Published Catalogue Text: Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern Bronzes at the Harvard Art Museums
This cross-shaped pendant is equipped with a loop and was worn suspended from the neck. It is composed of two separately cast parts hinged together at the top and closed at the bottom with a removable pin. The pendant is hollow and probably contained a small relic; however, no trace of this sacred object remains. Given the modest character of the pendant, the relic was probably also of little material value, perhaps a small piece of cloth made holy through contact with a more significant relic or soaked with blessed oil (1). When worn, pendants like this one rested against the wearer’s chest; they are therefore commonly referred to as “pectoral” crosses.
The surfaces of the cross are decorated with crudely incised figures and inscriptions. On each side at the intersection of the arms, a bust-length, frontal figure raises its hand in prayer. These two figures, essentially indistinguishable from one another, are highly schematic. A rope-like medallion encircles each bust, and flourishes extend into each of the horizontal arms of the cross. In the lower vertical arm stands a winged figure representing an angel.
Although four figures appear on the cross, only three inscriptions are present. In the upper arm of the obverse is inscribed in three lines “Holy Theotokos” (literally, “God-Bearer,” an epithet of the Virgin Mary). A horizontal border, embellished with short vertical dashes and a small oval at the center, separates the inscription from the rest of the field. It has been suggested that the central bust represents the Virgin Mary (2), however the figure lacks any features to support this attribution, and the horizontal line disassociates the inscription from the figure. An inscription running vertically to the right and left of the angel on the obverse reads “Agios Petro(s)” (Saint Peter). The cramped appearance of the letters suggests the inscription was not part of the original design. At the top of the upper arm on the reverse is inscribed “Archestratego(s),” a title accorded to Archangel Michael, the general (strategos in Greek) of the heavenly armies (3). This label is more fitting, however, for the winged figure in the lower section of each side. Like the inscription in the upper arm of the obverse, the letters here are arranged in three lines, but are less regular in execution and are not separated from the field.
B. Pitarakis identifies the figure appearing at the center of the cross on each side as Christ Pantocrator (the “All-Ruling”) and interprets the square object at the center of the figure’s chest to be a book (representing the Word of God), an attribute of the Pantocrator (4); however, the figure’s hands, which are raised in an orant (prayer) position, are not consistent with the iconography of the Pantocrator, who typically raises a single hand in a gesture of blessing (5). Alternately, the two sides of the cross may be understood to depict the same holy individuals twice, with Saint Peter in the central medallion at the crossing of the arms and Archangel Michael below (6). In either case, the inscription referring to the Virgin Mary should be read as an invocation of the Holy Mother rather than a label for one of the depicted figures. Regardless of their identity, the four figures serve as intercessors on behalf of the owner. Together with the sacred relic inside the container, they imbued the amulet with protective power (7).
The relatively humble material and unrefined decoration of the pendant indicate that it was made for a non-elite owner (8). Modest cross-pendant reliquaries similar to the Harvard example are found in large numbers throughout regions of the former Byzantine Empire, suggesting that they were mass produced (9). The ambiguity of the inscriptions raises the possibility that the cross was initially decorated with generic holy figures, who were later designated with the names of specific saints, perhaps at the request of a buyer. Based presumably on comparison with other middle Byzantine engraved pectoral crosses, Pitarakis dates the Harvard piece to the eleventh century and attributes it to a workshop in Constantinople or Anatolia (10).
1. Regarding the nature and origins of the relics encased in middle Byzantine pectoral crosses, see B. Pitarakis, Les Croix-reliquaires pectorals byzantines en bronze (Paris, 2006) 120-22.
2. I. Kalavrezou, ed., Byzantine Women and Their World, exh. cat., Sackler Museum, Harvard University Art Museums (Cambridge, MA, 2002) 134, no. 66.
3. A. Kazhdan and N. P. Ševčenko, “Michael,” in The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, ed. A. Kazhdan (Oxford, 1991) 2: 1360-61.
4. Pitarakis 2006 (supra 1) 393, no. suppl. 10.
5. Regarding the importance of the orant gesture as a sign of intercession in middle Byzantine reliquary pendant iconography, see ibid., 84-87.
6. On the iconography of Saint Peter and Archangel Michael and inscriptions referring to them in middle Byzantine pectoral crosses, see ibid., 95-97.
7. Regarding the function of middle Byzantine pectoral crosses as indicated by examples found in archaeological contexts, see ibid. 139-43.
8. For discussion of the production practices surrounding middle Byzantine pectoral crosses, including their association with pilgrimage and monasticism, see ibid., 145-77.
9. For an inventory of middle Byzantine pectoral crosses found in archaeological contexts, see ibid., 123-38. For middle Byzantine reliquary cross pendants of similar format embellished with engraved decorations, see ibid., 257-390, nos. 221-651. Although there are no precise parallels to the Harvard piece, a few examples show similarities in terms of composition and iconography; see ibid., esp. 322, no. 430; and 337, no. 478. Also see K. Sandin, “Liturgy, Pilgrimage, and Devotion in Byzantine Objects,” Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts 67.4 (1993): 45-56, esp. 52, fig. 11.
10. Pitarakis 2006 (supra 1) 393, no. suppl. 10.