Saturday, November 10, 2012

Byzantine Pilgrimage Objects - Phenomenon of Sacred Artifacts or Contemporary Reality?

Qual-at Sem-an
© Thomas Roth 2003
As fascinating as we may find a slab of stone, an object  or a painting from the past, these objects we study as art historians or archaeologists may seem irrelevant or even trivial to someone with no connection to the specific culture.  While we can wax lyrical about the iconography or the theories related to a work of art, to someone with no knowledge, interest or cultural memory of the object of our admiration, these might sound like peculiar ramblings.  Being able to engage with a work of art on a personal level, however, can have the ability to change one's perception of the significance of these artifacts.  But, since the vast majority of artifacts remaining from the past represent the lives and concerns of the privileged classes, this can be cause for further impediment to this engagement. Ironically, while studying Byzantine pilgrimage objects, I have come to consider the phenomenon of early Christian pilgrimage objects, as an occurrence that has the potential to transcend centuries and reach the souls of a vast audience of people no matter what their religious affiliations or cultural background.

The Fieschi Morgan Staurotheke,
early 9th c,
Constantinople (?)
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The artistic creativity, wealth and the diversity of the people set in motion due to pilgrimage in the history of  Byzantium was a rare phenomenon.1  Pilgrims coming from a wide geography, from the southern end of the Arabian peninsula to  Scandinavia, traveled to the Holy Land, established cult centers and monastic communities, drawn by the belief that through physical contact with holy people, relics and holy places their sanctity could be transferred.  When describing the pilgrim shrine of St. Thekla at Seleucia (modern day Silifke), the fifth century Bishop of Seleucia states:
 Not only the inhabitants of our own land come flocking there, but also Ishmaelites; Persians, and the Armenians, their sub-jects, [as well as] Georgians, Homerites and tribes which live still further inland.  There also come many from the far West, including Spain, Britain, and Gaul.  And of Italy, we need not even speak...2 
Even though they were mostly spiritually motivated, in search of guidance, penitence, and forgiveness, pilgrims also came in search of healing. They came to pray, touch and venerate with hopes of garnering the salvation they sought and collect blessings (eulogiai) such as water, oil or earth that had been sanctified through contact with a holy person or a place.  Although the most precious of these would have been a relic of the true cross, housed in a precious box like The Fieschi Morgan Reliquary from the Metropolitan Museum of Art's collection, there were a bevy of other alternatives for the not so illustrious pilgrim as well. There was supposed to be a whole 'pilgrim industry' with the production of clay pots and reliquaries for articles from the bodies, vestments or other 'interesting' objects associated with holy persons.

Pilgrim Flask of Saint Menas, 6th c.
(The Walters Art Museum)
Places where Christ's life, miracles and passion took place were the most revered pilgrimage sites to visit but healing shrines and cult centers also evolved in the tombs of local Saints. The blessings pilgrims collected and took back with them from these sites usually consisted of common substances that had been sanctified by contact with the holy person and the containers these were stored in would contain images recalling the conditions of their origin or  the context of their use.  This flask bears the figure of Saint Menas who was martyred and buried in the desert west of Alexandria in AD 296. Saint Menas was the patron saint of merchants and caravans which can be deciphered from the two camels kneeling by the saint. Pilgrims would have used to carry the sacred oil from the saint's healing shrine in these type of flasks.4

Pilgrim Stamp of Saint Isidore, 6th c.
Chios, Greece
(The Walters Art Museum)

This stamp bearing the attributes of Saint Isidore would have been used to make pilgrim tokens for them to take back with them. Saint Isidore, who was martyred in the Greek Island of Chios in 251AD was the patron saint of sailors which is referred to in the depiction of the ship to the left of the saint. Pilgrims came to his healing shrine which is shown to the right of the saint, the ship on the left could also be recalling the vessels that carried the pilgrims to his shrine.5

Ampulla with Scenes of the Crucifixion and the Women at the Tomb,
6th - early 7th c. Made in Jerusalem(?)
(Byzantine Collection, Dumbarton Oaks, Washington D.C.)

