic to contemporary art, January 27-April 30, 2011, catalogue of the exhibition at the he Bertha and Karl Lebsdorf Art Gallery, Hunter College, New York, 2011.

Notes: Such object of devotions began to be common from 4th century AD, when the Roman Empire slowly underwent its transformation in a Christian Empire, beginning with the Edict of tolerance towards all the Religions (included the Christian one) of Constantine and Licinius in 313 AD and ending with the proclamation of the Christianity as official religion of the Roman State, with Theodosius, in 380 AD. Since then the Roman Empire was a Christian one, with its Eastern Capital, Constantinople (the city of Constantine) or Nea Romi (New Rome) born as Christian city, and remaining such until its fall to the Turks in 1453 AD, except for the short period of Julian II (361-363 AD).

The reliquary shows decorations and characters typical of the Age of Justinian the Great (527-565 AD). The exquisite facture of the work points to Greek workshops of the Empire, in particular Thessaloniki or the same Chief City, Constantinople.


Most probably it is coming from a church, an Episcopal Palace or the private chapel of a worthy man, layman or ecclesiastical. The piece, in its perfection and refinement of execution is rare and unique in its gender.

In many churches, the sacred relics were kept and protected inside a canopy or covering supported by columns, freestanding in the Sanctuary (ciborium). This baldachins were realised in correspondance of the position of the reliques of the Saints, and ciboria had curtains hanging from rods between the columns, so that the altar could be concealed from the congregation at points in the Holy Liturgy. Smaller examples may cover other objects in a church, and small copies of it were realised to kept small reliques of Saints. The ciboria were the model for miniature copies, like the one seen here, that were manufactured throughout the Roman Empire as containers for relics or objects made holy by physical contact with them. The reliquaries served to the Pilgrims and devotes for the collecting of the holy Oil, the Myron. They were sealed, probably with lead, and the only way to interact with the precious relic kept inside were the openings at the top of the reliquary, where strongly scented offerings of oil could be poured inside the small object. Once the oil had been poured through the upper aperture it passed over the enclosed relic and would have been collected in pilgrim flasks from the other hole on the opposite side, thus creating holy oil. This is the reason why some of the reliquaries, have two additional holes, to make it easier to remove the sanctified oil. These holes were sometimes equipped with spouts.

A simular example can be found in the Princeton University Art Museum.