Published Catalogue Text: Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern Bronzes at the Harvard Art Museums
The plaque, executed in repoussé, depicts three male busts encircled by medallions. Each figure is nimbed and holds a book in his left hand. Inscriptions in Greek, from left to right around the heads, identify the figures as St. Paul, St. Peter, and St. Andrew. The saints are depicted following traditional Byzantine iconographic conventions: Paul is an older man with thinning hair and a pointed beard; Peter wears curly bangs and a short beard; Andrew, the youngest of the three, has thick hair and a pointed beard. Paul and Peter make a gesture of blessing with their right hands; Andrew holds a long cross.
Solder on the back of the plaque indicates that it was originally attached to another metal surface. It is possible that the relief decorated a reliquary. No middle Byzantine examples of bronze reliquaries survive (1). However, middle Byzantine silver-gilt reliquaries commonly feature medallion portraits of saints, executed in repoussé, enamel, or a combination of both (2). The same three apostles—with the addition of St. James between Peter and Andrew—are carved on the side of a tenth-century Byzantine ivory reliquary box (3). Peter, Paul, and Andrew are also represented side by side on two Byzantine ivory triptychs dated to the tenth- to eleventh-centuries (4). A middle Byzantine date for this plaque is supported by these comparisons in other media, as well as the presence of Andrew, who only rarely appears in early Byzantine art, but is depicted more frequently on tenth- to eleventh- century ivories (5).
Patterns of wear on the faces of the saints may indicate ritual touching of the sacred figures; alternatively, this deterioration—isolated to the areas of highest relief—may be the result of wear from handling of the object that the plaque originally decorated.
1. The closest comparison in metal is a sixth-century Byzantine iron mold with roundels published in L. Wamser and G. Zahlhaas, Rom und Byzanz: Archäologische Kostbarkeiten aus Bayern, exh. cat., Prähistorischen Staatssammlung, Munich; Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich (Munich, 1998) no. 23. See also an early Byzantine silver reliquary with saints in Age of Spirituality: Late Antique and Early Christian Art Third to Seventh Century, exh. cat., Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, 1977) no. 572.
2. See H. C. Evans and W. D. Wixom, eds., The Glory of Byzantium: Art and Culture of the Middle Byzantine Era, A.D. 843-1261, exh. cat., Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, 1997) nos. 39 (repoussé), 37 and 38 (enamel), and 40 (repoussé and enamel).
3. Ibid., no. 78.
4. Ibid., nos. 79-80.
5. J. Irmscher et al., “Andrew,” in The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium 1, ed. A. P. Kazhdan (New York, 1991) 92.