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Identification and Creation

Object Number
Amulet with Holy Rider and Virgin Enthroned
Other Titles
Former Title: Holy Rider Amulet
Work Type
5th-7th century
Creation Place: Ancient & Byzantine World, Asia, Syria
Byzantine period, Early
Persistent Link

Physical Descriptions

Copper alloy
Cast, lost-wax process
3.6 x 0.4 cm (1 3/8 x 3/16 in.)
Technical Details

Technical Observations: Although it appears to be made from one piece of metal, this amulet was in fact made in two sections: an inner solid disc (2.81 cm in diameter) set within a solid ring-like collar (3.5 mm wide) that effectively enlarges the diameter to 3.55 cm at its widest point. After completion of the decoration, but before burial, the inner disc shifted position, possibly as a result of an impact, making one side edge slightly proud of the overall surface, while the opposite side is recessed. The x-radiograph shows the circular join that confirms this unusual fabrication technique. On both sides, the central section generally contains the figural decoration, and the border areas bear the inscription. It is unlikely that the amulet was cast, as some of the border inscription lettering is continuous across the join between the two elements. The surfaces were leveled, before or as the decoration was applied. The decorations could have been incised, punched, or struck from a die. The generalized surface corrosion and burial deposits make it difficult to determine the method of decoration. In some areas of the linear decoration, however, there are indications that the lines may have been incised or engraved in the metal, while broader and deeper areas of decoration may have been punch-formed with blunt tools. A further possibility is that the inner disc existed previously as an engraved, die-struck, or cast item, and was subsequently enlarged and inscribed using cold working techniques.

The disc is pierced at the top and bottom edges by holes in each edge penetrating toward the center. The bottom hole penetrates to the center of the disc and contains the remnants of a corroded iron element that has erupted through the amulet surface on one face. This may be the remnant of a wire loop projecting from the bottom edge, from which other items could have been suspended. The hole through the top edge connects to and ends at a third hole that pierces the face of the amulet from front to back several millimeters inside the edge.

Tony Sigel (submitted 2001)

Inscriptions and Marks
  • inscription: in Greek: clockwise in field, + Κ[VΡΙ]Ε, ΒΟΗΘΙϹ [Lord, help]; clockwise at edge, + ΑΝΙ VΙϹΤΑΡΑ [. . .]IΥT[. . .]ΧΡΙΓΙ [...womb...]
    verso, in Greek: clockwise in field, ΜΕΛΙϹΙΑϹ [Melisias]; clockwise at edge inscribed in Greek + ϹΙϹΙΝΟ[. . .] ϹΙϹΙΝΝΟ[. . .] [Sisinios, Sisinnios]


Recorded Ownership History
Thomas Whittemore (by 1950), bequest; to the Fogg Art Museum, 1951.

Acquisition and Rights

Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Bequest of Thomas Whittemore
Accession Year
Object Number
Asian and Mediterranean Art

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Published Catalogue Text: Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern Bronzes at the Harvard Art Museums
This pendant combines late Roman pagan magical iconography and Christian apotropaic motifs to protect the wearer from the demon, Gyllou (Abyzou), who was thought to harm human children out of jealousy because she was unable to have children of her own (1). On one side, a mounted saint, Sisinnios, rides triumphantly over the demon’s prostrate body and impales her with his spear (2). On the other side, the enthroned Virgin Mary holds Christ on her lap (3). Two nimbed and robed figures, probably angels, raise their hands in homage to the holy pair. While Sisinnios attacks Gyllou directly, the Virgin Mary imbues the object with general apotropaic force. A group of amulets depicting similar motifs is dated to the fifth to seventh centuries CE and localized in the eastern Mediterranean (4).

Because the amulet combats the demon of child-envy, it was probably worn by a woman who was pregnant or desired to have children and sought supernatural protection in this endeavor. The word “womb” appears in the partially preserved inscription running around the edge of the obverse, indicating that this amulet belongs to a larger category of medical-magical devices that were believed to assist in healthy parturition and the treatment of gynecological ailments (5).


1. For other early Byzantine protective devices combining similar iconographic features, see C. Bonner, Studies in Magical Amulets, Chiefly Greco-Roman (Ann Arbor, 1950) 219-21 and 307, no. 324, pl. 17; and D. Friedman, ed., Beyond the Pharaohs: Egypt and the Copts in the 2nd to 7th centuries A.D., exh. cat., Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design (Providence, 1989) 195, no. 107.

2. On the legend of Gyllou and Saint Sisinnios, see P. Perdrizet, Negotium perambulans in tenebris: Études de démonologie gréco-orientale (Strasbourg, 1922); and R. P. H. Greenfield, Traditions of Belief in Late Byzantine Demonology (Amsterdam, 1988). For other early Byzantine medical amulets depicting the holy rider attacking a prostrate female figure, see G. Vikan, “Art, Medicine, and Magic in Early Byzantium,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 38 (1984): 65-86, esp. 79-81, figs. 9 and 19-20; and Bonner 1950 (supra 1) 211-21, nos. 294-97, pl. 14; nos. 301, 303, 306, 309, and 311, pl. 15; and nos. 323-25, pl. 17.

3. For similar iconography of the Virgin, compare the sixth-century lead pilgrim ampoule from Monza in A. Grabar, Les ampoules de Terre Sainte (Paris, 1958). For additional early Byzantine holy rider amulets also drawing from pilgrimage iconography, see C. Stiegemann, Byzanz, das Licht aus dem Osten: Kult und Alltag im Byzantinischen Reich vom 4. bis 15. Jahrhundert, exh. cat., Erzbischöfliches Diözesanmuseum (Paderborn, 2001) 288-90, nos. 6-8, pl. IV.

4. See J. Spier, “Medieval Byzantine Magical Amulets and Their Tradition,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 56 (1993): 25-62, esp. 61-62; T. Matantséva, “Les amulettes byzantines contre le mauvais oeil du Cabinet des Médailles,” Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum 37 (1994): 110-21; and Arand et al. 2001 (supra 3) 288-90, nos. 6-8, pl. 4.

5. Regarding the use of amulets for the treatment of female reproductive disorders during the early Byzantine period, see Vikan 1984 (supra 2) 79-81.

Florent Heintz and Alicia Walker

Publication History

  • Ioli Kalavrezou, Byzantine Women and Their World, exh. cat., Harvard University Art Museums (Cambridge, MA, 2003), p. 288, no. 169, figs. 169a-b.

Exhibition History

  • Roman Gallery Installation (long-term), Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, 09/16/1999 - 01/20/2008
  • Byzantine Women and Their World, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, 10/25/2002 - 04/28/2003
  • 32Q: 3620 University Study Gallery, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 08/25/2015 - 01/03/2016

Subjects and Contexts

  • Ancient Bronzes

Verification Level

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