Wednesday, January 08, 2020

A Papal Reliquary of the 5th Century

In the year 1906, the fragments of an ivory reliquary box were discovered beneath the altar of the paleochristian church of St Hermagoras in Pola, Croatia. [1] This reliquary, which is now kept at the National Archeological Museum in Venice, was made in Rome in the mid-5th century, apparently as a gift from the Pope to the Roman Emperor. It is particularly interesting not just because of its age, but also because several of the scenes depicted on its panels were copied from ancient churches in Rome; one of the panels even shows us what the interior of the ancient basilica of St Peter looked like in antiquity! Thanks to Nicola de’ Grandi for these pictures taken on a recent visit to Venice.

The lid is decorated with a scene known as the “Traditio Legis – the handing down of the law”, in which Christ is shown with a scroll representing the new law of the Christian faith, in the company of at least the Apostle Peter, usually also Paul, and sometimes all twelve. In this specific case, as in many others, Christ is passing the scroll to Peter, who is on the right, holding a cross, the instrument of his death. Of the figure of Paul on the left, only one hand and a part of his torso is preserved. This scene and the one on the front panel (seen below) were both inspired by the apsidal mosaic of the Constantinian basilica of St Peter; the mosaic was replaced with a modified copy in the reign of Pope Innocent III (1198-1216), and is now lost, but the motif is known from drawings of the Renaissance period.
On the front we see an empty but richly decorated throne, a motif known as an “Etimasia”, symbolizing the presence and majesty of God. Underneath it stands the Lamb of God on a mountain, with the four rivers of Paradise rising up beneath His feet. Three Apostles stand to either side of the throne, with Paul closest on the left and Peter closest on the right. Above we see sheep, doves and a jewled cross, all common motifs in early Christian decorative art.

The back shows the Emperor Constantine and his mother St Helena standing in the middle of the area within the ancient basilica of St Peter which included the Apostles tomb, in front of a window through which the tomb itself could been seen until it was closed off by Pope St Gregory the Great at the end of the 6th century. Constantine had the site surrounded by eight twisted marble columns which supported an architrave, as we see here, this being the oldest image in existence of the church’s interior. These are known as “Solomonic” columns from the popular (but baseless) legend that Constantine recovered them from the ruins of the Jerusalem temple, and brought them to Rome. The architrave was later extended with four more columns added to it, and statues of the twelve Apostles set on top, one over each column.
On the left side, the Empress Galla Placidia (ca. 390-450) and her son Valentinian III (419-455) visit the Roman basilica of the Holy Crossaccompanied by Helion, the imperial master of cermonies. It is believed that they were the original recipients of the box, made to contain some portion of the relics of Ss Peter and Paul, at the behest of either Pope St Sixtus III (432-40), o his successor, St Leo I (440-61).
On the right side, Valentinian III, his wife Eudoxia, and daughter Eudocia are seen visiting the edicule which St Helena had built within the Roman basilica of the Holy Cross; this edicule was a copy of the one in the church of the Anastasis in Jerusalem, also known as the Holy Sepulcher, and gave to its Roman counterpart its traditional nickname “Holy Cross in Jerusalem.”

[1] It is usually referred to in Italian as “la capsella di Samagher”, even though a “capsella” is properly round and smaller. “Samagher” is a local derivation from “Sant’Ermagora”, a local Saint said to have been made the first bishop of Aquileia by St Mark the Evangelist; devotion to him was imported into the region during the long period when the Istrian peninsula, of which Pola is the capital, was in the territory of the Venetian Republic.

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