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