Christological Scenes associated with the Holy land sites was the most prominent feature of pilgrimage objects. In the ampulla above we see two pilgrims kneeling to touch the cross of the crucified Christ on one side and a visual reference to historical tomb of Christ in the Anastasis Rotunda in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on the other side.  The inscription in Greek, "Oil of the wood of life from the holy sites of Christ," suggests the ampulla contained holy oil.  Gary Vikan has included this ampulla in his paper "Byzantine Pilgrimage Art," that mentions some fascinating aspects of the  iconography, including it being heavily weighed toward the contemporary Tomb relic at the expense of the Bible text.  He states:
"The Synoptic Gospels stipulate that the women approached the Tomb with spices to anoint the body of Christ, yet here the foremost is shown holding not a spice bottle or jar, but rather a swinging censer. This substitution (which is characteristic of many early versions of the scene) may well have come in response to early pietistic practice at the holy site itself, for Egeria (a female pilgrim 381-384) related that the clergy carried censers into the Tomb each Sunday morning."6 
We are afforded a real look at the pilgrim's experience with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in this ampulla. The representation of the grill work on the doors and the columns and the other architectural details were confirmed from traveler's accounts as being true as well.

Token with Stylite, 6th-7thc.
Made in Syria(?)
(Tsolozidis Collection. Thessaloniki)
Relief of a Stylite Saint, 5th-6th c.
Made in Syria
(Staatliche Museen zu Berlin)

Of all the pilgrimage sites and holy figures from Christian pilgrimage, the most fascinating have to be the Stylite Saints who lived on top of columns as a form of asceticism.  Symeon Stylites the Elder (389-459) was the first of the stylites who after being dismissed from several monasteries due to his extreme forms of devotion tried to disassociate himself from society and finally moved to the top of a pillar, where he lived for thirty-seven years. After his death a great complex was erected enclosing his pillar at Qal'at Sem'an (See photo above), near Aleppo. The other famous pilgrimage site was Wondrous Mountain where Symeon Stylites the Younger (521-562)  had lived and established the monastery around his column himself.  People came to the stylite saints not only for prayers but also to settle disputes and for working miracles, healing.

Jug with Medallions, 6th - 8th c.
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

This jug which was probably used to carry water is decorated with medallions with the image of the rider wrapping around its neck. The image of the mounted rider was associated with the Holy rider and is thought to ward away evil used for protection for the way home.7 It was at the point of contemplating this jug that the reality of the human being who needed this protection became a reality for me. Maybe it was a personal response because of the current circumstances of being away from my children while they were in danger due to hurricane Sandy that swept thorough the East Coast of the United States. All I know is that at that point, if there was a jug, a token, an ampulla, anything that had a protective connotation I would have wanted them to have it and if it had been sanctified through contact with a holy person that would have been all the better.  So, now when I look at pilgrimage objects, I cannot take a distant, objective approach classifying them just as objects with iconographies that relate Christian imagery from fifteen centuries ago - they are very real reminders of the people that once lived thought, felt and pursued salvation, healing and protection. 

1 Gary Vikan, "Byzantine Pilgrimage Art" Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Collection, (1982) p. 3 
2 Ibid., p. 4
3  John F. Haldon, The Palgrave Atlas of Byzantine History, Basingstoke [U.K.:  Palgrave Macmillan], 2005 p. 54
4  The Walters Art Museum website (link)
5  The Walters Art Museum website (link)
6  Vikan, p. 22
7 Brandie Rafliff and Helen C. Evans, Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition, 7th-9th Century, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012, p.90


Gary Vikan, "Byzantine Pilgrimage Art," Dumbarton  Byzantine Collection (1982), Trustees for Harvard University, Washington D.C. (link)

John F. Haldon, The Palgrave Atlas of Byzantine History, Basingstoke [U.K.:  Palgrave Macmillan], 2005

The Walters Art Museum (link)

Metropolitan Museum of Art website (link)

Brandie Ratliff and Helen C. Evans, Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition, 7th-9th Century, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012


  1. Hmmm . . . I lost my comment -- probably just as well, because it was way too long!
    To summarize, lovely post! Now, when travel is relatively easy, I think we can forget how difficult, and expensive, and time-consuming it used to be. Obtaining something protective both for the journey and for loved ones at home must have been a salve for the pilgrim. So glad that your family is ok!

    And I didn't realize that the stylite saints were real. I don't want to be disrespectful, but I don't know whether to laugh or cry! The relief that you show is absolutely gorgeous -- another reason to go to Berlin! And I'm in love with the first image from the Fieschi Morgan Staurotheke -- another reason to go to NY, too!

    Thanks for putting these art objects back into context -- connecting them to their culture is, in my opinion, what makes them interesting.


  2. Karen,

    I have to agree, the Stylite Saints are totally outrageous in their practices but they actually served a very unique purpose within a community - that of the outsider (with miraculous tendencies, of course) who could intercede on the behalf of the people in disputes that even involved officials or the emperor but I recommend Peter Brown's fascinating article The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity ( garner a better understanding.
    You know there was even one in Istanbul by the Bosphorus.

    I am glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for the comment.


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