Byzantine Lapis Lazuli Pyxis

SKU AM.0177
Circa

900 AD to 1100 AD

Dimensions

3.9″ (9.9cm) high x 3″ (7.6cm) wide

Medium

Lapis Lazuli

Origin

Central Europe

Gallery Location

UK


 

Pyxis is the term applied to cylindrical containers used to store valuables since antiquity. During the Byzantine era their most common function was as a receptacle for the consecrated host. Typically made of lavish materials, such as ivory, this example is nevertheless extraordinary for the expense of the stone. Lapis lazuli had to be imported from Afghanistan, and although a handful of small cameos and plaques survive in this material, its use was restricted to the most high status items. Three iconic images have been carved in relief around the sides of the vessel. The first is a half-length Virgin and Child, the former pointing at her son with her right hand, a type known as Hodegetria. This is a Greek phrase meaning, ‘one who shows the way.’ The Virgin points to Christ, revealing to mankind its means of salvation. The Christ Child is depicted fully draped as was customary in this period and considerable care has been lavished on the folds of his gown. It is possible that the eyes of the figures were once inlaid with another precious material. The second image is that of Christ, with an open book balanced between his forearms. This was a variant of the ‘Pantokrator’ image which is often displayed on the interior of the domes of Byzantine churches. In this image Christ gestures with both his hands and the emphasis is on his role as a teacher. The details of his hair and beard have been carefully defined and the aureole has sections of cross-hatching to distinguish the sign of the cross. The final image shows a full-length Christ set against a flaming aureole with his right arm raised. Texture has been added to the rays of the aureole by extensive cross-hatching. A swathe of drapery runs diagonally across Christ’s torso and over his left shoulder. Separating each image is the symbol of the cross within a circle.

The pyxis is supported on three feet which resemble animal hooves of some kind. The tapered lip indicates that the lid is missing, indeed all such containers undoubtedly had lids originally because of the precious materials they were designed to contain. This is a remarkable and extremely rare object that would form the centrepiece of any collection of medieval Christian art.

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